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Falafels from Scratch
A vegetarian newly arrived in any major city quickly sniffs out the decent falafel shops. It's really one of the only meals you can pick up and enjoy on the go with little advance planning. And I do mean enjoy. It's not about the chickpeas—it's about the onion, lemon, parsley and spices. Of course, the chickpeas are the vehicle that delivers all that flavour to your mouth, and there would be no falafels without them, but the other ingredients are what make you go mmmmmmm. The chickpeas also contribute some good, quality vegan protein, which is never a bad thing.
I've been trying to get this falafel recipe right for a good chunk of the summer. The experiments have been augmented by fact-finding missions to local falafel establishments (including surreptitious recording of deep-frying times). Here's what I've learned so far.
First, your tahini sauce is ridiculously important to the whole effort, and its thickness is a very important quality. The last thing you want is to slave over beautifully handmade falafels only to have them drown in a weak, watery sauce. You want a sauce that's thick enough to stick to whatever it touches. The technique for making thick tahini sauce is pretty simple—once you learn it, you'll never go back.
Here's something I learned the hard way: although you might think the falafels will turn out more creamy and delicious if you use cooked chickpeas, what you actually get is a disintegrating mess in your deep fryer that threatens to overflow and destroy your kitchen. The right way to prepare the chickpeas is to soak them overnight and grind them up without precooking them. Resist any temptation to soften them in the slowcooker first. Too late for me, I saw this informative video, which shows exactly what happens when you deep fry falafels when the chickpeas aren't raw. Don't let it happen to you.
Yet another thing from the school of hard knocks is that you really want a proper deep fryer—trying to make these in a wok or pan, although certainly doable, leads to fumbling around with a thermometer, on-the-fly temperature adjustment, and inconsistent results. Much better to let the fryer take care of maintaining a constant temperature. They're very good at it.
A final thing I learned the hard way is the importance of doing the dishes while you're making the falafels. The processed chickpeas will weld themselves to anything after any length of time sitting—food processor parts, spoons, countertops, you name it. It's best to have the sink full of water when you start making them.
Falafels are tricky and you should allow for the possibility of a bit of a learning curve. I've read a lot of recipes online, and while the basic ingredients are similar from recipe to recipe, the proportions change, as do the little nuances of grinding, shaping and cooking. One of the really common themes in these recipes is a warning about avoiding over-processing the falafel mixture. It's a little tricky to get the consistency right. You'll commonly see "wet breadcrumbs" as the description of the desired result. If you process too much, you'll get a paste resembling hummus, and that leads to heavy, lifeless falafels. Another important step is the shaping. I initially made the mistake of making golf-ball sized, completely round falafel balls. While they looked pretty, they were too big for effective frying—the result was overcooked on the outside and undercooked on the inside. What I like is slightly flattened, oblong falafels. I seem to get the most uniform cooking that way and the frying only takes about two minutes.
Of course, the most common way to serve falafels is in fresh, thin pita bread with tabouleh, tomatoes, raw onions, tahini sauce and a little hot sauce. Delicious for sure, but I've been cutting mine in half and putting them in salad. The tahini sauce works really nicely with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. I throw in some kalamata olives for variety. The fact that I'm eating a crisp cool salad also distracts me from the fact that falafels are a relatively unhealthy deep-fried comfort food. It's all about balance.
One recipe's worth of Thick Tahini Sauce
1 1/2 cups dry chickpeas
1/2 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
3 Tbl parsley
2 Tbl lemon juice
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
Soak the chickpeas overnight in a large bowl of water in the fridge.
On falafel making day, start by making the tahini sauce. Put it in the fridge to chill.
Add the falafel ingredients to a food processor. It may be necessary to process some of the chickpeas separately, depending on how big the food processor is. The desired consistency is "wet breadcrumbs." Be careful not to overprocess. Stop frequently to scrape down the sides with a wooden spoon to ensure an even mixture.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it rest in the fridge for a couple of hours.
When you're ready to make the falafels, heat the deep fryer to 350°F. I found a small scoop at a dollar store that scoops up roughly a heaping tablespoon of mixture, which I then gently shape in my hand to be slightly flat and oblong.
Cook six falafel balls at a time for about 2 minutes.
The result should be medium brown and crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.
Serve as desired. I like them in salad with the tahini sauce drizzled on top.
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Posted: Saturday, October 17, 2015