Meatless Monday: First-Rate Falafel

I know I urge you to try everything I share with you in this space, but I really, really, really think you should try making falafel. For a long time, I considered the Middle Eastern bean patties one of those kitchen untouchables -- too difficult to make worth my while and better left to the pros manning the street carts.

(Kim O'Donnel)

Truth be known, falafel are much easier and straight forward to put together than they seem, and as a result, feel like a tremendous accomplishment. Everyone is impressed when they hear you’ve just whipped up falafel, which is why they’re great for entertaining. (Super Bowl snacks, anyone?)

If you’re worried about the “fry” factor, let me share a few thoughts -- the patties are swimming in a pool that’s about 350 degrees, which means quick cooking -- about two minutes tops -- and fairly little oil absorption. The patties can also be made in advance and kept warm in a low oven until guests are ready to eat, which means you don’t have to stand over a hot stove while everyone else is having a good time. You can also make the batter and shape the patties a day in advance, as long as you promise to make them the next day (baking powder will conk out after 24 hours).

Besides, how could your body say no to legumes seasoned with garlic, herbs and spices, then drizzled with a zesty sauce of sesame paste, more garlic and lemon? With this lineup, you’re taking good care of the human engine. My preference is to do a sandwich, with either pita, lavash or naan, but falafel also loves to be part of a salad. At this time of year, I go for something heartier, like escarole, and I must confess, I broke down and bought a cucumber flown in from Mexico.

Now, go on, there’s no more time to waste. Soak those chickpeas tonight, and you can thank me in the morning!


Adapted from "Olive Trees and Honey" by Gil Marks

2 cups dried chickpeas (option: substitute fava beans or use a mixture of both)
6-8 scallions, minced, or 1 medium onion, finely chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup fresh cilantro or parsley (or 1/2 cup each), chopped
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for deep frying (I like grapeseed, peanut or safflower oil)

Cover chickpeas in water and soak for 24 hours. Drain and set aside.

Using a food processor, pulverize chickpeas, but only until they form a paste -- too smooth, and the batter may fall apart when cooking. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the oil) and mix to combine. Batter should be grainy, speckled with herbs, and a shade of pistachio green. Taste for salt.

Refrigerate batter about one hour, until firm. Remove from fridge and shape batter into 1-inch balls (a tablespoon measure is helpful). Don’t fiddle too much with dough. Place on a baking tray and cover with plastic wrap. Return to fridge and chill for an additional 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the tahini sauce (see notes below).

When ready to fry, heat at least one inch of oil (you will use just shy of one quart) over medium heat until bubbling, it reaches about 350 degrees.

Gently drop patties into hot oil in small batches and fry until golden brown on all sides, about three minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels for draining. Keep warm in a low-heat oven while frying remaining patties.

Serve with pita and tahini sauce and any or all relishes/condiments including raw onions, cucumber, chopped parsley and tomato.

Makes 24-28 falafel patties

Tahini Sauce
In a medium bowl or a food processor, mix together the following:
1 cup tahini paste, stirred well before using
1/4 to 1/2 cup lemon juice
1 to 2 cloves garlic, mashed
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt or water

Blend until smooth; add extra water to make a pourable sauce. Keeps in fridge for a few days.

Makes about 2 cups of sauce.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 26, 2009; 9:05 AM ET Meatless Monday
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Maybe a lazy question but is it a really bad idea to use canned chickpeas instead of dry for something like this? I have been thinking about trying a falafel recipe. Will go for the dried ones if its important to the recipe.

Posted by: sjcpeach | January 26, 2009 9:44 AM

I'm with sjcpeach -- I can make these tonight if I can use canned. Life doesn't seem to allow for long planning these days!

Posted by: capecodner424 | January 26, 2009 10:25 AM

Oh yummy! For some reason I always thought that falalel contained flour in it but I guess it doesn't? Or is possible that some recipes do contain flour and/or bread crumbs? And a piece of advice I learned from the Farmer's Market about dried garbanzo beans - they take much longer to soak than other beans so be sure to soak for at least 10 hours if not longer.

Posted by: FormerDC | January 26, 2009 10:27 AM

FormerDC, that's right, falafel is flourless, at least this version is. Garbanzos *do* require longer soaking times, as long as 24 hours. and I should mention -- don't worry about the skins when they loosen up -- you'll never notice them once the patties are made.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 26, 2009 11:01 AM

Capecodner and sjcpeach: In all likelihood, the canned beans will be too soft for this recipe and will not hold together as patties. You'll see in the recipe that the dried beans are soaked but not cooked, until they are shaped and fried with rest of ingredients.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 26, 2009 11:05 AM

Canned chickpeas will not work! I speak from experience. I have only tried making falafel once and I thought I could get away with using canned. It was way too wet. They would not even hold together in the oil and dissolved into fried chickpea crumbs. Then, I tried adding flour to stiffen the dough. I ended up with a sort-of chickpea hushpuppy. I have learned that lesson and look forward to trying Kim's recipe with the dried chickpeas!

Posted by: SweetieJ | January 26, 2009 11:58 AM

I've had luck with canned chickpeas, but not in this recipe, of course. I think I found mine in then new edition of the Joy of Cooking.

