Film Chat With Michael Solomonov

By Hannah Lee

Video — In Search of Israeli Cuisine

There were 700 people at the Gershman Y on Monday night for the Philadelphia premiere of In Search of Israeli Cuisine with the James Beard-winning chef Michael Solomonov as the Chef Guide.  The film captures the political culture of Israel during its major culinary revolution.  It takes viewers on a culinary adventure to over 100 locations throughout Israel, visiting top chefs, great home cooks, amazing wine and cheese makers, street food vendors, farmers, and more.

The director, Roger Sherman, has won an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and two Academy Award nominations, among other honors.  The Restaurateur, a portrait of renowned restaurant owner, Danny Meyer, won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Documentary, Broadcast Journalism.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine is a gorgeous film that took three years to produce and another two years for fund-raising.  Even Solomonov, a frequent visitor to his birth country, was surprised by the fabulous food and chefs that he met during the filming.  At the post-film Q&A, Sherman and Solomonov were asked what were their biggest misconceptions about Israel.  Sherman said his disillusion was that all Israelis keep kosher, when the reality is that secular, non-observant, non-kosher Jews are in the majority in the Holy Land.

Solomonov said that he thought all Israeli food is Middle Eastern.  His own greatest culinary influence was his beloved late grandmother, a Bulgarian Jew who spoke Ladino.  After Solomonov’s grandmother died, he could no longer serve bourekas in his restaurant, Zahav, because he was raw from grief and he couldn’t tolerate any potential criticism of the food.  When asked if he cannot separate the personal from the professional, Solomonov flatly said no.

As for the political ramifications, Solomonov said that we all approach a country through its food.  Sherman quoted the chefs he’d met and filmed who told him, “You cannot sit at my table and be my enemy.”

Asked why does he stay in Philadelphia, Solomonov said it’s where met his wife, it’s where he met his partner and co-author of his 2015 book,
“Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” Steven Cook.  This is home.

However, he and Cook will soon open another location of their popular hummusiya, Dizengoff, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City  (75 Ninth Ave., at 15th St.; 646-833-7097).  Like the original on 1625 Sansom Street in Philadelphia, the restaurant will offer set meals of hummus, fresh-baked pita, salads, and pickles during the day.  But unlike the original, Dizengoff NYC will offer dinner.  Also new to New York are shakshuka served daily for breakfast, rotating vegetable salatim inspired by the half-dozen that start a meal at Zahav, and Israeli wines by the glass.

Solomonov keeps a heavy travel schedule promoting his book and the film, but he stills cooks four to five times a night in his restaurants.  It’s what he enjoys most, compared to speaking before an audience of 700.  The film is slated to be shown in 55 film festivals over the next year.

Food tours of the people and places mentioned in the film are scheduled for May and October of this year and January of 2017.  They’re organized by Florentine Films in conjunction with Avihai Tsabari’s Via Sabra, with guest appearances by Solomonov on the May tour.

Food Chat: Citron and Rose

By Hannah Lee

Photo posted by Jason Sheehan of Foobooz Philadelphia

Along with everyone else in the Jewish community, I was agog to experience the cuisine at the new kosher restaurant, Citron and Rose. For a foodie, the added attraction  is the culinary talent of Michael Solomonov, who has vaulted to national acclaim with Zahav and Federal Donuts and winner of the 2011 James Beard award for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic region.  As a resident of the Main Line suburbs, I am thrilled to have a gourmet restaurant in my own neighborhood.

I first glimpsed its clean, modern interior during a lecture by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, who was invited by David Magerman and his Kohelet Foundation for a yearlong series on Torah and food, but I did not eat at that mid-day presentation.  I returned for dinner this week for a family celebration.  It bodes well for a fledging restaurant that it was full, even on a Monday evening.  It also had more than a regular complement of staff, with some additional trainees on that occasion.

