Taste Testing ‘Modern Israeli Cooking’

Roasted garlic & apricot chicken garnered raves from a group of discerning dinner party guests.

This is an occasional column in which the writer evaluates a new cookbook by making some of its recipes, sharing the dishes with friends and asking her guests what they think of the results. She recently cooked her way through “Modern Israeli Cooking: 100 New Recipes for Traditional Classics” by Danielle Oron.

Related

  • Roasted Garlic & Apricot Chicken (below)

It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Danielle Oron. With the publication of “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cuisine” by media-darling chef Michael Solomonov and his business partner Steven Cook out within a week of Oron’s new “Modern Israeli Cooking: 100 New Recipes for Traditional Classics,” it was practically guaranteed that her book was the one that would be overlooked.

Solomonov is the one who already had the established reputation, with some even calling him “our own Ottolenghi” — which begs the question: Does one need a four-syllable surname to become a renowned Israeli chef outside of Israel? “Zahav” was highly anticipated, is encyclopedic in scope — 368 pages to Oron’s 240 — and is as much a gripping memoir as it is a cookbook.

That’s an awful lot to compete with, especially since by contrast, I had never heard of Oron, and have no idea whether any readers outside of Toronto or Atlanta have either.

She’s a chef and owner of the Moo Milk Bar in Toronto, for starters. She has a blog called “I Will Not East Oysters,” which is somewhat funny since there’s plenty of shrimp in her book. And in this world of habitual over-sharing, she barely tells us anything about herself other than the fact that her parents moved from Tel Aviv to New Jersey when she was 3 and that she has some Moroccan heritage; she attended the French Culinary Institute, and she splits her time between Toronto and Atlanta.

Solomonov snagged the holy grail of PR coups to promote his book: an interview on Terry Gross’s popular NPR program “Fresh Air.” Oron got bubkes.

It’s unfortunate, because like “Zahav,” “Modern Israeli Cooking” has some incredible recipes in it.

Oron says her cooking style is American-Israeli, which reflects who she is. “My recipes are very much like what Israeli food has come to be: a combination of old and new,” she writes.

It must be noted, though, that while Solomonov’s book is kosher style, this one most certainly is not. Not only does shrimp show up in several recipes, but butter or cream is often used in meat dishes. (There are many kosher recipes as well.) If you keep strictly kosher, you should probably choose Solomonov’s book over this one.

The book is divided into themes — Weekdays, Fridays, Beach, Slow Cooking, Brunch, Midnight, Salads and Sides, Sweets and Staples. While every Israeli cookbook has the obligatory shakshuka recipe, I was glad to see that Oron’s version is far from traditional, with roasted tomatillo and poblano peppers, “green eggs, hold the ham,” she says.

Oron should be given props for putting out a cookbook that’s so full of delicious-sounding recipes that it made choosing a menu for my Taste Test dinner nearly impossible. I erred on the side of making too much food, because I had to try her lentil and kale harira soup, which is full of lentils, chick peas, kale and angel hair pasta and spiked with a healthy dose of lemon juice at the end before being topped with labne and sumac.

This was a super-hearty soup and everyone loved it, but it could easily stand on its own as a one-pot weeknight supper. (I found it in the Weekdays section.) I can say now that it certainly should not have preceded the rest of the meal I served, but ultimately this just meant more leftovers for me.

For the main dish, I chose roasted garlic & apricot chicken (recipe below), in which two heads of garlic are roasted and combined with butter (you could use chicken fat), cilantro, parsley, lemon juice and spices to create a rub in which the chicken marinates overnight. The chicken is then baked with dried apricots. While the recipe doesn’t explicitly say this, the apricots should be tucked in between the chicken pieces and not sprinkled on top — mine got a bit overdone, though no one except me seemed to mind this.

The dish was a knockout, perfectly seasoned and cooked (though I also thought the skin should have come out a bit crispier, since it was blasted in the broiler at the end). My husband, Paulie, said that this may have been the best chicken dish I’ve ever made, which is definitely saying something. It would make an excellent main for Hanukkah.

As a side dish, I served caramelized onion & almond rice, which made a great accompaniment — as it would for many dishes — and a “smoked” & roasted whole cauliflower topped with garlic-panko and tahini. I chose this recipe because it sounded so intriguing, and I knew my instincts were right when upon tasting it, our friend Bob said, “There are all these flavors I’m not used to, and my mouth is very interested in what’s going on.”

