Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Mezze Was Not Messy (But The Kitchen Was…..)

In fact, it was very, very tasty.  The mezze, that is.  According to the Great God Wikipedia (which we all know is unimpeachably accurate…. {/end snark}), mezze is “a selection of small dishes served in the Mediterranean and Middle East as dinner or lunch, with or without drinks”.  To me, as my boy Alton Brown would say, mezze is just, ermmmmm….good eats.  And, it goes without saying, my mezze was going to be served with drinks.

And so it was a couple of weeks back, the day I made the pita bread I last shared with you.  Because, good as homemade, fresh, pillowy pita bread is, that really doesn’t constitute a full meal, especially not a full meal for friends.

So, there was mezze.  Really good mezze.  Homemade falafel, made from dried chickpeas, mixed with fresh, lushly flavorful herbs and fried gently in olive oil.  Tzatziki, too, creamy, thick Greek yogurt, mixed with more herbs and garlic and cucumber.  Tahini sauce, to drizzle over.  And a Greek salad, since that’s the direction we were leaning, more towards the Mediterranean end of the mezze spectrum than the Middle Eastern one.  All dishes I’d made before, in one iteration or another, but never in this gathering of yummies, and not usually made totally from scratch, from hopefully quasi-*authentic* recipes.

My falafels had, previously, come from a box mix of dehydrated chickpea (garbanzo) flour and dried herbs.  Reconstitute with some water, let sit, form and fry.  They were….passable, but I knew I could do better.  My Greek salads had been laden with extraneous ingredients.  My tahini sauce had been from a jar.  It was time to up the ante a bit, and try to see if I could concoct some semi-authentic mezze.

Oh, the teaser picture.  For some reason (insert head-smack here), I didn’t get a picture of the entire table when everything was done, nor of the finished sandwiches with the falafel patty on the pita, drizzled with the tahini sauce, and the tzatziki and dressed with lettuce, tomato and onion.  I *think* I tried….and the shots I got were out of focus and/or poorly lit.  It did sort of all come together very quickly at the end, and it got rushed.  Too many tasks, too few hands, too much potential to burn down the house with hot oil.   So, up there we gots the tahini sauce (in the small bowl to the bottom left), the tzatziki (in the medium-size bowl to the bottom right) and the Greek salad up top.

We’ll see the falafels later….

First things first. The day before you want to make the falafels, (and let me state right now, I'm on the fence as to whether the plural is falafelS or just falafel, so you're likely to see both, and often in the same sentence) you want to take your dried chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans, herewith known as chickpeas) and sort them. Yes, sort them. Make sure there’s nothing gnarly in there, no rocks, no pebbles, no branches. Cull off any sad looking legumes as well, or any that are broken or look shriveled. Take the time to do that. Biting into a pebble is not good eats, by any meaning of that phrase. Then rinse them, and put the rinsed chickpeas into a large bowl. Cover them with water by about 2 inches. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and stash in the fridge for about 12 hours (or up to 48). They will swell to about 3 times the size you started with, so use a big enough bowl ! Do I have a pic of them before…..why no, but thanks fer askin’ ! That would’ve meant I was in control of the little kitchen (which, most days I sadly am not….) and had been thinking (which most days I sadly am not….).

But here’s a lovely after shot !

While the chickpeas are soaking, take your dried spices and toast them up really hard in a heavy pan over pretty high heat.  I have a small, 6-inch cast iron skillet I use just for toasting spices.  Works great.

That’s before.  *THIS* time I was thinkin’….that’s also cumin and coriander seeds.  Keep a close eye on the spices, and a closer nose.  You’ll be able to see, and more importantly SMELL, when the seeds have toasted to the depth you want.  Use all your senses when you cook, it makes you so much better in the kitchen, but I digress, as expected.

After they’re nice and toasted

let them cool (they’ll continue to roast a bit in the hot pan) and then dump them into a grinder.  A small coffee grinder, dedicated to grinding spices, is perfect for this.

Trust me, unless you like cumin-flavored coffee (and that….could…be good, who am I to say), you won’t want to use this grinder for anything but spices.  But it works like a charm for spices when you blitz the hell out of them.

You could also do that in a mortar and pestle, and I suppose in a small food processor, but the coffee grinder is cheap, compact, and does the job.

Set those aside for a bit.

Drain off and rinse those soaked chickpeas.  Dump them into the bowl of a food processor, along with some baking powder, onion, garlic, dried red pepper flakes, chopped parsley, chopped cilantro and your ground seeds.

Ummmmm.  There’s my spatial disconnect thingie going on again.  CLEARLY that Cuiz is way too full to do its job efficiently.

Geeze, Roberta, ya think?   MUCH?

