Cooking Eggplant with Celebrated Chef Michael Solomonov
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The test kitchen had a special visitor from Philadelphia recently: Michael Solomonov, the chef and author renowned for his interpretations of Israeli cooking. He won a James Beard award for his first cookbook "Zahav" in 2016, and another for his flagship restaurant of the same name in 2017. As the owner of Dizengoff, Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, Rooster Soup Co., and Goldie restaurants, he's also building a full-on empire in Philadelphia. Michael stopped by to chat about his third cookbook, "Israeli Soul," which will be released this October, and to demo one of his favorite dishes from it: Turkish eggplant salad.
While Michael's first book focused on Israeli food through the lens of his restaurant, his latest is a cookbook-travelogue hybrid that zeroes in on the way people actually eat in Israel. "This book started with the desire to get everyone who works at Zahav over to Israel. We weren't interested in the flashy, trendy places, but the everyday specialties that have been passed down from generation to generation," says Michael. After eating and shooting 82 meals in eight days, he and his team developed a newfound appreciation for the different journeys behind the classic foods of the region. For example, the stuffed savory pastries known as borekas made their way from medieval Spain through the Ottoman Empire to the Balkans before ending up in Israel.
Each recipe in the book involves similarly complicated foodways, including the Turkish eggplant salad Michael made in the test kitchen. He says, "It's more specifically Ottoman-they're the ones who really spread most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking habits. This style of stewing ended up all over the Balkans." Michael's version of the salad calls for two simple components: tomato sauce and seared eggplant. Red bell pepper, onion, chiles, garlic, and crushed tomatoes are cooked together, then spooned over silky eggplant.
While Michael was cooking, he compared notes on salting eggplant with food director Sarah Carey. In Sarah's experience, eggplant absorbs more oil when it isn't salted, but otherwise, she doesn't find the step to be crucial. Michael, meanwhile, insists on salting eggplant at all his restaurants, just in case they get a subpar piece of produce that needs salt to offset the astringency. Sarah and Michael agreed that the most common problem with eggplant both at restaurants and at home is undercooking. If you don't give it enough time, it turns out bitter. Michael's all for charring eggplant until almost burnt, which is when it takes on chocolatey notes and an almost pudding-like consistency.
As everyone swarmed around the finished dish with spoons, Michael explained the versatility of the sauce. He says, "A lot of salads in Israel are dressed with a tomato compote like this. It's a great way to add sugar and acid, plus tomatoes are super abundant in Israel." The sauce can be dolloped over salmon or steak, or tossed with baby okra, green beans, mushrooms, English peas, fresh garbanzo beans, or even raw tomatoes. The salad itself can be enjoyed hot, room temperature, or cold, with rice or grilled chicken or lamb kebabs, or over pasta for a caponata of sorts. It can be gilded with feta, kashkaval, or Parmesan cheese.
It's also just one of the many weeknight-friendly dishes in the book. "Realistically, I have 45 minutes to make dinner at my house, and while feeding my kids pasta with butter and cheese every night would work, I can't do that. The Israeli table is mostly vegetables, and even though good-quality vegetables cost more, it's still not like buying a rib-eye. With a little bit of spice and seasoning, and the proper technique, you can make something inexpensive and delicious."