Homemade Falafel Recipe

I’d like to get right to the heart of why, other than perhaps one or two bites, I had never eaten falafel before I made my own, from scratch, recently.

In a word: cumin.

I . . . don’t like it.

At all.

I think this is something one is born with, like the taste for or against cilantro (which I love). Either your taste buds receive cumin with warm welcome, or they are reminded of something else, akin to perspiration?, every time cumin walks in the room. That’s not a criticism, by the way, of the friends of cumin. Much of the world, including me, enjoys stinky cheese, after all.

My mama has never used cumin; I can say with confidence our spices have never rubbed shoulders with it. She is not alone. No food in our extended family, in either Abowd or Abood branches, is made with cumin. Some say cumin use is aligned with your religious affiliation in Lebanon, Muslims into it and Christians not. I will say though that my brother Richard champions the camun, the cumin, just a dash in his kibbeh, which he got from his days living in the environs of Detroit and which is the subject of incessant family banter. If you are a cousin reading here and you use cumin, all I can do is shake my head. Kids these days.

Commercial falafel, or falafel you make at home from a commercial mix, tastes to me of one singular flavor. I didn’t really even understand what falafel was composed of, and didn’t ever try to, because I thought it inherently had to taste the way it tasted. Of cumin.

When I wrote the proposal for my cookbook, I listed falafel with tahini sauce as one of the recipes I’d include. I was curious how I was going to play that one out, since I had no love for the dish and certainly had never made it before. But it sounded good, and at that point, that’s what mattered. When it came time to develop the recipe, I nearly crossed it off before even giving it a second look. How can I offer something I genuinely don’t like and still be sincere about it?

I persevered, and was richly rewarded (my life’s mantra, in a falafel nutshell).

The pleasure of developing a recipe is that you are in charge (well, the ingredients are in charge, then you), and you get to decide what’s what. Falafel is fritter made from a crumble of soaked, not cooked, dry chickpeas and fava beans. Some versions leave out the favas but I wouldn’t do that, since they’re flavor is so smooth. Along with an abundance of herbs, onion, garlic…and no cumin…this falafel has become one of my favorite things to cook and eat and put on my table, hot from the frying pan. Falafel has that irresistible crisp-fried exterior and tender fresh herb infused center, and a tahini sauce that brings how-good-is-this tears to your eyes.

Everyone around here, the little Lebanese crew of guys who taste test my work with no mercy, is in unison on this one: A+ for the falafel. Or as one of my darling cousins said: Valedictorian! Or as Dan puts it: MmmMMMMM!

Even if you love the falafel you get from a restaurant, or the falafel made from a boxed mix at home (there’s no shame), I invite you to take up the delicious mantle of making falafel from scratch. The difference is light years apart. I’ll go out on a limb and say that even if you decide to put a pinch of cumin in your homemade falafel, if you handed a hot one from the fryer to me wrapped in a little pita? I’d wolf it down, and give it high marks.

Homemade Falafel with Tahini Sauce
Begin making the falafel a day in advance to soak the chickpeas and fava beans. You can make the tahini sauce in advance up to three days. An ice cream scoop works great as an alternative to a specialty falafel scoop, but be careful not to make the falafel too thick, or they won’t cook through to the center. Makes about 10 2-inch falafel.

For the falafel:
1/2 cup dry (uncooked) chickpeas
1/2 cup dry (uncooked) fava beans
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup mint leaves
3/4 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1 small jalepeno, ribs and seeds removed and coarsely chopped or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup coarsely chopped yellow onion (1 small onion)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon baking soda
Safflower or canola oil, for frying (about 3 cups)

For the tahini sauce:
3/4 cup yogurt
1/3 cup tahini (stir before measuring)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 small garlic clove, minced
Juice of 1 lemon (about 1/3 cup lemon juice)
Crushed dried mint, for garnish

In a medium bowl, cover the chickpeas and fava beans with cool water by several inches. Soak them overnight and up to 24 hours.

Drain the chickpeas and fava beans and pat them dry with a paper towel. In the food processor, process them with a teaspoon of salt until they are ground to a coarse crumb. Add the mint, parsley, cilantro, jalapeno, garlic, onion, and sesame seeds and pulse until everything is finely ground and the mixture is a fine, web crumb—but not pureed. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, stir in the baking soda, and chill for at least 30 minutes and up to one day.

To make the tahini sauce, process the yogurt, tahini, salt, and garlic until combined. Pour in the lemon juice and pulse to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings so that the sauce has a nutty flavor of tahini with a bit of the tang of the yogurt.

