Picture meatballs made of chickpeas and that’s falafel. In Israel, where our food appreciation classes have lately landed on their virtual world culinary tour, falafel is sold everywhere on the streets–like hot dogs in Manhattan. Typically you find these balls of fried dough stuffed inside a pita pocket and smothered with anything from yogurt and cucumbers to tahini or red cabbage. Falafal shops haven’t caught on in the States in quite the same way. But if you happen to have one in your neighborhood, consider yourself lucky.
Sometimes you can find a manufactured falafel mix in the international section of your supermarket. We prefer to make ours fresh. The only real question is how to approach the chickpeas.
My wife and I like to cook our own chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans). A starchy legume that looks like a tanish pea on steroids, chickpeas take particularly well to drying and re-hydrating. We soak them in a large bowl of water overnight, then boil them until tender. It’s not hard at all. Then there are canned chickpeas already cooked. They certainly are convenient, but the flavor is not as vibrant. And for falafel, we were intrigued to find a recipe in a book titled, “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” that calls for using uncooked chickpeas. They’re soaked overnight, then passed through a meat grinder. That’s the first time I’d ever heard that raw chickpeas were edible. But if you don’t have a meat grinder handy, you’re out of luck.
Once you’ve chosen you’re chickpea method, it’s simply a matter of smashing them up into a dough along with onions, garlic and a few key spices. Cumin and coriander are traditional. But I noticed cardamom in the “Jerusalem” recipe and opted to include it here. Traditional in many Scandinavian baked goods with its ethereal sweetness, cardamom is one of my favorite spices and gives these falafel an exotic lift. But you may certainly consider it optional if you don’t have any cardamom on hand.
Start by draining 1 16-ounce can chickpeas (or an equivalent amount freshly cooked chickpeas) and pouring the legumes into a large mixing bowl. Add 1 medium onion, diced small, along with 3 cloves garlic, minced, and begin smashing the ingredients together with a potato masher. (You could also use a food processor or food mill.) You will have to exert quite a bit of pressure on the chickpeas to turn them into a paste. Add 2 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom and about 1/4 water. Continue mashing until all of the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated and you achieve a thick dough–somewhat like chocolate chip cookie dough and not too sticky. Season with salt to taste and stir in about 1/2 cup coarsely chopped parsley.
Roll 1 heaping tablespoon falafel dough into a ball about the size of a ping-pong ball. Do this quickly so the dough doesn’t stick to your hands. Dip your spoon into water before scooping out the next ball. This will help the dough slide more easily into your hands. Continue this process until all of the dough has been formed into balls–around 18. Now you are ready to fry them.
This is why we love our portable deep-fat fryer. But if you don’t have one, you can make these falafel in a deep skillet or a heavy pot. The usual admonition applies: never fill your cooking vessel more than halfway with oil so that it doesn’t overflow during the cooking process. You’ll want your oil around 350 degrees hot. Children are not allowed near the fryer, and receive a severe warning about the consequences of a hot oil spill.
Cook the falafel in batches until they form a dark brown crust, about 5 minutes. Serve them warm stuffed into slices of pita bread alongside your favorite toppings. For our classes, we made a topping of diced cucumber and yogurt. Remove the seeds from 1/2 cucumber, slice into batons, then into dice. Mix these in a bowl with about 1/2 cup plain yogurt. Season with a splash of white wine vinegar, salt and a generous pinch of ground cumin.
Congratulations! You are now a falafel master.