The golden age of Zahav restaurant, now available to home cooks

Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook talk while walking through streets of Israel. Photo courtesy of Zahav

Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook talk while walking through streets of Israel.
Photo courtesy of Zahav

PHILADELPHIA — After almost seven years’ worth of prep time, Zahav chef and co-owner Michael Solomonov’s latest culinary accomplishment is ready to be enjoyed.

Former Pittsburgher Solomonov, the 2011 James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region and 2014 Eater Best Chef of the Year, released his first cookbook with co-author and business partner Steven Cook on Oct. 6, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.

The cookbook explains many recipes that are actually used in the popular Philly restaurant Zahav (Hebrew for “gold”), including traditional meals, family recipes and Solomonov’s own twists on classic grub.
The book discusses several key attributes of Israeli cooking: tehina, the creamy sesame secret sauce; salatim, or vegetable starters; mezze, the small dishes with a wide variety of flavors and textures meant for sharing; mesibah, family-style meals for special occasions; and, of course, his own version of matzah ball soup.

He said Zahav’s techniques are very straightforward and simple. He uses a lot of natural fuel, cooking meat over charcoal and bread in a wood-burning oven.

One characteristic that defines Israeli food — and Zahav’s recipes — is the influence of kashrut. If he were to put yogurt on lamb, for example, the kebabs would no longer be associated with Israeli cooking but instead with Greek or Turkish cuisine. Solomonov cooks kosher-style in his restaurant and the cookbook because it is the glue, or rather, the tehina, that holds the culture together.

Solomonov even dedicated an entire chapter to tehina, the bitter, creamy sauce that goes with just about everything. It is also an excellent substitute for dairy, making kosher cooking a breeze.

Tehina is a ubiquitous component of Israeli meals, whether smeared on crusty bread with date molasses, mixed in with hummus or, as he said some Israelis do it, eaten raw on a spoon.

“People will get a better understanding of what it is that we do and how to cook it in their own home” after paging through the cookbook, he said.

For Solomonov, who was born in Israel and spent his youth there and in Pittsburgh, one of his favorite aspects of Israeli culture is its priority on the family, and that is evident in his cooking style. Whether people are religious or not, they celebrate Shabbat, and they are drawn together by that meal.

Now that he has a family of his own, he understands its significance.

“People care about food, and I think that everybody has this sort of multitude of different heritages,” he said. “Those sorts of experiences make up Israeli food.”

His book is more than just recipes. He describes it as “the chronicle of a journey — physical, emotional, personal.”

He shares stories of his family and his culinary experiences, even describing how he came to comprehend the simplicity of mezze during his honeymoon in Israel. Every food discussed, every recipe deconstructed is accompanied by a first-hand experience.

When he reminisces about Israel, he recalls the scent of orange blossoms when he got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, burying his brother David, who died while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and understanding what the sacrifices are for the country. And through his memories, he feels more drawn to it.

Solomonov described in the book his journey to spreading these ideas while also honoring his brother. In hindsight, he said, he didn’t necessarily feel compelled to open Zahav solely for his brother, “but I don’t think I’d be cooking Israeli food if it wasn’t for him.”

“Promoting Israel though food is, I guess, a personal mission of mine,” he said.

Through all of these connections, Solomonov said he feels a strong love for Israel. He became passionate for the country through his cooking and vice versa.

“There was something magical about eating in Israel, we agreed, something that you just could not find back home, and certainly not in an upscale restaurant,” Solomonov writes in Zahav. “I could expose people to a side of Israel that had nothing to do with politics and didn’t ever make the evening news.”

In his life, and, he hopes, in his cookbook, Israeli food isn’t just a collection of traditional meals; it’s an idea, a community. The more he visits, he said, the more he finds exciting and stimulating traditional food —but he still finds a way to make it his own.

This story first appeared in the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.

Zahav’s apple-themed Israeli recipes

Zahav owner Michael Solomonov has provided three recipes from his upcoming cookbook to spice up your Shabbat dinner with some new Israeli twists and old favorites.

Excerpted from Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, by Michael Solomonov. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Solomonov, Steven Cook. Photography © 2015 by Mike Persico. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Kale, Apple, Walnut and Sumac Onion Tabbouleh

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients
2 cups (packed) shredded stemmed kale leaves
¾ cup finely chopped walnuts
½ cup diced apple
¼ cup Sumac onions (below)
¼ cup pomegranate seeds (below)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt

Directions
Combine the kale, walnuts, apple, sumac onions, pomegranate seeds, lemon juice, olive oil and salt in a large bowl. Toss to combine. Serve.

Sumac onions

1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground sumac
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine. Serve immediately.

Pomegranate seeds

To remove seeds from a pomegranate, place a deep bowl in your kitchen sink and roll up the sleeves of a shirt you dislike. Cut the pomegranate in half crosswise. Place half of the pomegranate in your palm, cut side down. Hold your hand over the bowl and, using a wooden spoon, beat the back of the pomegranate to loosen the seeds. Keep whacking and let the seeds fall out of your hand into the bowl below. Discard any white membrane that may fall into the bowl. Set aside ½ cup of the seeds and store any extra in the refrigerator for another use.

