Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Foodie Freak: Falafel

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My wife and I joke that our house is bugged with hidden microphones or video cameras, because many times I’ll say that “blank” is going to be the next big thing, and then in the not so distant future, it is.


Other times I have written about a specific food of some sort and within weeks there is a television show about the very same product. I’ll call out, “Honey, Alton Brown won’t stop copying me!”


As an example, a few years ago I tried everything to get seeds for a Caribbean culinary herb called culantro and couldn’t find them anywhere. Now numerous seed catalogs have them. Now, I am not so egotistical that I think it was my numerous requests that made culantro easy to find in the United States, but rather it was the growing popularity of Caribbean cuisine across the country.


But then again, when circumstances like this keep happening to me over and over, it does make me wonder. I know that the world doesn’t hang on my every word, and I’m hoping that the house isn’t really bugged (Shhh! Don’t tell them that I know!). It’s just that I watch for food trends and search out new ingredients, and since other people are doing the same thing we sometimes end up in the same place.


My latest prediction is that Middle Eastern food is going to become very popular. I’m not going very far out on a limb on this one since most of the food magazines are already starting to feature Middle

Eastern foods regularly.


There are lots of Americans over in that area of the world right now who may very well develop a liking for the food and will want it when they return home. This generally happens after a war, when service men and women return from a region the cuisine from that region experiences a surge in popularity here at home.


I had hoped that Middle Eastern food would give me several new vegetarian foods that my daughter would like, but no such luck. She’s rejected nearly everything as “too spicy.” I thought my final saving grace would be falafel, and personally, I love it.


Falafel is made of mashed garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), onions and spices which are formed into balls, deep fried, then stuffed in a pita. It is very flavorful, has a nice crunchy exterior, and is vegan. Falafel is the consummate Middle Eastern sandwich.


Raw dried garbanzo beans store very well, especially in dry climates, so they would naturally be popular in the Middle East. This is the standard form of garbanzos used in falafel in Middle Eastern homes.


Here in America people use canned garbanzos more often, but it is said that since the canning process cooks the beans it changes the texture of the final product.


I have only been cooking falafel at home for a few years, and while I do notice a difference from pre-packaged and fresh made, I haven’t been able to detect the difference between using canned versus dried beans. Cooked canned, raw dried and pre-packaged falafel mix are all available locally.


I, of course, couldn’t just use the packaged mix; no, I needed to make it from scratch. So I experimented with all sorts of recipes using both dried and canned garbanzo beans.


One recipe from a best-selling cookbook actually didn’t work at all and the falafel balls would disintegrate immediately upon entry into the oil. I couldn’t figure out why this had happened since (for once) I followed the recipe to the letter. After a little research I found this disintegration was a common complaint for many recipes.


Some sources recommended that an egg be added to the rest of the mix and try again. I didn’t want to settle for that (the dish would no longer be vegan) and so I tried various changes to my method. I tried tightly packing the balls and loosely packing the balls and found that both disintegrated. Obviously

it was the recipe.


I finally found that the reason for the disintegration was because the falafel mix was too moist. Your falafel mix can become too wet from too many onions or over-processing the mix. That is the main purpose of the flour in the recipe: to dry up the mix.


If the mixture is much too wet the balls will disintegrate immediately upon dropping them into the hot oil. If the balls just crack the mix is just slightly too wet. If they stay perfectly formed the mix is just right. The reason my instructions have you heating your oil after you make the mix is to allow some time to let the flour absorb any moisture in the mix.


If you are interested in trying falafel but don't want to jump in with both feet, the pre-packaged “just add water and cook” stuff you find in the rice and beans area of your grocery store is actually pretty good. It has a slightly grainier texture than making it from scratch, but it still isn’t bad. One Middle Eastern cookbook I have actually recommends using this pre-packaged product and focused on the condiments and serving.


Originally an Egyptian dish made out of fava beans, falafel was most likely created by early Coptic Christians in Egypt for eating during meatless holidays like Lent. Eventually it was adopted by almost every Middle Eastern nation that then developed their own version of it. Some regions and cultures still use the fava beans, alone or in a combination with garbanzos.


Israel adopted chickpea falafel as a way to “fit in” to the area at the end of the Diaspora when the nation started to form. Now it is considered their national dish. This of course caused a problem. The Palestinians claim that their recipe was stolen by the Jews.


Today, falafel is sold as a street food in pita sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, hummus and sesame seed based tahini sauce, not only in Israel but throughout the Middle East. Sometimes called “the hot dog of the Middle East,” they are also eaten plain or crumbled on salads.


Recipes for falafel are pretty standardized with only small changes occurring from place to place. For instance parsley is a standard ingredient but is sometimes substituted with or accompanied by cilantro in some recipes. I like to add green onion tops, personally. Cumin, coriander, and red pepper flakes are the standard spices.


Shapes even are different depending on region or use. The most common shape for falafel is in ping pong-sized balls. Some recipes call for the balls to be flattened into disks, sometimes as thin as a pancake.


They are then deep fried, typically in olive oil. Although it may seem blasphemous I like falafel with yogurt based Greek Tziziki sauce in a pita with the other usual condiments. I find adding hummus a little redundant (hummus is also made from garbanzo beans), like putting ketchup on a tomato.


Older and more authentic recipes call for removing the fine skin from the beans and mashing the garbanzos instead of using the food processor. I tried it, but it was just too difficult and too labor-intensive to even finish that method so I ran right back to the food processor.


And just a fair word of warning: if you’ve never had falafel, to put it delicately it is a “bean” based product, which may have certain side effects. I sound like I’m playing a trombone after eating it.


Lastly, if you want another prediction of what I see in the future of cooking … culinary centrifuges. You just watch, in 10 years max, they'll be all the rage with chefs everywhere.


Did the microphones get that?



Falafel

1 cup dried chickpeas or one 16 ounce can, drained

1/2 large onion, roughly chopped (about 1/2 cup)

1 ½ tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 ½ tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon green onion tops, chopped

3 cloves garlic, smashed

1 teaspoon cumin, ground

½ teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes (up to a teaspoon can be used if you like it hot)

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 to 6 tablespoons flour (I use a garbanzo/fava flour but plain white flour is fine)

Oil for deep frying (at least three inches deep with at least four inches from the top of the oil to the top of the pot you are using)


Note: If using dried garbanzos you will need to rehydrate them overnight in a large bowl covered with at least two inches of water.


Add all of the ingredients except the flour and the oil to your food processor and blend thoroughly; be sure you don’t overly mix into a paste. The finished product should look slightly grainy but roll nicely into balls. Add flour little bits at a time if you need to dry out the dough at all. After adding the flour you should have a dough-like texture.


Now, Heat the oil to 350 degrees


Roll the mixture into balls about the size of ping pong balls (smaller is OK, but larger won’t work out as well). Carefully drop each ball into the oil. I use a spoon to lower the balls into the oil and fry them until they are darker than golden brown, but not dark brown. They should float at that stage. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and let drain for a minute on paper towels, then serve.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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