Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Falafel? More like FalAWESOME!

Being a vegetarian in 21st century America is probably a much different beast than in years and cultures past. If you miss hamburgers you can get something made of chemicals and bits of soy nearly identical to the real thing. Vegan but love cheese? Have some more soy that defies all logic by approximating real dairy goodness. Want some Kung Pao chicken, but without the dead bird in it? You can do that, but (spoiler alert) it's also made of soy.

Not that there's anything wrong with that! I love edamame, tofu, and even the processed stuff, but at a certain point you have to ask yourself, "Should I REALLY be eating this much soy?" Especially with the scary reports of GMO and Round-Up Ready soy strains crossing into the non-GMO population even when you do buy organic.

Luckily there are lots of veggie-friendly cuisines out there that branch out a little. Like most middle eastern food which, instead of being almost entirely soy, is almost entirely chickpeas! And boy do I love chickpeas. For several years now I've been trying to figure out how to make that classic vegetarian dish from the middle east - Falafel!

Personally, I love falafel. My husband loves falafel. Most sane and rational people love falafel. My kids, on the other hand, took one bite and said, "OF COURSE IT'S BAD, "AWFUL" IS RIGHT THERE IN THE NAME!" And after that falafel became the ultimate super villian around here. Not just at meal time, but in their play - "The Evil Dr. Whatever turns all your food into falafel. OHHHH NOOOOOO!" etc. The antidote for this was for someone to turn the food into "fal-awesome" instead. But now that I've finally gotten the technique down, two out of three kids will eat it. The third will probably puke it out on the table, but that's still pretty good odds in this house.

You can buy a box of mix, and that's pretty good (to me; that's what the kids hated so much), but it's nothing like the nice green, fragrant falafel you get at a good restaurant. You can try all the recipes on the internet that start with a can of chickpeas, but I've never had one turn out quite right. And even when you find a good recipe that starts with soaked dried chickpeas, the instructions often leave out one of the most important steps to ensure that the falafel doesn't just fall apart as soon as it hits the oil. But finally, after much trial and error, I have mastered falafel!

The best recipe I found came from food writer/cookbook author Mark Bittman, who is a great source for recipes of all sorts, but particularly vegetarian ones. His recipe can be found here, and it's a great starting point for anyone who likes a mild flavored falafel. When I followed the recipe initially I thought they were a bit lacking in flavor (for my taste! I like things bold!), and they did what most falafel do - fall apart as soon as they hit the oil. But the flavor was so much better than the previous few experiments that we were satisfied to just eat the batter pan fried in a large pancake-like thing that we ate as wedges; similar to cornbread. In the next attempt, I figured out what I needed to do. So here is my PERFECT falafel recipe:

Falafel (or Fal-Awesome if You're Trying to Feed it to Kids)

  • 1 bag dried chickpeas
  • 10 cloves garlic, peeled (or just however many are in a whole head, I don't believe there's any such thing as too much garlic)
  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 3 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder (again, I just really like garlic)
  • 1 cup chopped parsley
  • 1 bunch green onions, ends trimmed 
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice
  • oil for frying
  • 1. Soak beans overnight if you remember. 8 hours is really long enough, but more certainly doesn't hurt. 
  • 2. Drain and rinse beans. I always find bean-soaking water to be a bit too funky to use for anything. Transfer them to a food processor.  Add all of the other ingredients, starting with only half the salt and lemon juice so you can adjust the flavor as needed.  Blend it all together; it will be a bit grainy, not smooth like hummus since the chickpeas aren't cooked. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  You could really play around with any spices you like.  Anything you'd put in a dhal or curry would probably taste great. 
  • 3. Spray a cookie sheet small enough to fit in your freezer with cooking spray (or use parchment or a silpat). Shape the mixture into balls about 1 1/4" in diameter, or the size of a meatball. I just scoop out a glob with a teaspoon and then roll it between my palms to give it the right shape. This recipe will probably make three dozen falafel balls at least, so you might need a couple of cookie sheets. When you fill one, put it in the freezer for at least 15 minutes before moving to the next step. You can leave them much longer before they will actually freeze, so you could do this a couple of hours in advance.
  • 4. Heat oil in a pot or fryer to 350 degrees. An electric fryer with a thermostat will make this a million times easier.  Drop falafel, three or four at a time, into the hot oil. If it's deep enough to cover, cook them for 3 or four minutes until deep brown on the outside, and cooked through inside. If they aren't submerged, turn them about halfway through to make sure they cook evenly. 
  • 5. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

You can serve these with whatever other middle eastern dishes you like,  but my favorite way is to eat them on a home made whole wheat pita with hummus, tabbouleh, Israeli salad, maybe some lettuce or balela if we have beans in the freezer. Which sounds like a lot of work, but the nice thing is that all you have to do is chop onion, parsley, tomato, and cucumber and then you can pretty much throw all of that together pretty fast.

Oh, and don't forget the sriracha! Is it traditional? Probably not. Does it make everything better? Obviously. 

Since this recipe makes a lot, you can freeze them and have falafel ready for a quick lunch anytime. I've tried both freezing the dough balls and freezing the cooked falafel. Personally I prefer the latter. Freezing the dough and then frying it when ready made them drier and not as tasty. If you pop a couple of the frozen cooked falafel in the microwave for 30 seconds you can barely tell the difference from fresh. Which makes me wonder, in this veggie burger, soy cheese world, why doesn't anyone make frozen falafel?

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