Enjoying lunch with a good friend this week at one of the many local diners, I ordered a Greek salad consisting of: lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, pepper, kalamata olives, feta cheese and grilled marinated chicken breast. It was a good salad and one of my usual lunch choices — but that salad got me thinking about another favorite food from the Mediterranean: Falafel!
So, taking a departure from my usual reminiscing about Lista’s Italian Cuisine, my family’s Italian-American restaurant — today I wanted to feature this culinary staple from that Middle East/Mediterranean region.
Falafel is not just a popular New York street food, it is one of the most popular foods in the Middle East and a national dish of Israel. I first encountered falafel (and Middle Eastern foods in general) on a trip I took to Israel in 1990. About the second day of my week long tour of the Holy Land, my group stopped in a street market for lunch and I had my first falafel from a cart vendor. I remember the man using a common box cutter to slice the top quarter from a pita pocket and stuff in three walnut sized falafel, followed by “salad” consisting of chopped cucumber, tomato, green pepper, and onion — then a squeeze of tahini (sesame seed paste) sauce, and as requested a squeeze of “charif” (hot sauce)… and finally a handful of french fries stuffed on top. After eating the fries, I got down to business and took my first bite of the falafel and I was instantly hooked on this amazingly delicious regional food.
Most recipes for falafel are made with chickpeas (garbanzo beans) with spices and herbs, however, my favorite local Mediterranean restaurant makes their falafel using chickpeas and fava beans. I wondered about this combination and after doing some research found that due to Favism (a genetic enzyme deficiency found in some people of the Middle East and North Africa) the use of fava beans caused sickness and was mostly discontinued and replaced with the chickpea. This local restaurant also adds sesame seeds to their falafel which I really like for the added texture.
Unlike many other sandwiches or hand-held foods, falafel is one that isn’t generally tried at home. Admittedly, I hadn’t made my own falafel before coming up with the recipe featured here. Most authentic recipes call for dry chick peas that are soaked overnight and then mashed or ground… this seemed too much work to me since there were cans of chick peas in my pantry. Also, falafel is typically deep-fried — and as I’ve mentioned a few other times, I prefer not to deep-fry in my home (it’s messy). So I did a lot of reading and set out to make my home-made falafel with the convenience of canned beans and pan frying. Needless to say I had a few failures before I found the right ingredients and method to make a falafel that taste great and can be made the day I crave it.
That is not to say that making falafel isn’t time and labor intensive, because it can be. But these are a few tricks that I found to help me get really good results. First, I opened two cans of chick peas and drained them in a strainer, then placed them on a paper towel lined platter and allowed them to air-dry for a couple hours (I found this step helps with the texture of the finished product). Next, I got all my other ingredients out and put them close at hand (as the French say, “mis en place” — everything in its place). Finally, when I cooked the falafel I used a six inch frying pan with about 1/2 inch of oil to shallow fry them in batches. I chose to use canola oil for frying and I used a one ounce cookie scoop to portion the falafel — which I flattened slightly into disks that were roughly 1 1/2 inches across and 3/4 inch high.
[Please note that this recipe is not vegan since the recipe includes an egg to help keep the falafel together — the recipe also calls for some flour but I used King Arthur Gluten Free All Purpose flour with great results.]
I served the falafel with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion — and topped them with tahini sauce and charif sauce (see below). The results were delicious and we ate every last one.
Prep time: 30 minutes + 1-2 hours air-drying chick peas
Cook time: 30-40 minutes
Makes: 16-20 depending on size
1 1/2 cans Chick Peas (about 2 cups) – drained & air-dried
1 cup Loosely Packed Fresh Parsley (stems removed)
1/2 cup Yellow Onion – roughly chopped
2-3 cloves Fresh Garlic – roughly chopped
2 TBSP Sesame Seeds (optional)
2 TBSP All Purpose Flour (regular or Gluten Free)
1 Whole Egg
1 tsp Ground Cumin
1 tsp Ground Coriander
1/2 tsp Baking Soda
1/4 tsp Cayenne Pepper
1/4 tsp Salt (or to taste)
Oil for Frying – as needed
1. Drain the chick peas and spread about 2 cups on a paper towel lined platter/tray and allow to air-dry for 1-2 hours.
2. Meanwhile chop onion, garlic and parsley and add to the bowl of a food processor – pulse until finely chopped (scraping bowl as needed). Empty into a mixing bowl.
3. Add sesame seeds, flour, egg, cumin, coriander, baking soda, cayenne and salt to parsley/onion mixture and combine thoroughly. Set aside.
4. Add 1/2 the chick peas to food processor and pulse until finely ground but not a paste. Add to mixing bowl. Pulse remaining chick peas until coarsely ground (for texture) and add to mixing bowl. Mix ingredients together until everything becomes cohesive (sticks together). Place in refrigerator until ready to pan fry.
5. In a small (6 inch) frying pan, heat about 1/2 inch of oil (I used Canola) over med-high heat until shimmering.
NOTE: at this point you need to test the mixture by frying one falafel first — if it starts to fall apart in oil then add 1-2 more TBSP flour to mixture and try again.
6. Using approx. 2 TBSP falafel mixture, form 16 to 20 walnut sized balls. Gently place 4-5 balls into hot oil and flatten slightly with a fork into disks about 1 1/2 inches round by 3/4 inch thick. Allow to fry undisturbed for 5 minutes and turn over and fry for another 3 minutes. Falafel should be dark brown and crispy outside. Continue frying falafel in batches and drain on paper towel lined plate.
7. Serve falafel in warm pita pockets with lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion. Drizzled with tahini sauce and/or charif (hot) sauce. Enjoy!
To make Tahini Sauce: In a small bowl whisk together 1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste) with 1/4 cup water, 2 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp olive oil, and a pinch of salt.
To make Charif (hot) Sauce: In a blender combine a can of diced tomatoes (drained), 1/4 cup vinegar, 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 cloves garlic, 1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp salt, and 1 or 2 tsp cayenne pepper. Blend until smooth.
There you have it, my version of Falafel that I think taste wonderful and are fairly quick and easy to prepare. These are good stuffed into a pita for the traditional street food experience, or on top of a simple Mediterranean style salad, or as an appetizer served with dipping sauce (tahini sauce, charif sauce, tzatziki (yogurt sauce) or even ranch dressing). With a little patience and practice I think you’ll find great results from these recipes.
Until next time remember, “The Sauce Makes the Difference!”