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 recipes in the cookbook are kosher-style 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 by itself 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, where he graduated from Community Day School, 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 passed away 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.