In Search of Israeli Cuisine

It may be surprising to learn that a major culinary revolution is taking place in Israel, a country so frequently associated with political drama. In just thirty years, Israel has gone from having no fine food to call its own to a cuisine that is world-renowned.

A portrait of the Israeli people told through food, In Search of Israeli Cuisine profiles chefs, home cooks, vintners and cheese-makers drawn from the more than 100 cultures—Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian, Druze—found in a nation only the size of New Jersey.

Our chef/guide is Michael Solomonov, the James Beard award-winning owner of Zahav and several other restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, as well as author of the book, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. Mike was born in Israel and grew up in the States. He’s smart, funny, self-deprecating and very knowledgeable about the traditions and foods of Israel.

Mike enters peoples’ lives, and their kitchens, and discusses their roots, inspirations, what their grandmothers cooked, how they’re preserving traditions and updating recipes with global influences. Delicious!

Film Chat With Michael Solomonov

The film In Search of Israeli Cuisine, featuring Chef Michael Solomonov, is being screened from March 31 to April 6 at the Ritz 5 in Philadelphia. In light of this special screening, we offer the following review of the film, written by Philadelphia Jewish Voice contributor Hannah Lee. This review was originally posted on Lee’s blog, A Cultural Mix, in March 2016, and also includes an overview of the post-film discussion. [Read more…]

In Search of Israeli Cuisine at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival

— by Debbie Fleischman

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival kicks off its CineMonday series on Monday, March 28 at 7:30 PM at the Gershman Y with the Philadelphia Premiere of In Search of Israeli Cuisine, directed by Robert Sherman.

A portrait of the Israeli people through food, In Search of Israeli Cuisine is a mouth-watering documentary that follows Michael Solomonov, the James Beard award-winning chef and restaurateur behind the Philadelphia dining establishment Zahav, as he returns to his homeland to discuss his culinary heritage. From Tel Aviv’s most exclusive eateries to street bazaars and simmering pots in family kitchens, Solomonov travels the length and breadth of Israel, meeting with an eclectic group of professional and amateur chefs, cheese makers, vintners, farmers, and fisherman, to define the ever-growing lexicon of Israeli cuisine. As Solomonov immerses himself in the local flavors of the myriad cultures that make up the Israeli people – Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Christian and Druze–Oscar-nominated documentarian Roger Sherman offers a behind-the-scenes look at a dynamic Israeli food scene rooted in centuries-old tradition. Sherman shines a light on the sectarian conflict when Palestinian cooks chafe as their savory secrets are adapted by Jewish chefs, and the story behind the ingredients that Israel produces using both ancient farming techniques and high-tech innovations.

The screening will be followed by a conversation with celebrity chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov and director Roger Sherman, moderated by the Senior Editor of New York Magazine’s Grub Street, Sierra Tishgart. After the talk, Michael will be signing his cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, during a separately-ticketed book signing/reception featuring hummus by Dizengoff (and other tasty treats) and Israeli wine.

Tickets to the Opening Night Film only are $15; $30 if attending the post-film book signing and reception; $60 for the film, book signing/reception, and Zahav cookbook. Tickets are available online or by calling 215-545-4400.

Food Chat With Michael Solomonov

Remember a few years back when Americans thought Israeli food meant hummus (which they mistakenly pronounced as hum-mus, as in soil or decayed plant matter)?  Michael Solomonov was amongst the individuals who changed the public’s perception of Israeli cuisine.  On Sunday, Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr welcomed superstar chef Solomonov and his partner, Steve Cook to speak about their new cookbook, Zahav, which has been selling like the proverbial hotcakes.  The cookbook is fine for kosher households, because the recipes do not call for shellfish and do not mix meat and dairy ingredients.  If you cannot get a table at the restaurant, do get the gorgeous book and have fun trying the recipes!

Before Solomonov won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2011 and he became a national celebrity through the pages of Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, Michael was a youngster who moved between Israel and the United States with his parents.  He was a picky eater and he had no ambition in life.  When he got a job at a bakery in Israel, working 14-hour days for $2.50 an hour, his family was simply relieved that he was not in jail.  However, the pivotal moment for Michael’s life was the death of his younger brother, David, who was killed while on volunteer duty during Yom Kippur of 2003, just days before his release from the Israeli Army service.