Crispy haloumi with dates, walnuts and apples

Serves 4

When I tried to take this dish of Cypriot sheep’s milk cheese off of the menu at Zahav, our guests turned into a pack of angry villagers. I can’t blame them — there’s something so primally delicious about the pairing of crispy and salty warm cheese with sweet and tangy date paste. More than 50,000 European Jewish refugees were detained on Cyprus following World War II, after the British turned away their ships from Palestine. Most of them, including my great-grandparents, moved to Israel after independence in 1948, bringing haloumi with them. Haloumi has a high melting point, which makes it great for frying, searing or grilling. Just make sure to eat it right after you cook it. The cheese gets really firm as it cools and your guests will be making squeaking noises as they eat it.

Ingredients
½ cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 cup dried dates, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt
½ cup hot water
8 ounces haloumi cheese, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 apple, peeled and cut into matchsticks
Dill, chopped
½ teaspoon ground Urfa peppers

Directions
For the date paste, combine the walnuts, dates, sherry vinegar, olive oil, a couple pinches of salt and ½ cup hot water in a food processor. Puree until smooth and set aside.

Film a skillet with canola oil and place over medium-high heat until the oil is shimmering but not smoking. Put the cheese cubes in a single layer in the skillet, and cook, turning, until the exterior is golden and crisp, about 2 minutes per side.
Spread the date paste over the bottom of a serving plate, add the fried haloumi, and top with the apples, dill and peppers. Serve immediately.

Matzah ball soup with black garlic

Serves 4

Just because I’m a Jewish chef doesn’t mean I was born with a natural talent for matzah balls. Early on in my career, I was hired to cater an upscale Passover meal, and I put foie gras matzah balls on the menu. I cooked hundreds of dollars worth of foie gras, using the rendered fat in the matzah ball mix and then stuffing each ball with a little nugget of the liver. The matzah balls fell apart and ended up in the garbage can.

There are a lot of theories on how to produce fluffy matzah balls, from folding in whipped egg whites to lightening the mix with seltzer. For my money, a little bit of baking powder does the trick nicely. Matzah balls are comfort food, and there is also something warm and comforting about black garlic. Like soy sauce, its fermented taste both elevates and deepens the broth. Like tamarind, it has a rich sweetness balanced by enough acidity to keep it in the savory realm. Fortified with the black garlic, this soup is how I always imagine Passover in Southeast Asia would taste.

Matzah balls

Ingredients
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons schmaltz, at room temperature (below)
½ cup matzah meal
½ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch ground cinnamon
4 black garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
2 quarts My chicken stock (below)
Chopped fresh dill, for serving

Directions
For the matzah balls: Combine the eggs and schmaltz in a medium bowl and stir until blended. Add the matzah meal, baking powder and cinnamon. Mix well. Using wet hands, tear off golfball-size pieces of the dough and shape into rounds.
Bring a lightly salted pot of water to a boil and cook the matzah balls for 30 minutes or until cooked through. (Cut one open to be sure.)

For the broth: Combine the black garlic with the salt and the chicken stock in a large pot. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Remove and discard the black garlic.
Ladle the broth into soup bowls and add 2 matzo balls to each bowl. Top with dill and serve.

My chicken stock

Makes 4 quarts

Ingredients
1 whole chicken (3–4 pounds) or 2 chicken carcasses
2 medium onions, skin left on and quartered
3 carrots, roughly chopped
2 heads garlic, cut in half horizontally
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
2 fresh parsley sprigs
Salt

Directions
Put the chicken, onions, carrots, garlic, black peppercorns, parsley and 1 teaspoon salt in a large stockpot. Add just enough cold water to cover the chicken (about 4 quarts) and bring to a simmer over high heat. Lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, until the liquid is pale golden and flavorful, 3 to 4 hours. Strain and store for 1 week in the refrigerator or up to six months in the freezer. Remember to save the schmaltz that rises to the top when the stock is chilled.

Schmaltz

Schmaltz is the Yiddish word for rendered chicken (or sometimes goose) fat, derived from the German word for melting. For kosher reasons, Eastern European Jews couldn’t cook with lard or butter, the typical cooking fats of the region, nor did they have access to the olive or other vegetable oils used in more southern climates. So they turned to chicken fat, an economical and available option that converts a byproduct into a golden elixir. Chicken fat adds depth and richness to dishes while remaining somewhat neutral and not over-the-top meaty. It’s great for frying potatoes and for searing meat for stews. Perhaps the best application is the simplest: slathered on good bread with salt.

Schmaltz is often sold in little tubs in the grocery store, but it appears for free in your kitchen in the form of the solidified fat that rises to the top of your chicken soup. Just scrape it off and store it in your refrigerator or freezer to use whenever you need it. Schmaltz is very easy to make with raw chicken skins, which many butchers will sell, or even give, to you. The fattier the skin, the better, so thighs work particularly well here. Finely chop the skins and place them in a saucepan with a splash of water and some chopped onion if you like. Cook over low heat until the fat is completely rendered and the skin and onions turn deep golden brown, about an hour or so. Strain off the schmaltz and refrigerate. The crispy bits of skin and fried onion that left behind are called griebnes. Seasoned with salt, griebnes are a delicacy in their own right, sprinkled over a salad or on top of a piece of buttered (or schmaltzed) bread.

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