So nonthreatening, in fact, that when I offered to make a batch for the husband and he asked what a falafel was, the best I could come up with was “it’s kind of like… a ball of garlic dough?” Though even that description falls short, because can you call a ball of blended chickpeas dough? It’s not as decadently batter-esque and fried as a hush puppy—now that’s a fried dough ball.
Falafel’s not a looker and it’s almost too simple for words. Yet less adventurous eaters remain suspicious of what lurks underneath that crispy fried coating, preferring burgers and turkey sandwiches for quick lunches instead of the Middle Eastern street eat. Is it the name that keeps them away? Do they wonder if there’s mystery meat inside, or even mystery fish? Why do people stay away?
Well, falafel ain’t beige in personality when you bite into it. Traditionally flavored with cumin, coriander and garlic, the falafel transforms baby-food-boring garbanzo beans into a full-on meal, a starchily spicy Lebanese specialty that gets super-friendly with pickled vegetables, pita bread and creamy sauces. And this chickpea croquette is cheap. How cheap? How much does a can of beans cost in your neck of the woods? No wonder starving students and office assistants on the run have made a falafel pita their unofficial desperation lunch.
Now two growing chains—Maoz and Chickpea—are making huge steps to bring falafel from the realm of college kids and hole-in-the-wall lunch spots to the mainstream. Chickpea has staked its claim on a few kiosks within the bustling commuter maze that is New York’s Penn Station, and Maoz has plunked itself everywhere from touristy Times Square to Berkeley, CA’s Telegraph Avenue.
I’m doing my small part to bring the falafel love to the kitchen. Apart from being ridiculously inexpensive to make, incredibly filling and surprisingly good for you (yep, the tiny chickpea is almost a complete protein and low on the glycemic index, making it the Glinda the Good Witch of carbs), falafels have the added bonus of being flavor chameleons. Want a crab cake but don’t want to splurge? Throw in a teaspoon or two of bay seasoning and pretend you’re on the Chesapeake Bay. Feeling more Tuscan than Turkish? Sub in rosemary and sage for cumin and coriander, and dust the finished falafels with Parmesan before serving with red sauce.
The version below doesn’t even ask you to stink up the house by plugging in the deep fryer. Fresh with lemon zest and flat leaf parsley, the falafel patties crisp up in a skillet and freeze excellently for reheating in a toaster oven or back on the stovetop. Serve with a little tzatziki, ranch dressing, tomato salsa, or even chimichurri. Don’t be afraid.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes if baked, less if pan-fried
Makes 12 patties
- 2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped into a few pieces
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
- 1 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs
- canola oil or grapeseed oil
Grind the chickpeas, garlic, lemon zest, parsley, salt, cumin, and celery seeds in a food processor until a chunky paste forms, stopping periodically to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.
Transfer the blended chickpeas to a bowl, and have the breadcrumbs at the ready in a separate bowl. With your hands, form thick patties about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and dredge in the breadcrumbs.
Pour enough oil just to cover the bottom of a skillet, and heat over moderately high heat until shimmering. Pan-fry the falafel patties, 3 or 4 at a time, until golden brown. Take care when flipping the patties, as they’ll soften when heated but will firm up again as they cool. Transfer the fried falafel to a paper-towel-lined plate.
Alternatively, to bake the falafel, preheat an oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees F and bake falafel for 25-30 minutes, flipping halfway through. This method won’t give the falafel the same golden crunch as frying, but the discs can be reheated in a skillet if desired.