#107 | Israeli Soul
Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious
By Michael Solomonov & Steven Cook
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery By the Book Podcast, with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Mike Solomonov: My name is Mike Solomonov, and I'm the co-owner and chef at Zahav restaurant. Steven Cook, my partner and I wrote Israeli Soul, the New Cookbook.
Suzy Chase: First off, congratulations. Israeli Soul was named one of the best cookbooks for Fall 2018, by New York Times Cooking. When you were researching this cookbook, did you really have 82 meals in eight days?
Mike Solomonov: A lot of bites. A lot of inspiration, but I mean I think that that's kind of how it goes when you're over there. Whenever I travel to Israel, that's usually what it is. My day is sort of dictated by the places I go and eat, you know?
Suzy Chase: How was that organized? Did you think about it when you got up that morning, or did you just get up and start walking?
Mike Solomonov: I'm away over there, because we were bringing photographer, producer, so on and so forth, we had to be a little bit more diligent about it, but a lot of it was like we have to go to these few places, we have to go to these new cities and not plan the rest of the trip around using those guidelines as work parameters for the entire trip.
Suzy Chase: As someone who basically grew up in Pittsburgh, describe exploring Israel through the lens of a chef.
Mike Solomonov: Well, I think that that was sort of the seed of the catalyst for opening Zahav, getting into Israeli food, or Israeli culture, by sort of food proxy. I think that when you ... There's something familiar enough about Israel, and obviously over the years became deeply personal, but going over there and experiencing what dining is, is fascinating. At the time that Zahav came to fruition, it was really unlike anything that was happening here. It was so many different cultures, so many different kinds of food represented on one table. I mean like figuratively, but also literally on one table. Through the lens of a diner, through the lens of a partially American or Europe classically trained chef, it's fascinating and life changing, and I thought that the more of that spirit, or that soul that we could bring back to the states, to Philly, to our community, the more excited people would get.
Suzy Chase: I just want to thank you for adding in substitution ideas in the cookbook. So often, I get bummed because it's hard to find a random spice, or ingredient, and then I give up, so this was great.
Mike Solomonov: I appreciate that. I mean, that's kind of what makes it accessible, you know?
Suzy Chase: One thing that surprised me about your goldi falafel recipe was it called for a carrot. Is carrot usually in falafel?
Mike Solomonov: I don't think so.
Suzy Chase: Because I've never detected carrots. What does the carrot do for the goldi falafel?
Mike Solomonov: Well, carrot is sweet, carrot is also bright and [inaudible 00:03:25] carrot hue, so it's got tumeric notes to it as well, so it goes really well with things like tumeric, it's delicious, it's really sweet, and it's adding a vegetable to tenderize the dried chickpeas.
Suzy Chase: What in your opinion is the most important Israeli dish?
Mike Solomonov: Most important Israeli dish would probably be sabich. It's fried eggplant, with tahini, hard boiled eggs, amba, and usually cabbage, cucumber, tomato, or some variation on those fresh chopped salads inside of a pita.
Suzy Chase: What's amba?
Mike Solomonov: Amba is a mango pickle that is related to Indian mango pickle, and it's under ripe mangos, fenugreek, sometimes mustard, garlic, that and it's sort of cured, fermented and canned into a paste.
Suzy Chase: Talk to me about Drew's Mountain Bread. This is a very flat bread, but is it crunchy? Or more soft like a pita?
Mike Solomonov: It's more soft like a pita. When it comes directly off the massage or the wok in our case, it's a little bit crunchy, but as it sits it softens. You can use it to wrap things, it makes incredible wraps. It's sort of like the soft tortilla shell. But it also is perfect for like laying down on tables and scooping up food.
Suzy Chase: Now onto hummus. It's interesting that, I read in the book, Israelis don't make it at home often, how come?
Mike Solomonov: Oh, I mean I think there's just so many different places in Israel that you can get your hummus ... You know, people do make hummus at home, but there's just so many good places, and it requires tons of chickpeas, sometimes equipment, you know?
Suzy Chase: You have so many hummus toppings, what is your favorite way out of the cookbook, to top hummus?
Mike Solomonov: I'm sort of into the brussel sprout thing right now for the hummus. But, there's ... To me, hot chickpeas with a little bit of loose tahini inside of the hummus tahini is kind of the best way to eat it.
Suzy Chase: Why is store bought hummus so different than homemade hummus? It doesn't even taste the same.
Mike Solomonov: I think that the store bought hummus usually has preservatives, like citric acid, which affect the flavor negatively. We like to serve hummus fresh, warm, very ... A little bit of lemon, but not ... pickled or preserved, you know? I think that when you have to ... there's things like fermentation, that gloats of acrid garlic flavor that you have to fight against when you're preserving or doing things store bought. So far nobody's quite figured it out yet.
Suzy Chase: You're right, it does taste acrid.
Mike Solomonov: I've scrutinized a lot of hummus in my day.
Suzy Chase: I be- ... Really?
