When you first enter Balaboosta, Chef Einat Admony's Nolita restaurant, your eye is drawn immediately to the wall on the far side of the intimate dining room. There, a photograph of Hanna, Admony's aunt, hangs regal. Her place of honor is telling: it was Hanna who first taught Admony to make Israeli couscous—Admony was raised in Tel Aviv—at the age of six.
Many years later, Admony found herself in New York, cooking in professional kitchens not her own. That changed in 2005, when she opened Taïm, a falafel joint inspired by those of her childhood. Balaboosta followed in 2010, and last year, she opened the more modern Bar Bolonat.
Though Admony has distinguished herself for her adventurous Middle Eastern-cum-Mediterranean cooking, her pantry is stocked with ingredients she traces back to her childhood. While you'll find the occasional new item—these days that's black chickpeas—the shelves are lined mostly with the ingredients that her mother, her aunt, her neighbors, would cook. "Where I feel most comfortable," she notes, "comes from my heritage."
The mark of a great pantry is that it contains, simply and elegantly, the essence of one's cooking. The mark of a great chef is being able to transform these staples in unexpected ways. So it goes with Admony. Let's take a look around.
Many of Admony's dishes build on her earliest culinary conquest: couscous. To this day, she still makes her favorite staple from scratch, using an Israeli-style semolina, which she calls by its Hebrew name solet, that is thicker than the semolina traditionally used for pasta.
Making couscous from scratch is "hell," Admony laughs, "but I love it." It takes her about three hours of constant mixing, sifting, and steaming, but to hear her tell it, anything less is a culinary crime. Her favorite way to eat couscous is with mafrum: sliced potatoes stuffed with beef, dredged in egg, fried, and simmered in spicy tomato sauce. Mafrum is so labor-intensive, Admony only makes it at home about once every six months, and never at her restaurants. Lucky is the guest who's invited to the Admony-Nafziger household on mafrum night!
In New York, Admony buys her solet at Holyland, the Israeli market on St. Mark's in the East Village, though she concedes that in a pinch, coarse farina from the corner grocer will do.
Second to couscous in Admony's pantry is a staple that does not actually hearken back to her childhood: harissa. Harissa is a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste that is as complex as it is spicy, with hints of garlic, cumin, and coriander. "Harissa," Admony says, very seriously, with a twinkle in her eye, "is endless. I always tell people: even if you can't cook at all, get one jar of harissa and put one spoonful in anything you do, and magic. It's beautiful. There is so much flavor." Although she was familiar with the paste growing up, her family's cooking skewed Iranian-Yemeni rather than North African, and it wasn't until Admony began cooking professionally in Israel that she fully embraced the magic. In New York, it first made its way into her harissa falafel—still on the menu at Taïm—and, gradually, into most of her other dishes. She uses it with wine-braised meats, spreads it on sandwiches, mixes it into yogurt, and drizzles harissa oil over fried olives. Admony makes her harissa in-house. Her secret? She doesn't bulk it up with tomato paste: it's roasted peppers all the way down.
"It's like a joke," Admony laughs, "that cumin makes everything Middle Eastern." She rattles off a dozen dishes before stopping herself. "It's true! I think 90% of my dishes have cumin." Cumin is pungent, it's earthy, it's unmistakable, lending character to Admony's work. The key: buy whole seeds and roast or grind them as needed.
Small, knobby fingers of beautiful fresh turmeric, with its spicy bite and deeply orange flesh, are a particular favorite of Admony's. She heads to Kalustyan's to stock up, but admits it's not always easy to find. Her favorite use for fresh turmeric? Granola! Oats, tahini, maple syrup, flax and sesame seeds, and lots of grated fresh turmeric, and you've got the ultimate Admony breakfast.
Za'atar is a spice blend, reddened with sumac, fragrant with thyme and oregano, bulked up with sesame seeds, and finished off with other dried herbs—kept secret. Rather than amplifying and supporting a dish as harissa does, za'atar is strong and distinct and calls attention to itself. As such, Admony warns, it's to be used sparingly. Za'atar is another thing Admony blends in-house, and while she didn't divulge her mix (it's something of a shifting target), she did share a new dish she's working on: za'atar pesto with chickpea gnocchi.
