I ate my first falafel far, far away from any palm trees. I was standing on the sidewalk alongside Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Mass., next to a truck that fed falafel to Massachusetts Institute of Technology students.
My big brother was letting me tag along while he finished up the semester. I forget the cost – it couldn’t have been $2 – but the taste remains firmly in memory. Soft, warm pita bread around hot, filling ground chickpea fritters brown and crusty with a touch of spice and tangy white sauce I didn’t recognize. I was not ashamed to lick it off my fingers, and get back in line for another falafel.
Before that moment, I would have told you I’d had falafel. But I was wrong. What I’d eaten was, in retrospect, rehydrated falafel powder mix, or mashed canned beans fried in patties.
I later found how different real falafel was when I had a chance to go to Israel. There, I thrilled to the sight of all the free toppings – multi-hued pickles, fried cauliflower and eggplant, hummus and hot sauces – that falafel stand customers were allowed to pack inside their pitas. In the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, fist-sized falafel fritters were offered beside the fragrant ring-shaped sesame bread at every corner.
When I first tried to cook falafel, I was seduced by the illusion of ease. Sure, recipes said, you can used canned beans.
That was a lie. When I tried using canned beans, the fritters flew apart in the bubbling vegetable oil. When I added enough cornstarch to hold them together, I got doughballs.
After talking it over with Oded at Falafel Bar, and reading the falafel cookoff thread on eGullet, I was ready. I bought two pounds of chickpeas and a pound of fava beans, dropped them in a bowl, added a teaspoon of baking soda, and covered them with four inches of water. Then I went to sleep.
Little did I know I had already done the hard part.
The next day, after about 14 hours of soaking, the skins were popping off the fava beans. Later I read that you can get skinned fava beans at Middle Eastern stores, but I pushed these beans out of their skins in about five minutes. Beans that hadn’t softened, I threw out. I left the chickpeas alone.
After that, it was just a matter of grinding batches in the food processor until I found a taste I liked. I mixed-and-matched between parsley, chopped garlic, scallion, white onion, cilantro leaf and stem, ground cumin, cayenne, salt and black pepper. A little baking powder so it puffs a bit.
Here’s what I settled on; adjust it to meet your taste. If you soaked three pounds of beans, as I did, you’ll have enough for about 15 cups of soaked beans, which will make 75 patties. Enough for a few experiments. Or an army.
A proper falafel cooks in three or four minutes. The ground beans form a crust that knits the patty together while the inside cooks through. The result is slightly crunchy on the outside, moist inside, with an undercurrent of green herbs and a lingering wisp of heat from the cayenne.
Try serving these beauties Israeli style, with chopped pickles, zippy, lemony tahini sauce and hot sauce. (Frank’s will work.) I can’t find the right kind of thin, pliable, tender pita bread in these parts, so I use flour tortillas.
3 cups soaked chickpeas and peeled fava beans
1/2 cup chopped cilantro leaf and stem (or parsley)
1/2 cup chopped scallion, white and green
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Grind to a coarse paste. It should be moist enough to hold its shape after being pressed gently, but not so moist it seeps water. Form patties with neat edges about a half inch thick. Heat a half-inch of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, and when hot enough so that a crumb of mix bubbles briskly, drop patties in, in a single layer. Turn when they start to brown. Drain on paper towels. Best eaten while warm; they dry out quickly.
Tarator (tahini sauce)
1 cup tahini (ground sesame paste)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice, fresh if possible, or more to taste
1 teaspoon chopped garlic, or more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin, or more to taste
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)
pinch cayenne (optional)
Place all ingredients except parsley in bowl of food processor or blender, and whip until smooth. Add more water if you like it drippy; add more lemon if you like it zippy. Alternatively, you can mash the garlic with salt in the bottom of a bowl, and whip the tahini with lemon juice and spices. The tahini will seize up and thicken at first, but will relax and dissolve as more liquid is added. Stir in parsley and cayenne, if using.