Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I'd sneak into the Gaza Strip for a good Falafel...

...fortunately, I don't have to.

Falafel's one of those things you don't realize it's potential until you have a good one, and then you spend an eternity wallowing in inferior ones, cursing the world that you can't find a good one anymore. At least, that's how it is for me. I had the luxury a few years ago of having a really good restaurant near my office that made what I still consider to be the best falafel in Birmingham. They were a little unconventional, as they were patties instead of the round hush-puppy-esque balls most places serve. The flavor was fantastic, but what really made the falafel an experience was the texture. I believe the shop owner fried em up in a cast iron skillet, because the mouthfeel was almost exactly like a good piece of good southern sage sausage. That perfectly crispy, yet fork-tender outside that yielded into a substantial, very moist, yet meaty interior. It was light years beyond the usual Lebanese stuff to be found in town, which had a sort of shapeless soft texture that reminded me more of dry cornbread stuffing than anything.

I was content to rest on my laurels and eat there pretty much forever, and then the shop closed. It broke my heart. I haven't been that upset about a restaurant shuttering in effectively ever. It wasn't just the falafel, which alone was worth every meal. Their baba ghannouj was the richest, their maamoul made me never want for a fig newton ever again, and I probably shouldn't talk about the electric-purple pickled turnip straws in their salads and shawarma plates, lest I get kind of emotional. Suffice to say, best pickled anything. Ever. Nevermind that the place had a hookah (and the same three dudes were always out front puffing on it, just chilling out) and had a market in the back where you could buy everything from spices to turkish delight to tea sets, but to make it even better, the proprietor was a big Alabama fan. I could go in there and BS about cooking, BS about the Tide, and enjoy every moment of it.

I tried to replicate the magic for years and the results were hit and miss. My falafels would fall apart. I'd try to dredge in some rice flour to crisp them up, which resulted in a hard outside and a fairly under-done inside. It was still better than chain falafel, but man, it was nothing like the good stuff. I began looking for volunteer slots in UNICEF to see if I could go on sabbatical doing humanitarian work that would be paid in falafel. I was that desperate.

Fortunately, I struck gold, pretty much because I was randomly looking for a recipe to try. I yanked this recipe from Chow Vegan, which is actually a baked falafel. I tweaked it a little bit because I wanted it fried (basically removed the baking powder, lemon juice, and oil) let each batch rip in 320 degree oil for about nine minutes. The results weren't as good as the best falafel I've ever had, but they're so close that I can curb my nostalgia a little bit. The bits of onion carmelize into that deeply bittersweet flavor, and the little bits of un-smashed chicpea get very nutty and provide a great difference in texture to the rest of the falafel. I crammed those into some homemade pita breads with some spinach, plum tomatoes, and diced purple onion, then spooned some dill hommous over it. I realize it's a bit of a weird move, hommous on falafel. Chicpea dip meets chicpea croquette, but seeing as tzatziki isn't vegan, it's perfectly passable, and more to the point, tastes good.

So while I eat this complete badass of a pita, I'm pouring out a little cardamom chai on the ground for my departed homie, and while it still sucks that the restaurant is gone, I'm at least able to make a falafel that I know can throttle anything else in town I've tasted.


Ashton Lee said...

I am 14 weeks pregnant, and totally new to having a cooking blog, and I was looking for amazing food writers blogs...and I'm blonde and getting sidetracked BUT...THAT-LOOKS-SO-YUMMY. Oh my goodness, so good... yum. I loved your post.

Chuck said...

Glad you like it Ashton :-) If there's anything you don't see here that you'd like some ideas on, definitely send me a shout. I'd be glad to post them. Mostly the thing that keeps me from writing is my own laziness and lack of direction, so I'd probably write more with that sort of inspiration.