Aleppo is a smoky red pepper named for the Syrian region where it's grown. Darker and more intense than paprika, the whole peppers once formed the basis of Admony's harissa, until cost got the better of her. Now, Admony unleashes the bright bite of crushed aleppo as a garnish, in vinaigrettes, and to give her sauces an extra kick.
"I realized recently that fenugreek leaves are in my mom's culture [Iranian], and my dad's culture [Yemeni]," notes Admony. "My mom would put crushed, dried fenugreek leaves in stews, but not much because it's very strong. My dad's side uses the seeds, in dough, and they use tons. Too much, it makes them smell, their bodies smell." Admony wrinkles her nose at the memory, then laughs. At Balaboosta, she uses fenugreek leaves—which look like crumbled, dried mint but smell oddly sweet and taste of curry—sparingly. Mostly she adds a spoonful to sweet yeasty dough, and fries it.
Bulgur may be enjoying something of a renaissance in the United States, but Admony's been cooking with the mildly nutty whole grain since she can remember. In that time, she's learned a lot about how the grain behaves. As a child, her mother would use it as a base for fried kibbeh, mixing bulgur with water and flour, and stuffing it with beef, raisins, pine nuts and caramelized onions. When Admony opened Taïm, she learned (the hard way) how to prepare bulgur so it keeps up its al dente bite against the juicy tomatoes of tabbouleh. Meanwhile, at Balaboosta, Admony's favorite use for bulgur is in her ceviche. She mixes the grain with crushed coriander, preserved lemon, lime, chili, and cilantro, then wraps it, along with fish, with thinly sliced beets, forming a ball with which she surprises and delights her guests.
Preserved lemon, Admony cautions, takes patience. Take a jar and add sugar and salt in a 30% to 70% ratio. Next, you incorporate chili, paprika, a little turmeric to extend the color, and lemons. (If your lemons are dry, or have a thicker skin, blanch them first.) Then you wait, for three entire months. But the result is worth the time: luxuriously soft lemons that, even whole, melt in your mouth. They are bright and yellow and satisfyingly salty. Admony will often rinse them off and keep them in olive oil, further developing the salted undertones. Preserved lemons find their way into many savory dishes, including a dish she makes often at home, and is testing out for the restaurant. It's like a chicken tagine, with lemons three ways—fresh, preserved, and Persian limes—plus olives, paprika, turmeric, a dash of honey, and tons of cilantro.
Admony's response to pistachios is a simple "wow." This classically Middle Eastern nut lends flavor, texture, color, and aroma to many of the dishes on the menu at both Balaboosta and Bar Bolonat. Admony caramelizes them slowly and adds them to salads for a bit of crunch and sweetness. She mixes pistachio oil with pistachio puree and yogurt, and dollops it onto many a dish. Pistachios find their way into ceviche as often as they do dessert. Admony prefer Turkish pistachios, which are brighter and crunchier than their (more expensive) Sicilian cousins.
Kataif is, basically, thinly shredded filo dough, and while it doesn't taste like much on its own, it's a great source of crunchiness and texture. Admony grew up cooking with kataif, and it shows up everywhere. She fries it with lemon zest and chili as a base for lamb; she wraps it around shrimp, and then sears them; and for her favorite preparation, she makes knafeh, something like a Middle Eastern cheesecake, filled with ricotta and scented with rosewater.
Tahini, that cornerstone sesame paste, is so essential to Admony's pantry that it almost goes unmentioned. "It's too obvious" she laughs. "It's amazing—I used to tell people about tahini ten years ago and they wouldn't know what I was talking about. Now, everyone has tahini falafel. All these kinds of things are very common now. You see them in many American restaurants. People are more curious, this cuisine is more up-and-coming. " Admony picks up her favorite brand of tahini at Holyland (it's the one with the light blue packaging and black lettering), and despite its near-ubiquitous state, prefers it in the simplest of preparations: she puts some into a Vitamix, whips it until fluffy, and surprises her friends with an unexpectedly light, airy spoonful.