I fell in love with falafel in college.

At a neighborhood eatery in the sprawling city of Syracuse, my vegetarian roommate and I frequently ordered cardboard takeout boxes stuffed with piping hot, deep-fried chickpea patties. Each order came with a little plastic cup filled with a tangy tahini dipping sauce. It was cheap, portable and filling, and most importantly it was delicious.

Years and years passed before I made my own falafel and realized how simple the process really is. Now this naturally vegan Middle Eastern dish is a staple on my dinner table. Falafel is part of a trio of dishes from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean that I make regularly. The other two are mujaddara and hummus.

I find these dishes pair well together, yet each stands alone with ease. All three make great additions to salads, sandwiches and wraps.

Of the three, mujaddara, or lentils and rice with sautéed onions, is the most difficult to find in restaurants and stores. I first tasted it at a Lebanese restaurant in Hallowell in the late 1980s. It was served hot beneath a green salad dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. I was instantly hooked.

More than a decade later when I was working in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, I discovered an otherwise ordinary sandwich shop near my office offered mujaddara wraps with pickled peppers. I ordered one almost every day. Locally, Lois’ Natural in Scarborough often sells a housemade version.

Finally, there is good old hummus. I’ve been eating this bean dip for so long I have no recollection of my first encounter with its comforting, creamy goodness. In the last few decades, hummus has exploded in popularity and now can be found everywhere from Subway to 7 Eleven. Even so, I frequently make my own and am always glad when I do, particularly since I like my hummus thicker than most varieties you can buy at the store.

Of the three recipes, mujaddara is the easiest to make. All you do is cook the rice and the lentils and sauté the onions. If you have canned or cooked chickpeas on hand, hummus is a snap to whip up as well.

After talking with chefs about how they make hummus, I have a new appreciation for soaking my own beans. I season the soaking water with cumin, coriander, seaweed, a bay leaf and sea salt. This gives the cooked beans a deeper flavor note that carries through to the final dish.

It’s the same seasoning mixture I turn to when soaking chickpeas for falafel.

After I soak the chickpeas for falafel, I don’t boil them. Instead I grind the still hard beans in a food processor, which allows the little bean bits to cook quickly either in the oven or a frying pan.

Falafel can be shaped into any size, and I’ve seen it served in a range of forms from tiny one-bite nuggets to long tofu-pup-sized croquettes. I tend to make mine into small patties.

While traditional falafel is deep-fried, the skillet method I use achieves a similar crunchy exterior while using a lot less oil. A quicker and oil-free way to cook falafel is to bake the patties on parchment paper.

If you’re familiar with falafel recipes, you’ll notice mine is heavy on the cilantro. Surprisingly, I’ve served this falafel recipe to avowed cilantro-haters who’ve said “This is delicious. What’s in the recipe?” If you don’t love cilantro the way I do, you can use as little as a 1/2 cup of it. But if you’re a cilantro fan, this recipe is apt to make you fall in love with falafel just as I did all those years ago.

FALAFEL

These cilantro-packed patties can be made into a variety of shapes and sizes and fried in a skillet for a traditional falafel or baked for an oil-free version.

Makes 20 patties about 11/2-inches wide

11/2 cups dried chickpeas, soaked overnight

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

3 medium garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

3 cups chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chickpea flour

1 tablespoon ground cumin

11/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Vegetable oil, if frying

Drain the beans and add them to a food processor along with the remaining ingredients except the vegetable oil. Process for a couple minutes, scraping down the sides as needed, until the mixture is well combined yet still chunky.

SKILLET METHOD: Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat and add enough oil to fill the skillet about 1/4 inch deep. Heat the oil until a drop of falafel mixture placed in the skillet sizzles and begins to cook.

Using your hands or a spoon, scoop an overflowing tablespoon (this can be more or less depending on how big you want the patties to be) of the falafel and place it in the oil.

Depending on the size of your skillet and the size of each patty, you should be able to fit 3 to 4 patties at a time.

Let the falafel cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the outside begins to brown, then flip them over and cook until the other side browns.

Remove the patties from the skillet and drain on a paper towel. Refill the skillet with oil as needed and continue to cook the rest of the falafel. Serve hot.

OVEN METHOD: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and drop the falafel onto the paper in patties. You may need more than 1 pan. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and flip each patty. Bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve.

LEMON-PEPPER TAHINI SAUCE

This tangy sauce is the perfect complement to falafel and works as a dipping sauce or as a dressing added to a falafel salad or a falafel roll-up.

Makes enough for 1 batch of falafel

1/2 cup tahini

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

4 teaspoons white miso

4 teaspoons tamari

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients with 1/2 cup water in a measuring cup. Use a whisk or a fork to blend until smooth. You can store the sauce in the refrigerator for a few days.

CLASSIC HUMMUS

This makes a thick hummus that works well as a dip or a sandwich spread. If you plan to cook your own chickpeas, you will need 11/2 cups dried.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

31/2 cups cooked chickpeas

1 lemon, juiced

2 overflowing tablespoons tahini

2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon onion powder

11/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup roughly chopped cilantro (optional)

Add the chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients except the cilantro to a food processor. Blend until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the cilantro (if using) and pulse a few times until incorporated. Chill for 1 to 2 hours, or longer.

OPTIONAL: If you intend to serve the hummus as a dip, set aside 1/4 cup of the cooked chickpeas before blending. When the hummus is finished, garnish it with the whole chickpeas and a drizzle of olive oil.

MUJADDARA

Serve hot or cold, topped with a salad or packed into a roll-up.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 cup brown rice

1 cup dried lentils

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, sliced into rings or diced

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Add 2 cups of water each to 2 stockpots. Rinse the rice and add it to one pot and then rinse the lentils and add to the other. Bring each pot to a boil, reduce the heat to low and allow the pots to simmer with the lids slightly askew.

Cook for 35 to 45 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Turn off the heat, cover and let sit. While the beans and rice cook, add a glug of olive oil to a frying pan and heat. Then add the onions and sauté over medium low heat until a translucent brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Mix the rice, lentils, onions and salt and pepper. Serve hot or cold.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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