Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, Zahav, A World of Israeli Cooking, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
Michael Solomonov is the chef and part owner of the Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia. He is also the author of its eponymous cookbook, which might more properly be called an autobiography with recipes and beautiful photography (of food and himself).
It’s intensely personal. Every section, every recipe, is preceded by an explanation of the relationship of the food to his life, the original inspiration, and how he adapted the dish to his taste.
At a book tour event at Adas Israel recently, Joan Nathan and Chef Michael engaged in conversation. They spoke about the trip they took to Israel together, and Chef Michael’s life and philosophy of cuisine. There were a few hundred fans, eavesdropping.
Here are some secrets he revealed: if your chickpeas (the basis, along with tehina, of Zahav’s killer hummus) are old, they will take a long time to cook. Use small ones. And that tehina? He orders from a company in Israel, made from sesame seeds grown in Ethiopia. “Tehina is the Israeli mothersauce.” The hummus-tehina chapter is the longest in the book.
He was born in Israel, and spent the early part of his life in Pittsburgh; then discovered cooking when he went to Israel to live with his father. How did he end up in Philadelphia? “It was sort of on the way to New York” – which sounds like faint praise to this Philly native!
He now owns several places there, from the fine-dining Zahav to a chicken and waffles joint. Influences, which are reflected in the book, range from his Bulgarian grandmother (flaky bourekas pastries) to his building contractor’s Yemeni-Israeli mother’s use of spices. It’s a tour of the flavors of the Middle East, with an emphasis on fresh food, char, and exotic spice.
Zahav the cookbook weighs in at over four pounds. As mentioned, it’s full of beautiful pictures. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, and each is contained within the same two-facing-page spread, so none requires flipping pages when cooking. I cooked several recipes, and found them all worthwhile.
I chose Pickled Persimmons because it seemed to represent a rather more exotic dish than the average American cook would usually encounter. Also, I was congratulating myself that I had all the spices it called for in my pantry: dried limes, peppercorns, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, poppy seeds, cinnamon, garlic, cardamom pods, cloves. The pickles came out pungent and spicy, and would make a great foil for cheese or meat, but they were a little too sweet for my taste. I would leave out the sugar when making them again.
Brussels Sprouts with Feta calls for charring the sprouts on a grill before baking for an hour with olive oil and vinegar. I mistakenly made these expecting to add a little green to Thanksgiving dinner. Wrong! They were very, very cooked – but, surprisingly, tasted very, very good. My family left no leftovers.
Then I tried Chef Michael’s spin on Shakshouka, a dish I have cooked many times but without the spice mix in Zhahav. One adds grated dried lime (again! and, after excavating the bag from my pantry, I was only too glad to use it twice), sweet paprika, cumin, and coriander to the tomato puree. It was so good that I intend this recipe to become a standard part of my repertoire.
I had met Michael Solomonov once before, when I was a volunteer at the Sunday Night Supper in 2012. He came down from Philadelphia to cook in a home kitchen in Bethesda. By chance, I was assigned to be a server at his dinner, and got to taste the amazing food he and Adam Sobel of Bourbon Steak prepared for our lucky guests. Now, I can cook some of those dishes for myself.
Who am I kidding? I’ll plan a field trip to Philly to taste them again!