Mike Solomonov: Uh-huh. Yes.
Suzy Chase: Half of your family is from Bulgaria. Do you incorporate any of that cuisine into this cookbook?
Mike Solomonov: Well, Bulgaria and Ottoman or Balkan ... Balkan cuisine conquered by the Ottomans are a really big thing, so yeah, in many iterations it comes across like Bulgarian kabobs, and the bourekas, those things are very, very important to us. And those are Balkan and Bulgarian origins.
Suzy Chase: I know with Zahav and Federal Donuts cookbooks, you thought the digital cookbook could be the thing. Talk about your views on the physical versus digital cookbook.
Mike Solomonov: You know, I think that holding something in your hands and sharing it, and appreciating the luster of the pages and specifically Israeli Soul, I think the topography really just pops. It feels like three dimensional real. You want to scoop the food out with your hands, you know?
Suzy Chase: Yeah, this cookbook is so stunning, you could just sit it out as a coffee table book.
Mike Solomonov: That, too. I mean, I think it minimum, right?
Suzy Chase: What did Gil Marks and Joe Nathan teach you?
Mike Solomonov: I mean, that's a hard thing to say. Joe Nathan continues to teach me on a daily or weekly basis. I would say she is the leading expert in Jewish food, and in more of an anthropological way a sort of commentary on culture, and she is a walking encyclopedia. Her spirit is about inquiring, and about taking things apart, and about celebrating stories and culture, and family and recipes and food. Gil Marks was an incredible author and obviously well, well researched, and his books, especially the Encyclopedia of Jewish Cooking has had a huge impact on our lives.
Suzy Chase: Owning a restaurant group is impossible to navigate by yourself, and Steve Cook is your long-time business partner.
Mike Solomonov: Yes.
Suzy Chase: In terms of writing cookbooks, do your roles break down the same way as they do for your hospitality group?
Mike Solomonov: I do, I think that we've got ... Having a healthy partnership, and friendship, and sort of familial relationship and also maintaining sanity while growing a restaurant group from seven employees to over 200 over the course of a decade is not the easiest thing. Yeah, I'm not sure, it sort of changes every day, I think. You know, adapting, becoming resourceful, and balancing the needs of our team, and the needs of our guests, the juggling act that we do all the time, you know?
Suzy Chase: I was so bummed to see that Dizengoff closed at Chelsea Market, which is up the street from me. Are you going to open up another one in the city? Or no?
Mike Solomonov: I don't know. As of right now, we've got so much going on with Philly. We've got ... You know with the book coming out, we've got a couple new projects that we are working on, and I think that as of right now, we're kind of hanging out solo.
Suzy Chase: Okay, well, we'll have to come to you.
Mike Solomonov: You know, it's an hour and 20 minutes by train.
Suzy Chase: The other night, I made your recipes for a five minute hummus, chopped salad, lamb meatballs and chicken thigh schawarma. I made the two spice mixes, which I think they were key. Talk a little bit about the spice mix section in this cookbook.
Mike Solomonov: Well, again, we wanted to make this really accessible, and really easy for people. I think that that ... I think demystifying and showing people that it is literally as simple as between two spices, and applying them to certain ingredients, and then very simple cooking technique creates something sort of ethereal or something that represents this magic of the sum of all parts. I think that with cooking people get scared. Certainly with spices. But with a cuisine that isn't like Italian, or American-Italian they get freaked out. Our job, our livelihood is really based on that, of demystifying and sort of celebrating it, and guiding gently through what it takes to make dishes pop and sing.
Suzy Chase: Now, to my segment called, "My Last Meal." If you had to place an order for your last supper, what would it be?
Mike Solomonov: I think it would be Dim Sum.
Suzy Chase: Oh, so what kind of Dim Sum?
Mike Solomonov: There used to be a restaurant in Philly called Lakeside Chinese Deli. They made the most incredible taro rolls, and I would eat like ten of them, you know? But, I think when I'm not cooking Israeli food, I eat tons of Asian foods, and I don't really cook any Asian food whatsoever.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on social media, the web and in Philly?
Mike Solomonov: Well, in Philly, you can catch me at Zahav. Social media you can catch me on Instagram at Mike Solomonov.
Suzy Chase: And your website?
Mike Solomonov: At ZahavRestaurant.com.
Suzy Chase: I love how you said this cookbook is full of recipes that you can make in your house or apartment with screaming children, in not a lot of time. I cannot thank you enough for coming on Cookery By the Book podcast.
Mike Solomonov: Thank you so much for having me, I'm really excited that you have the book. I'm excited to be on your podcast, and I'm very excited for you to come down to Philly and visit.
Suzy Chase: Subscribe in Apple podcasts, and while you're there please take a moment to rate and review Cookery By the Book. You can also follow me on Instagram at cookerybythebook, Twitter is !amSuzyChase, and download your Kitchen Mix Tapes, music to cook by on Spotify at Cookery By the Book. Thanks for listening.