To make this dish, the cauliflower is brined and simmered in a solution of water, spices and liquid smoke before being roasted whole in the oven. Then it’s topped with the aforementioned accompaniments, and also some optional schug (an herbal green hot sauce).

Roasting cauliflower whole has become a trend, and this dish made me understand why. It turned out to be a real showstopper of a dish. Bringing it out covered with all its various toppings on a platter and carving it tableside elicited oohs and ahs from my guests.

Out of the seven of us, our friend Alexis and I thought the smoky flavor was just a bit too overpowering for us (I would recommend reducing the amount of liquid smoke), but everyone else loved the interplay of flavors and textures and especially appreciated the dish for being unlike anything they had ever tried before. (Our friend Daniel thinks he had something like it in Washington D.C. — but never mind.) I also served a fresh cucumber, fennel & radish salad, which is punched up with lemon juice and sumac, and while it wasn’t as much of a wow as the other dishes, it provided a necessary raw, fresh and slightly bitter element to cut through the richness of everything else.

Elizheva said that at first she felt that all the food — except the salad, of course — looked too white or beige to be appealing, but once she started tasting everything she said that reservation went away.

We had to take a long pause before dessert. So many of Oron’s desserts sounded very tempting, especially since she uses labne (which I love) and tahini in so many of them, making for completely unusual desserts that sound like nothing I’ve tried. (Salted tahini chocolate chip cookies or tahini-swirled brownies, anyone?)

I went with the whipped cheesecake with pecan cookie crumbles, in which the “cheese” is whipped cream mixed with mascarpone and labne. A crust is made from the usual ingredients and baked on the bottom and in a separate pan with pecans added to it to create a crumble topping for the top.

Our friend Madhu said that when he first saw it, he dreaded the idea of eating what looked like such a heavy dessert. But he was pleasantly surprised by how light it was. As the cook, I knew how decadent it really was, but we all agreed that the lightness of the filling made us feel better about it — even if we were totally deluding ourselves.

This dessert was simple to make and got raves, though Bob said he felt it could be any ethnicity, while Daniel said, “It doesn’t seem Israeli at all.” But did we mind? Not in the slightest. (And with so many ethnic groups in Israel, what is typically Israeli anyway?)

Oron writes at the end of her introduction, “I will ask only that you invite some friends over and share this food with them.” Danielle, if you are reading this, please know that I did exactly what you asked. And thanks to you, they all left incredibly happy.

Roasted Garlic & Apricot Chicken

“CHEEEKAN, GOOD” – LEELOO, THE FIFTH ELEMENT

Roasted garlic has an intoxicating smell. You can almost taste it in the air. I use roasted garlic to make a paste and smother the chicken in this dish. Letting it marinate overnight allows the flavors to penetrate the chicken, which is incredible, but my favorite part of this dish is the combination of the dried apricots and the garlicky chicken juices. Boy, oh boy.

Serves 4

2 heads of garlic
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup chopped parsley
3½ tablespoons unsalted butter, room temp (See editor’s note below)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon fresh black pepper
½ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon Ancho Chili Harissa, optional
8 pieces skin-on, bone-in chicken (use your favorite cuts)
¾ cup dried apricots
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and fresh black pepper
Paprika, to garnish

1) Preheat oven to 375˚ F. Place the heads of garlic in a baking dish and roast for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.

2) Cut the tops off of the heads of garlic and squeeze out the soft, sticky garlic cloves into a food processor. Add the cilantro, parsley, butter, lemon juice, salt, pepper, paprika, cumin and harissa. Pulse a few times until a thick paste has formed.

3) Place the chicken in a baking dish and smother with the roasted garlic paste, making sure to push some of the paste under the skin of the chicken. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge to marinate overnight (or a minimum of 6 hours).

4) Preheat the oven to 400˚ F. Remove the chicken from the fridge and allow it to rest on the countertop for 15 minutes while the oven preheats. Scatter the apricots around the chicken. Drizzle with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover the top of the dish with tinfoil.

5) Roast for 30 minutes. Remove the tinfoil and continue roasting for an additional 15–20 minutes. The internal temperature of the chicken should reach 165˚ F.

6) Turn the broiler to high. Sprinkle the chicken with a bit of paprika and leave under the broiler to crisp for about 5 minutes or until the skin is golden brown. Let the chicken rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Recipe reprinted from “Modern Israeli Cooking” with permission from Page Street Publishing.

Editor’s note: To make this recipe kosher, substitute chicken fat for the butter.

Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef in the Bay Area and beyond. Her blog is theorganicepicure.com

Taste Testing ‘Modern Israeli Cooking’

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