Heat the oil in a 2-quart saucepan or sauté pan until a pinch of herb dropped in floats and bubbles dramatically. Using an ice cream scoop or a large spoon, pack the falafel mixture tightly in to the scoop to form 2-inch ovals. Lower the falafel into the hot oil using a slotted spoon, and fry a few at a time until they are golden brown, flipping them over as soon as they are browned on one side. Remove the falafel from the oil to a paper towel-lined plate, and fry the remaining falafel in the same way.

Serve the falafel immediately with the tahini sauce topped with crushed dried mint, and some good pita.

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Ingredient: Fava Beans

What, can I ask, is wrong with the Lebanese that we so dearly love the very beans that require such painstaking attention? The chickpea is a wonder bean, but that little sucker is most often nothing until it is properly free of its skin. The fava is no different.

My position as a bottom-feeder at Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco after culinary school meant that I enjoyed the pleasure of every labor-intensive job that needed doing in the kitchen. I rubbed the pesky charred skin off of massive can after can of roasted red peppers for muhammara. I pushed what had to have been 20—no 30!—cups of chickpeas through a tamis (a fine drum sieve) to pulverize and smooth it (thank goodness they weren’t up on the skinning of the chickpeas, or I’d have been destroyed. Or, on the other hand, necessity may have prompted me to seek out and find the heaven of skinless chickpeas long before I did).

They knew I was Lebanese, so maybe I had “let me skin every bean around here” all over my face. Of course, I was handed what at first appeared to be small bowls of tender blanched green fava beans to shell. The small bowls looked like nothing compared to where I’d been. Until I dove in. Getting into a rhythm that makes shelling fava beans quick and easy isn’t so obvious.

But really, who can complain when your view as you do this is the Bay Bridge at twilight, and you’ve just spent the greatest year of your life in culinary school? So hush up, Maureen.

This week we’re cooking with fava beans, but these are not fresh spring favas—they’re dried fava beans. And all dried fava beans, I’m happy to report, are skinless. Fava beans start out fresh in a pod, are shucked from that and then are protected further by a tough skin, under which is revealed a little button of a green bean that tastes and looks like spring incarnate. The dried beans are not quite so spring-essence, but they are gently flavored and delicious. And supremely healthy, a great source of protein and iron, which a girl needs when she’s trying to go meatless.

I’d love to know if you are able to find dried fava beans in your local groceries. Up here it was no problem, and they’re from one of my favorite brands, Bob’s Red Mill.

There is no substituting canned fava beans for the dry ones for our incredibly good falafel recipe, take note. We start from dry and they pretty much stay dry, except for an overnight soak in cold water. The chickpeas we’ll use are also dry, and skin-on is right-on. For a welcome change.

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My Sweetless, Meatless March



Easter is late this year. Which means Lent starts late (today). Which means that I have been left far too long out there on my own without this annual tap on the shoulder to stop it already with the constant indulgences.

Hey, there were the holidays to celebrate, then an engagement to celebrate (another glass of bubbly anyone?), then birthdays and Valentine’s Day for which I made one request and one request only of my generous gift-giving people: candy. As in See’s (their chocolate caramel marshmallows rule) and Fabiano’s (perfection in a fabric heart box that is all but demolished by now). You get my drift.

Why can’t I be more like Aunt Hilda or Aunt Louise who, when gifted a fine box of candy, save it. For company. Dan tells me he has never reached for chocolate just for the heck of it until he started hanging around me, and now it has to stop (“I can’t keep doing this”). Good thing he’s so swarthy and all of that.

Fine then. The next sweet I eat will be our wedding cake, that’s what I said as I ate more than a spoonful of Fat Tuesday cake with orange blossom caramel sauce (for the book, and is it goooooOOOOD). That’s June though, and that’s a little crazy. It would be better if I could just have 40 good days of Lent, or even a solid month of March to do the kind of fasting that has always put me on a path toward physical and spiritual good. Or how about this: how about if I take today and try to do today well? Then we’ll see about tomorrow.

Sweetless, Meatless March Menu, Lebanese Style

Fava Beans and Chickpeas with Garlic, Breakfast Beans (not kidding)
(stay tuned)

Classic Lebanese Rushta, Lentil Soup
(stay tuned)

Spinach Fatayar

Fried Cauliflower with Tahini Sauce

The Best Falafel Ever
(stay tuned…)

Mujadara, Lentils with Caramelized Onion

Citrus Salad with Pomegranate

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Postcard from Up North

They got up steam and proceeded calmly to the north where there seemed to be no people, but only mountains, lakes, reedy snow-filled steppes, and winter gods who played with storms and stars. ~Mark Helprin, A Winter’s Tale

(The winter gods have been playing well Up North. The tundra is buried in snow, but beautifully. Just as I am buried in the work of cookbook, but beautifully, happily. I’ll be back again with recipes, stories, and pictures soon.)

