Falafel

This post originally appeared in the Boomington Herald Times on March 8, 2006

The Internet is a fanatic’s best friend – it helps you find all the other people in the world who are seriously obsessed with the same things you are. This can be bad if you are bent on evil ends, but it you are interested in something benign, then it can be a godsend for helping you tap into the buzz.

How else would I have ever found L’As du Falafel, the dinky little dive of a place in Paris ‘ 4th arrondissement that serves one of the best sandwiches in the world? According to the vast array of online fans who are as hooked on it as I, the falafel at L’As (which means the Ace) are as good as (or better than) the ones you’ll find in Israel.  I don’t know about that, but I do know I dream about it when I am not in Paris  and make a beeline for it when I am. With all the glorious French food to be had in that city, this funky little Israeli place is the one stop I unfailingly make every time.

A falafel sandwich is a wondrous thing. A kind of pan- Middle Eastern fast food, it is made in Arab countries with spiced up fava beans, sometimes combined with chick peas, and in Israel  with chick peas alone. The toppings can vary from various cold salads to pickles to vegetables (crisp lettuce, and ripe tomato) to sauces – tahini (ground sesame seed), yogurt, chili or mango paste.

You  Trojan Horse, on Kirkwood Avenue, where the sandwich is topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and tahini sauce. Or the yummy version at Falafels – Flavors from Jerusalem, in Dunkirk Square.  Served  with greens and hummus, with other sides you can order to top it up.

It’s the toppings that make the difference. You can order the falafel at L’As du Falafel “normal,” but the way to go is the falafel special, which comes with fried eggplant, two kinds of crispy cabbage salad (green and purple), hummous, babaganoush, cucumber salad, and tahini sauce, all for 6 Euros (just over 7 bucks.) It’s spicy, unctuous, and crunchy – the vinegar tang of the salads dances with the soft nuttiness of the tahini, the cabbage crisp against the melting eggplant, the falafel nuggets buried amid all the other goodness. And the bread they use is terrific-the closest to the good chewy Syrian bread my Lebanese grandparents used to make that I have had since I was a child. Unbelievable flavor and texture in a cheap and portable feast. The heaping sandwich is a two-hander; it’s extremely hard to put down once you’ve picked it up, and not just because it tastes so good.

That you are better off queuing up for one of the few tables inside the tiny building, on whose walls are scattered signed photos of Lennie Kravitz, the restaurant’s best known fan. Sit down at a miniature table, with a small pot of chili sauce before you, the aroma of falafel, grilled chicken and lamb schawarma filling the air. With an overflowing plate of frites and a messy sandwich in hand, no one is dining better than you are in the whole city of Paris.  Don’t miss it.

L’As du Falafel, 34 rue des Rosiers, Paris 75004.

Recipes

If you are feeling ambitious, try making these luscious sandwiches at home. The key is the toppings. This falafel recipe comes from Gourmet Magazine,  the toppings are my version of the ones at L’As du Falafel. Assemble each sandwich by spreading some hummus or baba ghanouj inside a split, warmed up pita bread.

Add a few falafels, some eggplant, some cabbage salad and chopped cucumber and tomato, and drizzle over with tahini sauce.

Eat it quickly.

Falafel

From Gourmet Magazine, January 2004 

1 1/4 cups dried chickpeas (7 ounces)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3/4 cup finely chopped onion (1 medium)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
About 6 cups vegetable oil (48 fluid ounces)
6 rounds of pita bread
Special equipment: a deep-fat thermometer

Accompaniment: tahini sauce (see below)

Soak chickpeas in cold water to cover by 2 inches in a bowl at room temperature at least 12 hours (and up to 24.) Drain well in a colander.

Puree chickpeas with all remaining ingredients except oil in a food processor until as smooth as possible, about 2 minutes. Spread puree in a 15- by 10- by 1-inch baking pan and let dry, uncovered, 1 hour.

