Raising the falafel bar

First time I ate falafel: Manhattan, 1966. Downtown, 3 a.m. Bleeker Street. A little storefront operation, with a window that opened to the sidewalk.

I was a kid from Denver — a cow town where falafel was, for the most part, unknown. And, certainly, there were no commercial operations selling the stuff in Denver back then. If you wanted a corn dog in Denver, you could find it. Pastrami? Yep. Tacos, burritos? Sure. Pizza? Absolutely. Even a pig ear sandwich, if you had the nerve to risk a trip to Five Points, to go to The Ear Stand (one wrong move, though, and the ear might be yours).

Falafel? Not a chance.

But, at 3 a.m. outside an open window on Bleeker Street, falafel was not only possible, but necessary. A remarkable treat for a yutz from the Rockies. Served alongside a cardboard tray loaded with baba ganoush … this was bliss. Exotic snack bliss. And the joint on Bleeker, in a hands-across-the-divide move, also sold a mighty fine knish.

It was a match: me and falafel. The spices, the pita and especially the tahini sauce, all garlicky, lemony good. Right up my alley. Especially at three in the morning, in the company of a bizarre Wiccan from Boston who paced the East Village clad in a black cape with a red question mark painted on the back. I had walked from St. Mark’s Place with my odd but alluring companion, and I was in need of extra-grade fuel.

From that day, I developed a serious jones for falafel, and I have sampled it at many establishments, in many places.

Kathy, too, is a falafel fan. Perhaps more of one than me.

“Let’s have falafel for dinner.”

I hear the request frequently. Yet, despite my love of this humble food, I try to put Kathy off, waiting for a time when we can make a trip to one of our favorite sources in a faraway city.

The reason? When we’ve eaten falafel at home, we’ve invariably relied on a commercial preparation. Falafel in a box. And that box is no shop on Bleeker Street in Manhattan.

My cell phone rings. I have made the mistake of leaving it on.

“It’s me. I’m at the store. I’ll get stuff for dinner.”

Oh, no. Kathy’s at the store. Code Blue! Gotta do something. Think fast, Karl.

“Well, don’t trouble yourself, honey. If you’re there to get some hemp hand lotion or vitamin Z supplements, don’t waste your time worrying about food; you have critical things to concentrate on. I plan to go to the store on the way home. You just hustle along. I’m sure you have other things to do — like run deer off the property before they eat your tulips.”

“I’m here, so why make another trip? I’ll pick things up for dinner. What do you want?”

I quickly run through a list of items I might want to manipulate in the kitchen that evening and realize there is no way I am letting Kathy buy them. She does many things wonderfully well, but cooking and selecting flesh and produce for a taste-treat production is not her strong suit. For one thing, she doesn’t look at items carefully before she buys them. She doesn’t feel them, she doesn’t smell them. She picks something up and tosses it in the basket and she is off to the checkout stand.

You can’t select decent food this way.

We chatted about this problem. Briefly.

Very briefly.

Once.

It’s not likely we will chat about it again. I have no desire to be transported by ambulance to the ER.

“Well, I’m not sure what I want,” I say, trying to come up with a workable dodge. “I might want to look at the fish but, you know, I like to get up close and personal with our finny friends. And I might want to check out items at the flesh display. I know you don’t like raw meat and I wouldn’t want to stress you with visions of helpless animals abused by an avaricious and unfeeling corporate food empire.”

“Don’t worry. I knew you would say something like that and try to keep me from buying anything. But, I think I know what I want.”

“Oh, really? What?” (Brown rice, tofu, whole-grain breadlike products the recipe for which is allegedly found in the Bible?)

“Falafel.”

Hmmmm.

I’m doomed.

When I return home, I find a box of falafel mix, a pint of yogurt, an onion, an English cucumber, garlic, a quart of canola oil and a pack of “pitalike pockets” made from a recipe allegedly found in the Bible. Not my Bible, mind you, but a Bible nonetheless.

The dinner is horrible.

The falafel is predictably dry and grainy — like eating badly mixed drywall compound — with a touch of sand added to enhance the texture.

The sauce is tart, lacking the nutty deliciousness and mouthfeel provided by tahini.

The “pitalike pockets” have the consistency and taste of roofing shingles. Biblical shingles, but shingles nonetheless.

I choke down a few bites of this atrocious gunk, profoundly embarrassed that I produced the meal.

“This is great,” says Kathy. “I love the falafel, and the pitalike pockets are fantastic, don’t you think? They say they found the recipe in the Bible.”

Amen.

I decide I cannot let this disaster stand as the high-water mark of my stunted career as a falafel cook. I will make decent falafel, or die trying (probably as a result of being unable to pass a foot-long cylinder of compacted garbanzo bean mash from my intestinal tract).

The task: produce a small ball or small patty of falafel that is crispy on the outside, with a light, fluffy and soft interior, deeply perfumed with magical Middle Eastern spices. Then, to manufacture the perfect sauce as an accompaniment — simultaneously nutty, tart and creamy.

Oh, and to find some real, or at least somewhat real, pita.

Ingredient one: dry garbanzo beans, aka chickpeas. I’ll get nine to 10 ounces of these beauties, put them in a bowl, and add water to a level about two inches above the beans. I’ll cover the bowl and soak the beans overnight.

I won’t use canned garbanzo beans. The beans for the falafel will not be cooked prior to mixing the falafel.

The next day, drain the beans.

The rest of the ingredients: three cloves of garlic, minced; a fistful each of parsley and of cilantro, chopped; a bit of fresh lemon juice; a couple tablespoons of flour and about three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda; a small serrano chile, deveined seeded and minced; ground cumin; salt and pepper.

I am going to take the beans and toss them in the processor and reduce them, via pulse action, to a gritty puree. I don’t want a paste, lest the falafel fall apart while cooking. I’ll remove the beans from the processor and toss the cilantro, parsley, garlic and chile into the processor bowl and puree the batch in the company of a tablespoon or so of the beans.

I’ll blend the rest of the beans and the fragrant puree then add the flour, baking soda, ground cumin (to taste — and the taste should be pronounced); maybe even toss in a bit of ground coriander as an afterthought. In will go a splash of lemon juice, salt and pepper.

I’ll refrigerate the mix for an hour or so, take it out and gently shape little balls, an inch to an inch and a half in diameter.

For the sauces, I’ll need some Greek yogurt, some tahini paste, a clove of garlic chopped and mashed (a clove will go a long way, since the garlic will be eaten raw) a bit of lemon juice, a bit of chopped English cucumber, chopped parsley, a teeny bit of minced white onion, salt and pepper.

For one sauce, I’ll blend a couple tablespoons tahini sauce with half the garlic, some lemon juice, yogurt and salt, tasting as I go.

For the other sauce: yogurt, cucumber, lemon juice, parsley, minced onion , salt and pepper.

Cooking the falafel is simple: neutral oil (with a high smoke point) in a deep pan, heated to 350-360. Fry the balls in uncrowded batches, a couple minutes per batch,, until the balls are browned, with a crispy exterior. Drain on paper towel.

Warm real pita (found it at the grocery store) in the microwave, the bread wrapped loosely in a clean dish towel or with paper towels.

Have some shredded romaine and chopped grape tomatoes available for a thoroughly unnecessary garnish, and we’ll be off to the races!

Open pita, insert several balls, slather with one of the sauces (don’t mix them), garnish, if we must. Put on more sauce. Take a bit. Add more sauce.

Oh, and perhaps whip up a side.

I think I’ll look for some options in the Bible.