I don’t think I ate my first falafel until I was in my forties….late thirties at the earliest, and after hearing a great deal of hoo-ha over the years as to the joys of falafel, I must admit that my first experience left me flat. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what got people so excited about the little things, as mine were dry and as bland as sawdust on the inside, slick and oily on their surface, and presented with day-old chopped veggies and a REALLY bitter tahini sauce….ugh.
Growing up in Vermont as a kid, I never even heard the word falafel, let alone have any knowledge of what they were. I was probably in college when I saw my first one, and I remember thinking that it was some sort of meatball when I first laid eyes on it. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when I finally learned that it was basically just a little veggie patty. Remember, I’m of Italian descent, meatballs make so much more sense to me. To my way of thinking, falafel was to a meatball, what a veggie burger was to a juicy, 80% lean ground sirloin grilled hunk of deliciousness….you can keep the former, I’ll take the latter thank you very much.
It wasn’t until I married a woman with Lebanese blood flowing through her veins that I was finally in a position to try a well made falafel, and I haven’t been the same since. When well crafted, they truly are a culinary marvel, packed with flavor, soft and moist on the inside, with a crisp outer shell, served with crunchy pickled turnips or creamy cabbage slaw, chopped fresh tomatoes and greens, some harissa and a garlic-lemon tahini sauce….what can be better? These days I find myself actively searching out good falafel joints wherever we go.
You may find this odd, but even for our trip to Paris I had identified a top falafel spot to try, one that is so well known that it shows up in all the city’s food guides, the legendary L’as du Fallafel in the Marais. Sadly, my most significant logistical FAIL of the trip occurred because I had scheduled our trip to the Marais neighborhood for a Saturday, THE ONE DAY OF THE WEEK WHEN L’AS DU FALLAFEL IS CLOSED…MERDE! After considerable kvetching, gritting of teeth, and kicking of self, I promised that we’d get back to the neighborhood sometime again before the end of our trip, but it was not to be. Tough lesson learned, next time I’ll know better.
And so it was that I returned home determined to learn how to make my own falafel. I shouldn’t feel that I need to fly across the Atlantic to sink my teeth into a “legendary” vegetarian sandwich, I mean, it’s a SANDWICH for crying out loud….I gotta be able to do this!
As I believe the best way to learn a new cuisine is to practice at the side of a master, I enlisted the help of my father-in-law George to teach me the finer points of falafel manufacture. Always anxious to roll up his sleeves and play in the kitchen, we set a date for about a week after we returned from our trip. He showed up at the appointed time, apron on and well-worn cookbook in hand, and we had ourselves a go at making falafel. We played with the patty recipe a little, most significantly by substituting a bunch of fresh cilantro for the fresh parsley called for (a no-brainer as far as we are concerned), and George delighted at making the tahini sauce in a heavy old marble mortar and pestle that I bought in Provence.
We had great fun that day, not only making delicious falafel, but also one of his all-time favorite dishes, an “ancient” soup of Egyptian origin called “Malloukhia”, or as George likes to call it “THE BIG M”. While the Malloukhia recipe is fodder for another blog post, I will tell you that it’s main ingredient, a dried leafy green of the same name, looks like it’s been laying around since the days of the pharaohs, so “ancient” it very well may be.
I can’t tell you that our falafel were as good as we would have had in Paris, I’ll have to wait until I can get back to the Marais and taste at L’as du Fallafel in person before I make that bold of a claim. What I can tell you is that George (who’s eaten more than a few falafel in his day) says that these were the best he’s ever had, and I can state unequivocally, that these were awfully stinkin’ good, and not at all hard to make.
We cooked them in batches of 6-8 per, and I will fess to the fact that a few of them came out over-done (such as the ones in the photo above…DOH! The properly cooked ones were eaten so quickly I never had a chance to photograph them). The best were just cooked through, still the bright-green of cilantro inside, and with a dark-brown (not brown-black) outer shell. Take care not to over-cook these babies, and you will be rewarded with a healthy treat that the whole family will enjoy. Making the “dough” and forming the patties is something easily accomplished by the young cooks in your household, though you may want to manage the frying yourself if you’re working with little ones.
Serve solo with the tahini sauce as a snack, as a side to some grilled meat, or wrapped in a flat bread with pickled turnips or cabbage slaw, chopped tomatoes and greens, harissa and tahini sauce….oh, and if your eating them like this as a sandwich, don’t forget a bib.
Falafel with Tahini Sauce
for the tahini sauce
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup tahini (sesame paste)
- 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
- water (if needed to thin the sauce)
for the falafel
- 1/2 pound whole, dried fava beans, soaked overnight in cold water
- 1/2 pound whole, dried chick peas, soaked overnight in cold water
- 3 cloved of garlic, crushed
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
- 4 scallions, finely chopped (green and white parts)
- 1 jalapeno (or other hot pepper), finely minced
- 1 tablespoon baking soda
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup, finely chopped and packed, fresh cilantro
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- olive oil for frying
for the falafel
- Smash garlic cloves and place in a mortar and pestle with the salt (alternatively you can do this with the back of a spoon in a bowl), crush together to form a smooth paste. Add in the tahini and lemon juice and mix until well incorporated. Add water if needed to loosen the sauce (it should be nice and thick, but still pourable).
- Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or lemon if needed, reserve.
for the falafel
- Drain the beans and chick peas and rinse them well in cold water. Put the beans and peas into the hopper of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and pulsing, roughly grind them. Add the remaining falafel ingredients, and process to resemble a grainy paste, scraping down the inside of the work bowl as necessary. Transfer the mix to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit about an hour to rest.
- Take about 2 tablespoons worth of the mix (I used a small ice cream scoop that I use for measuring cookie dough and it was perfect), and shape into a ball, place on a non-stick cookie sheet and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. each patty should be 1 1/2" to 2 " in size. Allow the patties to rest an additional 15 minutes.
- Heat the olive oil to 350℉ in a medium sized, heavy bottom pan (I used a le creuset enameled cast-iron pot). Make sure the pot is wide enough to hold 6-8 falafel in a batch, and that the oil only fills the pot to 1/3 - 1/2 full. When the oil is hot enough, gently place 6-8 falafel in the pot and cook for 2-3 minutes per side, checking your thermometer and working to maintain a 350℉ temperature during cooking. The falafel are ready when a deep brown on both sides. Remove to a paper-towel covered sheet tray to drain before serving.