Monday, September 15, 2008

With a Little Bit of Faith

I’ve never met a falafel I didn’t like. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, falafel is, to me, the reason to patronize Middle Eastern restaurants. Every place has its own spin on falafel: how it ought to be prepared, how it ought to be served. Fast-food joints might deep-fry big fat falafel balls and scoop them into hearty rolls along with some lettuce and tomato and a slathering of tahini sauce. Fancier destinations might prepare you a plate with dainty nuggets of falafel, surrounded by a delicious array of vegetables and a sauce or two with which to accessorize. But my very favorite place to eat falafel is my kitchen table.

Sadly, for many years I was ignorant about how easily falafel—essentially a spiced chickpea batter, shaped into patties or balls and then fried or baked—can be made at home. The only thing required by falafel-making is a little bit of faith. The batter always seems unpromising to me, since it’s all cold and wet and slimy. It bears no resemblance at all to cheerfully fried and gussied-up restaurant falafel. One wonders how on earth is this stuff going to hold together? But with a little bit of faith, it does. And it’s delicious.

I’m so smitten with homemade falafel that I have no fewer than three versions that I make regularly. This recipe is my go-to busy-day staple; it comes together uber-fast with pantry staples—no last-minute shopping required! Rachael Ray’s magazine has published an interesting variation on falafel, very similar in structure to my staple recipe. (Word to the wise: if you use hot fire-roasted chilies in Rachael’s recipe, your patties will be seriously spicy, so choose your chilies carefully! Also, the cooking instructions in that recipe don’t produce the same crunch as this recipe, so I recommend cooking her patties using the stovetop instructions here.) Finally, and this one I want to share with you today, falafel need not be limited by cumin and its cohorts. I stole away with Crescent’s baked falafel. We (the falafel and me, that is) went to Italy together. A splash of olive oil and a few herbs later, I have returned with a specimen that makes a great lunch…and makes me awfully happy.

Baking falafel is an interesting proposition. Usually I pan-fry falafel at home, using a tablespoon of olive oil for two patties in a ten-inch skillet. This strategy makes for a crispy, browned patty that isn’t dripping with oil—a reasonable compromise, I think, between tastebuds and waistband. Baking falafel allows one to consider an even more reasonable number of fat grams, but here’s the thing: baked falafel loves to stick to its pan. Oh, it’s terrible how well baked falafel sticks, even on a pan coated with nonstick spray. I howled in frustration the first time it happened. Every single one of my lovely patties lost their crunchy bottom coat, no matter how carefully I tried to slide my flipper underneath them. The next time, I used my new Silpat. It worked like a charm: no sticking at all. I flipped all six patties effortlessly, crunchy bottoms intact. While I’m normally a “make-do-with-what-you-have” kinda girl, I highly, highly recommend investing in a Silpat. Silpats are great for any situation where you need a nonstick baking surface; I use it mostly for baking delicate cookies. I bought mine for ~$15 with one of those ubiquitous coupons from Bed, Bath, and Beyond, with a little help from Daphna and her glove compartment stashed with coupons (thanks, D!). For anyone who bakes frequently, Silpats make life happy.

These Italian-spiced falafels can be eaten with any number of yummy sauces or tidbits. They can be eaten plain as a comforting, low-key food. I wouldn’t call them bland, but they don’t knock you over the head with flavor. To me, this is a good thing because the patties can become the base of a meal, the foundation upon which you layer additional flavors. I like them with a basic marinara sauce (storebought is fine—just be sure it’s a sauce you like) and a sprinkling of cheese. Another option is to top the patties with discs of snowy white mozzarella, the freshest stuff you can find. Add a scoop of simple tomato salad dressed in oil and red wine vinegar with a pinch of salt and sugar. Have a bite of patty with cheese and tomato: the vinegar brightens the patty’s flavor and makes the mozzarella taste even creamier. For a deeper, more complex sauce, I think this Classic Italian Vinaigrette is a good choice, although it’s one I haven’t tried yet. It’s on the menu for dinner tonight, so I’ll report back on how things go.

And if you, dear reader, put these patties on your dinner menu, report back on how things go!

