Here was a challenge: my wife had decided to host her staff of 14 in our home for some awful reason. Something to do with a training video and general good-vibe staff retreat benefits. They would need to eat food, of course, and herein lay the challenge: More than half of her staff members consider themselves vegans. Not pescatarians! Not vegetarians! Vegans! No animal products, whatsoever.
The staff had agreed, for the sake of convenience, that whatever was served should be appropriate for all of them, so they would all be going vegan that day. As a result, making something non-vegan and just leaving it to the shitty vegans to figure it out from there wasn’t even an option. My wife is a very busy person, and I am very much not, and so I was asked to prepare food for this group. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stake my reputation as a host to a heap of roughage, though I did enjoy the idea of just leaving a head of cabbage on the dining room table with a pile of forks. No, I needed to do better than that.
What I eventually came up with is falafel. Falafel is one of very, very few vegan food items that are vibrant and satisfying enough that we omnivores won’t just enjoy them, but will eat them hungrily and crave them. Falafel has it all: It’s filling, it’s rich, it’s assertive, it’s texturally interesting, and it can fill a sandwich, which is a basic requirement of any diet staple. During a very brief period in my early 20s when I myself dabbled in vegetarianism, I made and ate an insane amount of falafel. It’s the kind of thing you carry with you when you leave the rabbit diet behind, because it’s delicious, and easy to make, and cheap, and good for you. It’s good food, is what I’m saying. Let’s make some, eh?
Your shopping list is pretty simple: some garbanzo beans; some herbs; some spices; some garlic; some high heat oil; and some sandwich fixings.
There are a couple of ways of doing this, because there are two ways of buying chickpeas: canned, in that weird bean juice; and dry (unless there is a third way I don’t know about—smoked? Frozen? Cured? Do not buy jellied garbanzos.). In theory, canned beans are beans that have been preserved in exactly whatever post-raw state they are normally consumed. But the characteristics that might make a garbanzo bean work as part of a salad or a stew are not necessarily those that make them appropriate as the main ingredient in, say, hummus, or, more to the point, falafel.
Case in point: A few weeks ago, when hosting this damn vegan staff meeting in my damn home, I took a first, practice swing at making falafel, using what I had on hand. And, of course, what I had on hand was a couple admittedly very, very old cans of chickpeas. Hey, this is convenient, I’ll just mash up these here canned chickpeas into delicious falafel for a happy crowd of grateful, appreciative guests. Ah, how naive I was back then.
Here’s what happens when you make falafel out of canned chickpeas: because of the soft, soaked nature of canned chickpeas, the texture of the mashed chickpeas goes from smashed potatoes to hummus in precious few turns of the fork, so that what was on its way to being crumbly, moist falafel will instead be dense and sandy and not especially pleasant. Of course, you can do this with canned chickpeas, and it might turn out wonderful, but this is one of those times when opting for ingredients in their pre-convenience state will give you a far greater chance of winding up with a finished product you actually, you know, like to eat. And you do not want to be the omnivore serving garbage falafel to a room full of vegans. Violent, scary people, the vegans.
So, on my doomed falafel practice run, I dumped all the shit I might want in my falafel into the trusty food processor, pulsed it a few times, looked upon the resulting mixture’s soft, fudge-like texture, thought huh, and started forming it into little balls. The fact that it was sticking to my fingers and palms like, well, fudge, should have told me everything I needed to know. Alas. Needless to say, the entire first batch, made of canned garbanzos, was trash. Good enough for a punishing meal with a gracious wife, but not remotely good enough for the vegans.
You are not going to make the same mistakes I did on that first run. You are going to get yourself a bag of dried garbanzos, and do it right. First things first: get home, drop your dried chickpeas into a colander, and give them a quick rinse. Who knows how long these chickpeas have been sitting on the shelf at your grocery store, and who knows what frightening dust of the ancient world might be coating their pale skin. Give ‘em a quick rinse under some cold water, then drop the chickpeas into a deep bowl or sauce pan or pot and cover them with cold water such that they are sunk beneath at least an inch of water. Here’s what’s gonna happen: the beans are gonna soak up that water, and as they do, they’re gonna expand, and you want to make sure there’s enough water in the bowl that they can double or even triple in size and still mostly be under water.
When you’ve got the chickpeas situated in a some water in a bowl, sock the whole thing away in the fridge and go to bed. You’re gonna leave the chickpeas to soak overnight, so that when you open the fridge tomorrow morning, they look less like the dark, dry, bullet-hard pellets they were out of the bag, and almost like chickpeas you might’ve recently poured out of, yes, a can.
