Monday, March 17, 2008

FalafelQuest

Trenton Police Director Joseph Santiago is to vacate his position immediately, and I could blog about that, but I'll wait to see how the rest of the day and week pans out. It's exciting stuff though, and evidence that a small group of people can affect change. Thank you to the strong Trenton residents who stood up against the machine; your efforts have made a difference.

And today is St. Patrick's Day, but I'm not cooking corned beef (heavens, no), and I am not going to write about the holiday either, since my cartoon yesterday featured Mayor Palmer as a festive little leprechaun, and I don't think I can top that (thanks to Glen for so much of that inspiration). Plus, every day, my blog page is green. I'm doing my part. My ancestry is primarily Irish (and some German), and I wish you all a happy, happy day, but today, I want to write about falafel.

Maybe you've tried falafel, and maybe you haven't. If you haven't, I hope you do. If you have, and were disappointed, I just wanted to say I sympathize: I tried it for the first time in 1994, in a falafel shop in Atlanta, Georgia, and it was dry and bitter, and conjured up the feeling that I was eating dirt. Friends and curiosity urged me on, though, and I have found — and will say this is my experience only — that if you want to find great falafel, you have to visit a middle eastern restaurant, not a Greek one. Just keep seeking, even if your first falafel was a dirt burger, like mine. Once you find the holy grail of Falafeldom, you will realize it was all worth it. A great falafel, I think, should be kinda crispy on the outside, and moist and flavorful on the inside; it should never be bitter. If that's what you've had, the falafel-chef has added too much tahini and not enough bean. Keep searching.

So, yes, we love falafels, even if admitting it means the feds will start eavesdropping on our phone calls. I worked for a number of years at a food distributing company in South Jersey, and thanks to our vendors and the businesses who advertised in our magazine, I was exposed to a huge assortment of the world's cuisine. As long as it doesn't involve primates, endangered animals, too much carnage on one plate, internal organs*, or, perhaps most importantly, mayonnaise, I'll try anything, at least once. During those years with the food company, I was able to try many boxed falafel mixes, and most of them yielded a dry, yucky falafel, not much better than my dirt falafel in Atlanta all those years ago. It just didn't seem worth trying to make them — at least from a box — at home.

For whatever reason, at the time, it never dawned on me that I'd be capable of making my own falafel from scratch; falafels are kind of exotic, but the ingredients aren't (primarily ground chick peas, a bit of flour, onion, garlic, and other spices), and the preparation isn't terribly complicated either: grind everything into a paste, form it into a small ball or patty, and then, bake or fry. Of course, frying is better. I wouldn't steer you wrong. But I stayed away from making my own, because I figured that since the blood running through my body was not of Arabic stock, and with no family recipe, no birthright, how could I DARE attempt making falafel from scratch? So I didn't.

And then, serendipity. Glen and I met Rami, a warm, funny Palestinian man with whom we developed a quick friendship. Rami ran a Middle Eastern restaurant, Boustaan (which means "Garden" in Arabic), in Cherry Hill, and damn, that man could make a mean batch of falafels. The idea of making falafels at home — especially from a box — suddenly became very, very stupid. Sadly, Rami's business did not succeed, and Rami moved back to North Jersey, and by 2004, Glen and I again found ourselves falafel-less.

Oh, Rami, why have you forsaken us?

Glen and I moved to Trenton later that same year, and chatted with Rami on the phone from time to time, and he told us about his cousin, Alyan, who runs Alyan's Restaurant in the South Street district in Philadelphia, and who uses the same family falafel recipe that Rami used. Glen was working in Philadelphia at the time, so that gave us reason to visit Rami's cousin periodically, and I will say, his cousin's food is just as good as Rami's, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you visit Alyan's (602 S. 4th St., just off South Street). Get yourself a falafel sandwich, with a side of Alyan's fries (homemade, and topped with onions and jalapenos), and a glass of mint iced tea to wash it down: fabulous. Oh, and ask to sit in the back, which has the feel of a cozy kitchen, with a big sunny window on the roof and lots of plants. You won't want to leave; it feels like home.

Alyan's shop is very busy, and as such, we weren't able to develop a rapport with him. We missed Rami.