Scoop 2 tablespoons of puree onto a long sheet of wax paper, then press and pat with your fingers into a 2-inch-wide patty. (Pressing the puree will help the patty hold together when frying.) Make a small hole in center of patty with tip of your pinkie finger (to help cook evenly). Make more patties in same manner, arranging them in 1 layer on wax paper.

Heat about 1 inch oil in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot (preferably cast-iron) until thermometer registers 340 degrees. Working in batches of four, gently drop patties into hot oil, then fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown, two to three minutes, and transfer to paper towels to drain. Return oil to 340 degrees between batches. Serve falafel warm or at room temperature, stuffed into bread with toppings.

Makes six main-course servings.

Tahini Sauce

2 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste 1/2 cup well-stirred tahini (Middle Eastern sesame paste)
5/8 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Mince garlic, then mash to a paste with sea salt. Whisk together garlic paste and remaining ingredients until combined well. Can be made one day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Makes about 1 1/4 cups.

Fried Eggplant

One good sized eggplant, or several smaller ones, sliced into 1/2 inch thick rounds and then cut in half (so that you have half moons.) If the eggplants are very small, cutting into rounds is sufficient.
Olive oil.
Salt and pepper.

If you want, you can salt the eggplant slices and leave them to drain for 1/2 hour. I unusually skip this step, but I always taste eggplant before cooking to be sure it is not bitter. If you do salt the eggplant, be sure to dry it with paper towel before the next step.

Heat an inch of oil in a deep skillet til very hot (nearly smoking.) If the oil isn’t hot, the eggplant will absorb it. Fry the eggplant slices until golden or reddish brown. If you have a lot of eggplant, or if the skillet is not large, do this in two batches. Don’t crowd or allow the eggplant to cool off the oil. Drain on paper towel and salt and pepper to taste.

Baba Ghanouj (Eggplant and Tahini Spread)

Gourmet, September 2000 

2 large eggplants (2 1/2 pounds total)
1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup well-stirred tahini (Middle Eastern sesame paste)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Prepare grill for cooking.

Prick eggplants with a fork and grill on a rack set 4 inches over glowing coals, turning every 10 minutes, until charred all over and very soft, 20 to 35 minutes. (Or broil in a shallow baking pan about six inches from heat, turning occasionally.) Cool eggplants.

Discard charred skins and tough stem ends and puree eggplants in a blender with tahini, garlic paste, lemon juice, cumin, and salt until combined well. Season with more salt if necessary.

Transfer to a plate or bowl, then drizzle with oil and sprinkle with parsley.

Makes about three cups.

Hummus

Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, October, 1988 

4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
two 1-pound 3-ounce cans chick-peas, drained and rinsed
2/3 cup well stirred tahini
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, or to taste
1/4 cup olive oil, or to taste
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped

On a cutting board mince and mash the garlic to a paste with the salt. In a food processor puree the chick-peas with the garlic paste, the tahini, the lemon juice, 1/4 cup of the oil, and 1/2 cup water, scraping down the sides, until the hummus is smooth and add salt to taste. Add water, if necessary, to thin the hummus to the desired consistency and transfer the hummus to a bowl. The hummus may be made three days in advance and kept covered and chilled. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and drizzle with a few teaspoons of olive oil before serving.

Makes about four cups.

Cabbage Salad

1 medium head cabbage (purple or green), shredded
Salt and pepper
Salad oil
Vinegar

Toss the shredded cabbage with a dressing of one part vinegar to two parts oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Allow to sit for an hour or two before serving.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. gillianfield says:

    I loved your article dated July 16, 2003 in the Herald Times, (Bloomington IN USA) regarding Provencal Ratatouille. I was very drawn to your French countryside memories. I have made your dish many times for my family in Australia who also really loved it! Could you share it with us again? Gillian

    Like

  2. mags says:

    Just returned from Paris and I have been scouring the net for a recipe for the ‘extras’ that L’as puts on their falafel special.
    Thanks!

    Like

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