Tuesday, February 5, 2008

When recipes fail: falafel

When I want to make a classic dish, I often start with a single recipe, or with two or three that I amalgamate into a single plan of action. Then I make changes. I replace refined flour and sugar with whole wheat flour and evaporated cane juice. I often add vegetables. If I already know how, or want a challenge, I make the called-for prepared items from scratch. When I have adapted the recipe to my satisfaction, and it has been received with sufficient enthusiasm, I document my process.

Ideally, anyway. Some of our most reliable recipes are written in my programmer-boyfriend's shorthand on a spiral-bound book of index cards, in no particular order. Last night I wanted to make falafel, forgot that the tried-and-true recipe was in this book, and instead used a recipe out of a cookbook, Pita the Great. (We have many cookbooks with groan-worthy titles. Most of them are Kevin's.) This recipe called for cooked chickpeas instead of dried, soaked beans. I knew this wasn't the method I used the last time I wanted to make falafel, but the cookbook in question was one that specialized in pitas and things that go on or in them, so I figured they'd know from falafel. For my naïve trust, I was rewarded with a pot full of oily, crisp bean sludge. I baked the remaining croquettes, with passable results.

To its credit, Pita the Great's tips on baking pita, and the recipe for tomato-onion salad, were both good, although even excellent tips weren't enough to save my pitas from pocketlessness this time: I have only my dough-rolling skills and possibly a sub-optimal oven temperature to blame. There are a lot of tomato-onion salad and pitas left over, so for lunch today I made salmon croquettes, which Andy and I ate with the salad and pitas.
Here is the One True Recipe (at our house, anyway) for falafel.


Makes about 6 servings

1 ½ cups dried chickpeas
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cumin
1 ½ tsp coriander
1 whole onion
4 cloves of garlic
10 sprigs of parsley
several cranks of fresh ground black pepper
2-3 cups of canola oil (or other oil suitable for high-heat frying)

Soak the chickpeas overnight in plenty of water. Drain and pick over the beans. In a food processor, puree the chickpeas, soda, salt, spices, onion, garlic, and parsley.

NOTE: My food processor bowl will hold a quart, but will not process this correctly if I put all the ingredients in at once. I processed it in two batches.

NOTE: The mixture will turn green from the parsley. If this freaks you out, don't put the parsley in the food processor. You can just process the beans, soda, salt, and spices, and finely dice the onion, garlic, and parsley (or just the parsley), then add them to the processed bean mixture.

Heat the oil in a deep, heavy pot. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about two inches in diameter, then press each ball to flatten it into a patty about an inch thick. When the oil is very hot, fry the patties in the oil until they are dark brown: this takes just a few minutes. Flip each patty to fry the other side, then remove to a paper towel-covered cooling rack to drain.

At the table, put two falafel into an opened pita, top with tomato-onion salad, and eat as a sandwich. Tahini sauce and sliced cucumbers are also good with this. In the winter, I steam vegetables to eat with this, and in the summer I serve it with a green salad.

Tomato-Onion Salad

Adapted from Pita the Great, by Virginia T. Habeeb.

Makes about 3 cups.

4 medium tomatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch wedges
4 scallions, sliced
1/4 of a medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
At least 12 sprigs of cilantro, leaves and tender parts of the stems only, finely minced
4 sprigs of spearmint, leaves only, finely minced
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon
1-2 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper (2-3 cranks)

Combine the tomatoes, scallions, onion, and herbs in a bowl.
Press or mince the garlic, then use a fork to mash the garlic and salt into a paste.
Beat together the oil, lemon juice, garlic paste, and pepper.
Pour the oil mixture over the vegetables and herbs and toss lightly.
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