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Falafel

Born somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean many hundreds of years ago, these crispy fritters of fried ground chickpeas seasoned with onion, garlic, herbs and spices are now a favorite snack in many parts of the world, including Montana. And it’s easy to see why. When you bite through the warm, crunchy brown ball, and your taste buds suddenly meet the spicy, soft insides, it’s a wow! sensation.

Falafel originated in Egypt, where it is usually made with fava beans instead of chickpeas. Falafel recipes from Lebanon, Israel, Yemen and other middle eastern countries are often made just with chickpeas, but sometimes both fava beans and chickpeas are commingled.

Whatever the recipe, be sure to start with the dried legumes and soak them overnight in plenty of cool water to cover. Don’t use canned chickpeas or fava beans — they will turn mushy. Drain the soaked chickpeas and rinse them under cool running tap water. Drain well and store them, covered, in the fridge until you’re ready to turn them into falafel. They’ll keep just fine for two to three days.

Falafel are completely vegan and gluten-free. I season them with onion, parsley, garlic, green onion tops, salt, pepper, lemon juice, salt, pepper, cayenne and cumin. For insurance, I add just a tad of chickpea flour to hold the mix together. But many recipes leave it out. So do as you wish.

Cover and refrigerate the falafel mix for at least an hour or two before cooking, or up to 3 days, then shape into balls or flat round cakes and fry in about 1 inch of oil. It’s perfectly okay to use olive oil, even extra-virgin olive oil, to fry falafel because they cook at 360 degrees F., and olive oil is stable to 390 degrees.

Falafel are fun to make and even more fun to eat. I like to serve them with a tzatziki sauce of yogurt and cucumber. They’re also delicious dipped into hummus. For a terrific sandwich, you can stuff 2 or 3 falafel into a pita pocket along with some lettuce, cucumber and tomato, spoon in some tzatziki sauce, and you’ve got a great lunch.

Falafel

Makes 16 to 20 falafel.

8 ounces dried chickpeas

½ cup diced sweet onion or diced white part only of green onions

½ cup sliced green onion tops

½ cup loosely measured flat-leaf parsley leaves (you can substitute part cilantro)

1 teaspoon table salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne

½ teaspoon ground cumin

4 garlic cloves, coarsely cut (about 2 tablespoons)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chickpea flour (if you wish)

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2 tablespoons water

One-inch for frying: extra-virgin olive oil, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil or safflower oil

1. Put the chickpeas into a 3- or 4-quart pot and top with 2 to 3 inches of cool tap water. Cover the pot and let stand at room temperature for least 12 hours, or as long as 24 hours. Drain well, rinse under running tap water, and drain well again. Use right away, or transfer to a covered container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

2. Add the rinsed and drained chickpeas into a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the sweet or green onion, green onion tops, parsley, salt, pepper, cayenne, cumin, garlic, lemon juice, chickpea flour and water. Pulse 5 or 6 times for 1 second each. Scrape the work bowl and pulse over and over again to chop everything together well. You don’t want to make a purée, but the falafel mix should be processed into very fine pieces.

3. Transfer the falafel to a bowl, cover tightly and refrigerate about 2 hours before cooking. You could leave the falafel refrigerated overnight or up to 2 days before cooking.

4. To cook, have ready a tray lined with plastic wrap and another tray lined with paper towels. Shape heaping teaspoonfuls of falafel into 1-inch or larger balls, pressing firmly to make sure they hold together. Arrange them on the plastic wrap. You’ll have 16 to 20 balls. Heat 1 inch of oil in a 4-quart heavy pot over medium heat. Monitor the temperature with an instant-read thermometer. When the temperature registers 360 degrees F, begin adding the falafel to the hot oil. I place a falafel ball into a slotted spoon, lower the spoon into the oil, and turn the spoon to release the falafel into the oil. Repeat with 5 more falafel, spacing them apart in the oil. Cook 2 minutes, until well-browned, then carefully flip the balls over with the slotted spoon and cook another 2 minutes until well-browned all over. Try to maintain the oil temperature between 350 and 360 degrees.

5. Remove the cooked falafel with the slotted spoon and set them to drain on the paper towels. Continue cooking remaining falafel.

Tzatziki sauce

This is the classic cucumber-yogurt sauce that you can serve not only with falafel but also with grilled meats, fish, or vegetables. Be sure to squeeze the water from the cucumber or the sauce will thin out. You can make tzatziki before cooking the falafel and refrigerate it.

Makes about 2 cups.

1 cucumber, about ¾ pound

2 cups thick Greek yogurt, 2% fat or whole fat

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon grated garlic

2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley

½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed

Peel the cucumber and shred it through the coarse holes of a box grater into a medium bowl. A handful at a time, squeeze as much liquid as you can from the cucumber and set what you’ve squeezed onto a triple thickness of paper towels. Repeat until you’ve squeezed and drained all the cucumber. Wipe the bowl dry. Pat the cucumber with more paper towels to remove more moisture, and put the cucumber back into the bowl. Add the yogurt, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, dill and salt. Stir well, taste and adjust seasoning with lemon juice or salt. Serve with the falafel. Store leftovers, covered, in the fridge.

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Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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