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Even bubbie would have eaten more

Event has ecumenical chefs innovating from traditional Jewish recipes

At ‘‘Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen’’ at the Moakley Courthouse, Evan Deluty, chef-owner of Stella in Boston, puts his finishing touch on his potato pancakes with smoked white fish and chives. At ‘‘Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen’’ at the Moakley Courthouse, Evan Deluty, chef-owner of Stella in Boston, puts his finishing touch on his potato pancakes with smoked white fish and chives. (JANE DORNBUSCH FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / February 2, 2011

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If you ever thought Jewish food was just bagels and brisket, it’s not. The point was amply proven at “Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen,’’ an event held on Sunday at the Moakley Courthouse. A real bubbie (the word is Yiddish for grandmother) might have raised an eyebrow or two at what she saw.

Who could have imagined that tzimmes could be transmogrified into Japanese yam tempura maki? Or that a Reuben sandwich could be made from duck breast pastrami, served on rye with a red cabbage confit? Fifteen local chefs (some Jewish, most not) used traditional Jewish cuisine as their inspiration. They were free to take a concept and innovate. The evening was sponsored by Prism, the young adult program of the New Center for Arts and Culture, a Jewish arts and culture organization.

What many people think of as classic Jewish cuisine — the Eastern European cooking of the Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardic food of North African, Middle Eastern, and Turkish Jews — might not seem very modern. But the participating chefs, no matter what their backgrounds, said the cuisine proved to be fertile ground for creativity. “I’m not Jewish, but I love Jewish delis,’’ said Mike LaScola of American Seasons on Nantucket. A self-described “pastrami junkie,’’ LaScola created the duck-breast Reuben. “We ‘pastrami’ just about everything,’’ he says, “beef cheek, pork cheek.’’ (Cue: Bubbie spinning in her grave.)

Ting Yen of Oishii in the South End came up with the yam tempura maki, based on tzimmes, which traditionally contains sweet potatoes.

“It wasn’t that challenging; you find inspiration everywhere,’’ said Jeremy Sewall, chef and owner of Lineage in Brookline. He deconstructed beet borscht and came up with a pickled beet salad with homemade ricotta and blood orange.

Smoked fish? Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square presented a caraway and matzo cake topped with smoked arctic char and fromage blanc. “I’m not Jewish, but I’m a real fan of the food,’’ said Scelfo. He sees a connection between the “soulfulness’’ of Jewish cuisine and the food he typically makes at the tavern.

In the courthouse’s jury assembly hall, off the atrium housing the main event, guest speaker and cookbook author Joan Nathan was interviewed by the evening’s host, restaurateur Michael Schlow. Nathan is perhaps the country’s leading expert on Jewish food, and she spoke to a rapt audience about “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous,’’ which describes her search for Jewish cooking in France. Jews were responsible for, among other things, bringing chocolate to France, said Nathan. Culinary history, she said later, is never quite what it appears. “We think the past is something static,’’ she said, flagging down Tony Maws of Craigie on Main to request his kasha varnishkas with duck confit. But Jewish food, she said, has always evolved. Two generations ago, the matzo balls and gefilte fish we think of as traditional were different, and probably they did not resemble earlier versions.

The event was designed to appeal to a younger crowd. Attendees represented a future generation of bubbies. Lily Harris, 13, came with her mother, Eve. Lily described herself as a picky eater, but she was wowed by the sushi and by an eggplant stew prepared by Azita Bina-Seibel of Lala Rokh on Beacon Hill.

When it came to desserts, you didn’t see bubbie’s traditional, but often dry, honey cake or her stewed prunes. Michael Leviton of Lumiere in West Newton, who grew up in a kosher household, used the classic mun (poppyseed) filling of the Purim cookie hamantaschen to create a mun “Oreo.’’ And Jim Solomon of The Fireplace in Brookline turned tradition inside out with his take on sufganiyot, the jelly doughnuts popular at Hanukkah. He made apple doughnuts, served with a trio of dipping sauces.

As a young chef, Solomon made pilgrimages to his grandmother’s home to watch her prepare stuffed cabbage, kreplach (dumplings), and chicken soup. Beyond being a “great cook,’’ he said, she had at least one other quality common to bubbies everywhere. Whatever he did was golden. She might not have thought much of these newfangled takes on Jewish cuisine, he conjectured. “She was a traditionalist,’’ he says. But then her sense of family would kick in.

“I think that if her grandchild made the food,’’ says her grandson, “she’d love it.’’

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at jdornbusch@verizon.net.