Saturday, September 24, 2011


You can always tell when I'm extra pleased about something, because there are exclamation points. So, Yes! Falafel! I'm from Ann Arbor. This is not mere non sequitur, Ann Arbor is where Jerusalem Garden* is, and thus, all other falafel is to be compared to theirs, in my mind. When I was a small child, my parents wouldn't get us food from there. This was not, I maintain, due to pecuniary embarrassment, but rather due to dad's prejudice against the very idea of middle eastern food. It was certainly cheap- cheaper than Portland food cart cheap- although prices rose latterly.

Erica Knopper gave me my first falafel. I think she asked me if I liked falafel, and I said I didn't know what that was, and was it spicy? She said it wasn't 'really' spicy, which to a kid is just like saying Warning: grownup trying to get you to do something dreadfully uncomfortable. She must have realized this (I'm sure my skepticism was obvious), and offered to let me try some of hers.

It was delicious. It was rolled in pita, with lettuce and tomato, and it was crunchy, and warm, and savory, and sour (that was the tahini sauce), and just a bit spicy- I think I ate most of one of their falafel with hummus sandwiches. I used to hang out with lots of earnest hippies back then, and they cooked a lot of earnest food that usually tasted a bit odd to me. It didn't cross my mind until years later that what they were trying to do with all that earnest cooking was produce the experience of eating that falafel. It was vegetarian, it was comfort food, but more than that, it was just really good food.

 I moved here a little over 3 years ago, which was a little over 20 years after I ate that sandwich. In New York, I worked with a rapidly changing stream of several hundred energetic and quirky people in their 20's, and so when I ended up at a bar here in southeast a couple years ago, it didn't surprise me that I recognized one of the bartenders. Lots of people I'd worked with had moved to Portland, I got on the bandwagon pretty late. But I couldn't remember this dude's name. So finally I did the "hey, not to be creepy or anything, but haven't we met" and he said well, you look pretty familiar. New York? I say. No, not there, Michigan, he says. And it turns out that he was the guy who made my falafel patties at Jerusalem Garden before I left town. I sorta wish now that I'd got his number, or given him mine, just to hang out maybe, but I was feeling bashful, and he was at work, and well, you know. It was a little weird.

Sometimes I really miss that falafel. I'm not going to say that my falafel is at all the same as the falafel at J Garden- I used black eyed peas- but it's got the right something-something to it.

This is a single-girl sized recipe,which makes about 8-10 2-inch balls. About enough for dinner one day, and lunch the next.

3/4 cup dry black eyed peas

half bunch green onions, chopped-this is around 1/2 cup
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced very fine
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon paprika
a smidge of black pepper
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Cover the beans with at least 3 cups of water, and leave them to soak for about 24 hours. If you can stir them up and change the water somewhere in the middle, even better.

Rinse the beans and drain them thoroughly. Put them in a food processor with the onion and process until the mix looks like wet, green cornmeal. You'll have to keep scraping down the bowl. Add all the seasonings and process to combine.

Put about 3 inches of oil in a deep pot. Heat it to about 350 degrees, then drop spoonfuls of falafel into the oil. They take about 10 minutes to cook. Drain on paper towel for about 5 minutes, and eat with tahini dressing. And pickles, if you have 'em.

Oh yeah, tahini dressing.

1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon tahini paste
salt, and a pinch of cayenne

There's no reason you can't use all lemon juice, but I prefer it slightly less tart than that.


1. I have a candy thermometer. I thought I'd never use it, but it's great for this. If you don't have one, test the pot by dropping a bit of dough in. Remember the noodle video? Falafel should only sizzle up about half that hard.
2. The temperature and thus, cooking time, is important. 10 minutes seems to be enough time to develop a dark, crusty outside, and a fully cooked interior. If the oil is hot enough to brown much faster than that, the insides might not be cooked, and if it isn't hot enough, the falafel will just be sodden and greasy. They will be quite dark when they're done.
3. Balls rather than patties are best for deep frying. Keeps the proportion of crust to middle balanced.
4. It is also important to let the balls stand for several minutes, because they will keep cooking for a while, which helps with the texture.
5. Most importantly, this recipe used raw dried beans, unlike many which call for a can of cooked. Here is my pseudo-scientific hypothesis: in canned beans, the starches are already cooked. When you mash them, the starches get gummy, and no matter how carefully you cook them, your falafel will be dense and puck-like. With raw beans, running them through the food processor before they are cooked breaks open all the plant cells and dumps the raw starches out into a slushy suspension of fiber and water, pretty much like, say, cake batter. Thus, when the falafel is cooked, the starches expand and remain subsequently unmolested, resulting in a substantial, but bread-like texture. Baking powder undoubtedly helps.

Other thoughts-

As I said, these are not quite like J Garden falafel. The only real reason I used black eyed peas instead of garbanzos is that those are what I had. But I think it's a pretty good knock-off. Of course, I asked the Falafel Guy (who did tell me his name, but I don't know that he'd want to be identified) about the secret formula for Jerusalem Garden falafel. He couldn't tell me, not having been granted the knowledge, but I'm pretty sure he said that there was thyme in it, and powdered garlic, and that they used a lot of green onions. Thyme was not a feature of any of the recipes I read before making mine, nor were garlic powder or scallions. I suspect the first two are the key flavor ingredients that make the recipe unique- thyme is not mentioned at all in any of the formulae I referred to, and garlic is always fresh. It's the scallions which make the dough bright green, and if you wanted to enhance the green effect, you could use just the tops of them. I'm going to have to try this with actual chick peas some time. The eyes of black eyed peas leave little dark flecks in the dough, which doesn't affect the flavor or texture, but sort of annoys me aesthetically.

*I could wish that their website was as awesome as their food, but I suppose I'm glad they concentrate on the essentials.

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