Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everyone Wants a Piece of Falafel

Falafel is kind of a beloved sore spot in the pervasive Palestinian/Israeli culture war. 2005's Oscar-winning short film, the comedic musical West Bank Story imagines the feuding parties of its source material as competing falafel joints: the Jewish-run Kosher King and the Arab-run Hummus Hut. When Larissa Sansour and Oreet Ashery, British-based artists of, respectively, Palestinian and Israeli origin, put together a project to examine the Israeli adoption of Palestinian culture and where the line between adoption and appropriation lies, they conducted it through interviews in London falafel restaurants and named it Falafel Road.

In fact, taking it back a step, you could probably teach an engaging and fairly comprehensive course in the history of the Middle East based entirely on the chick pea. Although some archaeologists speculate that the legume in question was first tamed by people living in northern India, the oldest archaeological evidence of cultivated chick peas comes from Tell El-Kerkh, in Syria, which date to the late 10th millenium BCE. The oldest evidence of the chick pea in Israeli/Palestinian territory dates to only about 1500 years after that (still over 10,000 years ago), at a site near Jericho in the West Bank.

However one might wish to, you can't infer falafel from the presence of chick peas, and foods like that don't preserve as well over time as dry beans (partially because that would require leftovers). So we'll skip ahead just a little to another important event in the history of falafel: the foundation of the state of Israel in the mid-20th century. A large influx of people and a shortage of meat pushed cheap protein like beans to the forefront for everyone in the region. Joan Nathan, author of Foods of Israel Today credits the contemporary, chick pea-based form of falafel to Yemeni Jews. Nathan claims that local falafel recipes in the pre-Israeli period tended towards a blend of chick pea and fava bean (also called broad
bean), as do many Lebanese falafel recipes. The local push away from fava beans, she argues, came as a result of Kurdish and Iraqi Jewish immigrants, many of whom suffered from favism, a serious, genetically-based enzyme deficiency that makes fava bean consumption (among other things) cause severe anemia. Local Palestinians claim that the only change to falafel is the Israeli flag on a toothpick stuck in it. Aziz Shihab, the Palestinian-American author of the cookbook A Taste of Palestine, wrote to a falafel-slinging Israeli restaurant in the States, "This is my mother's food, this is my grandfather's food. What do you mean you're serving it as your food?" Interestingly, yet a third claim on the provenance of falafel maintains that it was developed by Coptic Christians in Egypt for Lent, during which many Christians traditionally abstain from eating meat. Egyptian falafel, which they usually call tamiyya, is typically made entirely from fava beans rather than chick peas. Susan Molthen, executive chef of Bay Area Egyptian restaurant Al-Masri says, "Every region, city or country in the Middle East has it, but it's all derivative; they put their own spices and flavors into it."

I'm not going to try to make any conclusive claims about who originally invented the falafel; food is an artistic pursuit that demands an essential tension between the established and the subtly innovative and at the same time is a projection of culture deeply tied up in people's sense of identity. The truth is that it belongs to all of these people, but that their attachment to it doesn't make it belong to the others any less. It's yours if you make it, too, but significantly more so if you start with a bag of chick peas than if you start with a box of falafel mix. Because all of the many claimants can agree about that being an abomination.

The process isn't hard, given a little forethought and a food processor; it requires overnight soaking of dry chick peas (or at least several hours), but the process from there amounts to throwing everything in the food processor and buzzing it into a grainy paste, rolling it into balls and, finally, frying them. Deep-frying is traditional, but you can squash them into patties and pan-fry, too. Beyond that, all it requires are a few accoutrements: flatbread, fresh vegetables and tahini sauce. I also included some pickled radish after reading a number of recipes that suggested pickled vegetables, most commonly mango or turnip. Additionally, you can freeze the mixture uncooked, after rolling it into portioned balls: lay raw falafel on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper or plastic wrap, cover lightly and freeze until the falafel is frozen enough to hold its shape. Transfer to a freezer bag, then pull out a couple at a time as you want them.


vegan, optionally gluten/grain-free
makes 15-20 falafel
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked
  • ½ large onion or 1 small onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
  • ¼ c. rough-chopped fresh parsley (a small handful)
  • ¼ c. rough-chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 4-6 Tblsp bulgur* (optional)
  • oil for frying (I fry in ½-1" peanut or canola oil in a cast iron skillet on med. high heat)
  • *Gluten/grain-free advisory: Bulgur is a wheat product. It adds a really nice texture and is nominally there to aid in binding the falafel, but many traditional recipes are totally grain free, so feel free to omit this if you don't eat it or simply don't have it.

