Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov spends five nights a week manning the bread station at his popular Philadelphia restaurant Zahav. His new cookbook shows readers how to reproduce the prized pita and laffa at home.
Michael Solomonov and business partner Steven Cook may have opened nearly a dozen Philadelphia restaurants in the past decade, but Chef Solomonov clearly has a favorite: his firstborn, Zahav. He spends five nights a week manning the bread station at the modern Israeli restaurant, where he and his team turn out round after round of pita and laffa (an Iraqi-style flatbread) from a repurposed brick pizza oven.
It’s no surprise, then, that his debut cookbook (written with Cook) is called “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” — and that it offers the deeply personal story of his life, his roots and the style of cooking that earned him a James Beard award in 2011 (Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic region).
Part family album; part food porn, the cookbook gives the reader insight into how Solomonov grew to appreciate Israeli food traditions and interpret them for his customers. With self-deprecating humor, he traces his journey into the culinary world, discusses the death in 2003 of his brother David, who was killed in the line of fire on Yom Kippur, touches on the problem he had with drugs and describes what Israeli food means to him.
The restaurant nearly shuttered in its first year of operation, Solomonov wrote, but “Zahav began to turn around when we embraced the notion that Israeli food is not a static collection of traditional recipes. It is an idea.
“Israel is only 60 years old, a barely melted pot of cultures from all over the world,” he continued. “There aren’t really Israeli restaurants in Israel, as strange as that sounds. There are Bulgarian restaurants and Arabic restaurants and Georgian restaurants and Yemenite restaurants — and many, many more. What connects them, what makes them Israeli, is an approach to dining and hospitality that is shaped by a shared experience.”
Part of that shared experience is kashrut. In a sidebar entitled “What kosher means to me,” Solomonov explains that even though he himself doesn’t keep remotely kosher, at the restaurant and in the book, “we choose to honor the spirit of a few fundamental rules of kosher cooking,” leaving shellfish and pork off the menu and refraining from cooking milk and meat in the same dish. His rationale: “Kosher rules define the boundaries of Israel cuisine.”
Written expressly for a North American audience, the recipes take into account the fact that in most parts of the U.S., our markets aren’t brimming with ripe vegetables all year round. “I want you to celebrate the vegetable classic that we know as Israeli salad,” he wrote, “but then I want to show you how to make it in the dead of winter using persimmons and mangoes instead of out-of-season tomatoes.”
One perfectly autumnal salad in the book is a kale-and-apple tabbouleh, with walnuts in place of bulgur. Several of the salatim draw upon quick-pickled sumac onions, which Solomonov explained to me are an adaptation of a classic hummus accouterment.
“When you go to a hummusia, those little hummus places, they have little pieces of raw onion that you can dip in the hummus. But you don’t have snake breath for weeks and weeks after because the onions in Israel are so much more fresh and they’re picked pretty young. They’re not sitting on the back of a truck for days or weeks,” he said.
“We wanted to express that, but serving huge amounts of raw onions with sumac doesn’t necessarily translate to the America palate — we’re not used to it. So the quick-pickle treatment is really attractive. You can eat a bunch of it. It’s nice, it’s refreshing, but it’s still got crunch and a little bit of savory robustness.”
After making several salads from the book, I now keep a bowl of sumac onions in my refrigerator. I’m finding that they’re a great addition to any number of dishes.
To Solonomov, Israeli eating extends beyond food to the way food makes you feel. In the chapter on mezze, subtitled “hospitality incarnate,” he explained, “I’ve come to understand that the success of my cooking at Zahav…comes from a deeper well of Israeli hospitality. It comes from the intimacy created when friends and family gather together to share food. It comes from the variety of small plates that, taken together, create a satisfying and delightful meal. And it comes from the way that time slows down at the table when you have everything you need.”
Both the menu at Zahav and the cookbook itself are organized to encourage as much sharing, abundance and slowing down as possible.
As we wrapped up our interview, Solomonov extended some of that Israeli hospitality to me. “You should come hang out in Philly one night and make bread with me,” he said, urging me to make laffa at home as well. After I hung up, I pulled out my mixer and happily allowed my kitchen to become covered in flour.
Laffa and Pita in the Home Oven
Makes 8 breads
Laffa is an Iraqi-style flat bread — a little bigger than pita (and minus the pocket) and crispier too, but still with a great chew. Laffa is traditionally cooked in a taboon, a clay oven with an opening at the top and a[n 800-degree] fire in the bottom, very similar to a tandoor… I knew it would be tough to incorporate an authentic taboon into a commercial restaurant in Philadelphia, but when I discovered the hand-built brick oven in a vacant Italian restaurant, I knew I was standing in the future Zahav…Both laffa and pita are remarkably easy to make from the same dough and bake in your own oven. A pizza stone works well, but even a baking sheet turned upside down and preheated in a hot oven will produce beautiful laffa and pita that forms its own pocket.
1½ cups water, divided
2½ teaspoons active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups bread flour
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1) Mix together ½ cup water, the yeast and sugar in a small bowl and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
2) Combine the all-purpose flour, bread flour and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Mix on low speed until blended. Add the yeast mixture, another ½ cup water and the oil and mix on low until the dough forms a ball that pulls clear of the sides and bottom of the bowl. (If after a minute the mixture doesn’t form a ball, add a tablespoon of water.) At the moment the dough starts to pull clear of the bottom of the bowl, add ½ cup water and continue mixing until incorporated. The dough should feel tacky when slapped with a clean hand, but it should not stick. (If it sticks, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time.)
3) Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about an hour. Alternatively, let it rise in the refrigerator overnight.
4) Preheat the oven to 500° F, with a rack in the upper third. Place a baking stone or an inverted baking sheet in the oven to preheat as well.
5) Roll the dough into 8 balls the size of baseballs. Cover with a cloth and let rise until they are about the size of softballs.
For laffa: Roll each dough ball as think as possible (less than 1/8 inch is ideal — the laffa should be the size of a Frisbee) with a floured rolling pin in a floured work surface. Drape one laffa over your outstretched hand and quickly invert it onto the baking stone or baking sheet, quickly pulling any wrinkles flat. Bake the laffa until puffy and cooked through, about 1 minute. Serve immediately.
For pita: Roll each dough ball to about a ¼-inch thickness (about the size of a hockey puck) with a floured rolling pin on a floured work surface. Place one or two at a time on the baking stone of baking sheet and bake until puffed and coked through, about 3 minutes. Serve immediately, or let cool.
Recipe adapted from “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Gayle Squires is a food writer, recipe developer and photographer. Her path to the culinary world is paved with tap shoes, a medical degree, business consulting and travel. She has a knack for convincing chefs to give up their secret recipes. Her blog is KosherCamembert