Photographer: J.B. Forbes/TNS
I spent half of one youthful summer in the Middle East, working on an archaeological dig. Most weekends I went into the nearby town and gorged myself on the falafel sold by a local street vendor.
I learned two important lessons that summer. One was that the nitty-gritty part of archaeology absolutely bored me stiff and I needed to end any romantic dreams I had of choosing it for a career.
And the other was that falafel was absolutely amazing.
I’d had it before, but this was better. Maybe it was because I was in the part of the world where it was born. Maybe it was because the guy I was buying it from happened to make exceptionally good falafel.
Maybe it was because street food always tastes better on the street.
Falafel are balls of spiced chickpeas that are fried and stuffed into pita with tomatoes and pickles, and drizzled with a condiment. It sounds pretty straightforward, but there are a thousand different variations.
The first source of alternative recipes is the part about spiced chickpeas. For one, in certain parts of the Middle East, fava beans are used in place of or mixed in with the chickpeas.
But of more concern are the spices. When I make falafel, I stick to the basics: chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley and cumin (which maybe isn’t exactly basic, but it blends well with the chickpeas).
The other part of falafel that is subject to innumerable variations is the condiments with which it is served.
In America, we tend to use just one, tahini. But in the Land of Falafel, each falafel stand offers at least a half-dozen sauces to go in your pita. I remember particularly a bright red hot sauce, which I now know was harissa, and z’hug, the famous green hot sauce. This has a similar level of heat to harissa (I used serrano peppers, which are hot without being ridiculous), but a completely different flavour. Harissa is round and warm; z’hug is fresh and bright.
Falafel? They’re more like fal-awesome.
1 cup dried chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, or 2 (151/2-ounce) cans
1/2 large onion, roughly chopped, about 1 cup
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 to 6 tablespoons flour
Oil for frying
1. If using dried chickpeas, put in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover by at least 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then drain. If using canned chickpeas, rinse and drain.
2. Place the drained, uncooked chickpeas and the onions in the bowl of a food processor. Add the parsley, salt, garlic and cumin. Process until blended, but not puréed.
3. Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons of the flour, and pulse. Add more flour, if necessary. You want to add enough flour so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn out into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.
4. Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts.
5. Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep pot or wok and fry 1 ball to test. If it falls apart, add a little flour. Then fry about 6 balls at once for 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden brown (the temperature of the oil will drop). Drain on paper towels.
6. To serve in the traditional manner, stuff half a pita with the balls and add chopped tomatoes, diced sweet onion, diced green pepper, pickled turnips and a sauce made from tahini thinned with water. Or add pickled cucumber or sauerkraut, or such sauces as harissa or z’hug.
4 ounces dried hot red New Mexican chili peppers (about 18), stems removed
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
7 to 8 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
1. Soak the peppers in warm water until soft; drain and squeeze out any excess water. Place in food processor with 1/4 cup of the oil, garlic, cumin, coriander and salt, and process until it forms a thick purée. Place in a jar, pour on the remaining olive oil, cover and refrigerate.
2. Let it sit for a few days before using for best results. Top with more olive oil after each use. This sauce also goes well with grilled meat.
4 ounces fresh green serrano or jalapeño peppers, stems removed
1 whole head garlic, each clove peeled
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, rinsed and dried
1/2 cup fresh parsley, rinsed and dried
1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, or 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 green cardamom pods, peeled
3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 cup olive oil, plus additional to cover
1. Place peppers with the garlic, cilantro, parsley, peppercorns, cumin, cardamom and salt to taste in the bowl of a food processor. Chop until almost puréed, then add 1/4 cup oil and purée.
2. Remove to a glass jar and just cover with additional olive oil. The z’hug will keep for several months, covered in an airtight jar, in the refrigerator.
QUICKLES (QUICK PICKLES)
2 pounds cucumbers (small is best, but not necessary)
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 teaspoon dill seed
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 1/4 teaspoons pickling or kosher salt
1. Wash cucumbers and cut into spears or coins. Small cucumbers may be kept whole.
2. Into an impeccably clean jar, place garlic, dill and red pepper flakes. Pack the cucumbers into the jar; trim the ends of spears if they will stand taller than 1/2 inch below the jar’s rim.
3. In a small saucepan, heat together vinegar, water and salt to a rolling boil. Pour liquid over cucumbers, leaving a little room at the top. Close jars and refrigerate. They will be ready to serve by the time they are chilled, and will stay fresh for several weeks.
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