Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking
by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
Food Photographs © Michael Persico
The word Zahav means gold in Hebrew. It may have been prophetic when Michael Solomonov, in 2008, named his restaurant, Zahav. In 2011, Solomonov was named Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation.
Solomonov was born just south of Tel Aviv, but was raised in Pittsburgh. Following culinary school, he cut his teeth at Marc Vetri’s restaurant in Philadelphia and thoroughly enjoyed cooking Northern Italian food. But after the stunning and sudden death of his brother (while on patrol in Israel near the Lebanon border), an opportunity arose, allowing him to cook Israeli food. He decided it was a powerful way to honor his brother’s memory.
His cookbook (with business partner Steven Cook), Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, released in the fall of 2015, is brimming with photographs, recipes and personal vignettes. Many compare this book to those of Yotam Ottolenghi – I say yes and no. It’s like comparing Lidia Bastianich to Giada DeLaurentiis – their market basket may be similar, but what they do with those ingredients may differ widely.
Each chapter begins with an apropos narrative about family, tradition, and history. Within chapters, he makes notes about ingredients such as schmaltz, pistachios, pomegranate molasses, za’atar, etc.
The book opens with an autobiographical sketch of Solomonov, where he states he has chosen to follow kosher rules for the restaurant. He feels it helps separate Israeli cuisine from Lebanese or Turkish, Greek or Syrian. Although the recipes as presented in the book are kosher, he often makes suggestions for non-kosher variations. (He himself does not keep kosher at home).
The first chapter introduces Tehina (tahini) recipes. He underscores his love of the sesame flavor in hummus and tarator (a tehina/walnut or almond sauce) plus recipes incorporating tehina over chicken/fish/eggplant. Tehina in desserts? Sure, from cookies to halva (candy) to mousse, and even semifreddo.
The chapters Salatim (salads) and Mezze (small plates) remind me of my time in Turkey, where tasting a little from many plates is so enjoyable. The presentation and photography throughout the book is wonderful, but the photos of mezze are absolute eye candy.
He has a particular affinity for borekas (an homage to his grandmother — and, practical guy that he is, allows store-bought puff pastry to be substituted for boreka dough). These borekas are filled with ground meat, or dirty rice, or kashkaval cheese, and more.
I don’t want to shortchange any of the chapters, but in brief, Live Fire focuses on skewered fish, meat, and vegetables; Ben-Gurion’s Rice features Persian rice, freekah, i.e., cracked wheat berries, Israeli couscous and pilafs. I saw the word tahdig, and smiled, as any Persian would, as it’s the star of Persian Rice, he called “the prized layer.”
The chapter Mesibah (It’s Party Time) opens with a lovely recipe for Shakshouka, then whole fish and chickens, briskets, leg of lamb – food for feeding a crowd. And finally, Milk & Honey desserts – think Chocolate Babka and Turkish Coffee Ice Cream. I’ve already chosen Mom’s Honey Cake with Apple Confit for a small gathering later this month.
In the meantime, enjoy this mezze, kibbe naya, an aromatic mixture of raw lamb and onions bolstered with sweet apples and bitter walnuts.
© photo by Michael Persico
- ⅔ cup bulgur wheat
- 1 pound lamb loin, minced, or ground on the coarsest setting of a meat grinder
- ½ cup minced onion
- ¼ cup peeled and diced apples
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- Kosher salt
- Chopped toasted walnuts
- Chopped fresh mint
- Ground Urfa pepper (see note)
- Romaine lettuce leaves, for serving
- Put the bulgur in a bowl, cover with cold water by at least 2 inches, and let stand for 1 hour. Squeeze out the excess liquid and transfer to a large bowl. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Add the lamb, onion, apples, cumin, allspice, and 1½ teaspoons salt to the bulgur and mix to combine.
- Top with walnuts, mint, Urfa pepper, and more salt. Serve immediately with lettuce leaves for wrapping.