Monday, December 5, 2011

Falling for Falafel

I have had several failed attempts at making falafel - that delicious Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean treat. Great on its own or stuffed into a pita with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and whatever else you want to toss in there.

I say that I've had several failed attempts at this because I've had a lot of problems revolving around the chickpeas themselves. Perhaps I just have horrible luck when picking out dried beans, or it may have something to do with the water in Chicago. Really don't know. All I do know is that I cannot abide, at all, by the directions on the package in terms of rehydrating dried beans.

That being said, by a combination of techniques, I finally had success. Success! So, without further ado: falafel!

Recipe: Falafel

1 lb. dried chickpeas, sorted, rinsed
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole coriander seeds
2 gloves garlic, chopped
4 scallions, chopped
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. baking soda (aluminum-free)
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 T. chopped parsley leaves
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. tumeric

2 quarts peanut oil

The first step is to sort and rinse the dried chickpeas. This basically means spreading them out in a sheet pan and sifting through them to see if there are any rocks or bad chickpeas - look for discoloration, small and disfigured chickpeas. Discard those and any non-chickpea material. Put all the rest into a colander and give them a good rinse to knock off any dust or clinging matter.

Move the chickpeas to a large bowl and cover with a couple of inches of cold water. Now, I'm going to suggest a few things here. First, cold water is important. Given the way that water re-enters the dried chickpeas, hot water may cause the small pores to swell and close, which will leave you with chickpeas which will never rehydrate. That's bad news. Second, use filtered water. For much the same reason as #1, mineral-heavy water may clog the pores which allow water to enter the dried beans. Finally, if you find that you're still having trouble, try adding a little baking soda, about a tablespoon. For whatever reason, dried beans tend to rehydrate better in alkaline conditions rather than acidic.

How long should you let them soak? Well, it will take at least overnight. After about 8-10 hours, I'd start checking them. Try mashing one between your fingers, or even taking a small bite of one. If it's still hard, let them soak longer. You're looking for a fairly easily mashed end result. You need them to be soft to grind and cook properly, so, err on the side of caution. For these, it actually took about 30 hours before they were soft enough. Again, I don't know if this is my terrible luck with picking dried beans, maybe it's the water here, or something else. I know a lot of people who don't have any kind of problem like that, so, find what works for you.

Once you've gotten your chickpeas soaked, give them another good rinse (especially if you've added baking soda), and return to a large bowl. Meanwhile, using a cast-iron skillet, lightly toast the cumin seeds and coriander seeds over medium-high heat, shaking the pan frequently until they just begin to brown (this will take only a few minutes, so be careful). Heating the spices will greatly increase the flavor the spices will give to the final mixture, so, this is a really beneficial step. I've also added fenugreek seeds to the mix before, just to see how it goes, and it's pretty good. When the spices are toasted, move them to a grinder and spin them to a fine powder.

Go ahead and chop up the garlic and scallions into fairly coarse chunks:

Then combine the chickpeas, garlic, scallions, spices, and baking powder.

Mix all of those together until everything is pretty evenly distributed. At this point, it's probably going to look like a chickpea salad, and that's about what you want.

Next, get out your trusty stand-mixer with food grinder attachment (and smallest die), or your food processor.

Now, let me take a moment and say that I really love my Kitchen-Aid stand-mixer. This isn't a paid endorsement (man, I really wish that were so), but this thing has saved me a ton of labor, and to me, was worth every penny. Especially the various attachments. I have pasta plates, pasta rollers, the food grinder, the sausage stuffer attachment, the juicer, and I think one more that I don't use as frequently. This thing is awesome. With Christmas coming up, if you have someone in your family that loves cooking and has been doing everything by hand, consider this an excellent gift idea. This comes from a guy who used to do everything manually - I used to make fresh pasta by hand and let it hang off the edge of the counter for hours to get it to stretch properly after rolling, and all matter of other things. With the stand-mixer, my labor investment is vastly cut, which gives me much more time to work on other aspects of a meal, or spend more time hanging out. These are positive changes, especially considering I can always go back to doing things myself when I need to or want to.

Want to see what I mean in action? Here's a shot of the food grinder doing its magic:

As I said, awesome. Grinds incredibly smoothly. You can do this in a food processor as well, doing about half the mixture at a time, pulsing 10-20 times each. Anyway, you'll end up, eventually, with a finely ground mixture. This is good.

Now, give it a test. Take a small amount (about 1 to 2 inches in diameter), and try to press it into a ball. If it sticks together and doesn't start crumbling, you're good to go! If it starts to crumble, then add a little liquid, either water or lemon juice, depending on taste, just until it starts to come together. I've never had a problem with it going the other way, that is, I've never had a problem where the mixture was too wet to start off with.

Anyway, once the mixture is the right consistency, form it into balls about 1 to inches in diameter:

At this point, they can be held on the counter for about 2 hours, or covered and refrigerated overnight. Pour the peanut oil into a 5-quart Dutch oven and bring to 350 degrees. A candy/fry thermometer is really best here, so, make that small investment if you don't have one.

Drop the falafel into the oil one at a time, doing about 4 total in each go, and let cook for until a deep golden brown, about 5 to seven minutes. Finally, remove them to a half sheet pan with a rack (and a paper towel lining the bottom if you want). It may be easier if you use a spider to lower the falafel into the oil one by one, and hold it suspended for just a bit before the outer crust forms.

Finally, eat! Enjoy! Top with a little tzatziki, toss with some cucumbers and whatever else, really it all works out quite well. These are going to be a little bit crunchier than some falafel, but I find it rather satisfying.

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