You may need to do this in two batches.  Jus’ sayin’…….

Blitz it down until the chickpeas, herbs and seasonings are coarsely ground.  You don’t want a smooth paste, but you don’t want any big chunks of chickpeas, either.

Then cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least half an hour, and up to a couple.  The mix can actually hang out in the fridge for most of the day, and it won’t suffer.  No.  You don’t cook the soaked chickpeas.  They’ll cook when you fry the falafels and they’ll be fine.   We’ll come back in a bit and see how they look cooked (ewwwwww, ahhhhhh……..a cliffhanger!).

Let’s make some tzatziki.  I LOVE tzatziki (I just wish I could *spell* it without having to Google it).  What’s not to love?  Thick yogurt, cucumber, garlic (lots of garlic), dill….all good things.  Similar to an Indian raita (another one of my favorite things), and used in a similar fashion.  As a dressing, as a condiment, as a side dish, as a salad.  It’s yummy.  Its particularly good (technical cooking term alert....) schmeared on a gyro or souvlaki sandwich.

When I was going to college (shout out to Cal State Fullerton, GO TITANS !), my mom would frequently make a killer tzatziki for me and a life-long friend who used to come over for lunch every Friday.  We’d watch “All My Children” and play backgammon and eat the great lunches my mother would make for us.  It was a thing, and its fabulous memories.  I have NO idea how Mom (who was most certainly NOT Greek, not with a maiden name like Wilinski) made that tzatziki, but I’ve never tasted a better one.  It is…sadly….lost to the ages.

But this one was pretty damn good.  It may have needed a bit more garlic, but it certainly held its own.

You need to start this pretty early; the cucumber needs to drain for at least a couple of hours.  Don’t skip this step, you will be amazed at how much liquid purges off the cuke.  And, if you can’t find, good, thick Greek yogurt, you should drain that as well, for several hours.

*Sigh*  No class picture of this group, either.  But you’ll need yogurt, cucumber, garlic, olive oil and dried dillweed.  Salt and pepper, of course (kosher salt, of double course).

If you can’t find “Greek” yogurt, which is noticeably thicker than regular yogurt (I get mine at, guess where….Trader Joe’s, yay !  Trader Joe’s….by the way, I am in NO way affiliated with Trader Joe’s, they just get a significant amount of my disposable income), then line a colander or a sieve with a double layer of cheesecloth and drain your yogurt for a several hours.  Discard the liquid.

Shred your cucumber coarsely.  Since Mr. Cuiz had already been called into service for the falafels, I went the hand shredder route:

and got this.

Let that drain in another sieve or colander for about 2 hours, then gently squeeze dry.

THIS is the amount of liquid that will purge off even one of those hoity-toity “hothouse” cukes.

OH !  HEY !

Look what finally showed up !  The rest of the ingredients for the tzatziki….

Mince or crush the garlic in a press, mix with the yogurt and some olive oil, and some dillweed.  Then mix in the drained cucumber and some kosher salt and pepper.  You’ll end up with a lovely, cool, sweet, garlicky sauce that looks like this.

Drizzle a touch more olive oil over the top before you serve.

Time for the tahini sauce !

Finally, the little brain in the little kitchen worked well enough to get the picture of all the players before hand !  (You’d think I’d have this blogging gig down by now, but apparently not….)

Prepared tahini, more yogurt, lemon, and I slid in some Aleppo pepper.

Tahini, in case you’re wondering, is a paste made from ground sesame seeds.  Think of it as a thin peanut butter, only with a sesame flavor.  Some may have lemon, garlic and other spices added, some may be just the sesame paste.  Some may separate, like natural peanut butter does, upon sitting.  Just stir those together until you get a smooth emulsion.

Um, yeah….thanks for noticing the tahini container was empty, and the yogurt carton had been broken into.  At least the lemon was whole.  So I had another brain fart, and didn’t take the picture until I was halfway through making the sauce, nothing out of the ordinary, carry on.

Dump the tahini (TJ’s again, in the refrigerated case, fresh is best, though you can certainly use canned or jarred tahini) into a bowl, and add in some of your lovely thick Greek yogurt (or water), to get a thin sauce.  This is your “drizzle” over your falafel sandwiches, and it should flow.  Ream the heck out of your lemon

on your spiffy $0.50 thrift store lemon reamer (which nicely and thoughtfully catches the seeds for you) and dump that in as well.

Then sprinkle some paprika or one of your new, fun spice finds, Aleppo pepper

(thank you Amazon.com) over the top.  The Aleppo gave it a bit of a deeper flavor, and probably more authentic.  Not hot, but a bit spicy and complex and smoky.  Smoked paprika would certainly work as well.

