As part of our episode "Hanging Out with Michael Solomonov," we invited the renowned chef of Zahav and co-author of Zahav and Israeli Soul cookbooks to take listener calls with Francis Lam. The callers had questions about cooking eggplant for moussaka, ramenizing noodles, being inspired by black garlic, and what to do with whey leftover from the yogurt making process.
CALLER #1 - COOKING EGGPLANT AND MOUSSAKA
Francis Lam: You want to take some calls with me? I am so excited for this.
Michael Solomonov: Yes. Let's hear from our people.
FL: We have Matthew on from Athens, Ohio. Matthew, what should we talk about?
Caller Matthew: I want to talk about eggplant. More specifically in the context of moussaka. Can I give you a little history?
FL: Yeah. I love history.
CM: Way back in my college days, there was a little diner owned by a Greek couple about a half block from the campus gate, and I discovered the all-encompassing joy of moussaka. I treated myself to that regularly all through college. Then after college, when I met the person I was going to spend my life with, I thought I would make it on my own, and I did a basic recipe. The lamb was terrific and the béchamel topping was terrific, but I could never get my eggplant to the texture of the eggplant in the moussaka that I had discovered at this diner. My eggplant always came out kind of mushy, maybe oily, maybe watery. My first encounter with eggplant in moussaka was that it was tender and buttery and sort of a bread-like texture. I wonder if you know what I'm talking about, and if you can give me any idea for a cooking technique that will get me that kind of a texture. I've tried roasting, grilling, and frying. I even saw a recipe where you put a heavy pan on top while you're pan-roasting it. I'm never happy with the results.
MS: Matthew, I understand your pain. Eggplant is a finicky thing. I was just talking to my partner Steve Cook, who was in Israel recently, and he was like, “I'm not sure what it is, but the eggplant in Israel needs very little.” Here in the United States, the practice in restaurants – and even in the home – is to treat the eggplant; you always have to slice it, salt it, press it, drain it, sometimes rinse it. We brine our eggplant at Zahav. For you, I would try two things. What I would do is slice the eggplant thin and brush it with salt, let it hang out for about a half an hour in a colander and try to squeeze a little bit of the water out of it. And then, from that point, what you can do is brush it with olive oil and roast it so it mimics the lasagna sheets. But if you want it really tender, the weird thing is that if you just pack it in there with the meat and the béchamel and bake it, provided that the eggplant is fresh, it will roast and get creamy in there. It'll steam and roast. I prefer the two-part cooking method when it comes to moussaka. I really like the sear or the sauté, and then the bake; I find that to be better. But if you want the creamy, luscious quality that the eggplant has, I would salt it, squeeze it, and then just pack it in there with the meat and béchamel.
FL: Does the type of eggplant matter?
MS: It does. The problem is that you're at the whim of the grocery store in which you buy the eggplant. Water content, seed content and the composition of fiber really depends on factors that we have no control over, unfortunately. The season matters as well. You're in Ohio, so you're getting California or Mexican eggplant most of the year.
CM: We have a really good farmer's market here and if there's a variety of eggplant I should be looking for, I could ask around.
MS: I think the Italian eggplant is what you want. You're not getting eggplant, though, in the winter and spring, so it’s going to likely be from a grocery store. I would just get comfortable with that and concern myself more with the thickness and the curing of it with the salt, and I would play around with those methods.
CM: And that searing, would you say at high temperature or at medium temperature?
MS: I would say high temperature for a very short period of time. And I understand your love for moussaka, it's really one of my favorite things. My grandmother was Sephardic Bulgarian, so they spent a lot of their time with Ottoman influence in their cooking and they didn't keep kosher, so we always had good moussaka. I think it is a really special thing.
CM: I love it. I used to make it about once a year, usually around Easter or around my birthday in April because I think of lamb as a spring thing.
MS: Definitely. But I also feel like when it gets cold out, it justifies you eating these 4,000 calorie slices of moussaka – and cold for breakfast is the best thing ever.
CM: Really? I don't think I've ever eaten it cold.
MS: Yeah, I mean, that's an American thing. That's not very traditional. [laughs] Do you put cinnamon in your béchamel?
CM: I put cinnamon in the ground lamb and then I top it with a little more cinnamon on the bechamel.
MS: Very important, good to hear.
CM: I'll give it a try.
MS: It's got the seal of approval. Give it a shot, Matthew, let us know how it goes.
CM: I will.
FL: Thanks for the call. Great to talk with you. That was great, I have absolutely nothing to add to that.
MS: I like it when people get intrigued by ethnic food. I know people who grew up in the States, they had a roommate that was from Greece or from Turkey, they taught them how to stretch filo in their college dorm and they'd make fresh baklava all the time. I think it's so cool.
FL: How many eggplants do you go through in your restaurants in a week?
MS: There's not a number for the amount; it's infinite. We go through so much eggplant. We probably go through anywhere between two and three cases a day.
