NEW YORK — Just before lunch service begins at Balaboosta, one of New York’s many Israeli restaurants, chef Einat Admony sits down at one of the venue’s round tables to flip through her latest cookbook, “Shuk.”
“I want to show you this chapter,” she says, turning the pages rapidly. “Here, this is exactly what we are talking about.” She locates Chapter 3, page 85, and points to the headline: “Cauliflower and Eggplant: our vegetable heroes.”
“Vegetable heroes are things you’ll find in every Israeli restaurant,” she explains. “There is no Israeli restaurant that doesn’t work with cauliflower.”
All three of Admony’s restaurants — the falafel chain Taim; Balaboosta; and her couscous joint Kish-Kash — sport cauliflower-centered dishes on their menus. “It’s a vegetable that you can do a lot of things with,” she says. “Americans used to hate cauliflower. I remember that over the 10 years that I have been doing cauliflower at Balaboosta, I got dozens and dozens of people saying ‘I hated cauliflower until I tried yours.’
“It smells like a fart, it’s strong and it’s not tasty on its own,” she adds. “But give it a little love, a little different treatment and you change this vegetable drastically — it becomes something completely different.”
Admony grew up in Bnei Brak, a heavily ultra-Orthodox city just outside of Tel Aviv, and went to culinary school in Israel. She has been at the forefront of the Israeli food scene in New York for some 15 years. Although she initially had dreams of fine dining, the first place she opened, in 2005, was Taim [Hebrew for “tasty”], a hole-in-the-wall, five-chair falafel spot in the West Village. Today it has become a chain that recently expanded outside of New York, opening its first Washington location down the coast.
Balaboosta, her second restaurant, opened in Nolita in 2010, but switched to the West Village last year. There, Admony says, she likes to showcase a variety of ways to make cauliflower. “Every few weeks I’m changing my cauliflower,” she says. “You have to know how to take these ingredients and elevate them in a way that will tempt people.”
Currently, Balaboosta offers Admony’s famous Bamba cauliflower, a dish born in another one of her restaurants — the now shuttered Bar Bolonat. Standing by the frying station of the kitchen, she grabs a handful of cauliflower florets and dips them into glossy white rice flour batter, coating them so generously that their original shape becomes difficult to discern. The dainty pieces are then deep fried. When they emerge from their hot oil bath a few minutes later, they have turned a golden brown.
Admony then tosses the pieces into a large bowl, adding seasoning and lemon zest. She carefully places the florets on an oval ceramic plate with blue flowers, and tops them with her homemade peanut tahini sauce. And then comes the final touch: a sprinkle of crushed Bamba, the beloved Israeli snack. The result is a rich, crunchy bite that becomes as addictive as a bag of popcorn at the movie theater, but with a Middle Eastern kick.
“The cauliflower I grew up on was fried, like schnitzel,” she tells Haaretz. “And there was always tahini at home — my mom used to make tahini next to the cauliflower.”
Admony’s new book doesn’t overlook the vegetable, either. It has at least four cauliflower recipes in it: the Bamba version; a roasted one with lemon garlic and parsley; a whole cauliflower “buried in Embers”; and spice-crusted grilled cauliflower “steaks” (slabs of the whole vegetable).
The new kale
It is hard to find an Israeli restaurant in New York that doesn’t serve cauliflower. But many other non-Israeli chefs have been giving cauliflower some love in recent years, too. “It’s the trendiest, hottest vegetable,” says food writer and entrepreneur Jeffrey Yoskowitz. “Maybe 10 or 12 years ago it was kale, then it was brussels sprouts and now it’s cauliflower.”
He explains that like kale and brussels sprouts, cauliflower is part of the Brassica family of vegetables (also known as mustards). It also includes cabbage and broccoli, which Yoskowitz says “never quite had this moment.”
“It has a creaminess and meatiness to it,” he says of the humble cauliflower. “It can caramelize as it browns, and when you add seasoning it can take on these flavors really nicely.” Yoskowitz attributes its popularity to its “mellow” taste, which makes it “incredibly versatile” and “very open to flavor.”
Israeli chefs, he adds, have had a key role in helping push the vegetable forward as Israeli food started trending in New York. “And it coincides so nicely with the sort of plant-focused, vegetable-forward outlook that so much of the North American food scene has been taking,” he says. “It all seems to be coming together so nicely, and now cauliflower finds itself at the center of the party.”
Yoskowitz also points out that cauliflower has assumed a functional role for gluten-free and other low-carb diets. Supermarkets in the United States now sell bags of “riced cauliflower,” a side dish alternative to rice, and some pizza restaurants have even introduced cauliflower crusts to satisfy the cravings of customers with celiac disease. “You could have cauliflower in so many different aspects of the meal,” says Yoskowitz. That’s how “the cauliflower has remained an important dish whereas kale has faded.”
The ‘King of Cauliflower’
It would be difficult to talk about cauliflower without mentioning Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani. His World Famous Baby Cauliflower, as the dish is called on the menu of his Miznon restaurants, has captivated diners and food critics worldwide, earning him the title “King of Cauliflower.”