The search for meaning eventually led Michael to a sober life, focused on presenting the best of Israeli cuisine, applying Middle Eastern techniques and spices to locally sourced produce.  When it’s not sustainable to import tomatoes in January, he can simulate the taste of Israeli food with local pumpkin and persimmon.  What is particularly inspirational about his journey is that he and his family could not have predicted his career trajectory.  With much hard work and learning on the job — they were on the brink of closing the currently wildly popular restaurant Zahav — Michael can serve as a poster child for the late bloomer, one who was not engaged by school.

Solomonov and his partner will soon launch the Rooster Soup Company, a deli-style place that serves only sandwiches and soup, the latter made from the bones and parts of the 1,000-plus chickens used in their Federal Donuts operation (that serves only donuts in the morning and fried chicken in the afternoon).  All the proceeds from Rooster Soup will benefit the Broad Street Ministry to their work in providing meals and services to vulnerable and homeless Philadelphians.  It is set to open at 1526 Sansom Street (in the former home of Sansom Street Kabob House).

Another exciting project of his of note to foodies is the January release date of his documentary, >The Search for Israeli Cuisine, which will be picked up by PBS in the spring.  Solomonov was followed around Israel by two-time Academy Award nominee and James Beard Award-winning filmmaker Roger Sherman.  They filmed each day at five locations and Michael marveled that each food venue was new to him, who’d lived there.  So imagine the novelty to us Americans, who are merely visitors to the Holy Land.


It may be surprising to learn that a major culinary revolution is taking place in a country so frequently associated with political drama. In just thirty years, Israel has gone from having no fine food to call its own to a cuisine that is world-renowned.

Chef Michael Solomonov, a young, inspiring Israeli born American grew up in Pittsburgh. Solo, as he's known, travels all over Israel, eating and talking about how ethnic traditions from across the diaspora have been incorporated into one diverse Israeli cuisine.
This is the story of cultures coming together, foods that are brought from far and wide and become Israeli cuisine. Our cameras follow Solo as he shows Americans a cuisine whose time has come.

Israeli Cooking Book, From Philadelphia With Love

Philadelphia’s own Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook just published their first book, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.

Solomonov and Cook hope to familiarize Americans with some of their restaurant Zahav’s famous dishes. If you loved Jerusalem-born, London-based Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s book Jerusalem as much as I did, then this book will be a treat.

The spices and techniques of Israel’s myriad ethnic groups are reflected in the book’s recipes. Familiar Eastern European Ashkenazi foods such as rugalech, kugels and latkes are presented along with more exotic foods such as kibbe and fillo cigars from the Levant. All of these recipes have been adapted to ingredients that are easily accessible to the American cook. Below is a recipe for Zahav’s Ottoman-inspired eggplant salad.

Photo by Sofia Gk https://www.flickr.com/photos/sofiagk/

Photo by Sofia Gk.

Zahav’s Twice Cooked Eggplant Salad

  •  2 eggplants
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup minced parsley
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  1. Slice the eggplants.
  2. Sprinkle with salt.
  3. Allow the eggplants to rest for 30 minutes in a colander.
  4. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet.
  5. Fry the eggplant slices over medium heat, until almost charred on both sides.
  6. Place the eggplant in a bowl.
  7. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pan.
  8. Stir in the onion, pepper, coriander, and paprika.
  9. When the vegetables are soft, add the blackened eggplant and sherry vinegar to the pot.
  10. Stir for a few minutes.
  11. Remove the pot from the heat.
  12. Squeeze the lemon into the eggplant.
  13. Sprinkle the minced parsley into the pot.
  14. Stir and serve at any temperature.

Citron and Rose: The World’s Best Glatt Kosher Restaurant!

— by Ronit Treatman

What happens when philanthropist David Magerman and James Beard Award-winning Chef Michael Solomonov put their heads together?  An incredibly ambitious project is born: to create the world’s best glatt kosher European-Jewish restaurant!  It will be poetically named Citron and Rose.

More after the jump.
“It will not be a kosher Zahav,” David Magerman tells me, referring to Michael Solomonov’s renown Center City Nouveau Israeli masterpiece.  “Citron and Rose will reimagine Eastern Europe.  This will be a unique place!” he promises me.  Citron and Rose will also provide glatt kosher catering.

David Magerman is not in the restaurant business, and never wanted to be.  “I started looking for a way to provide the Jewish community with a glatt kosher restaurant with the highest standards of excellence.  My philosophy is that observant Jews should not have to compromise on quality,” he explained.  