I was delighted to view the open kitchen through the glass panels on the divider wall from my perch on a banquette in the main dining space.  I saw Solomonov, whom I knew was not allowed to cook there according to the kosher certification policy, as he is the owner of the aforementioned non-kosher establishments.  He’d left by the time my family finished dining. The cooking was in capable hands of Yehuda Sichel, the chef de cuisine and formerly the sous chef at Zahav.

As a vegetarian, I do not have many satisfying options at meat restaurants.  To my delight, I was offered the choice of both the chestnut galushka (tiny dumplings with roasted, diced fall vegetables, trumpet mushrooms, and goulash) and the off-the-menu vegan risotto.  I chose the former for its wealth of colors and it was a delicious explosion of flavors, albeit on the salty side.  The mushroom knish appetizer (with smoked kasha, tsimmes, and carrot mustard) was unusual with a coating of poppy seeds and the Citron salad was fine with baby romaine, beets, hazelnuts, and garlic.  The table was set with a basket of house-made rolls: challah and the tastier rye with caraway seeds.  I would have loved to try their sous-chef Tova’s bagels, which Solomonov has said are his favorite of all Jewish foods. I learned that their staff suppers always include both a vegetarian as well as a vegan option, so they are primed to cater to non-meaters.

My family ordered the meat: chopped liver (stuffed inside sour cherries with chocolate and pumpernickel); veal roulade (with celery root and apple kugel and beet relish); and fluke schnitzel (with parsley potatoes and sweet pepper puree).  The showstopper was the sholet, a epicurean deconstruction of the humble cholent, with smoked duck confit, kishke, haminado (egg cooked in the stew), and flageolet beans. It came with a bone that was over six inches long and my husband hefted it to his mouth, just like the cartoon character Fred Flintstone.  They should have set the table with the tiny marrow spoons favored by the English in the Victorian era.

As for dessert, we shared one dish, the Hungarian pear flodni, with layers of puff pastry, poppy seed, and pear and walnut filling.  It came hot, with a scoop of pear sorbet. I would like to return at another time just for dessert, because I still would like to taste the other selections: chocolate babka with hazelnut ice cream; honey cake with cinnamon meringue, apple confit, and apple sorbet; French toast bread pudding with pecan praline and coffee ice cream; and chocolate mousse with smoked paprika kichel and sour cherry.

The prices are in line with those of other upscale restaurants, with meat entrees ranging from $24 for the roast chicken to $75 for dry-aged rib eye steak for two. The vegetarian option is $18. The first courses range in price from $9 for the salad to $12 for the beef tartare (with pastrami spice and marrow croquettes). We were offered both a complimentary salami appetizer and ice cream made with soy and almond milk. They will not be offering any Hanukah specials— not even of Solomonov’s famous donuts, which are dairy— but there will be a $75 prix-fixe menu for New Year’s Eve.

Citron and Rose with its exquisitely plated cuisine and fine décor would be my first choice to bring our discriminating visitors from New York City (with its plethora of kosher gourmet options) as well as our vegetarian friends.  I, for one, look forward to a return visit.  Do plan ahead, because the place has been full each evening since its opening, so reservations are recommended.

Citron and Rose is located at 370 Montgomery Avenue in Merion, PA and it’s open for dinner Sunday – Thursday, from 5:30 to 10 pm. You may make reservations via Open Table, but do call them at 610-664-4919 for parties of seven or more people. Kosher supervision is by the Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia.

Farming the Biblical Way

Touted as a “squash rock star” by Laura Matthews on her blog, Punk Rock Gardens, Tom Culton, 30, has not only appeared on the David Letterman show but he has participated in Sotheby’s “The Art of Farming” auction along with the gracious-living guru Martha Stewart.  He has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Bon Appetit magazine.  He supplies his heirloom and other weird-looking vegetables to local upscale restaurants such as  Vetri, Zahav, and The Farm and Fisherman in Philadelphia (the latter recently garnered a three-bell rating from the Inquirer’s food critic, Craig LaBan) and to celebrity chefs such as Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud in New York City.