Goddamn you for making me go through an overnight process to produce exactly the chickpeas you just got done telling me not to use. Not so! First of all, you were sleeping! Not a lot of hard work there, toughy. Second of all, the chickpeas in your fridge might look more-or-less like canned chickpeas, but I assure you they are quite different. To make this point, I urge you to go ahead and fire one of those chickpeas home. Oh, yeah, that’s not at all like a canned chickpea, because it’s still hard and brittle and, in fact, generally flavorless, you son of a bitch. Listen, asshole: An idea you’re gonna have to get used to, in cooking, is there are lots of cuisines where whole wide ranges of textures or flavor bases are made from foods that we goober Americans only think to use in limited ways. Yes, the chickpeas don’t taste like much. Neither does a handful of all-purpose flour! Also, you should stop eating handfuls of all-purpose flour, right away.
Because the chickpeas are still kinda hard and brittle, instead of mushing into a sludge when they are compacted, they are going to crumble, and therefore patties or cute little balls made out of these compacted chickpeas will retain some crumbly texture and lightness, and you will enjoy eating them. Which brings us to the next step: strain the liquid out of the chickpeas and dump them into a food processor.
Before we start pulsing, let’s address the flavor problem. A little salt will perhaps make plain chickpea sludge taste more chickpea-y, but I’m not sure that’s gonna make it a whole lot more delicious. I mean, even the best chickpea you ever ate was just a damn chickpea. So! Into the food processor you are going to add good-tasting and -smelling things: a small handful of fresh parsley, a small handful of fresh mint, a small handful of fresh cilantro, and a couple cloves of garlic. Really, you can fuck with this. Add some scallions if you want, or chives, or skip the parsley, or add dill. But add a bunch of whatever you’re using, you know? Like, your falafel paste should be green, and your finished falafel, when you bite into it, should reveal a hot, green interior. Also, go ahead and drop in a couple pinches of salt. Now you see: The chickpeas are there for substance and texture, but your falafel is going to be bright and herby and aromatic with the characteristics of other, better things. No offense, chickpeas.
Now. You can pulse here, if you want. Your falafel will be delicious. But you’ve also got a whole cupboard of little spice bottles, and absolutely no one to stop you from going nuts. A classic combination would be cumin and coriander. I like a little smoked paprika, because I am increasingly incapable of cooking anything without putting some smoked paprika into it. You should feel free to add cayenne pepper, or hot or sweet paprika, or chili powder, or friggin’ sumac or turmeric or whatever you want dude! Add some spices to the food processor, because experimentation is fun and your falafel will still be delicious, in the end.
For sure you are now ready to process all this shit. Don’t just pound down the ON button and go back to playing hours of video games, you slob. You want to process this stuff just long enough that the chickpeas are minced, and no longer. Pulse the food processor a few times, then use a rubber spatula to push the mixture down from the walls of the processor, then pulse some more. Repeat these steps a few times until you’ve got a course, sandy, green mixture in there. Smells good! It’s perfectly edible, and you should probably take a tiny taste of it, to see if it might benefit from another dash of salt or cumin or whatever. Try not to do much more pulsing, if you can get away with it—you were smart to go the dried chickpeas route, but you can still over-process this stuff and wind up with a chickpea smoothie and bad falafel. You want the mix to have the texture of ground up nuts, but not peanut butter, know what I mean?
We’re close to cooking. Dump and spoon and in all other ways transport the falafel mixture out of the food processor and into a big bowl. Also, haul out a deep, heavy pot, pour a couple inches of high heat oil down in there, and set it over medium heat. Like fried plantains and fried eggplant (and unlike fried chicken and apple fritters), there won’t be any especially horrible consequences for getting the temperature of the oil a little bit wrong with this or that batch of falafel (more on this in a second). We want the oil to be hot enough that the balls don’t sit there, inert, soaking up oil, but not so hot that the outsides char by the time the insides have even started to heat up. That range is fairly broad, and forgiving. You’ll have some wiggle room, is what I’m saying.
The oil is gonna need a few minutes to heat up, which is convenient, because our falafel mixture is gonna need a few minutes to, umm, do science. You see, what we have not done, to this point, is add anything to our falafel mixture that might be considered a binding agent. This is because some of what we’re banking on is that the starch inside the chickpeas will be enough to grab ahold of all the action in there and hold it together through a pretty intense application of hot oil. But this is a very uncertain, unreliable process, I have to warn you.