FL: In just Zahav?
MS: Yeah. In just Zahav.
FL: What do you do with them?
MS: Everything. We grill, we roast, we've got this eggplant salad that's twice cooked. We do a baba ganoush. Honestly, we will split an eggplant, brine it in salt water, and then grill it as an entrée; it's probably one of our most popular entrées and it happens to be vegan.
CALLER #2 – MAKING RAMEN AND RAMENIZING YOUR NOODLES
FL: Let’s go to our next caller. We have Kate calling in from Wake, Virginia. Hey, Kate.
Caller Kate: How exciting! How are you? It's so nice to speak with you both.
FL: Thank you. And what should we speak about?
CK: My husband works at a local boarding school. It's an international school. He has a small group of students that are coming to dinner, and two of the students are from China, so obviously far from home. They asked for me to make them ramen, which I said I would do, without having ever made it before. Then I get looking at recipes and started panicking a little bit, as the broth in and of itself is quite a gesture of love. I live in rural Virginia, so getting seaweed is going to be a challenge. But I have time to get down to a city to get the stuff. If you could help me get organized and get my brain around what actually has to happen for it to be good, authentic ramen for these kids so far from home.
FL: This is actually a really big question. I don't know if I can answer every possible scenario. Traditionally, the word ramen, although it has origins in Chinese food – it actually is a transliteration from lo mein – but it's Japanese. So, if they're saying ramen, I'm wondering if they're referring to the Japanese dish ramen, which is not actually the Chinese noodle. They might actually mean they want instant ramen.
CK: No. I mean, that's what the American kids are expecting. [laughs]
FL: I don't know. Because I ate so much instant ramen when I was a kid and it was totally a thing in our family.
CK: Is that right?
FL: Totally. And there are Chinese versions of it with Chinese flavors.
MS: Honestly, the Korean versions of ramen, like Shin Bowl, is one of my favorite things to eat.
MS: It's 104% of your daily sodium allowance, but it is amazing.
FL: And super spicy. Shin Ramyun is the Korean brand.
MS: It's my favorite. I can't tell if it's the chilies or it's the salt burning your esophagus that make it so good, but it's so good.
FL: That's a super delicious one. But, I hate the idea of sending you down the wrong road.
MS: I think it's a really tricky thing to do because I think that, first of all. I find I'm unclear about what it is that these students actually want. Secondly, I think having to recreate anything “authentic,” and not in the right context, is an impossible thing to do. I think that also in rural Virginia, trying to find ingredients that may be even close to what it is that you're going to will be difficult. I would go a different route. I would like chicken noodle soup. I would make something like that. If you want to, alkalinize the noodles. Have you done that recently? Where you basically add baking soda to boiling pasta and it ramenizes them?
FL: Really? I've never done that.
MS: It's the easiest. It's literally adding x amount of baking soda, and sometimes salt, to water. The Ideas in Food people – Alexander Talbot does an amazing version of ramen noodles where it's like spaghetti, or something super basic. I can't remember, but if you just Google Ideas in Food and ramenized noodle and you’ll find it. It's like adding spaghetti or linguine to water that has got baking soda in it and it makes the noodles ramen-esque.
FL: Gives it a chewy texture?
MS: Yes. It’s very awesome. I have a four- and seven-year old that are the pickiest eaters in the world. For some reason, they love Asian noodle soup; that's like one of the four things they like. So, for me to get them to eat chicken noodle soup, I have to treat noodles this way because it's reminiscent of ramen and that's what they trust. What's your favorite soup? What's the iconic soup that you make for yourself?
CK: I love making soup. I love a really good chicken stock with some Asian noodles. We fry the garlic in the oil and it gets all crunchy and toasty, a lot of cilantro, and a handful of this and that.
MS: It sounds like something we want here in this studio and it's probably what the students want.
FL: They'll be pretty psyched about that. Look at that ramenized noodle treatment. Or, like Mike said, serve them something that you feel comfortable making, that you're happy to make and happy to eat, then welcome them into your home and into your world.
CK: That's exactly what I'll do. Thank you so much, both of you, for your help.
MS: I could go for some noodle soup right now.
CALLER #3 – BLACK GARLIC AND BEYOND
Francis Lam: Our next caller is Rachel from Minneapolis.
Caller Rachel: Thanks so much for taking my call. My question is about a technique. I've recently gotten into black garlic; I love it on everything. I recently realized I could make it in my rice cooker. Using the warming setting, for me it's about two weeks until the garlic’s ready. I've been making a lot of it and I thought to myself, “What else can I make using this technique?” So, I thought I'd ask you if there is something else I can be doing in my rice cooker similar to how I'm making black garlic?
