Helen: Hmm, Pita. Well, I don’t know about food from the Middle East. Isn’t that whole area a little iffy?
Hostess: [laughs] Hey, I’m no geographer. You and I — why don’t we call it pocket bread, huh?
Maude: [reading the ingredients list] Umm, what’s tahini?
Hostess: Flavor sauce.
Edna: And falafel?
Hostess: Crunch patties.
Courtesy The Simpsons Archive.
For this (mostly) vegetarian, the second Project Food Blog challenge actually posed several small challenges. It’s called, “The Classics,” and it asks, “Any food blogger worth their salt can make a classic dish sing, but can they go outside their comfort zone and tackle a foreign cusine?”
One problem was that most cultures’ emblematic dishes are meat-based, and I wanted to remain as faithful to whatever recipe I chose as possible. Also, I live in…the boonies. Flyover country. BFE. While it’s possible to source many unusual ingredients, it can become very time-consuming driving across several counties to charming hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop shops and whoa, is that a Vietnamese market?
*shakes head* Okay, I’m back now. So anyway, one thing we don’t have in Project Food Blog is time.
how to decide?
I agonized. I researched world cuisines to see what unfamiliar cultures made. It was mainly meat, or used ingredients I wouldn’t be able to source out here on the Prairie Farm.
I toyed with the idea of baking a country’s signature dessert. As much as it appealed to me, it seemed too easy, too comfortable — I really enjoy baking.
I should have just lied and baked something.
Friends and family were helpful. Do empanadas. Remember how we ate empanadas at that little restaurant at Ground Zero on our vacation. Do pasties, a Yooper classic by way of Cornwall. Do gyoza. There was a definite meal-in-a-pocket theme.
Well, they tried.
I made a spreadsheet. I listed the candidates. I scored them on originality, authenticity, photogenic-ness. Shush. I know I’m a geek.
I wanted a good story. All my food stories seemed so pedestrian, boring, common.
ding ding ding
Throughout it all, I kept telling my friends and family about Middle Eastern food. How, in Chicago, I had literally six Middle Eastern restaurants and three Middle Eastern bakeries within a two-block radius of my apartment. A light supper on the way home from work was stopping at one of the bakeries after getting off the el and picking up a few spinach-and-feta pies or a falafel sandwich.
Whenever people came to visit, I took them to the Middle Eastern restaurants, especially Andie’s after it expanded and remodeled, because they could eat meat to their heart’s content and I could get falafel, eggplant mousaka, couscous, and more.
In some restaurants, the owners greeted us by name. One had a traditional seating area with pillows on the floor and hookahs you could try. Friends and I would stumble to one or another restaurant after an evening out for an appetizer and a nightcap, or make it the start of an evening.
Falafel was so ubiquitous, so cheap, and so readily available that I had no need or reason to learn how to make it. I lived in falafel heaven.
Then, of course, I moved to BFE. The nearest falafel was 30 miles away. Sadface.
In the end, after all this agonizing, falafel was the clear choice. My pedestrian, boring, common meal wasn’t so common for me any longer, so might not others find it unique as well? What’s normal to me would surely be new to…someone at least.
Besides, it was incredibly daunting. Grinding chickpeas? Deep-frying? I don’t deep fry! How the hell was I going to make those little balls stick together? Definitely out of my comfort zone.
the falafel recipes
Things I quickly learned in my search for falafel recipes:
1. Falafel is made from uncooked, soaked chickpeas. Canned beans will not do. It’s possible to make a facsimile of falafel with canned beans, but they are so wet that one has to add a lot of binder (flour or potato) to get them to stick together, rendering falafel-style hush puppies.
2. Egyptians make falafel with a combination of chickpeas and fava beans, or sometimes with all fava beans. I made mine with chickpeas only.
3. There are as many recipes for falafel as there are falafel shops in Chicago.
In the name of science, I tried two falafel recipes. One by Mark Bittman, who admittedly I often have trouble with, and one by a charming crazy Iraqi named Moti.
The nice thing about falafel is, it can all be mixed up in a food processor. The traditional, and preferred method is to use a meat grinder, but who has one of those lying around?
Oh, me. I do. No, I used a food processor instead. That thing up there? It weighs a ton!
