Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking

Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook

  • Review
By – February 15, 2016

Zahav: A World of Israeli Cook­ing is a book of recipes, per­son­al sto­ries, and the lus­cious pho­tographs of beau­ti­ful food, an ency­clo­pe­dia of Michael Solomonov’s idea of Israeli food: a mix­ture of Bul­gar­i­an, North African, Ethiopi­an, Yemenite, Geor­gian, “ all the cuisines that make up the country.”

Solomonov didn’t start out cook­ing Israeli food. He was a chef of North­ern Ital­ian food for Marc Vetri at Vetri’s Philadel­phia restau­rant and of French cui­sine at the Striped Bass before that. In 2005, Solomonov went to work at Steve Cook’s restau­rant Marigold Kitchen, where he dis­cov­ered that the more his menu leaned toward Israeli food, the more pas­sion­ate he was about cook­ing. Solomonov drew on his expe­ri­ences as a short order cook in Kfar Saba and at a bak­ery mak­ing bourekas and rugelach, as well as on his Bul­gar­i­an grand­moth­er Sav­ta Mati’s cooking.

Solomonov sees his cook­ing as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to expose din­ers to a side of Israel that has noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics. He is not reli­gious, nor is his restau­rant kosher, yet Solomonov clear­ly has respect for tra­di­tion. His restau­rant, Zahav, doesn’t mix meat with milk and doesn’t cook pork or shell­fish, accord­ing to Solomonov’s per­son­al stan­dard for qual­i­fy­ing as an Israeli food restau­rant — though many of Zahav’s dish­es will not be found on any menu in Israel since he uses fresh and local from the restaurant’s home in Philadel­phia. When toma­toes are not in sea­son in the area, for exam­ple, his Israeli sal­ad uses stand-ins like man­goes, pick­led per­sim­mons, pas­sion fruit, or even grapes.

Solomonov’s sta­ples are his hum­mus, a smooth and creamy delight, and his recipe for techi­na — the secret sauce” so impor­tant to Zahav that it takes up a full chap­ter of the cookbook.

Oth­er sec­tions include include recipes for pita, laf­fa, chal­lah, and many veg­eta­bles stuffed with good­ies. The chap­ter Live Fire: As Close to Mag­ic As I’ll Come” is about grilling meats and poul­try; Ben-Gurion’s Rice” includes freekah, Israeli cous­cous, pilafs, and even a kugel recipe; Mesi­bah: It’s Par­ty Time” is all about fam­i­ly-style cook­ing and eat­ing, includ­ing shak­shou­ka, whole roast chick­en, Zahav lamb shoul­der, Per­sian rice, whole grilled fish,leg of lamb, and cof­fee-roast­ed brisket; Milk and Hon­ey: A Glimpse of the Divine” fea­ture Solomonov’s desserts, an ode to the chef’s self-pro­claimed sug­ar com­pul­sion. In Israel, things get done over cof­fee and pas­tries,” he writes. The Israelites were promised a land flow­ing with milk and hon­ey. I’m just try­ing to do my part.” His Choco­late-Almond Sit­u­a­tion recipe is both gluten-free and kosher for Passover, sure to take its place of hon­or upon Zahav read­ers’ seder tables.

This book includes a detailed intro, heart­felt acknowl­edge­ments, resources and index. High­light­ed yel­low box­es are scat­tered through­out, explain­ing exot­ic ingre­di­ents like dried limes, za’atar, haris­sa, baharat, amba, urfa pep­per, arak, schug, hawaij, hilbeh, schmaltz, fenu­greek, sumac, and oth­er spe­cial spices pro­vid­ed in bulk from his favorite sup­pli­ers. Solomonov cred­its restau­ra­teurs Ter­ence Feury and Marc Vetri for teach­ing him both how to cook and the val­ue of hard work. He also express­es his heart­felt love and appre­ci­a­tion for his busi­ness part­ner and best friend Steven Cook: togeth­er they have opened ten restau­rants in a sin­gle decade. (A cou­ple of new ones are in the works, includ­ing his first New York City out­post, a branch of his Philadel­phia hum­musiya, Dizen­goff, serv­ing hum­mus with pita and sala­tim.)

Although Solomonov was named the James Beard Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic, he is a hum­ble, sin­cere man in real life as well as in his writ­ing. He adds his per­son­al fla­vor of humor in shar­ing his knowl­edge of ingre­di­ents, prepa­ra­tion, and cook­ing. A mentsch with a col­or­ful tat­too of Israel’s sev­en species — wheat, bar­ley, grapes, figs, pome­gran­ates, olives, dates — run­ning down his arm, Solomonov does not glam­or­ize the restau­rant life, and is hon­est about the dif­fi­cul­ties of culi­nary entre­pre­neur­ship and his per­son­al life. His first cook­book com­bines the recipes behind Solomonov’s suc­cess with the reflec­tions on the improb­a­ble jour­ney” that got him there, begin­ning with loss of his broth­er David, to whom Zahav: A World of Israeli Cook­ing is dedicated.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

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