For example, a couple weeks back, when prepping to host a bunch of actual vegans in my very home, I was at exactly this stage—mixture prepped, oil on the stove—when I made a bad mistake. I formed a ball of falafel and dropped it into the oil before two things had happened; the oil wasn’t hot enough to start cooking the exterior of the falafel right away; and the mixture hadn’t had enough time for the starch inside the chickpeas to leak out of the chickpeas and permeate the mixture. Because the oil wasn’t hot enough, the falafel didn’t cook right away so much as it just started soaking up the oil. And because there was nothing binding the constituent parts of the falafel together, this oil absorption took on the look of a matter transfer—oil moved towards the core of the ball, and falafel sand floated off into the lake of oil, so that by the time the oil was hot enough to cook and had reached the core of the falafel, there was literally no falafel left to cook. There was, instead, an algae-like coating layer of falafel detritus floating on the top of the oil, rapidly turning brown. Son of a bitch.
For the time being, we are going to give the mixture a few minutes to sit there and soak and exchange, umm, science, so that there will be something more than careful forming and willpower to hold it in ball shape in the hot oil. When the oil has a shimmery look to it, do the old wooden spoon trick, where you ease the end of a wooden spoon or chopstick into the oil and look to see if little bubbles rise from it. This is, of course, inexact, so you should go ahead and drop a piece of bread or cucumber or something like that into the oil. If the oil starts to boil around the food, it’s ready to fry. Grab up a small quantity of falafel mixture and use your fingers to form it into something roughly ball-shaped. These should be smaller than golf balls—smaller, even, than ping pong balls (until this very moment I had no idea that was a difference of less than three millimeters). Think of those small bouncy balls you used to get out of those crappy little vending boxes outside the grocery store. You want them just a bit larger than those, because you want them to cook evenly and quickly. I mean who the hell has all day to wait for a damn falafel baseball to finish cooking. When your first falafel ball is formed, go ahead and [deep breath] drop it into the oil.
Oh shit no what is happening??? It’s dissolving oh no!!!! Gah! Sorry! See, here’s a problem. Some dry beans are, you know, remotely fresh, and perhaps it’s these remotely fresh dry beans that easily give up their starch. Other dry beans are from the days of Tutankhamun, and perhaps it’s these ancient dry beans that hold onto their starch until the very bitter end. One way or another, sometimes you drop that first ball in there and it just flies apart like a dandelion seed head. If your first falafel ball falls into the latter group, I’m very sorry about that. I have been there myself, more than once, and very recently. Here’s what you do: use a spoon to yank out the rapidly dissolving falafel ball, and then add a couple fat pinches of starch to your goddamn falafel mixture. I used cornstarch last time, because it was what I had, and it was fine. Just use a fork to smush a little starch into the mixture, and I promise it’ll now hold together just fine.
Keep a rag handy, and mind the oil temperature. Work in batches. Make four or five little balls, then gently drop them into the oil, then wipe off your hands, then start forming four or five more little balls, then flip over the first batch so that both sides brown in there, then keep forming little balls, then haul out the first batch onto a couple paper towels, then drop the next batch into the oil, then repeat. Look for golden-brown color on your falafel balls before you pull them out. This is a quick, easy, low-stakes cooking process—the very worst thing that could happen, within the normal range of possibilities, is a couple falafel balls are still a little al dente in the very middle, but still delicious. Outside the normal range of possibilities, I suppose your falafel might start writhing and wailing and spewing acid blood when it hits the oil, but you will be so completely beyond my advice, should that happen. Just make sure all of it dies in the fire.
When all the falafel is cooked a lovely golden brown and out of the oil, get the oil away from the heat, and go ahead and have a bite of one of those little beauties. Yummmmmmmmmmmm. Yes! Crisp and flaky on the outside, with a hot, steaming, crumbly interior; bright and herby and sharp with the kick of still-mostly-raw garlic; soft and light, but substantial, and powerfully satisfying. Imagine a whole damn sandwich of these things! That’s what you’ve gotta do: heat up a slab of flatbread or pita or naan, pile it high with little falafel balls, drop some crunchy cucumber or radish or some arugula or all of the above on there, dress the whole thing with yogurt and tahini, then smash it into your face with so much violence that most of your teeth go down with it. Holy fucking God that’s delicious. Yes! That’s what I thought! The vegans will love these falafel sandwiches!
Here’s a tragedy: I laid out this spread that afternoon—hot falafel, hot bread, abundant greenery, a bright cucumber salad, tahini, hot sauce, hummus, the whole deal—and dipped out so the missus and her staff could watch their damn video and do staff retreat things in the comfort of my living room, without me sulking and muttering in some dark corner like Gollum, but when I got home that evening all the bread was still sitting there, uneaten and turning stale. The bread! It was made with eggs and butter! Dammit. Those vegans. How dare they. They didn’t even eat sandwiches. They used the rest of the bounty for salads. Of course, they ate all the falafel. I suppose that was the idea.