What the other media interviews do not mention is that Tom is a devoted member of the River Brethen Church, one of only two remaining Old-Order Mennonite communities in Lancaster and in New Paltz in upstate New York.  Members of his family have been living in Lancaster County since 1740, but several generations back they were dissatisfied by the leadership and dropped out.  Tom is the first one in his family to return to his ancestral faith.  According to Wikipedia, the River Brethren oppose war, alcohol, tobacco, and worldly pleasures.  They also observe the Sabbath– on Saturdays, like the Jews–  in which they do not work.  Tom scatters extra grain for his chickens before the Sabbath, just as manna fell in double portion for the Jews in the desert.

Tom grew up farming but it was in his teens that he understood  “it’s one of the most important roles” he could have in the world.  After his mother’s death in 2001, he found solace in farming– nurturing something while Nature nurtures him in return.  ”Growing food is one of the beautiful things in the world, even when it can be a dark place,” said Tom.  His mother bequeathed to him the ancestral home (his father had left them when Tom was only three days old), and Tom ventured to turn his family farm– previous crops had been tobacco and carrots– to a more sustainable future.  His grandfather, now 81, has come to see the folly of his post-war generation relying on chemicals without  regard for the environmental impact.

Faith is a very important factor in Tom’s life.  It gives focus, strength, and understanding.  He “doesn’t look for answers in man-made solutions, but in God’s solutions.”  The farming life is so insecure, affected by unpredictable weather conditions and capricious market prices.  Farmers can easily lose faith in the face of difficulties but Tom turns to prayer during the sad times (deaths and relationship woes), crops failures, and husbandry diseases.

It is in church on the Sabbath that Tom feels embraced as a farmer.  In fact, his fellow church  members are all farmers, but he is the only organic one– and the one with the highest yield from his land.  Once a contractor for a fellow church member ventured to drive his truck through Tom’s land– with its access road that “would have saved him $5 in gasoline” costs– but Tom saw the guy in time and ran to block access, standing him off  “like the student protestors in Tiananmen Square (China).”  He was cursed roundly for his unneighborly action, but the unheeded drips from the guy’s pesticide-laden truck (and the wheels) could have cost Tom his organic certification or at least incur a hefty fine.

Tom has tremendous respect for the elderly and the ways of old.  His grandfather lives with him.  The senior Culton is not enamored of speaking to outsiders but he enjoys puttering on the farm.  He also cultivates his own saffron plot– for his favorite rice dishes– a therapeutic crop requiring a labor-intensive harvest of the stamens.  Respect for the elderly was also demonstrated by his church when their Bishop suffered a stroke.  To maintain his dignity, he and his wife were sent to a remote farm (away from bustling Lancaster) owned by a church member to live out his days in pastoral peace.  Ancestral ties are maintained through family burial plots on his property, a right protected by his church. In another affirmation of tradition, Tom is refurbishing his family’s buggy, which he plans to use on his wedding day when he meets the lucky gal who cherishes a farming life.  The River Brethren were among the last of the Mennonites to give up their buggies.

Organic farming can give comparable or better yields than conventional agriculture but it does demand much more labor.  Tom grows alfalfa, which is dicey to grow without pesticides, as feed for his dairy goats and as a cash commodity as well as a cover crop for fixing nitrogen (a natural alternative to petroleum-based fertilizers).  Every five years (in contrast to the seven years between Shmittah (Hebrew for “release”) years in the Jewish tradition), he takes out his alfalfa and rotates his crops in the fields.  He has located a French company that uses certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn to produce biodegradable plastic for agricultural purposes.  It’s much more expensive, priced at $400 for 5,000 square feet versus $89 for the conventionally produced plastic.  Tom has seen farmers take the lazy way and simply plow the regular plastic under their land, where it doesn’t ever completely degrade but which does chip off and get into our food and water supply.