Stash that in the fridge as well until feast-o-la time.

Last mezze puzzle piece, the Greek salad.  Called, in Greek (hopefully), at least according to the “Saveur” article I lifted the recipe from Horiatiki (and just confirmed by the Great God Wikipedia, so apparently, *it is so*).

The little brain derailed yet again, and no class picture.  But here’s the start of it.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and I had some plain, canned black olives I needed to use up, so they went in there as well.  I also tossed in some shredded cabbage to flesh it out a bit.  Although not in the recipe, nor particularly traditional, I was running a bit short on cucumbers and I had one guest who doesn’t care for raw tomatoes, so I was looking for a bit more bulk than just the cuke and onion.  You’re right; there are no tomatoes in that shot.  As I said, I had one guest who doesn’t do raw tomatoes, so I split off the bulk of the salad and added the tomatoes when I served it.

Then you chop up a good handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, and add that in.

Your dressing is going to be olive oil, red wine vinegar, S&P and dried oregano.  Yes, dried oregano.  That’s how they do Horiatiki in Greece.  And then you also toss some over the dressed veg, too, as a garnish, before service.

At this point, the veggies (sans tomato) and the dressing can hang out in the fridge until you need them.  Separately of course.  You don’t want them to get together too soon, only wilting can happen then.  Again, sadly, no finished picture other than the one of all the side dishes, but before serving, toss in some cubes of feta cheese and some chopped Kalamata olives, then dress and add more dried oregano and S&P to taste.  Excellent stuff.

Finally, before we get to the final act of cooking the falafels, we need to prep the garnish for them.  You want some shredded romaine (or iceberg) lettuce, some thinly sliced tomatoes, thinly sliced cucumbers and thinly sliced sweet onion.  I tossed in some sliced radishes for laughs, since I had some that were lonely.

When you make your sandwiches, in your pitas, you layer in these add-ins to taste, and then drizzle with the tahini and/or tzatziki sauces, and enjoy.

To cook the falafels now !  (finally…….)

I used an ice-cream scoop to get a fairly evenly sized blob of what I guess you’d call batter for want of a better word.  By this time, after a few hours in the fridge, the chickpea paste had become very stiff, and held together with no problems.  I was actually pretty stunned.  When I had stashed it away, in the back of my mind I kept thinking “I should just go to the store now, and get a box of falafel mix, just in case….”  Faith, grasshopper.  It worked.

After scooping, I flattened them out into patties probably about an inch-and-a-half thick.  You could do them as balls as well, but I think the patties are easier to eat and deal with.  Especially since….

The recipe I was working from said to deep fry the little patties/balls, but I just don’t deep-fry in the little kitchen.  Tooooooo scary.  I have this thing about not starting a raging oil fire in my kitchen.  Call me silly.  Also toooooooo messy.  I have this other thing about cleaning aerosolized frying oil off of all the surfaces in the little kitchen, including me and the dogs.  And finally, tooooooooo wasteful.  You use several quarts of oil to deep fry, and most of that is waste.   Again, call me silly, but that just doesn’t sound like a smart thing to me.  So I leave deep frying to the pros who have Fry-o-lators and honkin' fire suppression systems in their kitchens.

However, if I win that Lotto, along with my tandoor, and stone/clay/brick wood-burning pizza oven, I'm gettin' a Fry-o-lator.  And a hunky assistant to man the fire extinguisher....but again, I digress (and fantasize...).

But.  Since I had successfully shallow (pan-) fried falafels when I’d made them from a mix, I figured I could shallow-fry the “from scratch” ones as well.

Yeah.  I could.

Cook on each side until you get the venerated “golden brown and delicious” and then drain them on paper-towels.  Layer a couple in your pita (if you get one that opens), or on top if you don’t, then add on the accoutrements and secret sauces to taste.  Fold over the pita, and munch on down.

The flavor of the falafels themselves is sort of herbal and earthy and funky.  Surprisingly, they are not gritty, which you would expect from the uncooked chickpeas.  The paste actually really does cook through to a pleasant smoothness during the soaking/chilling/frying processes.  There’s a deep flavor from the roasted spices that comes through, and just a hint of background heat from the red pepper flakes.  Again, so much better than dried, pre-packaged mix, and again, not that much trouble to make from scratch, if you give it a little forethought.  And you should.  Give a little forethought and make yourself a “Mezze-terranean” dinner (yeah, I know, as always, keep my day job….).

Here’s all the recipes, save for the pitas, which you already have.  Enjoy !  Opa !, as they would say in Greece.

