When Michael Solomonov and partner Steven Cook conceived the idea of opening an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, they envisioned something more than the falafel and hummus that had defined Israeli cuisine in the U.S.
“I could expose people to a side of Israel that had nothing to do with politics and didn’t ever make the evening news,” Solomonov writes in the introduction to “Zahav” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35), his paean to Israeli food, filled with the most popular recipes from his restaurant of the same name.
“There was something magical about eating in Israel,” he says, “something that you just could not find back home, and certainly not in an upscale restaurant.”
Solomonov was born in Israel but spent most of his childhood in Pittsburgh. Rediscovering his birthplace as an adult, he was amazed by the “dizzying array of bright vegetable salads, plate after plate of intensely flavored mezze, and skewers of kebabs and shishlick grilled over live charcoal. It was all delicious and so full, vibrant and elemental. It was rich but healthy. It was old but new.”
In Israel every meal, including breakfast, may be accompanied by Israeli salad, although, as Solomonov points out, it might be called “Arabic salad,” “chopped salad” or “vegetable salad.” “I can’t think of a more perfect and balanced dish,” he swoons, “as it is refreshing and substantial at the same time, with great acidity from the fresh lemon, richness from the generous dose of olive oil, sweetness and umami from the tomatoes, and a slight bitterness from the herbaceous parsley. Israeli salad is wonderful because the more you eat, the better you feel.”
If ever a national dish tells the story of a culture’s history and very survival, it is the Israeli salad, and “Zahav” pays loving tribute to this icon of Israeli cuisine. Although really Arabic in origin, this popular dish persists as the symbol of Israel’s agricultural history. From biblical times Hebrews were farmers. Millennia later, in the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants to Palestine returned to the farm to develop the land and build an economy through kibbutzim, “collective farms that combined a utopian, socialist ideal with the pragmatic reality of settling in a politically and geographically hostile land,” explains Solomonov.
“The custom of starting the meal with salatim originated with the Arabs. Early Jewish settlers adopted this practice for the same reasons, as they were poor and fresh vegetables were readily available and cheap. Through salatim, you can see how each immigrant culture has become woven into the fabric of the country over time.”
While tomatoes and cucumbers are abundant and inexpensive year round in Israel, Solomonov adapts the recipe seasonally in the U.S. “When tomatoes are not perfect, we use stand-ins like mangoes, pickled persimmons, passion fruit or even grapes for a salad that’s Israeli in spirit.” The restaurant even serves an Israeli salad martini, combining Israeli salad water (a mixture of blended and strained cucumber, tomato and parsley) with gin and lemon juice.
But the dish that literally “put Zahav on the map,” the one, he says, that has “launched 1000 dinners” is The Zahav Lamb Shoulder. “There’s a sad but true saying that Israelis are always prepared for two things: war and barbecue,” Solomonov reflects. “In a country as small as Israel, you can be anywhere in a matter of hours—the desert, the beach, the mountains. Weekend trips, or terulim are a popular diversion. People get in their cars and go. And when they are hungry, they pull over on the side of the road and have a barbecue.”
At the restaurant Solomonov begins the dish by smoking it over hardwood. “If you have a smoker, feel free to smoke the lamb,” Solomonov instructs, “or just roast the shoulder as the recipe indicates.” The meat is braised in pomegranate molasses (which you can find at kalustyans.com) and finished by a turn in a hot oven to crisp. “The use of pomegranate in this dish (and the crispy rice we serve with it) is very Persian, which is a cuisine with tradition so rich it always makes me think of palaces and royal banquets,” writes Solomonov. “The chickpeas recall the humble chamin, a traditional Sabbath stew that’s slow-baked overnight. During the long braise, the lamb bones create a natural stock that is absorbed by the chickpeas, creating the richest, creamiest peas you’ve ever tasted. I’ve even made hummus with these chickpeas—totally decadent!” While the process takes two or three days at the restaurant, Solomonov has simplified the dish for the home cook.
At the restaurant and in the cookbook Solomonov has chosen “to honor the spirit of a few fundamental rules of kosher cooking.” You won’t find pork or shellfish on the menu; neither will milk and meat appear in the same dish. “The reason is simple,” he explains. “Kosher rules help define the boundaries of Israeli cuisine. The second you add pork or shellfish to a dish it can become Greek or Turkish. When you add yogurt to lamb, it can become Lebanese or Syrian. Without the influence of kosher rules, the notion of Israeli cuisine itself begins to fray.”
The Zahav Lamb Shoulder
Generous 1/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon allspice berries
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
1 cup dried chickpeas
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 bone-in square-cut lamb shoulder (about 5 pounds)
1/2 cup pomegranate molasses
1 Combine salt with sugar, fennel seeds, peppercorns, allspice, garlic and about 2 quarts water in large pot.
2 Bring to rapid boil, stirring to dissolve salt. Cool brine completely.
3 Combine chickpeas with baking soda in large bowl; cover with water by several inches. Let soak overnight.
4 Put lamb shoulder in large (6- to 8-quart) container and pour brine over lamb. (Ideally, lamb shoulder should be submerged, so weight it with two plates. But if that’s impractical, cover lamb with clean cloth that’s saturated in brine.) Refrigerate overnight or up to 48 hours.
5 Preheat oven to 475°F. Place rack on baking sheet. Drain lamb and pat dry. Put lamb on rack and roast until well browned on exterior, about 30 minutes. (Or sear lamb over medium-hot grill for 15 minutes until well browned on all sides and nicely charred in places.) Lower oven to 300°F.
6 Transfer lamb shoulder to large roasting pan. Mix pomegranate molasses with 8 cups water and add to pan. (Liquid should come about halfway up the shoulder; add water if needed.) Drain chickpeas and add to liquid. Place sheet of parchment paper over lamb; cover pan tightly with foil.
7 Braise in oven until lamb shreds easily with a fork and chickpeas are tender, about 5 hours. Let lamb cool in braising liquid in refrigerator overnight.
8 Next day, preheat oven to 475 °F. Roast lamb, uncovered, spooning braising liquid over lamb every 5 minutes, until lamb is hot through and glazed with liquid, about 30 minutes. Serve with crispy Persian rice, if you like.
Mango, Cucumber, and
2 mangoes, peeled and cut around pit into smaller cubes (3 cups)
1 cucumber, diced (3 cups)
1/4 cup Simple Sumac Onions (recipe follows) plus more for topping
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a bowl, toss to combine, and serve with additional sumac onions on top.
Simple Sumac Onions
Makes about 1 cup
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground sumac
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine. Serve immediately.
Traditional Israeli Salad
Serves 4 to 6
3 cups chopped tomatoes
3 cups chopped cucumbers
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in large bowl. Toss well to combine and serve.
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.