How did he learn to farm the organic way?  When he began farming seriously, it was already in his DNA.  So, he did not read much, because it was really just common sense.  ”You go with your heart” and do what is only sustainable for your land.  It has become a “very religious experience” to come to realize that modern research has confirmed his wholehearted experience on the farm.  Tom recently got his first computer and was able to search on the Internet for the correct spelling of the Red Piriform tomato (with ribbed shoulders) that was previously thought to only grow in the Ligura region of Italy but which Tom has succeeded in cultivating and supplying to his chef friends. On Tom’s kitchen table is a bobble-head figure of Mark McGwire, the discredited baseball player who admitted to steroid use last year, to remind himself that people still prize natural talent– and by extension,  natural food– without chemical enhancements.

Tom has one high-top (plastic-covered tent) greenhouse without any heating source and one that is heated by waste oil, processed by him (centrifuged to remove impurities) on his land.  He collects the oil from the area restaurants, which pay him to take the waste oil off their hands.

This year, Tom has the assistance of Matthew Yoder, recently returned from a stint in Maine and newly adopted into the River Brethren faith, and Ian Osborne, an “English” young man not of the faith– just as Jews might distinguish between themselves  and the goyim (Gentiles).  Matthew brought his knowledge of crops that thrive in New England and the two of them have planted heavily on the 53 acres of the Culton Organics farm.  What are his favorite crops?  Fava beans– or just about any bean– and artichokes with its purply, thistly flowers.

Tom’s plans for next year comprise of a reduced reliance on produce and the introduction of ducks and geese (for the eggs and meat).  His farm now supports 15 chickens (only two of which are now mature enough to lay eggs daily), a small flock of goats, and one turkey.  Most of the goats are milk-producing animals, but one lone billy goat was allowed to retain his horns and escape castration (which adversely affects the taste of the meat).  Why was this one chosen for the sacrifice (his eventual slaughter)?  He was the mean one of the flock.

Tom and his friend, Michael Solomonov, the chef at Zahav and a recent winner of the prestigious James Beard award, plan to tour Israel together.  Does he wish to see the Christian religious sites?  No, he is willing to follow Michael’s lead; besides he is more interested in seeing the Jewish historical sites.

You could taste the delicious dishes made from the heirloom vegetables from Culton Organics at area restaurants and you may meet Tom and Matt on Sundays at the Headhouse Square Farmers’  Market (open from 10 am to 2 pm at Second and Pine Streets).  Be sure to bring your smile or he’ll charge you double.

Michael Solomonov and a Sustainable Lag B’Omer on the “Beach”

Medford, New Jersey is the home of the largest Jewish day camp in North America (according to the Wikipedia) and that was the venue for Hazon‘s “Beach, Beer and BBQ” celebration of the holiday of Lag B’Omer on Sunday, May 22nd.  Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day — lag being the gematria for (numeric equivalent) of 33 — of the counting of the barley offerings (the quantity being an omer, about two quarts)  in the ancient Temple, commencing with the second day of Pesach (Passover) and culminating with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.  Traditionally, it is celebrated in Israel with bonfires.  As observed by the Chassidim, the bonfires commemorate “the immense light that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai introduced into the world via his mystical teachings. This was especially true on the day of his passing, Lag B’Omer, when he revealed to his disciples secrets of the Torah whose profundity and intensity the world had yet to experience. The Zohar relates that the house was filled with fire and intense light, to the point that the assembled could not approach or even look at Rabbi Shimon.”  For everyone else, it is a joy simply to be outdoors.  For Hazon, it was an opportunity to link a ancient holiday to a celebration of the trendy– and important!-goals of a sustainable future.

