When it comes to Israeli food, sublime is usually simple. Take Shakshouka for example.

I first tasted Shakshouka one summer on a family vacation. My sister had invited her Israeli neighbors to join us and after a few days of our cooking, our guests said they wanted to cook us the quintessential Israeli dish. We had no idea what that might be. Our culinary heritage was limited to the Eastern European Jewish dishes we had grown up with such as chicken soup with matzo balls, and a few well-known Middle Eastern foods—chopped salad, falafel and hummus.

We were surprised when the kitchen started releasing the fragrance of sautéing onions, garlic and peppers and they brought to the table a huge skillet with what resembled huevos rancheros. This was Shakshouka (Arabic for rags)—a richly flavored stew bright with tomatoes, veggies, spices and eggs poached right in the sauce. As scrumptious as it was, the best part was the camaraderie as we tore up loaves of bread to sop up every delicious drop of sauce.

zahav-cookbook-coverThis was my introduction to the food so beautifully captured in Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Rux Martin Books; October 6, 2015). Solomonov, who was named Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation in 2014, has penned an intimate account of what makes a chef out of a former rebel and picky eater. “I was the last person in the world my family thought would ever be a chef,” he said during an interview on NPR.

Born in Israel and raised in America, Solomonov’s parents uprooted the family and returned to Israel when he was 15. His little brother David, then 11, was expected to assimilate into the Israeli school system, but Solomonov was sent to an American boarding school. Misadventures followed as Solomonov got involved in drugs, dropped out of schools and generally rebelled.

It was a job in an Israeli bakery that started him on the course that would become his life’s work. He left Israel to earn a culinary degree, returning in 2003 for a visit. Previously estranged, he and David traveled the country tasting the foods of the diverse population and getting reacquainted. David was near the end of his military service and Solomonov looked forward to having his brother in the US for college. Tragically, David was killed on military patrol. He’d had only one month of service left.

13_ZAHAV Mike (c) Michael Persico CROPPED

Michael Solomonov / c. Michael Persico

The tragedy sent Solomonov into a tailspin even as he met his two partners in life—his wife and Steven Cook, the chef who would partner with him in opening Zahav in Philadelphia. As he began to pull his life back together, they opened Zahav. Too complex and ambitious at first, it wasn’t until they realized the true pleasure of Israeli food as typified in a dish of Shakshouka—mouthwatering recipes based on generosity and sharing—that they became a recognized success.

Zahav—the restaurant and the cookbook—features Israeli dishes from all over the world. The key element that makes them different from the foods of their Middle Eastern neighbors is adherence to kosher laws. In many ways, Jewish food is defined by what it omits—pork and shellfish—and the separation of meat and dairy. That’s why instead of finishing sauces with butter, Solomonov’s seductive recipes use tehina—ground sesame sauce. These twists give Israeli foods from around the world their distinctive taste.

Included in the book are the Israeli passion for the sesame seed (Halvah Semifreddo anyone?); the vivid little vegetable dishes called salatim that start a meal; mezze, a sort of Israeli tapas; the wide world of Jewish soup beyond matzo balls; and mesibah, or “party time,” the perfect food to cook for friends or mishpucha (family).

But the best place to start is with Shakshouka. It perfectly embodies Solomonov’s philosophy and the food of Israel. So have some friends over for brunch, pick up a couple of loaves of good bread and get cooking. What a delicious excuse for a mesibah!

Shakshouka / c. Michael Persico

Shakshouka / <i>c. Michael Persico</i>


Serves 8

½ cup olive oil
2 onions, chopped (about 3 cups)
4 red or green bell peppers, chopped
6 garlic cloves, sliced
2 tbsp grated dried lime (optional)
6 tbsp sweet paprika
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp kosher salt
8 cups tomato puree
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp sugar
16 large eggs

Heat ¼ cup of the olive oil over medium heat in a cast iron skillet large enough to accommodate 16 poached eggs. (If you don’t have a skillet that large, use two pans, dividing the ingredients evenly between them.) Add the onions, bell peppers, garlic, dried lime (if using), paprika, cumin, coriander and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree and sugar and simmer until reduced by about one third, 10 to 12 minutes. Whisk in the remaining ¼ cup olive oil.

Crack the eggs into the skillet, spacing them evenly in the sauce. Lower the heat, cover, and cook until the egg whites are set but the yolks remain runny, about 5 minutes. Top with Serrano chiles and cilantro and serve immediately right from the pan.

Main image via epicurious.com

Recipe excerpted from ZAHAV, © 2015 by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.