I want to take you to Israel.
When I was younger and a fresh graduate of the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach, I thought that I was going to work in New York (possibly Le Cirque) for a few years, move to France (either to Paris to work at Restaurant Pierre Gagnair or Aubrac to work for Michel Bras), and finally move back to the United States and open a Relais & Chateau hotel and restaurant.
I would rock minimalist glasses and a pressed chef’s coat, and slick back my hair so I could give Alain Ducasse a run for his money.
I ended up moving to Philly (close to NYC but much cheaper) and falling in love with the city, its restaurants and, most importantly, my wife.
Today, I shave my head and wear dark frames or contacts. I wear a dishwasher’s coat and sometimes even skinny jeans (they help me relate to my younger employees). And I cook Israeli food.
I remember a time, early in my career, when I would insist on finding the cool, new, fancy restaurants in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. I would walk up the main street of Kfar Saba, where my mother lives, past the spice shops, bakeries and cafes.
The main bus terminal at Ra’anana Junction was filled with the smell of meat grilled over charcoal and fresh-baked laffa at the shipudia (kebab shop) across the street.
I would depart for my culinary exploration and return several hours later and a few hundred shekels poorer, usually disappointed. I would throw out the French- or Italian- or Asian-sounding menu that I had brought back with me, walk over to the shipudia and have a great meal.
The lesson was clear to me then and it’s just as clear to me now. Real Israeli food is the intersection of dozens of ethnic cuisines, much of it brought to Israel by immigrants fleeing persecution and seeking a better life.
Today, I spend most of my time at Zahav in front of our taboon, the wood-burning oven where we cook laffa bread the way Iraqi Jews have done it for centuries.
When they immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, Iraqi Jews brought with them to the land of milk and honey (and pita and rye) a puffy bread that was as crunchy as it was soft and absolutely perfect for “wiping” hummus and scooping up salatim at the start of the meal.
Sometimes the salad might be fire-roasted eggplant, courtesy of the Romanian Jews who came over immediately following Israeli independence, or the sweet, sour and spicy carrots that the Moroccan Jews call their own (just don’t invite a Tunisian guest or you will have a balagan at your dinner table).
When the soup course arrives, it’s time to diss the laffa and embrace the lachuch — a spongy bread whose nooks and crannies are absolutely perfect for soaking up the bottom bits of Yemenite soup. Yemenite Jews arrived in Israel in large numbers in 1949 as part of a secret airlift known as “Operation Magic Carpet.”
Next comes the kebabs and shishlik — long metal skewers with cubes of charred beef, lamb, poultry and sometimes “white kidneys” (I’ll give you a hint: They’re neither white nor kidneys).
The ground kebabs arrive and are easy to decipher; the Romanian-style beef kebabs are fragrant with garlic whereas the Arabic style kofte are scented with onion, parsley and turmeric.
Bulgarian kebabs are plump and sweet, burger-shaped patties, made with a mix of beef and lamb as well as a bit of sugar and baking soda (I know it sounds crazy, but trust me).
There are obviously loads of options for condiments, but I recommend zhoug, the green chili paste originally introduced by Yemeni Jews but now found in every Israeli household — even the Ashkenazi ones.
I love that in a world of sous vide (a technique that involves cooking food in vacuum-sealed pouches, submerged in water at a controlled temperature) and modernist cooking there is still a place for spiced meat on sticks over charcoal.
Today, nothing gives me greater pleasure than getting co-workers and customers fired up about real Israeli food — except maybe seeing Israeli diners close their eyes after taking a bite of our hummus, exhale and say something that begins with “This reminds me of … ”
It actually doesn’t happen that often.
Which is why I want to take you to Israel. This October, I’ll be leading a culinary tour of Israel. We’ll eat in a couple of fancy places, but mostly we’ll be exploring the back alleys and side streets and markets where real Israeli food lives and breathes. This is the food that has inspired me throughout my career.
You’re welcome to join me.
For more information, call Zahav at 215-625-8800.
2 cups good quality chicken stock
4 Tbsps. chawaidge (available at Middle Eastern markets)
8 small Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled
4 chicken legs
1 medium Spanish onion, diced
kosher salt to taste
1⁄4 cup Italian parsley, loosely packed
In a large soup pot, add the chicken stock, chawaidge, potatoes, chicken and onion. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, skimming frequently. Simmer for approximately 90 minutes, or until the chicken is falling off of the bone.
Remove the chicken legs from the soup. Discard the bones and skin and shred the meat. Season the soup with kosher salt and stir in the parsley.
Divide the chicken between four warm bowls. Ladle the soup over the chicken and serve immediately.
A spicy condiment.
11⁄4 cups fresh parsley
1 cup fresh cilantro
2 Tbsps. minced garlic
1 Tbsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. cardamom
2 Tbsps. olive oil
fresh lemon juice (optional)
Place all ingredients in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Season to taste with additional salt and fresh lemon juice if desired.
Makes about 2 cups.
1 lb. ground beef (80/20)
1 lb. ground lamb (80/20)
1 tsp. dextrose (available at specialty food stores)
1⁄2 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
11⁄2 Tbsps. ground coriander
1 Tbsp. minced Italian parsley
1 Tbsp. crushed Aleppo pepper (available at Middle Eastern markets)
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. sweet Hungarian paprika
1 Tbsp. minced Spanish onion
Combine all of the ingredients in a large, stainless steel mixing bowl. Using your hands, knead the mixture for approximately 5 minutes, or until the meat looks doughy and emulsified.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until the mixture is thoroughly chilled.
Divide the mixture into eight equal portions and roll each piece into a sausage-like shape. Form each kebab around flat, metal skewers.
Refrigerate the kebabs, on the skewers, for another hour.
Cook the kebabs over hot coals for 4 minutes per side, or until medium rare. Serve immediately with rice.
Michael Solomonov is chef/owner of Zahav with partner Steven Cook.