Citron & Rose will have a sleek, modern, and elegant look.  There will be seating for sixty.  Diners will be able to enjoy viewing the chefs at work in the open kitchen.  The wood and marble bar will offer an extensive selection of kosher wines, beer, and spirits.  It will be glatt kosher, which means that it will adhere to the strictest standards of kashrut.  Kosher supervision will be conducted by the Philadelphia Vaad Hashgacha.

To prepare for the summer opening, Michael Solomonov will be travelling in Eastern Europe.  He will absorb the culture and learn about the food and culinary traditions.  He will then share with us the forgotten tastes and textures of our pre-War ancestors.  There will be marinated meats cooked over a charcoal rotisserie grill and charcuterie made in-house.  Pickles will be made using traditional recipes.  Salads and vegetable dishes not generally offered will be reincarnated.  Citron And Rose will also offer freshly baked breads and desserts.  

This planned menu brings back childhood memories for me.  I grew up in a secular Israeli family.  When I was a girl, my father and I would make a pilgrimage to the Orthodox city of Bnei Brak in Israel.  We went there especially to buy cured turkey meat from one of the small, artisanal purveyors.  “No one spices it like the Romanians!” my dad would exclaim.  I have a feeling that this restaurant will be a crucible in which such memories will be conjured up for the post-war generations by Michael Solomonov’s alchemy.

Those of us who live in the Greater Delaware Valley are very fortunate.  Two of Philadelphia’s biggest dreamers have joined forces to create an amazing new reality.  I believe that David Magerman and Michael Solomonov can turn Citron and Rose into the best kosher restaurant in the world. I am salivating already!


368-370 Montgomery Avenue
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

Open Sunday – Thursday for dinner

Catering contact information:  
events@citronandrose.com

Hazon’s Culinary Celebration Of Tu B’Shvat In Philadelphia

— by Ronit Treatman

Hazon, the United States’ largest Jewish environmental group, is hosting its first Tu B’Shvat dinner in Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia community is invited to “a culinary adventure benefiting the Jewish sustainable movement.”

On February 7, 2012, at 5:45 PM, the National Museum of American Jewish History will be transformed into a springtime celebration of rebirth and renewal.  James Beard Award winning Chef Michael Solomonov, of Zahav Restaurant, and Jon Weinrott of Peachtree Kosher Catering are donating their skills to create a meal featuring organically grown produce and dishes integrating such Tu B’Shvat staples as almonds, figs, dates, carobs, and raisins.  

Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon, will teach the customs and meaning of Tu B’Shvat throughout the evening.  Some of the most creative new music being produced in the Jewish community will be showcased.

This event is honoring Mark and Judy Dornstreich, owners of Branch Creek Farm in Perkasie, PA.  Mark and Judy are pioneering urban, Jewish organic farmers.  They paved the way for the current generation of young Jewish urban farmers.  Judy has taught yoga at Hazon’s gathering at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. The Dornstreichs hosted Hazon’s Harvest Supper in a sukkah at Branch Creek Farm last year.  When I asked Judy why she is involved with Hazon, she responded, “I feel like a Havdalah candle when I am with Hazon.  The three strands of my life are woven together: Judaism, organic farming, and yoga.”  

Mark Aronchick, of Hangley, Aronchik, Segal, Pudlin & Schiller is being honored as well.  “I am no organic farmer,” he told me.  “I became involved in Hazon to participate in their incredible bike ride from Jerusalem to Eilat.”  He loved this strenuous ride so much, that he has participated in it for the past five years.  “But I am an environmentalist,” he continued.  “I am thrilled that Hazon is involved with the Arava Institute in Israel, and that they introduced me to it.”  Mark feels that Hazon has a unique and exciting mission that has captured the attention of the younger generation of the Jewish community.  “They are health conscious, and they are searching spiritually,” he told me.  “Hazon is a catalyst that brings wonderful people together, and creates a community.”    

Hazon collaborates with four Community Supported Agriculture sites in the Philadelphia area.   These CSAs provide nearly 500 homes with fresh, seasonal produce from local farms.  Nigel Savage hopes that Hazon will expand its programming within Philadelphia’s Jewish community.  For tickets to this event please register online.

Farming the Biblical Way

— by Hannah Lee

Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s The Art of Farming auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart.  He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine.  He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as  Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.

What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York.  Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out.

More after the jump.
Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith.  According to the Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures.  They also observe the Sabbath — on Saturdays, like the Jews —  in which they do not work.  Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.

Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world.  After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return.  “Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom.  His  mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future.  His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without  regard for the environmental impact.

Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life.  It gives focus, strength, and understanding.  He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.”  The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices.  Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.