Since he opened his first New York eatery in January 2018, local food sites and publications have raved about the dish: a cauliflower that fits in one hand, boiled, smeared with olive oil, and then oven roasted in its green leaves with a dash of sea salt, served wrapped in parchment paper.
Although he is credited for much of the cauliflower craze, sitting at his Miznon North restaurant on the Upper West Side, Shani admits the idea wasn’t originally his but that of his business partner, Shahar Segal. “One day he invited me for lunch at his house,” recounts Shani. “I get there and I ask him, ‘What did you make?’ He answered nonchalantly: ‘Open the oven.’”
“I open the oven. I see a whole golden cauliflower standing there like a crown that belongs in the Kingdom of Heaven or something,” he recalls. “I look at it and my heart starts pounding. And in that moment I understand everything: I understand that I’m not the guy who found this. I understand that if I was given another two weeks, I would have come up with it — I was very close to finding it. But Shahar was the first to do this, and I felt tremendous jealousy.”
But Shani also understood in that moment that although Segal had invented the dish, he didn’t know “how to put a period at the end of this sentence” — how to give it the final touches needed to take it beyond “beginner’s luck” to something that can be replicated for a restaurant. “It’s the eternal question of who is the inventor: the person who created something, or the one who put the period?” he asks rhetorically. “I think the person who put the period and says ‘Eureka!’ is the inventor.”
The baby cauliflower used by Shani is not commonly sold in grocery stores. It is harvested after about only three months in the field. “If you add two more weeks you get something double in size,” he explains. “So for the industry it’s more lucrative to wait.” Shani’s cauliflowers are especially harvested at their smaller size at a local farm. In Israel, he buys about 17,000 cauliflowers a month from a farmer who produces them for his restaurants, where it is an extremely popular dish.
In the kitchen of Miznon North, Shani unwraps the cauliflowers carefully and places them in a tank of boiling water for about 7 minutes, enough time for them to soften without breaking apart. When they come out, the cauliflowers are dried — and then comes the most challenging step: oiling.
“If you put too little oil you are basically putting a dry product into the oven, and when the heat touches a dry product it gets these bad smells — like a fishiness,” explains Shani. “If you put too much oil, you’ll fry it.”
So what is the exact amount of oil to put on a baby cauliflower? Shani says the answer is still unknown. “If you use a bottle to drizzle it, or a brush, it doesn’t get to the right amount of oil,” he says. “But I realized that my cooks, when we started doing this, they make an unnecessary movement on the cauliflower: They hug it with their hands — a sort of display of affection to the cauliflower like you would do to a dog or a cat or even a baby.”
Shani massages the olive oil into the cauliflower with a gentle hugging touch, much like serum is meant to be applied to the skin. According to him, people have a natural instinct for knowing exactly how much olive oil to leave on their hands at the end of the process.
The roasting takes place in a bread oven at a very high temperature, until the baby vegetable is slightly burnt on the surface. Although it looks rough from the outside, the dish can be easily dug into with a spoon and the texture is surprisingly buttery.
A vegetable alternative to meat
“Frankly, I spent a lot of time in Israel over the years and until Eyal Shani and Miznon kind of made this whole roasted cauliflower into this whole trend, I don’t remember cauliflower being that pervasive,” Yoskowitz says. According to him, Shani’s cauliflower has a “wow factor” that makes it special: “There is something so shocking about seeing a whole head of cauliflower roasted and cooked this way. It’s beautiful, it’s stunning. Eyal Shani, if anything, understands the theatrical nature, the drama of eating.”
“Getting a whole head of roasted cauliflower, it makes it feel like you’re eating something substantial, you’re not just eating a vegetable side,” he adds. “It makes it something that is a centerpiece of your meal.”
For Shani, the cauliflower is nothing less than an animal. “The first understanding I had was that the cauliflower resembles a head, a brain,” he says. “It’s like I’m selling the head of an animal without having killed one: It’s a win-win.”
He expands on his theory: “When a woman sits at a table and eats or serves food, she behaves very differently than a man who eats or serves food. Women are very generous at the table: They divide their food between friends or family. With men, you don’t see this generosity. You see it in only one situation: when a chunk of meat arrives to the table.
“Then, the man begins to divide it between the people. It’s about control, about ego. But I noticed that when I put a whole cauliflower on the table, the man gets up and cuts it up for his friends: He treats it like meat. To me, that was the biggest win.”
“There is also something about cutting up vegetables that are served to you whole that also feels more like you’re eating a meat entrée,” adds Yoskowitz. “There is an element of bringing in the experience of eating meat, and vegetable-forward chefs are really trying to think about that without having to resort to the fake meat alternative.”
Yoskowitz believes the cauliflower has “transformed how we think of vegetables; it really makes us take vegetables more seriously. I think that’s what Shani really accomplished, that’s the greatest impact he’s had.”
Shani’s cauliflower and the use of the vegetable by many Israeli chefs in New York has been warmly received by restaurant goers and food critics alike. In fact, every day Shani receives countless direct messages on Instagram from people who send him pictures of their homemade versions of the dish. “I knew it was a universal language,” he says with a smile.