To soak the chick peas, you can either set them up the night before or start an hour or two before you want to serve. Put the chick peas in a large bowl or pot and cover with 2-3 inches of water. You can let them sit overnight or bring them to a boil for 2-3 minutes, turn them off and wait an hour or two. I've gotten better results with the overnight soak, but the expedited soak works fine if you decide you need to eat falafel today and give a far better result than canned, cooked chick peas.

Drain and rinse chick peas, prep ingredients as indicated and grind in food processor to a grainy paste. Roll into balls about 1½ in. in diameter (may require squeezing to hold together). Heat oil in pan over med-high heat until a little water sizzles and pops aggressively and put as many balls of falafel as you can at one time into the pan. I typically use my smaller, 8" cast iron skillet to do this. It fits 8 or 9 at a time, as they can be pretty close together, and uses up a lot less oil than do the larger pans I usually think of first. Fry until deep brown on one side, then turn. Drain on newspaper or paper towel. You can also put in just enough oil to coat the bottom, flatten the balls a little and fry them that way. It's not quite the same, but somewhat more practical if you're only frying up enough for one or two people.

The Sides

yogurt-tahini sauce:

  • 1 c plain greek yogurt (used 2% milkfat)
  • 1/4 c. tahini
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 T lemon juice
  • 5-6 mint leaves, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 c. water

Tahini Sauce:

  • 1/4 c. tahini
  • Zest & Juice of 1 lemon (or 3-4 Tblsp. bottled lemon juice)
  • 1/4. c. water
  • 1/2 tsp. Salt
  • optional:
  • ½ tsp. hot smoked paprika
Both of these also make great vegetable dips. In fact, it's worth cutting up some extra veggies and putting them out with the sauce for diners to munch on while they're waiting for their falafel.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

This Bread Repels Hurricanes

In the days leading up to the northern landfall of Hurricane Sandy, we were put on high alert. Around here, it didn't end up exceeding a rainy day in March back home on the hill in Vermont (which still entails 40+ mph wind gusts), but given the several unprecedented qualities of the storm, particularly its size, it seemed unignorable. I suspect many locals were dragged into the memories of the storm exactly a year previous that dumped a foot of wet snow and left folks (including us) out of power for days or weeks. We prepared for this storm to make up for how we didn't prepare for that one. Perhaps, looking at those less than a hundred miles south of us who were out of power for over a week and those within 200 miles that are still suffering the effects, it was wiser to over-prepare. The governor pre-emptively declared a state of emergency and asked all schools to stay closed on Monday. So we did.

What else do you do with a day off and the thought that you could be out of power (and thus unable to cook) for a few days, but make sturdy bread? This bread starts with a multigrain porridge, adds a variety of seeds from sunflower to cumin and just enough flour to give the dough enough body to make a loaf. The loaf is dense; it lacks the well-developed gluten structure to create the large, irregular air pockets typical of artisan bread. However, this denseness also means that the bread takes a longer time to go stale, and not just because it's harder to tell. Moreover, the density of grains and seeds in a slice mean that it's also more nutritionally dense and satisfying. If you're going to be eating the same loaf of bread for a week because your stove doesn't work, this is a pretty good one to be stuck with.

We didn't end up losing power for more than two minutes during the day, but, then again, I was happy to have this bread for the week with electricity. The bread is good with just peanut butter, jam or cheese, but it's at its best toasted.

This is less of a recipe and more of a general schema; I don't know that I've ever made this exactly the same way twice. I used to make it more frequently when I used to eat multigrain porridge more regularly. Ironically, that very folksy food became less practical for daily consumption and slipped off the menu after I ditched the microwave (or, more specifically, stopped living with the roommate that had one). The combinations of grains and flours depends on what I have and what I feel like at the time. Common features are brown rice, steel-cut oats, buckwheat, barley and wheat berries. I also have a multigrain hot cereal blend with flaxseed from the bulk section at the co-op that I top things off with.

