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Cooked falafels

I’m researching in Berlin at the moment, in a city of falafels.

I haven’t a clue when falafels first started popping up around Dublin.  In the mid 1980s perhaps? Some time between the first Moving Statues in Ballinspittle and the first Bruce Springsteen gig at Slane?

Even then they were hardly your classic Middle Eastern street-food. More a vague hit-and-miss affair by the occasional Irish food experimenter, alongside DIY veggie burgers yokes and the dreaded nut roast.

(I have nothing against most vegetarian food, but one day I will write a mystery veggie novel called Murder by Nut Roast. It will have a serious shedload of blood in it.)

Anyway, falafels are everywhere nowadays, even in Ireland. I can’t stand those dry factory-made ones you get in supermarkets. Home-made ones are packed with protein, far cheaper, fresher, additive-free and miles tastier.

They are also easy to make. My own trial-and-error recipe for falafels is hardly authentic, but it works. The main ingredient is chickpeas, though some cooks swear by fava or broad beans (or a mixture of chickpeas and broad beans, each bean individually skinned by hand of course).

The chickpeas I’d use are dried ones, about a cupful. Tinned chickpeas work nearly as well, but the dried ones seem to give a better range of textures.

The only real hassle is to remember to soak them overnight. Then, by magic, those shrivelled old things plump up and take on a warm glow.

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Some recipes then tell you to boil the chickpeas. But, just this once, this usual safety precaution about dried beans, red kidney beans or chickpeas is completely unnecessary. The overnight pre-soak in water is fine here, what with the subsequent cooking process…

So. Rinse and drain your pre-soaked chickpeas. Blend them in a blender/liquidiser. Look for the texture of breadcrumbs here, not a runny puree. And try to minimise the amount of liquid you use when blending them. Too much may make the grinding easier, but the falafel balls will fall apart while cooking.

Now add the following ingredients together in a mixing bowl:

  • The chickpeas (pre-soaked overnight then blitzed in a blender as just described)
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped then also blended
  • At least 4 fat cloves of garlic, chopped and blended too
  • A handful of breadcrumbs (I prefer white, freshly made rather than a dried panko type, though wholemeal bread will do)
  • 1 tablespoon of dried coriander
  • 1 or 2 teaspoons of cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper or paprika for a bit of heat
  • 1 teaspoon of turmeric for taste and that golden glow
  • Salt and pepper
  • A generous handful of fresh coriander and fresh parsley
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder

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Many recipes skip a raising agent, but I find the baking powder makes everything much fluffier. If you are making the mixture well in advance, leave out the baking powder; then add it to the mix just before you shape the falafel balls.

Some recipes will also tell you to add a beaten egg to bind the mixture. You don’t need it.

Shapes and sizes

So you’ve mixed all the above ingredients together with a spoon, or literally by hand. If the mixture seems too dry – which is very unlikely – simply add a teaspoon or two of cold water to loosen it up a bit.

Now take a small amount of the mixture, roughly the size of a walnut but no bigger than a ping-pong ball (and now you’re going to interrupt and ask if that means the walnut is shelled or not, and what happens if you have walnuts bigger than a ping-pong ball), and shape it into a ball with your hands.

The shape doesn’t have to be perfect either. Try a flatter mini “burger” shape if you prefer. While shaping each falafel, try to squeeze out any excess liquid so that the mix becomes a reasonably firm, compacted ball.

(You could roll the finished balls in sesame seeds for an extra crunchy coating, but I’ve not tried this yet.)

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Add the balls to your deep-fat fryer. Actually I don’t own such a contraption. I shallow fry them instead, in a steel pot, in about an inch of hot vegetable oil, turning them occasionally with a slotted spoon so that all the sides become browned and crispy. It should only take two or three minutes per batch.

Take them out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.

Serve warm with pitta bread and a dressed salad of finely sliced red onion and tomatoes, and more fresh coriander to garnish. As the falafels can be quite dry, the dish benefits from a simple yoghurt and mint sauce, and/or a bowl of hummus.

So that’s one way to make falafels. This is essential to know in precise detail for my fourth Moss Reid book. You see, falafels could very well make a brief cameo appearance in it, in the notorious “Berlin chapter” perhaps. Something along the lines of, um, er…

…while Kahler checks the main exits I head for the kitchen door. Clouds of steam, Turkish words bouncing off the white tiles, a young chef shaping falafels into perfectly spherical balls. He has a steel ruler to measure each falafel, making sure it is the exact size of a walnut (and we’re talking a walnut of the average native American variety here, rather than its slightly larger European cousin, and a walnut still in its case and dried rather than a green one freshly fallen from a tree), then the head waiter dashes past and tells the young chef to stop falafelling about…

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