Baked Falafel Patties with Italian Herbs
Adapted from “Neo-Traditional Falafel” in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes 6 patties (enough to serve three if you serve the patties with extras and a hearty side salad)

Two things make this recipe a keeper in my book: one is their texture. Bulgur makes each bite a little nubbly, while baking them gives them a nice crispy coat. The other noteworthy tidbit is their excellent nutritional profile. Chickpeas provide loads of fiber and protein, while a spoonful of olive oil adds a bit of fat and a lot of flavor. The egg binds everything together during baking and gives us a little bit of the good stuff eggs have to offer—choline and all the rest. Best of all, this recipe can be easily tweaked to your taste. Play around with the herbs, the spiciness, and the sauces with which you top your patties. I think they’re open to many interpretations of flavor.

1/4 cup bulgur
1/2 cup water
1 16-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 egg
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. spicy Italian pizza seasoning
A sprinkling of crushed red chile peppers, optional (use if you like a little heat)
1-2 tbsp. minced chives or parsley leaves
1/3 cup breadcrumbs or oat flour*
1 tbsp. garlic-infused olive oil or regular olive oil

1) Place the bulgur in a heatproof bowl. (I use a thick ceramic soup bowl.) Bring the 1/2 cup of water to a boil and pour it over the bulgur. Give it a good stir and cover the whole thing with a saucer or small plate to hold in the heat. Let the bulgur soak for 20-30 minutes to absorb the water. Drain off any water that has not been absorbed.
2) Meanwhile, place about 1/4 of the chickpeas in a large mixing bowl. Place the remaining 3/4 in a food processor. Add to the food processor the garlic, egg, salt, all spices, and the chives or parsley leaves. Buzz until everything is blended together into a thick paste. You may need to stop and scrape everything down a few times.
3) Using a potato masher, coarsely mash the chickpeas that you placed in your mixing bowl. Add the bulgur and scrape the chickpea batter from the food processor into the mixing bowl. Stir the breadcrumbs or oat flour and oil into the batter.
4) Place the batter in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or longer to let the batter firm up a bit. This step will make it easier to form the batter into patties for baking.
5) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat.
6) Using your hands, divide the chickpea batter in half. Divide each half into thirds. Shape each third into a patty using your hands. I shape mine until they are about as big as my palm, ~3 inches wide and half an inch thick. Place each patty on the Silpat with two inches or so between patties.
7) Bake the patties for 25 minutes. Take them out, flip them over (I do this using two pancake flippers, one to slide under the patty and the other to keep the patty from being nudged away from my flipper), and place the baking sheet back in the oven for another 5 minutes. By this time, they should be firm with a nice, crispy coat.
8) Serve with your choice of sauce and vegetables.

*Oat flour can be made by whirling rolled oats in a blender or a food processor. If you use oat flour, you end up with two whole grains in your patties: whole wheat from the bulgur and whole oats!


ttfn300 said...

ooh, interesting take! I've been meaning to make falafel, really need to give it a go :)

JD said...

Same problem here with falafel, I have always been a little bit frightened by it. We will have to try it though, especially baked, as Wife refuses to fry just about anything. Good advice about the Silpat, I will have to pick one up.

Rosiecat said...

Hi everyone!

ttfn300, falafel are really fun and easy to make. I hope you give them a try, but watch out: you might end up as hooked on making them as I am!

JD, be brave! Get thee a Silpat and fire up the oven. Falafel are really quite friendly to make; you just need to have a delicate touch with them because the unbaked patties are a little more delicate than you might expect. It's also helpful to use two pancake flippers for moving them around--it's sort of like having two hands for the job :-)

I'm reporting back about using my Classic Italian Vinaigrette as a sauce: it's terrific! I made up a little bed of lettuce, placed two oven-warm patties on that, scattered little rounds of fresh mozzarella on top, and spooned some dressing over the whole thing. Delicious! You could also throw some slices of tomato into the mix for more flavor and texture.

Asmodeus said...

Oh, yes, with cheese. That would be deeelightful!

ammie said...

Yeah, I've never had much falafel luck, but I'll have to give this a shot sometime. Also, I once read an interesting falafel recipe that mixed, I believe, chickpeas and sweet potatoes for the patties and I've always wanted to find it again and try it.

Rosiecat said...

Asmodeus, indeeed!

Falafel trouble, Ammie? Hmm. I've had such good results with my collection of falafel recipes; I wonder if the trick is just a solid, well-tested recipe. Do let me know how your falafel turns out if you decide to try again!

Sweet potatoes in falafel? Oh, that sounds so, so good! Sweets would be great in a Middle Eastern-spiced falafel with cumin and coriander...mmm!