For years, New Orleans’ dining scene has been made up mostly of two kinds of restaurants: the Creole white-tablecloth dining rooms catering to those with money to spend, and at the other end the cheap Cajun restaurants dotting the city and its outlying suburbs.
Now, a decade after Hurricane Katrina, a new generation of chefs is expanding the city’s food scene with global accents. On a recent trip to the Big Easy, I was surprised to learn that one of the hottest new restaurants in the city, Shaya, served Israeli food. I have eaten my share of falafel (vegetarian fritters) around the world, but I didn’t expect to find such an excellent version of this Israeli “fast food” here.
Falafel are equally delicious eaten alone or stuffed into pita bread topped with tahini (sesame seed paste) sauce, lettuce, onions and tomato. Well-made falafel has a crispy exterior, giving way to a hot fluffy center of seasoned mashed garbanzo beans, garlic and parsley. Unlike other bean fritters, these are made from soaked but uncooked beans. You can make falafel from canned beans, but the texture and taste won’t be as good.
It’s important to keep the water at a minimum when grinding the beans; otherwise, they may fall apart when they hit the hot oil. If you notice this happening when starting to fry a batch, add a little flour to the mix.
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If you don’t have a thermometer, add a pinch of the batter when the oil begins to simmer to test if the oil is hot enough (350 degrees). If it begins to sizzle immediately and sinks to the bottom and then pops up to the top, the oil is ready. Once you get the batter and the oil right, your patties will brown beautifully. Serve your falafel hot out of the oil for the best results.
Falafel is a great source of protein for vegetarians. If you want a fast tahini sauce, mix equal amounts of tahini and yogurt, and season to taste with a little salt, pepper, cumin, raw garlic if you like, and lemon juice. Hummus and tzatziki (yogurt cucumber dip) are good accompaniments.
This recipe is adapted from Chef Alon Shaya of Shaya restaurant in New Orleans. Served hot, these fragrant fritters are irresistible washed down with a glass of chilled Grgich Hills Fume Blanc 2013 from Napa Valley, California ($29.99). The zesty spice and nutty flavor of the beans in this dish blend deliciously into the rich tropical fruit and lemongrass flavors of this wine.
1 1/3 cup dried garbanzo beans (or you can use 3 cups of canned garbanzos to substitute)
1 cup finely chopped flat leaf parlsey
1/2 cup diced yellow onion
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup water (or as needed)
Salt to taste
Whites from 2 eggs
4 cups canola oil
Place the dried garbanzo beans in a large bowl and cover with 3 cups of water. Place in a covered container in the refrigerator to soak overnight. The next day, drain the beans well, and for best results use the grinder attachment of an electric stand mixer. Grind once through the dye with the largest diameter into a bowl. Add parsley, onions, and garlic and run through the grinder a second time. Add cardamom, cayenne pepper, cumin, baking powder, flour, lemon zest and mix well, adding a little water as needed to bind the mixture. Season with salt. Alternatively, in a food processor, pulse the garbanzo beans, parsley, onion, and garlic until coarsely ground. Add cardamom, cayenne pepper, cumin, baking powder, flour, lemon zest and mix well, adding a little water as needed to bind the mixture. Pulse until it is finely chopped, but not mushy, and holds together. Transfer to a bowl and season with salt. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold into the falafel mixture. Heat oil in a large pot to 350 degrees. With wet hands, shape the mixture into 24 3-tablespoon-size balls. Shape into football-shaped patties. Use an ice cream scoop to create uniform-sized balls. Transfer falafel to a rimmed baking sheet. Fry falafel in batches until cooked through and golden brown, about 4 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels. Serve at once.
Yield: Makes about 24 balls