FL: This is a great question. I have never made black garlic. I have to say though that this is funny timing because just this morning I was talking to René Redzepi. He has a book called The Noma Guide to Fermentation, which is an incredible book, and there's a whole chapter on black garlic and black other things. So, the very simple answer is go buy the book because they spent all the hours and all of the time to find all the terrible things to blacken in order to find all the delicious ones. Reading through that chapter, you’ll find that you can make shallots the same way you would make black garlic.
Black garlic, for people who don't know about it, is basically garlic that has been left to, I guess not technically ferment, but sort of like cook itself or have this intense enzyme reaction. If you basically leave the garlic hanging out in 140-degree room or in a rice cooker set on the warm setting for a few weeks or even a month, the garlic comes out and it looks black. The cloves are black. They're kind of soft and taffy-like. And they have this intense, delicious, umami, garlic, soy sauce flavor.
MS: Sweet too.
CR: Like caramel.
FL: It's like an incredible caramelized garlic. Like roasted garlic times a thousand. And you can spread it on a piece of roast chicken or mix it with butter and you can do all these crazy, awesome delicious things once you have that thing. You can use that same method and make black shallots, which is like the caramelized onion version of this. And they also methods for doing black apples, which sounds incredible, and black chestnuts.
MS: What if you could do black citrus? We use black limes a lot with Persian cooking, where you dry out citrus. I'm wondering if it would do the sort of the same thing.
FL: Do you know how black limes are made?
MS: You could literally put them in the sun, or in a low temperature over for a very long time. But I imagine it wouldn't be that far off. Black limes and black garlic are both amazing.
I also love, Francis, how you started the conversation by saying, “I was on the phone with Réne Redzepi earlier today.” [laughs] You've been waiting all day to say that!
FL: Alright, Rachel. Have fun blackening things. I would definitely look at that book. Or you can just experiment and know that some experiments go well and some will make you regret it.
CR: I’m not sure about experimenting because I'm concerned about food safety. I'm not a trained chef, so I'm not entirely certain if I'm meeting the proper expectations for experimenting with random food. So, I thought I come to the people who know what they're doing. Thanks for the book recommendation. Take care.
CALLER #4 – COOKING WITH WHEY
FL: We have Katie from St. Louis. Katie, what would you like to talk about?
Caller Katie: I started making homemade Greek yogurt. Every time I do it I use like a gallon of milk, and I end up getting about a quart of acidic whey leftover. I was wondering what I can do with all of this whey that I have. I have been putting some on my plants – rose bushes and azaleas – but they can only take so much.
MS: We make Labneh and yogurt at Zahav, and we always have leftover whey. We brine vegetables in it. It’s so good. You can also poach things like potatoes in there. I don't know if you make ice cream, but it helps sometimes smooth out ice cream bases. Honestly, I use it for fruit smoothies because it’s got all types of good stuff in there.
FL: Tell me about bribing vegetables in whey.
MS: It's cool because you've got acidity and depending on the salt content of what it is that you're making, you've got a little bit of salt in there. You can always add salt and honey to whey and then drop eggplant, zucchini, green vegetables, things that you'd like to roast, and it's awesome. Also, if you get some tomatoes that are a bit underripe, I like to score them and drop them in the whey for like 25 minutes, and they're just delicious.
FL: It pulls in that little bit of tang?
MS: Exactly. That's what you want. Think about it. Whey is like this yogurt-y consommé, right? Cooking oatmeal and other grains with it – so good. And if you want to stew or braise meat, it would also work nicely. I feel like there was that time in the early 2000s where like the French chef Michel Bra came out and he started using whey to poach lobsters and stuff like that. It implies this sort of milk fat and it implies acidity without really having too much of any of it. So, in the same way that buttermilk is used as a crutch to a lot of different things, the yogurt whey does the same thing. Yogurt whey has tons of protein and other really good stuff in it as well. Stone fruit and summer berries also work well with whey.
Also, if you like granitas. I think you could take some sugar – I don't know if I'd use honey necessarily; that would conflict with the texture – and flax with maybe a little bit of agave or some natural sugar, mix it up with the whey, and put it in the freezer. Then every 30 minutes, until it's totally frozen, take it out and shred it up with a fork and you've got something really fresh that you can dump on melons for breakfast.
CK: Wow. That's good idea.
FL: That sounds super great. Also, like weirdly healthy. I hope you got some ideas, Katie. Happy yogurt making!
FL: After you brine the vegetables in whey, do you cook them? Or do you pickle them in the whey?
MS: I like to brine them in the whey and then yank them out and grill them. Roasting is really good to you. I feel like potatoes would make a lot of sense. Like when you do the brandade sort of thing and make potatoes uber savory with anchovies or salt cod. Typically you take the salt cod and you cook it in like milk, but what if it was like potatoes, whey, garlic, and anchovy? I think it would make a lot of sense.
FL: I want to go try that. Maybe cook some potatoes in whey and then whip them. Mike, it's been awesome hanging with you today.
MS: It has been so fun hanging out with you. We have to do this again. It's such a pleasure catching up, bro.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.