How Celebrity Chef Einat Admony Learned to Love Israeli Food
Celebrity chef Einat Admony writes about learning to cook in her new book, “Shuk,” and shares a recipe for Persian beef and duck meatballs in walnut-pomegranate sauce.
When I was growing up, my dad was the one who shopped at the shuk, not my mother, as you might think. He was the unusual husband who was happy to take his wife’s shopping list and then head out to pick up the day’s groceries: glossy baladi eggplant, fragrant bunches of cilantro and parsley, dates, creamy gvina levana, and perhaps more freshly toasted and ground baharat spice mix, which seemed to make its way into so many of my mom’s recipes.
I would often go with my father when he shopped. Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv was not far from our home in the suburbs and was also right near the Yemenite quarter in which my dad spent his childhood. We would do the shopping and then wander into the shuk’s Yemenite quarter, which housed a handful of simple restaurants serving Yemenite classics, the kind of food you’d otherwise find only in a family’s home.
My dad was happy to take on the shopping because he knew he’d be rewarded by my mother’s fantastic cooking (plus he was a nice guy). But he also might have volunteered for the shuk because he could indulge in some of the food he loved best—especially lachuch, a springy, moist Yemenite flatbread that was the one dish from his culture that my mom never mastered.
My Persian mom was born in Iran, and was eventually raised in an Iraqi household. In Israel, our family would be called “Mizrahi,” meaning Jews who came from the Middle East rather than those with roots in Spain (Sephardic) or elsewhere in Europe (Ashkenazi).
Mizrahi dishes are the foods of my childhood, and I learned to make them starting at about age eleven, when I became my mom’s assistant. She was always cooking something intriguing and delicious—Persian rice dishes fragrant with handfuls of herbs; kubbaneh, a delicious Yemenite bread she’d bake overnight for Shabbat lunch; chicken in fassenjan, a sauce made from ground walnuts and pomegranate juice and flavored with crazy-looking dried Persian limes. Our next-door neighbor was Moroccan, and she would let me help her with the hand-rolled couscous and all the spicy, tangy accompaniments for it—pumpkin chirshi, pepper and tomato matboucha, sweet and savory lamb tagine.
While my mom and neighbor were getting free labor, I was getting an education, and I ended up as a professional chef (with a stop at cooking school along the way). It’s those foods of my multicultural childhood that I crave the most and that I now cook most often here in New York City. I’ve even built restaurants around my favorite Mizrahi dishes: My fast-casual Israeli chain, Taïm, was one of the first in the United States to serve sabich, an Iraqi Jewish, deliciously sloppy fried eggplant sandwich…something that just a few years ago you’d never have seen outside the neighborhood. And my couscous restaurant, Kish-Kash, celebrates all the influences of North African cuisine that surrounded me throughout my childhood.
I’m gratified to see that the rest of the world is catching on. So many of the wonderful dishes I grew up cooking and eating are no longer considered ochel shel bayit—food you would only eat at home—but are being featured on restaurant menus all over Israel and in the United States.
Food like this, whether Persian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, or Yemenite, represents not only my childhood and my heart but also Israeli cuisine as a whole—a multicultural mosaic of traditions from literally all over the globe, served in the spirit of generosity, hospitality, and joy, evolving as Israel grows as a nation. Israeli cuisine is young but with ancient roots, and I’m happy to be a part of its evolution. Now you can cook these dishes, too, and join me as we continue to create new traditions.
What this brownish and somewhat grainy sauce—called fassenjan—lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in rich, intense flavor, thanks to a powerful combo of walnuts, pomegranate juice, pomegranate molasses, and dried limes. The brown, rock-hard Persian limes won’t win a beauty pageant either, but crack them in your hands and inhale the complex citrusy aroma with hints of smokiness, and you’ll understand why cooks in Iran treasure them. You can find dried limes (or dried lemons) in Middle Eastern groceries or order them online. They’re worth seeking out, and they keep indefinitely.
Note: You can use all ground beef (2 pounds) instead of the duck. Serves 6 to 8
- 1 pound Ground beef
- 1 pound Ground duck breast
- 1 yellow Onion, coarsely grated
- ½ cup Finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tsp ground Coriander
- 2 tsp Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- 1 Tbsp Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 Onion, coarsely grated
- 2 medium Garlic cloves, grated or minced
- 1 tsp Grated fresh ginger
- 1½ cups Very finely chopped walnuts
- ½ tsp Ground cumin
- ½ tsp Kosher salt, plus more if needed
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups Pure unsweetened pomegranate juice (we like POM Wonderful)
- ½ cup Pomegranate molasses
- 2 dried Persian limes, cracked
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Cooked white rice
- Fresh pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)
- Fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
Prepare the Patties: Put the beef and duck in a large bowl, add the onion and parsley, and season with the coriander, salt, and several twists of pepper. Knead thoroughly to blend the ingredients. If you have time, cover and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.
Rub your hands with a bit of vegetable oil and shape the meat mixture into golf ball–sized meatballs; set them on a tray.
Line a plate or separate tray with paper towels. Coat the bottom of a large skillet with vegetable oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs and fry quickly until they are just golden brown on all sides, 3 to 4 minutes total; shake the pan a few times to roll the meatballs in the oil and make sure they are browned evenly. For the best browning, don’t crowd the pan; work in batches if you need to. Transfer the meatballs to the paper towels. Repeat to cook the remaining meatballs; set aside.
Prepare the Sauce: Heat the oil in a wide saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the walnuts and sauté for another 3 minutes. Season with the cumin, ½ teaspoon salt, and several twists of black pepper. Pour in the pomegranate juice and molasses and add the dried limes. Bring to a simmer, stirring often. Taste and adjust the seasoning—once you add the meatballs, you won’t be able to stir, so make sure the sauce is seasoned to your liking.
Gently slide the meatballs into the sauce in a single layer, making sure they are fully submerged in the sauce (shake the pan slightly to settle them).
Cover the pan and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and cook until the sauce is thick and shiny, another 10 minutes or so. Serve hot over white rice, garnished with pomegranate seeds (if they are in season) and cilantro leaves. If not serving immediately, let cool and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days; reheat gently.
Excerpted from Shuk by Einat Admont and Janna Gur (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2019.