It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer.  In fact, his fellow church  members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one — and the one with the highest yield from his land.  Once a contractor for a  fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land — with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs — but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).”  He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.

Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old.  His grandfather lives with him.  The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm.  He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvesting of the stamens.  Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke.  To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace.  Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life.  The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.

Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor.  Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers).  Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields.  He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes.  It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic.  Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.

How did he learn to farm the organic way?  When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA.  So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense.  “You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land.  It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm.  Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent — and by extension,  natural food — without chemical enhancements.

Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land.  He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.

This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves and the goyim (Gentiles).  Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm.  What are his favorite crops?  Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.

Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat).  His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey.  Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat).  Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)?  He was the mean one of the flock.

Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together.  Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites?  No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.

You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’ Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets).  Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.

Zahav: A Golden Culinary Adventure!

Zahav Restaurant— Ronit Treatman

How can I pay a five star price to eat some hummus?” I asked myself when friends invited me to join them at Zahav, a posh new Israeli restaurant in Society Hill. After all, I can eat Israeli food for free every time I have dinner at my parents’ home! One of our companions had never tried Israeli food, however, so I decided to join them.

Entering the large, airy restaurant was like stepping into the Levant.

 

There were posters of Israeli markets on the wall and intricately designed metal Moroccan lamps. The expertly trained bilingual (Hebrew and English) wait staff greeted us warmly. An attractive crowd of people was enjoying drinks and conversation while sitting at the well stocked bar, which contained some very interesting wines from Israel, Lebanon and Morocco.

Our table was right in front of the tabun, or wood-fired brick oven. Chef Solomonov was baking Lafah, an Iraqi flatbread. On the menu are two choices of prix fixe dinners. The first one is called Ta’yim (delicious in Hebrew) and the second is Mesibah (which means party). For the uninitiated, this is the best way to sample an Israeli menu. We ordered the Mesibah. Our meal began with an assortment of eight different Israeli salads. Everything was fresh and meticulously prepared. These were crunchy, colorful vegetable combinations, each seasoned differently. Especially good were the Moroccan carrot salad and the Israeli vegetable salad. Perfectly seasoned, creamy hummus and finger-singeing lafah, straight out of the tabun, arrived at our table as well. A plate of Israeli pickles and olives was also brought out.

Mezze, or appetizers, were served next. This was an opportunity to explore the diversity of cultures that make up modern Israel. We began in Cyprus, with grilled Haloumi cheese. This sheep’s milk cheese was grilled over hardwood charcoal on a grill next to the tabun. Haloumi does not melt when grilled; it arrived in crispy cubes served with dates and pine nuts. Next, we went to Turkey, and tried the feta, ricotta, and olive borekas, or turnovers. From the Mediterranean, we sampled fried cauliflower with a labaneh (sheep’s milk yogurt) and chive dip. Egypt brought us kibbeh, a deep fried bulgur wheat and lamb croquette, and stuffed grape leaves.

Chef Solomonov pays homage to his Bukharian heritage when cooking the whole roasted lamb shoulder, our main course. Bukhara is a city on the Silk Road, in modern day Uzbekistan. It is famous for its pomegranates and black walnuts, which traditionally were used for both dyeing silk and cooking. Zahav’s lamb is cooked in a pomegranate sauce with chickpeas. It melted in our mouths, and the flavor was deliciously unique. I highly recommend reserving this dish in advance, as it sells out early.

For a glorious ending, Zahav brought out a sampling of all its desserts. From Italy, we tried a chocolate-almond semifreddo (half cold) ice cream cake. Cashew baklava brought us the flavors of the Ottoman Empire as this phyllo dough, nut, and honey concoction was perfected in the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans for four hundred years. Basboosa, a semolina cake soaked in orange water and honey syrup, represented the Eastern Mediterranean; it was served with peanuts and labaneh. A pistachio cake was served with one of the most exotic ingredients in the restaurant, frozen salep, made from the ground tubers of an orchid. A new twist on a Persian favorite is the halvah mousse, made with sesame seeds and honey. In order to be able to heave ourselves off our chairs, we needed to drink some of Zahav’s deliciously sweet fresh mint tea.

Zahav provides a fair value for the excellence of the food, the ambience, and the quality of the service. Israelis – whether Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or a combination – will find that the food at Zahav is definitely not your mother’s cooking! For those who have never sampled Israeli food before, this is a polite, civilized sort of introduction, where you delicately put your hummus on some lafah with a knife. It is not a wiping the hummus off the plate with your pita kind of place! I need to go back soon!