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Lavender-Orange Blossom Shortbread Recipe (Lebanese Graybeh)

I recently spoke to a group of high school students about life as a writer. They were having a whole week of writerly immersion, to encourage the idea that writing isn’t just about that pain-in-the-neck assignment you have to turn in to your English teacher on Friday.

The students, they had great questions about the writing life, and about what it’s like to be a food blogger. Do people steal your photos and stories? How do you publish a book? What’s your favorite recipe? Don’t you run out of ideas to write about and recipes to cook? Who’s your boss?

Wow. Some questions were easier to answer than others. A favorite recipe? Couldn’t possibly say, but just to choose one, I told them the recipe for lavender-orange blossom cookies I was developing ranks darn high for fun and delicious.

Do I run out of ideas? Hmmm. Not so much. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Because when you’re doing the creative work that you’re meant to do, everywhere you turn, both physically and mentally, seems to lead you down a road of thought that breeds new ideas. And you breed what you feed, emotionally and intellectually. So I try to allow my mind time to wander, quiet spaces to do it in, and to stay open to where the path might lead me.

Example: those lavender cookies? I had no idea what plate I was going to use to show them off for you. I was taking the photos at my mom’s place downstate, and just when I want to lament that I don’t have what I need from my stash of stuff with me, I turn around and see my grandmother Alice’s painted plates on display on the shelf. They’re so beautiful, and though they’ve been in view all my life, I have never actually taken them in my hands to truly look at them. One is painted in the perfect shades of lavender, God bless you Alice. When I reach ever so carefully for the plate, I discover a ribbon taped to the back. Alice took first place in the Spring Art Exhibit in Fostoria, Ohio 1962.

The plate, the ribbon, they explained so much. My mother’s inclination to paint, her encouragement of artistry of any kind in her children, those sorts of things.

But they especially spoke to me of my own creative process, and the way one thing leads to another, and then another. The lavender last summer led me to think about classic lavender shortbread, which led me to our classic melt-away Lebanese graybeh, and what might happen if we added lavender and orange blossom water together in a cookie? Good things happen, very, very good and delicious things. It’s a flavor combination, and a cookie, and a story worth writing and sharing.

Just after I discovered Alice’s ribbon, I received my own sort of ribbon. One for telling stories here, from the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals). They selected Rose Water & Orange Blossoms as a finalist in their annual competition, in the category of narrative culinary blog. How very nice and exciting, an affirmation of the creative process for this endeavor that began long ago. I’d love to be able to tell the students about what it’s like when your boss for that work is yourself, but more importantly when your boss is your readers. It’s to them you feel the most loyal, the most desire to write and cook and create well for, the most grateful that they might read from one sentence you’ve written to the next, without clicking away.

And that while a teacher’s approval, or a ribbon, or a finalist position is a truly wonderful thing, it is in large measure kept taped to the back of the plate while the most hard-won and captivating part, the art itself that comes from deep and mysterious forces, faces the world.

Lavender-Orange Blossom Shortbread (Lebanese Graybeh)
The clarified butter makes a difference in the texture of the cookie, so resist the urge to use regular butter; here’s one way to make it. I bake these a little longer than traditional graybeh, which would be paler and with little to no browning on the edges. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.

3/4 cup clarified unsalted butter (6 oz.), room temperature (not melted)
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (1/4 teaspoon table salt)
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped or ground dried edible lavender
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
1 1/2 cups plus about 2 tablespoons all-purpose, unbleached flour

Heat the oven to 350°F and place a rack in the center position. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or using a hand-held mixer if you don’t have a stand mixer), beat the butter, sugar, and salt until it is very light and fluffy, almost like whipped cream, about 3 minutes.

Lower the speed and mix in the lavender and orange blossom water. Add the flour 1/2 cup at a time, and once 1 1/2 cups have been added, spoon in another 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour, mixing until the dough is quite dry but holds together. If the dough is too soft, it will not hold its shape when baked, so it’s better to err on the side of crumbly drier dough than dough that is too soft.

Shape one-third of the dough at a time into a log about an inch wide and an inch tall, squared off on top. Cut the dough with a sharp knife on the diagonal to make 1 to 2-inch diamonds. Place them on the prepared sheet pan about an inch apart, and bake one sheet at a time for 15 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheet front to back halfway through, until the cookies are light golden brown. Cool the cookies completely and store them in an airtight container for up to one week.

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