Breads containing intact or cracked whole grains typically start with a soaker. A soaker is slightly different from a hot cereal: instead of cooking the grains with water, you pour boiling water over them and let them sit for several hours or overnight. This softens the grains so that you don't end up cracking your teeth on them, but leaves their shape largely intact. It also helps activate some of the enzymes that break down the complex sugars in the grain to simpler ones, making for a more flavorful bread. Cooking the grains all the way lets you cram even more of them in, as the water in the cereal makes for most of the water of this very wet dough. By weight, this dough has more water than flour. A typical sandwich bread dough has about 60% as much water as flour by weight. A baguette has 70-75% as much water as flour. This has about 110% as much water as flour (though I'm not the first do acknowledge that breads containing whole or cracked grains make for uncannily wet baker's percentages). A well-hydrated dough also makes for a boldly crusty bread.

Like many good bread recipes, this one takes a lot of time start to finish, but very little active time. It makes it an excellent project for a rainy day, or, as it were, for a rainy and windy one.

Bonus: Get Pumped up to Bake!

The bread that French baker Vincent Talleu is making in his video is completely different from this one, but he exhibits such joy in baking that it makes a good watch to get you all pumped up to make bread of any kind.

Porridge Bread

vegan, makes two moderately-sized loaves or one very large loaf


  • 4 c. cooked grain (1 c. dry grain : 3 c. water)
  • 1 Tblsp. whole cumin
  • 1 Tblsp. whole caraway
  • 1 c. nuts & seeds
  • 1 Tblsp. kosher salt
  • Sponge:

  • 1 c. water
  • 1 Tblsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 c. flour
  • The Rest:

  • approx. 6 c. mixed flours
Begin by cooking the grain. Take a cup measure and fill it with whatever whole/cracked grains you have available. In this batch, I have teff, short-grain brown rice, farro, barley and a multigrain hot cereal including flax seed. Put it in a large saucepan (at least 2 qt) and add 3 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then turn to low and cook for another 20 minutes or so. If you're doing this the night before, you can bring to a boil and then simply turn off the heat and ignore it until the next day. If you're doing this same day, after cooking let the grain cool enough to touch (2-4 hours, though you could speed this up by putting it in the fridge and stirring occasionally). It can be warmer than room temperature, but shouldn't feel hot, as this could kill the yeast.

When you're ready to actually make the dough, start a sponge. The sponge is the wake up call for the sleeping yeast. Put a cup of lukewarm water in a large mixing bowl (this will accommodate your whole dough later) and add in the yeast and one cup of all-purpose or bread flour. Mix with a wooden spoon until it has a smooth, consistent texture. Set aside until it starts getting bubbly, about 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, get out your cup measure again and fill it up with a blend of nuts and seeds. I really like sunflower and sesame seeds, but have been known to include walnut pieces or slivered almonds. You can put in less of this or none at all without it changing the recipe significantly if you have dietary restrictions or have no nuts or seeds hanging around, but it really adds a lot to the bread. Add the seeds, salt, cumin and caraway seeds to the cereal in the pot and stir together. Again, if you don't have or don't like cumin or caraway, they're not essential, but I really like them. The salt, on the other hand, is important to controlling the rise of the bread and less negotiable. I typically include the same volume of salt as yeast, but if you're worried about salt you could get away with 2 teaspoons instead of a whole tablespoon.

Add the seed/cereal mix to the sponge and stir until well-blended. Begin adding flour, a cupful at a time. This is another place where you have some flexibility. You'll add about 6 cups of flour in this stage, but what kinds are up to you. It should be at least half varieties of wheat flour (i.e., white, whole-wheat, semolina, atta/chapati flour), but for the rest of it, go crazy with whatever buckwheat, rye, spelt, etc. flour that you have. Start by adding a cup of flour and stirring in one direction with a wooden spoon until well-blended. Stirring in the same direction helps the gluten develop. Continue mixing in the bowl with a spoon until the dough starts forming a ball and wanting to stick to itself more than the bowl. Flour a clean surface and turn the dough out onto it. Flour your hands and start kneading, adding more flour as the dough incorporates the flour and sticks to the kneading surface again. When the dough starts developing a smooth, coherent surface and stops wanting to stick to everything so much (not fewer than 5 cups of flour but not more than 7), load it back into the mixing bowl to rise. You can clean and oil the bowl, but it doesn't make a huge difference. Cover with a towel and leave in a spot slightly warmer than room temperature to rise. The heavy dough will take 70-90 minutes to double in bulk.