Posted by: GirlScoutMom | January 26, 2009 12:23 PM

Canned chickpeas will work, however, you may want to find a recipe that calls for them. Yesterday I made a big batch of hummus. Usually I use the canned garbanzos, but Kim has been touting the superiority of dried beans, so I used dried. Really really good. There's a fresh nutty flavor that isn't there with the canned stuff. For the falafel, it's nice to make a big batch and freeze those that aren't immediately eaten. It's great having this supply of "veggie burgers" that just need a little zapping and condiment action. There's a guy in LA known for his falafel gyros. I was impressed that he uses hummus as a condiment as well as the tahini sauce, cucumbers, lettuce and tomato.

Posted by: davemarks | January 26, 2009 1:16 PM

I lived on a boat in Philly and would visit Bitar's on my bike near the Italian Market. Their calling card was grilled, not fried, falafel. It really was like entering an old fashion family store with fresh food, spices, olives, fresh baked and hot flat bread.

"South Philly institution Bitar's fits that bill on all counts. Easily the friendliest staff in the city, the Bitar family and their employees have created a living-room feel at their establishment, where conversations are so lively and fluid that patrons stop just short of sharing their meals with the heretofore unknown diners around them. And the food -- all priced so low you almost feel guilty enjoying it so much -- is worth sharing. Bitar's authentically crafted Middle Eastern cuisine is a multisensory treat from beginning to end, fragrant and enticing, whether you opt for gyros or kabobs, grilled chicken, the signature grilled falafel or sides that include baba ghanoush, hummus or grape leaves. You can eat outside if you like, but the ambience inside, where there also is a great ethnic grocery, is a big part of the fun."

Posted by: Beacon2 | January 26, 2009 1:27 PM

For those that like hummus as I do, try adding a couple of minced chipotles and sauce. It grows on you and the hummus tempers the heat but not the flavor. You could try a chipotle in falafel also.

Posted by: Beacon2 | January 26, 2009 1:32 PM

Now I'm hungry!! What am I going to do? I'll have to wait at least 2 days to eat falafel!! This article is unfair to hungry office workers!!

Posted by: markinirvine | January 26, 2009 3:15 PM

Markinirivne, soak those beans tonight when you get home! Make falafel tomorrow -- you'll be eating those morsels in 24 hours. I just had leftovers for lunch -- and they are just as tasty as last night, so you'll have that to look forward to as well!

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 26, 2009 3:22 PM

Bobby Flay's "Throwdown" show just featured falafels. It seemed as it every falafel maker in NYC used a meat grinder for the soaked garbanzos. Bobby tried a food processor and it was a disaster.

So just like anything, if you're trying to recreate the effect of a grinder in a food processor, timing is everything and it is very easy to overdo. If you have a meat grinder around, use that for best results.

The best falafels I ever had were in a place in Cleveland. I asked the guy what his secret was and he told me that everything had to be fresh and made right away. If things sit for a while (which sometimes you have to do) your falafel will get dense. Make it completely fresh and it could be fluffy light, unlike anything you've ever had at a restaurant.

Sounds like a good excuse to assemble the meat grinder...

Posted by: mdreader01 | January 26, 2009 3:31 PM

Mdreader01, great food for thought. When using food processor, use "pulse" function to keep mixture from getting too ground up. You still want some "tooth" to the mix.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 26, 2009 3:48 PM

Technically falafel can only be made with chickpeas. If one uses fava beans, then one is actually making ta'miyya, the Egyptian version of falafel.

And please, for your own sake, never use canned chickpeas. They'll taste stale. Also, only ever use real yoghurt (Turkish, Greek, whatever you want to call it). Danone just won't be tangy enough.

Posted by: jcmsdaf | January 26, 2009 3:58 PM

"Markinirivne, soak those beans tonight when you get home! Make falafel tomorrow -- you'll be eating those morsels in 24 hours. I just had leftovers for lunch -- and they are just as tasty as last night, so you'll have that to look forward to as well!

"Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 26, 2009 3:22 PM"

I am not worthy! Thanks! [still hungry, though]

Posted by: markinirvine | January 26, 2009 5:16 PM

I've had really good luck making falafel from canned chickpeas. I have no doubt dried would be better, but falafel from canned chickpeas can be a great quick dinner on those nights when you are about ready to order pizza. I agree with GirlScoutMom. Find a recipe that calls for canned chickpeas and you should be fine. I am pretty sure the one I've used has you toss in a heal of stale bread to help hold things together. Good luck!

Posted by: ftg_somerville | January 26, 2009 5:31 PM

Not that I am ignoring the special mention for those with "fry" concerns, but I am still pondering trying to bake these. However, will baking not work due to the beans being uncooked?

Posted by: coloradojon | January 26, 2009 5:58 PM

just wondering, when did the 1 inch ball become a pattie to be gently dropped in the oil. Did I miss a step?

Posted by: AtHome2 | January 27, 2009 10:45 AM

Try adding in mild or hot peppers. Also, one can freeze the batter if making large amount. Just hold off on adding in the baking soda; add that in as you need once you fry the fritters.
Also in the ME they serve falafel with hummus (spread on the pita) and then add in julienned-lettuce, pickeled turnips, tomatoes & cucumbers.

Posted by: pali_g | January 27, 2009 11:15 AM

AtHome2, I'm using the word ball and patty interchangeably here. Actually, I've found it best not to flatten balls too much to maximize their stick togetherness.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | January 27, 2009 11:23 AM

LUV the concept of "stick togetherness." I have always used the word: "Sticktoitivity"

Posted by: khachiya1 | January 28, 2009 11:55 AM

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