They were both good recipes. The recipe here is my mishmash between the two.
can you quick soak beans for falafel?
One forum post said you could get away with quick soaking the beans (Bring to a boil, then remove from heat, cover and sit for an hour).
Two other sites said the slow soak was the only way and quick soaking would ruin the beans/falafel.
What’s the verdict? I made the Mark Bittman falafel using quick-soaked beans. Moti falafel was made using overnight-soaked beans. Both came out great.
So, yes, Virginia, you can quick soak garbanzo beans for falafel. Yay!
In the end, falafel is quite easy, as long as you have a deep fryer and plan to make it a day ahead of time (or are prepared to spend the time doing a quick soak). The worst part is making the balls themselves. They’re very messy and crumbly and you worry they will fall apart. Every other part of the recipe, though, is a breeze. I hope you try them sometime!
I’ve also included a recipe for
flavor tahini sauce for the sandwich. Tahini itself is just a nut butter — it’s like peanut butter, but with sesame seeds. If you add some lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper, and yogurt if you like to tahini, and thin it with some water, you have a great dip or nutty mayonnaise substitute.
falafel (crunch patties)
prep: 12–24 hours (5 minutes active time)
active time: 1 hour
special equipment: food processor
1 cup dry chickpeas
1 small onion or ½ large onion, quartered
5 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground cayenne (hot) pepper, or to taste (both recipes had more than this)
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
1½ teaspoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup flour, either garbanzo flour or all-purpose flour (optional; use garbanzo for gluten-free)
oil for frying
A day ahead:
Put chickpeas in a bowl and cover with 2–3 inches of water. Let soak overnight, the longer the better, up to 24 hours. Check periodically to see if you need to add more water.
Now to mix up the falafel!
Heat oil in a deep pot or deep fryer to 375°. While the oil is heating, mix up the falafel.
Drain the soaked chickpeas. You’ll have about 2 cups.
Put them in the bowl of the food processor, along with the onion, garlic, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, cayenne, parsley, cilantro, lemon juice and soda. I tried one version without lemon juice and the boy thought something was missing. Grind and mix by pulsing, stopping once in a while to scrape down the sides. You don’t have to stop very often; I found that everything was mixing pretty uniformly on its own. Just make sure not to mush everything up completely. The beans should be in small niblety chunks, like sprinkles. Mmm, sprinkles.
Now, you could stop right here if you wanted to for the most pure falafel. If you’d like a little bit of help binding things together, add the flour and stir or pulse it all together. To be honest, I didn’t find the flour to help all that much to make the raw falafel feel like it held together better, but it did allow me to make bigger balls that held together, so I do suppose it helps.
If you don’t want to make the falafel right away, you could refrigerate the mixture for up to a day. Moti says that refrigerating at least 2 hours helps the falafel stick together better. I tried this and found it to behave the same whether fresh-mixed or whether chilled.
Now for the messy part!
Take a tablespoonfull of the falafel mix and make a ball of falafel in your hand. It will not want to stick together. I’m warning you right now. Just keep squeezing and pressing and molding for a few seconds and quickly you’ll have a ball that’s just holding together. Set this in the pan or in the deep fry basket. I used a Fry Baby and it made things so much easier. You will get lots of falafel bits sticking to your hands. Make several ping pong- to golf-sized balls, and fry for 2–3 minutes. Remove from oil and set on cutting board or paper towels.
tahini sauce (flavor sauce)
½ cup tahini
½ cup plain yogurt (omit for vegan sauce; it’s still wonderful)
juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, mashed
salt and pepper to taste
Whisk together tahini, yogurt, lemon juice, and garlic. This mixture will be quite thick. Thin with water to desired consistency, or don’t thin at all if you don’t want to! Add salt and pepper to taste. Use as a dipping sauce, or in place of mayonnaise, or as a spread in falafel sandwiches.
To make a falafel sandwich from a thick pita, spread the inside of a pita with tahini sauce. Place 3 or however many balls you want of falafel in the pocket. Add sliced or diced tomato, cucumber, pickled turnip or pickled vegetables, lettuce, sliced sweet red pepper, and/or whatever sandwich fixins you enjoy. With thin pitas, roll like a burrito.
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