One of the things I miss most about working in Silicon Valley is the bounty of great ethnic eats served in little strip malls scattered around the south end of the Bay.
Now, if I crave a really good bowl of ramen, say, or a pita filled with crunchy falafel, I have to make a special trip over the hill or figure out how to make my own. I’ve decided to pass on making ramen – the perfect noodle has eluded far better cooks than I. But falafel definitely seemed worth a try this spring when I was stuck indoors on too many cold and rainy days.
While I was at it, I decided I might as well see if I could bake my falafel rather than fry them. It wasn’t only about health, although I should limit fried food in my diet. Truth be told, I just hate cleaning up oil spattered all over the kitchen after I’ve been frying and will go to almost any length to avoid it.
Falafel, it turns out, are pretty easy to make and they bake up beautifully. The flavor changes slightly, but the reduction in oil allows the earthy taste of the beans – whether favas as Egyptians prefer or the chickpeas favored by Iraelis – to shine through.
You do have to plan ahead, since the beans must be soaked overnight. Then they’re quickly ground into a coarse paste in a food processor, spiced with cumin and chile, and shaped into little balls or patties.
I made mine with a Lebanese mixture of favas and chickpeas as recommended in “Artichoke to Za’atar,” by Greg and Lucy Malouf (UC Press, 2008). I found the dried favas at a Middle Eastern grocery in San Jose but noticed later that my local market carries them under the Bob’s Red Mill label. They contribute a fresh, almost herbal flavor to the traditional Middle Eastern street snack.
Chickpeas alone will work fine, however, if that’s all you can find. On the West coast, they’re usually called garbanzos.
To bake the patties, you’ll need to be fairly generous in oiling the baking sheet if you want to get a crisp crust. Any missing crunch will hardly be noticed if you load up the pitas with crisp cucumber and bell peppers along with the tomatoes and tahini sauce.
Grilling on a grid with small holes also works well as long as you keep the patties chilled and brush them liberally with olive oil just before putting them on the fire.
It pleases me no end to know I can have fresh falafel at home now without all the mess.
BAKED FALAFEL RECIPE
¾ cup dried, split fava beans, soaked overnight in 4 cups cold water
½ cup chickpeas, soaked overnight in 4 cups cold water
1 cup fresh cilantro, leaves and stalks
½ cup fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or more, to taste
½ medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 pita breads
½ cup tahini
½ cup plain yogurt
Juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of salt
Paprika or Aleppo pepper
1 seedless cucumber, thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 green bell pepper, cut into slender matchsticks
6 scallions, green and white parts, thinly sliced
Cilantro leaves or shredded lettuce
Harissa or other hot pepper sauce (see Note)
Drain favas and chickpeas. Rinse, dry and place in the work bowl of a food processor with a pinch of salt, cilantro, parsley, coriander, cumin, baking soda, red pepper flakes, onion and garlic. Whirl in processor until mixture forms a rough, sticky paste. It should retain some texture, like fine breadcrumbs. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl and refrigerate for at least half an hour while oven is heating. Mixture can be made up to a day ahead at this point.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Stir together the tahini, yogurt, lemon, and salt to make a smooth, thin sauce. Sprinkle with paprika or Aleppo pepper just before serving.
Generously oil a baking sheet. Using damp hands, shape a heaping tablespoon or so of the batter into a small ball and flatten into a patty about ½-inch thick and 2 inches in diameter. Place on baking sheet and repeat, leaving about an inch between patties, until all the batter is used up. Spray or brush each patty with olive oil and bake for 5 minutes. Bottoms of patties should have turned a nice golden brown and may stick to the pan. Carefully flip patties over with a small metal pancake turner. Bake for 5 minutes more.
Serve falafel stuffed into warmed pita bread. Pass the garnishes, tahini sauce, and hot pepper sauce for diners to add as desired.
Note: Harissa is a fiery pepper sauce from North Africa that can be found at Middle Easter grocers and Cost Plus World Market. Sriracha, the Thai-style chile sauce with a rooster on the label, makes a good substitute.