Just a quick aside, I think a lot of folks in this country who do not hail from the Arabic realm, often (not always) make quick assumptions about Arabs: that they're terrorists and fanatical, and worse. I'm not saying there aren't some — obviously, there are; but we have some fanatical, fundamentalist Christians here with, as far as I'm concerned, the very same mindset — but the thing of it is, most people are not the sort to resort to violence to get their points across. The Arab culture is steeped in a remarkable, outgoing, generous hospitality, absolutely unrivaled by most other cultures. Rami explained it to us that Arabs are traditionally nomadic, and with all that moving around, often run into rough weather, or some trouble with thugs along the way. It's part of their heritage to invite in a distressed stranger; s/he can stay for three days, no personal or political questions asked, and the stranger is treated like family. To me, this trait makes many Arabs fantastic restauranteurs and caterers.

Glen switched jobs in 2006, which made it less practical to get to Alyan's on a regular basis. So we scoured this area for decent middle eastern cuisine, but came up, for the most part, empty handed. There was a place called Aladdin's at the intersection of Hamilton and Nottingham avenues in Hamilton, but I think it's gone now. The woman who ran it was Egyptian, and she was very nice: she made her own pita fresh daily, so the smell of the fresh bread was alluring, for sure — I still think about it. The rest of the food, we thought, was just okay.

We found another place up in Somerset County north of Princeton on Rt. 206. The meal was okay, but we liked the dessert better; we ordered a piece of pistachio baklava, and a treat the waitress recommended to us, that her mother made herself. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name of it, but mom used kataifi (shredded phyllo dough), and it contained the familiar mix of honey and walnuts, and was very, very good.

I like dessert, but I'm more of an appetizer gal. This further disappointment made us miss Rami even more. But he wasn't going back into the food business.

It's so much easier when you're in the market for the perfect burger or pizza: there are so many wonderful places around here from which to choose. Falafel is a bit more scarce. There's a halal butcher near Five Points in Hamilton, and he sells frozen, cook-at-home falafels, which were pretty damn good. And, Glen found a joint across the Cluck-U on Broad Street, and convinced the owner to show Glen how to make falafel at home. He wouldn't give Glen the recipe, but offered pointers on just how to form the ball in his hands, and what sort of consistency it should be, and so forth, and told him that great falafel always contains fava beans in addition to garbanzos — the favas keep the patties moist.

Recently, I was flipping channels and came across Sara's Secret's on the Food Network. I don't watch her often enough to have a strong opinion on her, but I feel like I want to like her, because whenever I stumble across her, she's making something that sounds so appealing to me. But I do pick up a slight bit of snobbery from her, as well: she is, after all, the executive chef of Gourmet magazine (ooh la laaaaaaa). She has a sly way of looking into the camera just as she, for instance, tosses a wee bit of rough sea salt onto her cutting board with her garlic before chopping it, as if to say, "you foodies know why I've done that, but I will not to explain it to the ignorant masses who may have stumbled across my show." I am the ignorant masses, but happened to read last year that tossing a bit of coarse sea salt in with your garlic helps keep it on the board and less slippery/sticky, and therefore, easier to chop. But the sly look pisses me off, even though she did — last time I watched her — make three super yummy-looking sandwiches, one of which was falafel. I paused the show (yep, we pay for that, and I will not apologize for it) and ran for a pad and pen and wrote down the words that appeared to the left of my TV screen. I figured if Sara — even though she is an executive chef at a very famous magazine, and I am, well, not — could do it, so could I, since by the look of things, with her blue eyes and blond hair, she may have even less Arabic heritage than I do (and I have none).

The following weekend, Glen and I were so excited to try it; I just felt good about Sara's recipe. I acknowledged that I, with my primarily Irish and German blood coursing through my cardiovascular system, am a pretty decent cook, and I excel at food items that do not hail from the same parts of the world as my (haggis- and schnitzel-loving) ancestors. She talked about the middle eastern women who actually peel the garbanzos, and getting the oil at the right temperature, and using the right amount of this and that, which yields a moist, delicious falafel. I felt that if I thought about those middle eastern women peeling all of those garbanzos, and the history of the falafel, and respected the traditions that surround this beloved food, I, too, would find success.

Glen's got a kitchen appliance addiction, and was happy to whip out the deep fryer for this, our first attempt at cooking falafels from scratch. We were confident and very hungry.

