Kidding aside, there’s no doubt that enjoying the cuisine in whatever land you’re visiting is a big part of the vacation experience, but for those of us staycationing this summer, dining on foreign cuisine is as easy as heading out to your favorite ethnic restaurant, of which Orange County is blessed with many. And with the plethora of cookbooks, cooking TV shows and internet recipe sites available today, cooking Italian, Chinese, Indian, French, German, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Thai, Mediterranean, and yes, even Israeli, itself a multi-cultural mash-up, has transformed ethnic cooking into the great mosaic we think of as American cuisine.
According to Food Network’s cooking sensation and esteemed restaurateur Bobby Flay, Tel Aviv native Einat Admony, chef-owner of New York’s Taïm Falafel and Smoothie Bar restaurant, is the queen of falafel. And he should know. He was once her boss at his Spanish-styled restaurant Bolo. In fact, Admony’s crunchy fried chickpea street food once won New York magazine’s coveted “Best Falafel” title. So when Flay decided to challenge Admony to a throwdown on his Food Network show of the same name, he knew he was in for some serious competition. The story of this battle of the falafel is memorialized in “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown!” (Clarkson Potter, $27.50), which offers more than 100 recipes from the winners and losers with their back-stories.
For falafel advice Flay consulted chef Muhammed Rahman of Kwik Meal, a famed street cart in New York City, who advised him to soak the chickpeas overnight rather than cooking them and then to grind them with the spices. “Form and deep-fry—check. It sounded easy enough,” he writes, “Right? Wrong!”
In the test kitchen Flay found grinding the soaked chickpeas in a meat grinder produced fluffier falafel than with a food processor. He seasoned with garlic, serrano chiles, mint, cilantro, coriander and cumin and added a little baking powder, a trick he thought of as cheating, to increase the fluffiness. And drawing from his success with French fries, he double-fried the falafels. For dips and sauces, he presented a piquillo pepper-smoked paprika yogurt sauce as well as a creamy white bean hummus, tomato-mint relish and a feta and roasted red pepper dip.
When Flay and Admony met for the throwdown, he asked her for her honest opinion of his. “She liked the flavor, but not the texture,” recalled Flay. “The problem, she told me, was that I formed my falafel by hand, which automatically made them on the dense side. She had a special instrument to mold her falafel, making them as light as a feather.”
Flay was shocked when the judges preferred his version. “It’s not that we didn’t think our falafel was good,” he said, “but we knew it wasn’t great, and Einat’s was.” So Flay did something he had never done on the show before or since—he awarded Admony the win. “Winning or losing is honestly not important to me on “Throwdown!” The show is more about showcasing the great food of my competitors and sometimes stepping outside of my comfort zone to learn new dishes.”
David Greco of Mike’s Deli in the Bronx had a tough fight against Flay when “Throwdown!” pitted the two for an eggplant Parmesan battle. According to Flay, Greco’s version of the dish is the pride of the Bronx’s Little Italy. He uses homemade mozzarella from his grandmother’s cherished recipe, and the legendary dish is even served at Yankee Stadium. Flay had his work cut out for him.
“There are three major components to think about when making great eggplant Parmesan,” Flay reflected, “the cheese, the tomato sauce—which has to have good flavor yet not be overpowering—and, of course, the eggplant, which can be bland, bitter and chewy if not cooked right.” Flay boosted his sauce with roasted red peppers and used a blend of cheeses: fontina, two mozzarellas and Romano. He decided to cut the eggplant thick and leave the skin on, which Greco called a “big no-no in Italian cooking.” When Flay tasted the competition he was smitten. “I adored his thin layers of eggplant, his savory sauce, and especially his creamy homemade mozzarella. It was obvious that this man had been making this dish for years.” The judging was close, but in the end Greco won the match.
“It was pretty scary taking my eggplant Parmesan up to Arthur Avenue, because not only was I going up against David, I was going up against years and years of Italian tradition. That is where good food comes from: tradition, love and family—and that is what David’s dish is all about.”
Einat Admony’s Falafel
Serve falafels in pita with chopped cucumber and tomato, fresh parsley and yogurt.
2 cups dried chickpeas
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
2 fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Vegetable oil, for deep drying
1 Put chickpeas in large bowl, add water to cover by about 2 inches, and refrigerate overnight.
2 The next morning, drain chickpeas and toss with onion and garlic. Run mixture through medium blade of meat grinder. Toss chickpea mixture with parsley, cilantro, mint, salt, pepper, cumin and coriander and run through grinder again.
3 Heat 4 inches oil to 350˚F in large pot over medium heat. Using a tablespoon, shape falafel mixture into balls and fry, adjusting heat as necessary, until browned, about 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Mike’s Deli Famous Eggplant Parmigiana
6 large eggs
1 heaping cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups Italian-seasoned dry breadcrumbs
2 eggplants (about 2 pounds total), peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick lengthwise
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup olive oil
4 cups Arthur Avenue Italian Deli Marinara (available online) or your favorite tomato sauce
1 pound mozzarella, thinly sliced
1 Preheat over to 350˚F.
2 Beat eggs with 1 tablespoon Pecorino and the parsley in large bowl or baking dish. Season with salt and pepper. Put flour in another baking dish and breadcrumbs in a third. Coat both sides of eggplant slices with flour, then egg mixture, then breadcrumbs.
3 Heat vegetable and olive oils in 1 or 2 large straight-sided skillets over medium heat until oil begins to shimmer. Fry eggplant, in batches, until golden brown on both sides, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to paper-towel-lined plate or wire rack to drain.
4 Spread a little marinara sauce in bottom of 10×15-inch baking dish. Add layer of eggplant, 1/3 remaining sauce, 1/3 mozzarella, 1/3 remaining Pecorino. Repeat layers up to top of dish. Top off with sauce, mozzarella and Pecorino—a little heavier than preceding layers. Bake on rimmed baking sheet until top is lightly crisp, 25-30 minutes. Rest 10 minutes before serving.
Source: “Bobby Flay’s Throwdown!” by Bobby Flay with Stephanie Banyas and Miriam Garron
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.