Books: A primer for every palate

Select the right cookbook as a gift for the right person this Hanukka.

Burekas of all kinds from ‘Zahav'. (photo credit: MICHAEL PERSICO)
Burekas of all kinds from ‘Zahav'.
(photo credit: MICHAEL PERSICO)
Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking
By Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook
Houghton Mifflin
368 pages;
Michael Solomonov is having a moment. The Israeli-born, Pennsylvania- raised chef, restaurateur and now cookbook author has watched his star soar rapidly and steadily over the past couple years. The publication of Zahav, named for his famed Philadelphia restaurant, is just a cap on a truly impressive year for Solomonov.
The weighty tome is hearty and soulful and deeply personal – not just a cookbook but partly a memoir of Solomonov’s life, including the heartbreaking loss of his brother during his IDF service. His tone is friendly and conversational – he draws you into his world and his life – and just about every recipe seems approachable, save maybe the from-scratch puff pastry (although even that comes with detailed, step-bystep photographs).
Though Zahav is not a kosher eatery, all the recipes in the book are: “I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how to disappoint your Jewish relatives,” he writes.
Somewhat surprisingly, considering most of his formative years were spent overseas, Solomonov effortlessly captures the modern Israeli palate, without need for gimmicks or games.
“Part of our household identity was the can of tehina that was always on our kitchen table,” he writes. In fact, an entire chapter of the book is dedicated to the sesame paste and all its versatile uses.
He provides plenty of asides – tips, factoids and little notes about his life, upbringing and culinary adventures. In typical fashion, the instructions on how to deseed a pomegranate begin: “Roll up the sleeves of a shirt you dislike.”
Unlike many books based on restaurants, the photos and recipes seem homey and comforting instead of complicated and unapproachable.
He incorporates flavors and traditions from the worlds of Iraqi, Moroccan, Persian, Yemenite, Romanian, Bulgarian cuisines – and more. From latkes with gravlax to Yemenite beef soup and lahoh to an entire chapter on burekas, Solomonov presents a clear, understandable take on how Israelis eat today.
“There’s a sad but true saying that Israelis are always prepared for two things: war and barbecue” is the start of a chapter on grilling. From pargiyot three ways to Persian wedding rice and chocolate babka, Solomonov makes everything feel fresh without wacky varieties or flavor combinations that are simply trying too hard.
Who would have thought a kid from Philadelphia could capture the Israeli palate so perfectly?
Modern Israeli Cooking
By Danielle Oron
Page Street Publishing
240 pages;
Danielle Oron was born in Tel Aviv and moved to the US when she was three, and that divided and dual culinary upbringing is on full show in her first book, Modern Israeli Cooking.
The book is fun, lighthearted and full of color and vivacity. Perhaps my biggest problem with it is the title itself – there isn’t anything particularly Israeli about kebab and shrimp paella, or hawaij oxtail ragu. I think the book would have been better titled “An American-Israeli in the Kitchen,” which better reflects the disjointed contents of Oron’s mind.
I tried to overcome my bias after the very first recipe in the book called for chicken soup powder. And when I did, I found a lot to like – not just her own fresh takes on classics like schnitzel, falafel, shwarma, shakshuka and burekas. Oron even presents her own variety of cholent – made with chicken and fettuccine pasta – and instructions for brining your own pastrami.
From a cheesy kale pashtida to Moroccan- spiced shepherd’s pie; sumac fries with s’hug mayo and harissa ketchup; and ricotta and zaatar ravioli, Oron offers plenty of intriguing-sounding dishes.
If it isn’t already abundantly clear, the book is not kosher; aside from the seafood, many of the dishes include meat and dairy together, but most can be easily adapted for those who keep Jewish dietary laws.
Every recipe gets a full-page color photo, and Oron’s intros are often funny, if not a bit silly. She doesn’t skimp on desserts either, with chocolate babka French toast, salted tehina chocolate chip cookies and an “adult” version of the famous Milky chocolate pudding – spiked with booze.
Overall, Oron has created an entertaining, interesting book – if only the more impressive Zahav hadn’t come out around the same time to overshadow it.
Everyday Secret Restaurant Recipes
By Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek
Artscroll Mesorah
336 pages;
Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek are already a champion power duo when it comes to cookbooks, having released a previous five with Artscroll. Now they return for a sequel to their earlier Secret Restaurant Recipes, this time selecting dishes that are more simple and approachable for the home cook.
In fact, when I reviewed the earlier book for The Jerusalem Post, I noted that many of the recipes are “excessively time consuming and feature dozens of ingredients.”