But disaster struck: I had written "one pound garbanzos" and used a can plus of beans; I have since learned that Sara started with a pound of DRY beans, which she soaked overnight, which created possibly 80 or 90 pounds of rehydrated beans the following day. But we didn't know that, and we had no idea the incredible lack of beanage would mean that our falafels would meet with dismal failure. While we were chopping and grinding, we were completely unaware of what was in our immediate future. The aroma was smelled delicious, and Glen merrily channeled the Egyptian on Broad Street, to recall the lesson he learned about forming the falafel in his hand. We had a plate piled with little falafels, prepared for frying, and Glen plopped them into the appliance, where they promptly disintegrated, one after another. Our merriment was short-lived. I was dumbfounded, and Glen was furious. I will say that if copying directions from the TV isn't my strong suit, I do handle emergencies very well. I had an irate husband, whose good nature will disappear faster than our falafels in oil, if he does not get fed in a timely manner. So, I figured "quick food first, and we'll sort out this mess later." We had a mostly full can of chick peas left, and I dumped them in the food processor with some tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and salt, and made a very delicious impromptu bowl of hummus, which we ate with pita and tomatoes and cheese. And it was really spectacular hummus — my first attempt at home, for the record — and it, most importantly, curbed Glen's hunger, but we were kind of devastated by the mess in the deep fryer, the mess in the food processor: all that effort for nothing.

We did our reading, and found out that we needed to start with the pound of DRY beans. I'm repeating this so hopefully it sinks in, just in case you stumble across this post in the hopes of making your own falafel. So, I soaked them on Friday night, and we began preparation again on Saturday night. As I ground up the beans, I found the overall consistency to be rougher, the flavor nuttier, but read that was a good thing. We were far more guarded with our hope this time, but we know, with Rami out of the food business, that we have to make falafels, if we want them. It's on us.

Anyway, I prepared all of the ingredients, but only formed two patties, reserving the rest of the mix, in case things went awry. And sadly, those two quickly disintegrated, like their predecessors from last week, which infuriated Glen even more than ever...we started later on Saturday night than we had last time, and the DVR thingy didn't pause his hockey game correctly, which means he missed a Don Cherry's Hockey Night in Canada, and believe you me, you were better off wherever you were on Saturday night.

I had again put some beans to the side, in the event of disaster, to make hummus again. Hummus from dried, soaked beans is a bit different, at least it was for me: it was coarser, and took forever to even come close to smooth in the food processor, and my beginners luck (at least for the hummus) was no more, and I may — after all that gloating about not having any allergies in my recent post about Glen's hatred for Kleenex — have some kind of sensitivity to sesame, so I didn't add too much tahini (ground sesame paste) to the hummus this time, which made it harder to achieve the proper smoothness. So the results weren't as good as the hummus that sprung to life after the last falafel failure in our kitchen. But it wasn't bad, either. I added a small handful of fresh cilantro and a good splash of lemon juice, and so, the final product, served with dill, cilantro, cucumbers, pita, and tomatoes, was tasty.

After our early failure, I put the remaining "dough" in the fridge, and Glen and I spent a bit of time yesterday scouring the internet, not wanting to waste enough fixings for nearly 40 precious falafels. We found that disintegrating falafels is a relatively common problem, which some people remedy by adding more flour, or more water, depending on what intuition dictates as one forms the patty. Some people add egg, but I knew Rami didn't use eggs for his falafel, and so, I didn't want to, either. Rami's level of falafel greatness is what we're trying to achieve, after all, and egg was a step in the wrong direction, to be sure. Since my mix was kind of rough, I ran the mixture through the food processor again, in batches, and wound up adding some water...and — I know this is probably not done, but instinct told me we needed just a small hit of flour to make it work, so — I dropped each small patty into some flour before dropping them in VERY hot oil. And this time, we decided to cook them in a frying pan, so the bulk of the falafel patty would be out of the oil — like a pancake. It seems like all of this worked, and we were, well, relieved. And also really happy. They weren't as good as Rami's: I think he, like Glen's Egyptian buddy on Broad Street, used a mix of garbanzos and fava beans, and he definitely had some parsley in there too, because his are a perfect golden brown on the outside, but have some fresh green goodness on the inside. Also, I think I made the mixture just a bit too smooth; a perfect falafel, in my mind, is a bit more rustic. But we're on the right track.

We ate up all of the cucumber Saturday night, a bummer for our meal Sunday night, but we made out okay: we had a bit of leftover green, rough quasi-hummus; and Glen made himself a tahini-lemon dip, and I made a tzatziki-style sauce with some fresh Greek yogurt, lemon juice, herbs, and chili powder.