I was eager to attend because Michael Solomonov, the chef and owner of the Philly restaurant Zahav was scheduled to serve as chef for the event.  Earlier this month, he’d won the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic region (and one of three Jewish chefs to be so honored this year).  Last Wednesday, the Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan invited Michael to his Live Chat feature.  LaBan chatted with Michael Solomonov  and I got to post my comments to him: “I’m looking forward to the Hazon event that you’ll be “cheffing” for this Sunday.  One reason is that your restaurant, Zahav, is not kosher!  I want to be able to eat your food too!  Was your nuclear family (parents, siblings) ever kosher?”  Michael wrote back: “I grew up in a kosher-esque household so we didn’t eat pork or shellfish in the house.  We did, however, turn into bacon zombies the moment we stepped OUT of the house.  Seriously, if “kashruting” our restaurant wasn’t such a “balagan” in the States, we might have considered it more.  But my mission is to expose and celebrate Israeli food, in its entirety, and we would seriously limit our reach if we were kosher.  We don’t serve shellfish or pork or mix dairy and meat on any plate, so we call it “kosher style”.”  My 22-year-old daughter who is usually critical of “kosher-style” catering later commended Michael for his response.  Upon meeting the Chef that evening and identifying myself, he said that I was much nicer than some of the other posters who did not pass censure or decency for their comments.  So, I was all agog to go and I’d signed up my husband as driver and our teen daughter.

The JCC Camp in Medford has plenty of sand for the “Beach” as advertised.  It occupies 120 acres in Burlington County in southern New Jersey and it boasts of a lake too.  A small fair of vendors offering organic and sustainably sourced products kept us engaged until supper time.  I greeted Toni Price, whom I’d seen earlier in the day at Headhouse Square, the largest farmers’ market in Philadelphia.  Toni is a retired English teacher whose husband, Steve, is the chief beekeeper for their Busy Bee Farm located in the nearby Pine Barrens in Tabernacle, N.J.  Last year, their farm was awarded a Pollinator Habitat Grant from the New Jersey National Resource Conservation Service and the USDA.  As a Master Gardener of Burlington County, Toni handles the care and use of the farm’s lavender and other herbs, as well as her flock of free-range pet chickens. She invited my family to visit on lavender harvesting days.

Negev Nectars was also on hand to offer taste tests of their gourmet products from small-scale Israeli farmers.   Their olive oil comes from trees nourished from an underground aquifer of brackish (salty) water- sparing the scarce “sweet” water from Lake Kinneret for human consumption.  I bought several jars of their kosher confitures, spreads, and honey for use as hostess gifts, in particular the items from Kibbutz Neot Smadar, since my husband’s sister is named Smadar.

Jack Treatman, Coffee Buyer and Vice President of Old City Coffee was on hand to explain how their coffee was harvested and culled by hand, with colorful photographs to illustrate his point.  The coffee beans, really the seeds of the plants’ “cherries”, are then raked into fields that resemble sand for drying.  The kosher certification comes at the point of roasting and Jack says that the only reason Old City Coffee is not certified is that its store in the Reading Terminal Market is open on Saturdays.

So, the BBQ dinner!  Michael’s food was a celebration of the flavors of Israel, executed with a modern flair and a gourmet spin.  I loved everything, especially the roasted cauliflower (even my non-crucifer-loving hubby enjoyed it!) and the grilled eggplant.  I cannot report on the meat– chicken shislik and chicken cooked al ha’esh from Grow and Behold Foods — which I didn’t eat because I’m a vegan-wannabe.   Dessert was s’mores made with marshmallows toasted on sticks over a real honest-to-goodness bonfire and chocolate from Holy Cacao,  which is made in small batches by observant Jews on the hills of Hebron “at the edge of the Judean Desert” in Israel.  Electric Simcha’s http://www.facebook.com/Electr… Hasidic rock music and Israeli dancing added to the ruach (lively atmosphere).  I was so inspired by the whole celebration that I volunteered to work on the next Hazon event in Philly, especially if it involved Michael Solomonov.  And I’m happily married!