Penn State Kosher concept Pure Patrick Mansell

Penn State combines kosher, allergen-free in new concept

At the intersection of feeding students who keep kosher and those who must avoid allergens, the Pure concept refines its menu.

In some ways, it makes sense to combine a kosher station with an allergen-free station. The two have some important characteristics in common: primarily, a need to keep ingredients separate and secure. But in other ways, take certain allergens like gluten away from traditional Jewish food (lox and bagels, kugel, challah bread…) and you’re left in a bit of a pickle.

It’s been a challenge, but definitely not impossible at Penn State’s Findlay Commons, where Pure, a kosher/allergen-free concept opened at the start of this school year after about a year of planning. For some time, Jewish student organizations on campus had raised the question about a place to get better kosher meals, says Jeff Varcoe, managing chef.

“Over the years, there’s been interest from students and prospective students about whether there’s kosher food available,” Varcoe says. “But this is central Pennsylvania; it’s very difficult to find a kosher meal here.”

Last year, the stars finally aligned when an allergen-free concept was being built during an extensive $22 million renovation of the dining commons. Dining Director Lisa Wandel noted the parallels of what would be needed in a kosher station, and decided to merge the two.

“She saw the opportunity when she saw the layout of the allergen-free station because it’s was going to be self-contained,” Varcoe says, referring to the very strict guidelines a station must follow to guarantee to students that it’s free of the top allergens, including gluten, soy, dairy, fish, shellfish, nuts, tree nuts, eggs and peanuts.

Kosher guidelines are strict for different reasons. The station took longer to come together than planned because things like getting kosher certification and taking into consideration things like keeping utensils, pots and pans separate takes time. Also, a mashgiach had to come on board, a kosher supervisor who makes sure the kitchen and the products inside are observant of kosher law. (“He calls himself ‘the kosher cop,’” Varcoe says.)

And light boxes were installed for meticulously inspecting leafy greens, since bugs sometimes come along for the ride, especially on farm-fresh, organic produce. The problem is, bugs aren’t kosher.

Bugs aside, ingredient-wise, while there’s some overlap (shellfish is forbidden in kosher law), “there’s definitely some menu compromise to make it both allergen-free and kosher,” Varcoe says, describing the menu development process for the station.

First, the culinary team went after the low-hanging fruit: existing recipes from the dining database that were already naturally kosher and free of allergens. Simple recipes like vegetable and starch side dishes were “the path of least resistance,” Varcoe says. Then, he moved to themes to frame his recipes, which would rotate on a one-week cycle, shorter than the other concepts’ three-week cycle.

The reason? “A lot of kids with food allergies grow up with a very regimented eating schedule,” he says. “I want them to know that Monday is Jamaican jerk chicken thighs, Wednesday is tandoori turkey with roasted carrots…”

Choosing a cuisine to work with got the kitchen team going with kosher, allergen-free plates like the jerk chicken and tandoori turkey, and also led to composed salads, like Southwest black bean, corn and quinoa.

One cuisine that presents a challenge is Asian, because most soy sauces contain gluten, and it’s tough to find ingredients that are kosher as well. On the other hand, sometimes products that are kosher, like coconut milk, are technically an allergen because coconut is a tree nut.

One unexpected winning ingredient has been nutritional yeast.

“I’ve been introduced to it by hippie friends,” Varcoe says. “They eat it on popcorn. But it mimics Parmesan with an umami flavor, so that and vegan cream cheese work great with mashed potatoes when you can’t use butter or cream.”

While it’s good, there’s always room for improvement on trickier substitutions like the mashed potatoes; an item that seems simple…until you take away the richness of dairy.

“If you’d eat [the allergen-free version] right next to a pile of ‘real’ mashed potatoes with heavy cream and butter, I’m not sure you’d be fooled,” Varcoe says, “but for your average kid who’s allergic to dairy, this is something you can’t normally have.”

So far, the station has already been stretching to build a menu of favorites.

Patrick Mansell

“We’ve been open now a little over a week and I’ve already expanded the very simple one-plate service to supplement with one of our most popular allergen-free requests: allergen-free, gluten-free pasta with red sauce,” Varcoe says.

That pasta dish is the Holy Grail for gluten-free diners, Varcoe has noticed. After just a couple of times on the menu, it’s already the most popular dish at the station. That comfort factor (so often easily achieved with pasta and bread) is important in feeding people with food allergies, he says.

“They want to be like the other kids and eat the same stuff, so I’ll continue to develop the service at Pure to try and reach those goals,” he says.

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