A century ago, the tenements of Mulberry Street were filled with Italian nonni, or grandmothers, who cooked and cleaned and shopped with a take-charge style and amazing skill.
With similar high energy and courage, an Israeli woman has laid claim to that tradition. Einat Admony named her Mulberry Street restaurant Balaboosta, the Yiddish term of endearment for the uber-housewife who, like the Italian nonni and Admony’s own Persian, Yemenite and Israeli foremothers, cooked with gusto and always found room for another guest — and understood that it was the table that kept their families together.
But Einat Admony is not your grandmother’s balaboosta. She zips around Manhattan on a pink Vespa. In addition to the much-praised Israeli-inspired Balaboosta (which is not kosher), she owns two other popular restaurants (two outlets of the kosher and vegetarian Taim, which also has a food truck), and is about to open a new place, Bar Bolonat. A 42-year-old wife and a mother of two young kids, she also entertains a lot in her Fort Greene, Brooklyn home. Her first cookbook, just published this month, is “Balaboosta: Bold Mediterranean Recipes to Feed the People You Love” (Artisan).
Admony’s recipes reflect the robust flavors of Israeli cookery, tweaked with creative interpretations. As she explains in an interview at Balaboosta, the challenge for her in creating consistent recipes for the restaurants and book is that she had always cooked by instinct, without measured ingredients, and she has had to convert her freewheeling style into step-by-step directions.
The book is engagingly written, with humor, enthusiasm and great stories. Her sister is married to author and comedian Joel Chasnoff (“The 188th Crybaby Brigade”), who helped with the writing. More than other cookbooks, this one gives the reader an intimate view into the chef’s life, through the memoir-like essays and descriptions of dishes.
Admony grew up in Bnei Brak, the daughter of an Iranian mother who came to Israel as a child and a Sabra father whose parents came from Yemen. Her parents became increasingly religious when she was a young girl, and the family always had Shabbat meals together — Persian for dinner and Yemenite for lunch.
“Long before I won ‘Chopped’ or appeared on ‘Throwdown with Bobby Flay,’ she writes, referring to shows on the Food Network, “before there was cooking school, a husband, a better husband and a couple of kids, before I ever imagined running three restaurants of my own in New York City, there were Friday afternoons with my mother.”
The 8-year-old Admony would be on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor, while her mother would be dashing around the kitchen, chopping, slicing, kneading dough and assembling a Shabbat meal. Then the young girl moved on to sous-chef, standing at her mother’s side and plucking chicken feathers or removing the seeds from pomegranates, learning to cook, not by recipe, but by intuition and guts.
While Admony always cooked, she didn’t expect to make a profession out of it. During her army service as a chauffeur for fighter pilots, she sometimes helped the Yemenite grandmothers who worked in the pilots’ kitchen. Her commanding officer learned of her talent, and when the Israeli Defense Forces chiefs of staff convened at her air base in 1991 to plot strategy as the U.S. was planning to bomb Iraq, she was enlisted to cook the generals a feast. She had three hours and two fighter pilots as sous-chefs; afterwards, she received a standing ovation.
After her army service, she lived in Germany for a few years, traveling and working mostly as a street merchant, and then too, she cooked in whatever house she was living in. When she returned to Israel, she was still unsure what she wanted to do professionally, but decided to enroll at Tadmor Culinary School in Herzliya. After that she worked under the celebrated chef Haim Cohen at his Tel Aviv restaurant Keren, where she met her first husband. Later, in New York, she worked at some of the city’s finest restaurants, including Bolo, Danube, Tabla and Patria, before opening her first restaurant, Taim, a falafel joint in Greenwich Village. Her first marriage didn’t last long, but she is now happily married to the French-born Stefan Nafziger — to whom the book is dedicated — and they work together.
Admony admits that she felt a “twinge of shame” about opening a falafel joint after graduating from Israel’s top cooking school and working with distinguished chefs. The lesson she leaned and shares is, “To succeed, you have to be true to who you are.” After a few years of perfecting Taim, she opened Balaboosta.
For Admony, food and memory are entwined, and she remembers well dishes, tastes and their stories. Her own strongest sense is smell. In the kitchen, she can smell if something is ready, and knows when it’s just on the edge. At the restaurant and at home, presentation is important. “You eat first with your eyes,” she says.
These days, she makes challah with her kids every Friday (her recipe is included) and usually hosts many at her table. For Rosh HaShanah, she’ll also gather guests (and hopes to have fewer than the 43 people she hosted for Passover).
Among her recipes that are particular appropriate for celebrating the New Year, she recommends “Rice Fit for a king,” a Persian dish with jasmine rice, potato, turmeric, carrots, currants and cumin seeds, and “Mom’s Chicken with Pomegranate and Walnuts,” spiced with cumin, turmeric, toasted almonds, pomegranate confiture and saffron. “If for some crazy reason, you manage to live without pomegranate confiture,” she suggests a replacement of pomegranate molasses, pomegranate juice and honey.
Illustrated with color photographs, the book is structured not by course as in most cookbooks, but by the mood of a meal, whether a casual dinner party (Spicy Chicken Tagine, Moroccan Carrots); cooking for kids (bourekas, “chicken littles” — her version of chicken nuggets or, as known in Israel, schnitzel); quick and easy meals (shakshuka, 18-minute rice); comfort foods (her mom’s rice, sufganiyot); romantic dishes (fried olives with labneh, lamb chops with Persian lime sauce); dishes that are best barbecued (herbed meat kababs), slow-cooked recipes (hamin, which is similar to Ashkenazi cholent, and 5,000-Year-Old Eggs, slow-cooked with a teabag); and more, including “Fancy Shmancy,” restaurant-worthy dishes like kanafeh, a pastry made with shredded phyllo dough that she describes as Middle Eastern cheesecake. For home cooks, the 140 recipes are easy to follow. While most are kosher, a few are not, featuring shellfish.
At Balaboosta the kitchen is partially visible, and diners can glimpse Admony, who thrives on pressure, and her staff in action. Shelving along another wall includes cookbooks, antique glass seltzer bottles and black-and-white family photos including her Aunt Chana, who still spends 18 hours a day cooking for her grown kids, grandkids, the mailman and the neighbor in a wheelchair. The cover of the menu features a stunning photo of Admony’s mother Ziona in Israel; she didn’t speak Yiddish, but surely knew the meaning of balaboosta.
Admony says that sometimes strollers on Mulberry Street come in looking for gefilte fish, and she’s sorry to disappoint. Others stop by and ask what “Balaboosta” means, or just enjoy saying it. “I love the name,” she says.
Einat Admony will be speaking about “Balaboosta” at the second event of The Jewish Week’s Literary Summer, “Food For Thought,” on Thursday, Aug. 22 at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 W. 83rd St., Manhattan, along with Kim Kushner, author of “The Modern Menu: Simple, Beautiful, Kosher.” The event is free, but reservations are recommended, firstname.lastname@example.org.