Tahini Sauce
Adapted from Tyler Florence’s Eat This Book
Makes about 1 cup

In a small bowl, whisk 1 cup tahini, 1/2 cup plain, Greek yogurt (or water), the juice of 1 lemon and salt to taste until combined and smooth.  Sprinkle with smoked paprika or Aleppo pepper.  Refrigerate until needed.

Adapted from Jeff Smith’s The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines
Serves 6-8 as a first course, or more as a side dish or sauce

4 cups plain yogurt, preferably Greek-style
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and coarsely grated
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed (I would actually use about 6, it needed a bit more “oomph”)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 teaspoon dried dillweed (I would, and did, up this amount as well)
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

If using regular yogurt, place a double layer of cheesecloth in a strainer or colander, and drain yogurt for several hours, placing the sieve/colander over a bowl and stashing in the fridge.  Discard liquid.  If using Greek-style yogurt, there is no need to drain.

Place the grated cucumber in another strainer or colander, and let that drain as well for 2 hours.  Discard liquid.

Mix together all ingredients, except olive oil for drizzling, cover and chill until ready to serve.  Drizzle additional extra virgin olive oil over the top of each serving.  Can be used as a dip for raw veggies, a spread for pita bread, a dressing for falafel or gyro sandwiches or as a first-course salad.

Greek Salad (Horiatiki)
Adapted from Issue No. 131 “Saveur” Magazine (no clue what the month/year is, why do they do this, it’s just so lame…)
Serves 2

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish
2 medium, ripe tomatoes cut into 1&1/2-inch pieces
1 small cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, and sliced crosswise into 1/4-pieces
1/2 to 3/4 small head green cabbage, thinly sliced or shredded
1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced pole-to-pole
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon dried oregano, plus more to garnish
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
6 ounces feta cheese, cut into thick chunks
8 kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped

Combine parsley, tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and onion in a bowl.  Mix olive oil, vinegar, oregano and S&P into dressing, and pour over veggies.  Toss to coat well.  Add cheese and olives, and toss again.  Garnish with additional parsley, oregano and pepper.

Adapted from Tyler Florence’s Eat This Book
Serves 4

2 cups dried chickpeas, sorted and rinsed
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 handfuls of flat-leafed parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 handful of cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
Kosher salt and ground pepper to taste
Vegetable or olive oil for deep (or shallow-pan) frying
8 warm pita breads, for serving, cut in half
Tahini sauce (see recipe above)
Shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, chopped cucumbers and shredded crisp lettuce for serving

Put the rinsed chickpeas in a large bowl and cover with cool water to a depth of 2-inches above the level of the chickpeas.  Cover with plastic, and place in refrigerator for at least 12 hours, and up to 48.  The chickpeas should swell to about 3 times their original size.

Put the cumin and coriander seeds in a small, heavy skillet and toast over medium heat until fragrant and lightly browned.  Let cool and grind in a spice grinder (or coffee grinder) or in a mortar and pestle.  Set aside.

Drain the soaked chickpeas and rinse thoroughly.  Place the chickpeas, onion, baking powder, onion, garlic, seeds, parsley, cilantro, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper into the bowl of a food processor.   Pulse to process to a coarse paste.  You may need to do this in batches.  Don’t overprocess to the point where the mix is totally smooth, but don’t leave any large chunks of chickpeas either.  Scrape down the sides of the work bowl several times while processing.  Taste, and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.  Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least an hour, and up to 2 or 3.

When ready to fry, use an ice cream scoop or spoon to portion out the falafel mix into balls about the size of Ping-Pong balls, rolling between your hands to form them.  If deep frying, they can be left round.  If shallow-frying, flatten them slightly between your palms.  Heat enough oil (about 3-inches in a heavy, deep pot for deep frying, about an inch in a large, heavy sauté pan for shallow-frying) to cook the falafel patties.  Let the oil heat to about 375°F (a candy thermometer is handy here).  When the oil reaches the right temperature, slide in a few falafel patties/balls, and let fry until crusty and golden brown all over.  In a deep fryer, that will take about 5 minutes, and you should turn them over a couple of times, and make sure they don’t sink and stick to the bottom of the pan.  For shallow frying, a bit longer, maybe about 4-5 minutes per side.

Remove the cooked falafels from the oil with a slotted spoon or spider, and drain on paper towels.  Keep warm in a low (200°F) oven until all the falafel are cooked, and you’re ready to eat.

Assemble the sandwiches by splitting the pita breads (or use as a flatbread) to open a pocket, and placing 2 or 3 fried falafel inside.  Drizzle with tahini sauce and add garnishes and tzatziki as desired.

Note:  The cooked falafel freeze well, wrapped securely.  To reheat, place frozen falafel on a pan, and warm in a moderate (350°F) oven until heated through.

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