Don't those falafels look delicious?! They're topped with dill and cilantro, and accompanied by pita, some really flavorful cherry tomatoes, and (front to back) tzatziki (Greek herbal yogurt dip), tahini (sesame paste), and some messed-up but tasty nonetheless cilantro hummus.

We have not quite reached Falafel-Greatness, but we are close. I think the next time we make them, we might just achieve that. And when we do, we can track down Rami**, and invite him, and everyone else over for a Falafel-Fest, and we can talk, and drink mint tea (or whatever) and enjoy each others' company.

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* I am not a vegetarian, but have a hard time cooking large hunks of meat, especially mammal. I will eat mammal, but it is always with an awareness of what I'm doing. It started because as a teenager, someone I know was defrosting a roast on the counter, which is just not done anymore — and should have never been done in any era — and the blood was running toward the edge of the counter. The faceless block of meat leaking life on that counter suddenly seemed like it could be anyone I know and love: a family member, a friend, my dog. There was no way of knowing what was bleeding on the counter, and that distressed me a lot. So anyway, I'll eat it occasionally (depending on what it is, exactly, and who's cookin'), but won't prepare it myself. Similarly, even though chicken meat doesn't resemble human or beloved family pet (at least none of my pets), I've cooked a whole chicken and/or turkey fewer times than I have fingers on one hand, though I will prepare parts, and chicken breast, etc. Also, I am just not keen on mixing-and-matching death on my plate. So, bacon-wrapped filet mignon or bacon-topped clams, etc., is just overkill. I don't mean to "disrespek" vegetarians, because I admire their resolve, and will often, happily cook to accommodate them (without sacrifice on my part), but I firmly believe they can really bring down a dinner party with their fussiness. I suppose this is one of my greatest character flaws: it is more important to me to not draw attention to my eating habits at a dinner engagement than it is for me to stand up for my animal friends. I do hate myself for that sometimes. And yet, the fact that we have some sharp teeth and thumbs and tool- and fire-making abilities indicates to me that we, as a species, do have a tendency to eat meat. But we, unlike, say, sharks, have higher brain function and can make really thoughtful decisions about the creatures who inhabit the earth with us. Damn, I'm a mess. A total mess. And I'm so sorry. I'll shut up now.

**Oh, but wait. There's more. Rami also made an Arabic specialty called Kibbi. Or Kibbeh. There are probably as many different spellings as there are preparations for this yumminess. After we reach a higher level of success with falafel, we may move on to Kibbi. Again, Rami's were the best. Hands-down. If you're not familiar, I would put kibbi in the glorious family of "meat pie." Inside is a mixture of ground meat (Rami used beef, but some use lamb...ick), and pine nuts, and herbs and spices, and it's enveloped in a pastry sort of pocket. Maybe Rami can just bring us some kibbi to share with you when we have our falafel fest.

4 comments:

Old Mill Hill said...

Interesting in that there is a similar treat, "Bollos," that you can find in Key West and such. It' is basically a fritter made from ground up black eyed peas, garlic and some hot pepper.

The mixture is shaped into small spheres and deep fried.

Great munchies with a cold beer or two.

Finding the right balance and texture has been a challange, but the results that have kept their form have been wonderful reminders of lost days "at the end of the world."

Chrissy said...

Wow, bollos sound delicious. We may be off on a new quest soon!

Anonymous said...

Why oh why do we lack good mideast restaurants here?!?! We visited friends in south Philly a few weeks ago and I indulged in a fantastic gyro, fabulous hummus and to die for tabbouleh!! Oh, how I miss that cuisine...

Sunday Mr. Clean and I came across a mideast restaurant in Montgomery...is that the place you guys visited-near the Montgomery cinema? I thought about dragging Mr. C back up there...

Mmmm...falafel...hummus...I'm now waxing nostalgic for the Lebanese restaurant I went to in college. The smaller-than-Trenton town in MO had one...wah! why can't we?!?!

Ok, enough whining! You can make me falafel anytime!

Irving Bertrand Clean said...

First off, how did Ms. Clean get on here? I thought I took the computer with me to Indiana? We need to have a talk when I get home.

For all of the goodness that the Irish have given us, their boiled meat "delicacy" is a plague, indeed. And cabbage should never be eaten by anyone.

As with most things, however, there is a trade-off.

I'll excuse the corned beef/cabbage transgression in exchange for The Guinness alone, and don't even get me started on the joys that are The Smithwick's and The Jameson.

But falafel? I like falafel.