I don’t think I will ever forget the first time I had felafel. That day changed my culinary horizons, it was a revelation. The humble Felafel and Fries in Adams Morgan in DC still holds a place of great esteem in my mind. Those may sound like strong words, but you have to understand my background to understand.
I grew up outside of Amarillo, Texas. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, let me sketch a picture. While it is the largest city in the Texas Panhandle (an area larger than your average European country) its culinary options were quite limited. It was exotic for us to go to the King and I Thai restaurant. I’m sure there was a Chinese restaurant, but we didn’t go often. Foreign food was the Italian place. We did have a Japanese place, but that was only for very special occasions. It was the kind with the cooking surface in the middle of the table and the chef set something on fire to oohs and aahs at least once. There was no sushi offered. There were lots of Mexican places, but when you live in Texas that is not considered foreign food. While my parents are very adventurous eaters and almost never refuse to try something, there were no options to try.
Then I moved to Sherman, Texas, to go to college. While it was within an hour of the Dallas Metroplex, I didn’t get down there very often. And when I did we didn’t tend to go to “exotic” places to eat. Sherman itself is even smaller than Amarillo and the restaurants of note at the time were all grills, bars, American places, and Glory To God Restaurant (not kidding). I got to travel to seven countries on four continents during undergrad, and being open for adventure I got to try all kinds of foods (the “western food court” at the Seoul airport served cuttlefish as the dish of the day). But those were all special event traveling food, not something I would have at home.
I spent the first semester of my senior year of college interning with the excellent organization Fair Fund in Washington, DC, and being an “exchange student” at Georgetown University. It was a great experience. I learned that I NEVER want to live on the east coast (friends laughed at me when I said the city was making me claustrophobic), I met great friends that I still talk to, and greatly expanded my horizons. The people who I worked with at Fair Fund were much more cosmopolitan than little Texas me and were all about going to different kinds of restaurants for lunch. They introduced me to Ethiopian food, generic African places (there were a lot around us), and the incomparable Felafel and Fries.
The girl I worked with said that it was a bit of a walk (we were about a 10 min walk from the Dupont Circle station), but there was this great place in Adams Morgan for felafel. It was a nice day, so I said let’s go for it. And I had no idea what felafel was, so of course I had to try. When you walk up you do not expect to see an eatery there. It’s in a fairly residential area, and there is just a little sign in the little patch of grass that says in plain black letters “Felafel and Fries.” There is room for maybe 15 people if you squeeze inside. There is like a cafeteria line at the back. If you order a felafel sandwich in a pita you get to choose what fillings you want to add. They deep fry the felafel and the fries, take them out hot, put the little balls of felafel in your pita, and then smash them flat. Then you get to add what you like. The creamy dill sauce was highly recommended, so I did that along with some cucumbers, tomatoes, and some kind of spicy sauce.
It was heaven. Crunchy, creamy, warm and cool, portable, and delicious. I had never had Mediterranean food before. Well, of course I had the kabobs that are available all over the place in DC, but not real med food. It was a revelation. The combinations were so fresh and healthy and refreshing in the hot DC climate. And I was hooked on the dill sauce. I could not figure out what exactly was in it, just that I loved it.
I tried to figure out what was in the sauce on and off for years. I always got close, but never there. Now, almost 5 years later, I have figured it out! The key is plain Greek yogurt (or just plain normal yogurt instead) and mint. The mint came as a final blinding “DUH!” when I saw it in a recipe for a variation of this used with Indian food.
The recipe for the felafel comes from the Moosewood Cookbook. I just got this book a few weeks ago and it is already well stained and water damaged. That is how you know it is a good cookbook. It has great vegetarian ideas, and this recipe can’t be beat. I have tried the box of felafel mix you can get in the store, and other variations, but they were not even close to good. This is finally it–the felafel recipe of all recipes.
If you have been reading this still not knowing what felafel is, I recommend that you google image it. It is a little fried (lightly fried in this version) patty made with chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and spices. I highly recommend trying this. This recipe is as good as I have had in restauraunts. It makes a big batch, so you can save some, or freeze it, to have ready to go later. I have been making little batches every few days when the mood strikes.
Felafel is great as a sandwich with fresh veggies and this sauce in a pita. You can also add some spicy peppers or hot sauce if you like. But I came up with a great appetizer variation. It is nice enough to be used for a dinner party. In the instructions you will see that it calls for a tablespoon dropped into the oil. That makes a pretty big patty. To make an appetizer just put in a small drop and spread out–so that it is bite sized. Once you are done frying it let it cool a bit (so that you can handle it and have it as finger food). Then top with a dollup of the sauce and a halved slice of cucumber. Light, cruchy, creamy, and refreshing, it is a great little finger food.
To make it better, this is really easy to make with a food processor. It stores for over a week in the fridge and only gets better as it sits.
- 4 C cooked chick peas, or 2-15 oz cans.
- 4 medium cloves of garlic
- 1/2 C minced onion (about 1 small onion), or 6 scallions
- 1/2 C packed fresh parsley
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 c water
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- a few dashes of cayenne
- 1/3 C flour
- oil for frying
- To serve: sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, lettuce, pita bread, peppers, anything you like.
- 1 C plain Greek yogurt (or not Greek plain yogurt is fine too–the only difference is texture. Use Greek for a thicker sauce).
- 1/2 c minced cucumber. Don’t mince it too much, you want it to still have a little crunchy in it.
- 3/4 Tbsp chopped fresh dill (fresh is important in this one)
- 2 tsp chopped fresh mint
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- Mix everything up together for the sauce in a bowl that you can cover (I just use a tupperware). Let it sit in the fridge while you do the rest. It will seem like a lot of dill at first, but it mellows out. It is even better to make the sauce the day before.
- In a food processor blend together the onion/scallion, garlic, and parsley. These things need to be minced. But since they become a paste later you might as well mince them all together in the food processor.
- Add in one of the cans of chick peas. Process until chopped down a bit. Add in the other can and pulse a few times. Then add in the cumin, turmeric, salt, water, lemon juice and cayenne. Blend in the processor until it forms close to a paste. Add in the flour and keep going until it is a smooth paste.
- You can store the batter at this point if you like in the fridge.
- In a large heavy skillet heat about 3 Tbsp vegetable or other high-smoke point oil (read: not olive oil, it burns too easily). It needs to be REALLY hot for this to work without deep frying them (I found that out the hard way). A bread crumb should instantly sizzle when you drop it in, and it should look shimmery on top when seen from an angle. You will probably need to refresh the oil as you go along (depending on how many batches you do), so keep the bottle close.
- Drop a tablespoon of batter into the oil and press down with the back of the spoon to flatten slightly into a patty or a small pancake. Repeat as many times as you like.
- Saute for about 5 min on each side until golden brown.
- Take out with a slotted spoon/spatula and let drain on a plate covered with a paper towel. If necessary keep them in the oven at 300 until served.
- If having in a sandwich, cut a pita in half and put in 2 patties per side. Stuff with whatever you like and enjoy!