Once the dough has risen, flour your work surface again and scrape the dough out onto it. Knead the dough a few turns to push out the air. If making two loaves, divide dough in half with a bench scraper or large knife. For each loaf, fold the dough over several times and then form into a boule (French for "ball"). This video demonstrates how to form your dough into a boule far more efficiently and effectively than I could explain it in words. Note that the baker in the video finished by placing the boule into a basket to proof. Basket proofing is essential for helping a wet dough like this one keep its shape during the final rise; otherwise you risk having a thin, flat loaf. Luckily, one does not need purpose-designed baskets for proofing (mine, pictured farther above, weren't). Any small basket that you don't mind getting a little floury can be lined with a clean sack-cloth towel (woven, not terrycloth!), floured thoroughly and used for proofing. Others have had success lining a colander or even a bowl with a floured cloth and using it for a proofing basket. Baskets and colanders have the advantage of letting the dough breathe a little more, but a bowl will do in a pinch. For more info, this discussion thread contains several people's descriptions of their improvised proofing baskets. The dough's second rise will take somewhat less time (45-60 minutes).

Preheat the oven to 450°F. When oven is ready, turn loaves out onto a parchment or cornmeal/semolina-lined sheet pan or onto peel to load onto pizza stone. Slash the top of the loaves with a razor or sharp knife. For two loaves, bake for 45-60 minutes; for one large loaf, bake for 55-70 minutes. Bread is done when the crust has browned and loaf sounds hollow when you knock on the bottom.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Butternut, Coconut, Curry-nut?

Apparently, this has turned into the squash blog. Realizing this would be my third subsequent squash post, I almost posted about something else. However, the following things occurred to me:
  1. These are three quite different squash recipes, illustrating the versatility of the vegetable.
  2. Who would come here who doesn't want to hear more about squash‽
In my last post about squash-filled profiterole, I went on, possibly at too great a length, about why roasting a bunch of squash and keeping it in your fridge is a fabulous idea. I won't repeat myself, but it is; consider this recipe Exhibit B in the case. A rich, satisfying dish that balances sweet and savory, this contains a complete protein when you add rice and happens to be vegan, gluten-free and nut-free (the coconut, despite its name, does not affect those with tree-nut allergies).

As long as you already have roasted squash, this curry comes together in no time flat - about 20 minutes at the outside. Although I sometimes recommend forgetting to start the rice until well into cooking a dish to give you an incentive to let something simmer longer, this is a dish where you want to make sure to start the rice ahead of the other dish so you won't end up waiting on the rice.

I used a smallish (probably 2-3 lb) butternut squash for this dish, but other varieties of winter squash will also work. To roast squash, halve it, scoop out the seeds and place on a lightly oiled (foiled if you don't want to scrub) baking sheet. Bake at 375° for 35-60 minutes. Check at 30 minutes and poke the squash at its thickest part, then estimate how much longer until it's tender or check every 5-10 minutes.

Squash, Coconut & Chickpea Curry

vegan, gluten-free, nut-free
Takes about 20 minutes, serves 3-4
  • about 2 lb winter squash, roasted and cut into 1" cubes
  • 1 onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp brown mustard seed
  • ½ tsp. fenugreek seed
  • 1 tsp. cumin seed
  • ½ tsp. turmeric
  • ½ tsp. coriander
  • ½-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • ½-1 tsp. salt
  • 1 15 oz. can chick peas, drained
  • 1 can coconut milk
In large, heavy bottomed pot, heat a few teaspoons of veg. oil over high heat. Add mustard, fenugreek, cumin and coriander. Once the seeds start to sizzle and pop, add the garlic and onion. Once onion has started to soften and brown a bit, add chick peas, turmeric, red pepper and salt. Toss, then add squash and coconut milk. The squash will start to break down and blend into the coconut milk, making for thick, saucy goodness. The squash shouldn't totally dissolve and dissappear, though.

Simmer for a few minutes, adjust seasoning and serve over rice. Cilantro is also nice addition right at the end, too.


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