Everyone likes to have a good meal for Valentine’s Day, and I’m no exception. In years past, I have cooked something special–most notably, the year I made coq au vin (starting with rotisserie chicken to save on time and effort)–but lately my husband and I have let others do the cooking, having gotten Jamaican take-out in recent years.
This past week we had our Valentine’s celebration on Friday, at a restaurant in Philadelphia called Zahav, which serves primarily Israeli cuisine but also items inspired by other locales, including Hungary, Morocco and Yemen. The restaurant was recently given a prestigious 4-bell designation by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic. My husband and I fell in love with the food.
First, we were served laffa bread and hummus (we compared the laffa to Indian naan, but thinner and not as crispy), and then out came a towering salad tray. When I heard we would be given salad with our tasting menu choice, I assumed it would be tossed greens in a bowl, but what we got were about 10 small dishes of various kinds of vegetables, each prepared and spiced in a completely unique way.
Following the salads were mezze–small plates–and we chose fried cauliflower, fish served over a crispy hunk of bread enclosing an egg, grilled chicken livers over Israeli couscous, and an incredibly tender lamb stew. Next came grilled meats, and we went with kabobs that were a combination of duck and foie gras, served over rice, and then kofte, meatballs made of lamb and beef, served over a mixture of vegetables that was dominated by red peppers.
To end the night: I had a caramel semifreddo (basically ice cream served between two cookies), and my husband had kataifi–a bird’s nest of pastry with a chocolate center that was topped with mango ice cream.
This incredibly indulgent meal was eye-opening for me. Not just for the quality of the food (I’d easily place it in the top 3 of my eating experiences), but in the way the meal was organized and how the dishes were cooked.
I’m used to loading up my plate with a protein, a starch and a vegetable, but experiencing multiple courses of small servings was a nice change of pace. It’s the norm in many cultures to eat this way, and it makes sense–you get to try a little of everything, breaks are built in, so the focus isn’t just on eating as much food as you can at once, and some of the richer foods come in portion sizes that won’t overwhelm calorically.
I also was intrigued and inspired by the many, many different flavors we experienced during the night out. My husband commented toward the end of the meal that it was almost overwhelming, and a review I read mentioned a close encounter with sensory overload, and it’s true, especially with the salad course. But it was a good lesson in the many ways that vegetables can be prepared. My favorite of the salads had to be the Moroccan carrot salad, of cooked carrots most dominantly tasting of cumin. Also good was a salad of twice-cooked eggplant, that had a rich, smoky taste and a silky texture. I was amazed to see celery, a much-maligned vegetable, transformed into a flavorful salad. And my husband fell in love with a beet salad that was subtly spiced and slightly creamy thanks to tahini.
A work colleague told me about the cauliflower, and I see why she loved it so much–it was intensely spiced (but not spicy) and crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. It was a refreshing take on a vegetable that can be unfairly profiled as bland and mushy.
My dessert also was a wake-up call. If you go to a chain family restaurant, desserts are usually gigantic affairs that several people can eat. But my dessert, though it was generous for one person, was much smaller than I’ve typically seen at a restaurant. It was a good reminder that you don’t have to eat a lot of something for it to be an enjoyable experience.
Will I have time regularly to serve up mini salad dishes, mezze, and desserts resting on top of piped pureed fruit designs? No, but I can certainly explore the wide world of food options even more, bringing new spices and techniques to familiar ingredients. I am also committed to trying out new dessert recipes. I’m focusing on lighter recipes, but if needed, I can always eat half of a heavier item with tea.
I’ve mentioned that I have been bored with my eating lately. My salad experiment helped, as has viewing others’ carefully curated pages on Pinterest, but this Valentine’s Day whirlwind of flavors is another inspiration. Food can be prepared simply, with bold ingredients, in small portions, and be unbelievably satisfying.