The second time around is much like the first, featuring recipes from mostly the US east coast and particularly New York, but also Los Angeles, Florida, Toronto and even Sydney, London, Panama City and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Israelis will get a kick out of recipes from Borochov 88 in Ra’anana and the popular chain Cafe Greg. Readers can also try honey-mustard pargiyot from Papagaio and mushroom lasagna from Alternative in Tel Aviv.
Despite the “everyday” tag line, some recipes are still a bit complex – including one that calls for pulled braised beef as a base ingredient – or contain ingredients hard to get kosher outside the tristate area, such as beef bacon or kani (fake crab).
One recipe for a sandwich even calls for a store-bought veggie burger, while a version of baked ziti includes just pasta, bought marinara sauce, mozzarella, ricotta and salt and pepper. I would hope for more if I was eating in the restaurant or at home.
Still, many things caught my eye – from gong bao chicken at Dini’s kosher restaurant in the Chabad House of Beijing to lamb pie from Lehem Basar in Tel Aviv; Mediterranean focaccia from Lula by Darna in Panama City; and peachglazed chicken salad from Serengeti in Baltimore, Maryland.
Plus the book is packed full of what Dwek and Schapira are now known for – their thorough and exhaustive tips, serving ideas, storage notes and variations on the recipes. The vast majority are helpful, though I didn’t really need to know that I could save calories by using light mayo instead of regular.
If you love to explore culinary borders and have a little time on your hands, this is the book for you. Just invite me over when you make the pulled brisket panini from Breadberry in Brooklyn or the smoked BBQ hummus from Joebob’s Barbeque in Austin, Texas.
The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen
By Amelia Saltsman
Sterling Epicure
320 pages;
In her second cookbook – but her first with a Jewish theme – Amelia Saltsman has brought an idea particularly trendy these days in the culinary scene and married it naturally and effortlessly with the Jewish calendar.
Saltsman’s The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen is divided into six chapters of two months each, basing the recipes around both typical seasonal produce and Jewish holidays and events.
Saltsman succeeds in imbuing the entire book with the feeling of a serene, self-sustained farm in the countryside in the middle of nowhere.
From September to October Saltsman offers ways to cure and pickle your own fish, and recipes for lamb, butternut squash and quince tagine; plum meringue tort; and slaw with beets, carrots and kohlrabi.
November to December see sweet potato and butternut squash mini latkes with labaneh and smoky harissa, and roasted brussels sprouts with walnuts, pomegranate molasses and shanklish.
January and February are marked by blood orange marmalade with Ras el hanout, farro soup with chickpeas and escarole and carob molasses ice cream, while March and April celebrate both Purim and Passover, with Persian herb and cheese hamentashen; green garlic and leek matza brei with smoked salmon and horseradish cream; and chocolate pavlovas with tangelo sorbet.
The year is rounded out in May and June with grape leaves stuffed with three cheeses and cherry and goat cheese tart, and in July and August with green melon and tomato gazpacho and snap bean and red quinoa tabbouleh.
The book is beautiful and inspirational to flip through, but unfortunately only about 50 percent of the recipes have photos of the finished product.
A Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets
By George Greenstein
Ten Speed Press
208 pages;
George Greenstein – an accomplished baker who ran his own shop on Long Island for 20 years – first started work on this book 15 years ago. He never published it, but his three children gathered up his notes – and tested and tried out each recipe – to finally bring it to light three years after his death.
The book is chock full of nostalgia and almost-forgotten tastes of Jewish bakery classics from years gone by. It starts out with recipes for the building blocks that make up practically every offering inside, including fillings, doughs and toppings of all varieties. The book is exhaustive, from classics like cheese buns to chocolate babka, raisin and nut strudel, and apple charlotte to more adventurous fare.
Recipes that caught my eye include bienerstuck, a yeast-raised beehive coffee cake topped with caramelized honey and nuts and filled with cream custard; flying black Russian coffee cake, babka dough with roasted pecans, dripping chocolate, coffee-flavored liqueur, cake crumbs and almond paste; and raspberry bow ties with streusel topping.
Unfortunately, the one thing missing is photos – not even a single black and white photograph is found on the inside pages. The recipes and instructions are exhaustive and written with care and attention, but the 21st-century cook demands a little color.
While Greenstein’s expertise as a master baker is clear, that translates into often time-consuming and intensive instructions, such as stollen with triple butter, which has 23 ingredients and a page-and-a-half of instructions.
“Finishing our dad’s project has been a way to honor and mourn him,” his kids wrote in the book’s introduction.
It’s a worthy goal, and those bakers with a bit of expertise, a rainy day to spend in the kitchen and a heaping cupful of nostalgia will reap the benefits.