- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who was in solitary confinement for eight years and is Israel’s minister of industry, told me several years ago he considers falafel the food of freedom.

“The first day I came to Israel a journalist asked, ‘Do you like falafel?’ When I told the reporter that I had never heard of falafel in the Soviet Union, the next day a big bag of falafel appeared at my doorstep from a neighbor who was a falafel man.”

I am often reminded of that story of falafel, the crisp deep-fried patty, when I plan my menus for Hanukkah, the Jewish winter solstice holiday that starts Tuesday evening.

First I try to unravel layers and layers of history. The first layer goes back to ancient Israel, when chickpeas (garbanzo beans) reigned in dishes such as hummus and a version of falafel. In those days, there was something mystical, as well as practical, about olive oil. In the ancient world, the oil was used not only in cooking, but as the central element for creating light, especially during the long, dark winters.

I recall, too, that in ancient Israel the purest of the olive oil harvest was an offering brought on a pilgrimage to the high priests in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In time, olive oil was to gain special significance for the Jewish people, as it became the symbol of their courageous struggle for freedom, symbolized in the valiant struggle of the Maccabees.

Against all odds, Judah Maccabee and his brothers’ small army overpowered the larger Assyrian army in 164 B.C. However, so much was destroyed in the struggle that it was hard to find even a vial of olive oil. When the Maccabee brothers found a small amount of the precious oil in the Temple of Jerusalem after the temple had been devastated by the Assyrians, the vial miraculously lasted not for one day, as it should have, but for eight days, and a national holiday began.

Since then, Hanukkah has been celebrated for eight days as a reminder of the miracle of oil in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Surely during the time of the Maccabees, potatoes were not eaten at Hanukkah. My guess is that other fried foods were served similar to bumuelos, a Sephardic fried dough either made savory with onions and flour or sweet like loukamades, the ancient deep-fried dough soaked in honey from Greece that is still eaten today.

However, it is foods such as falafel and hummus that are bringing Jews back to their ancient Israelite roots. Falafel, the deep-fried fritter made from mashed soaked chickpeas, spices and bulgur, is a sort of superprotein. When it was introduced in the ancient Middle East, falafel probably included fewer spices or was made with fava beans as it is today in Egypt. The shape probably was flatter, like cutlets, rather than the round balls we know.

With falafel comes pita bread, one of the oldest breads known to mankind and eaten in the Middle East for thousands of years.

Tucked inside are cucumbers, hot sauce, pickles and a little bit of tahini (ground sesame-seed paste). No tomatoes, please. First, they are not in season in most parts of America. Nor are they biblically correct. Tomatoes came from the New World to the Old, not the other way around. Hummus and tahini, perhaps even older than falafel, are great accompaniments, as well. Because today we can get almost any ingredient in any supermarket, it is fun to celebrate a holiday in the traditional manner.

With the eight days of Hanukkah, at least one day should be taken to make this ancient Middle Eastern menu.

Falafel

1 cup dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans)

½ large onion, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon salt

½ to 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 to 6 tablespoons fine bulgur

Soybean or vegetable oil for frying

Pita bread

Diced onion for garnish

Diced green bell pepper for garnish

Diced pickled turnips for garnish

Tahini with parsley and lemon (recipe follows)

Harissa (recipe follows)

Put chickpeas in a large bowl and add enough cold water to cover them by at least 2 inches. Let soak overnight, then drain.

The next day, place drained, uncooked chickpeas and onion in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add parsley, cilantro, salt, pepper flakes, garlic and cumin. Process until blended but not pureed.

Sprinkle baking powder into chickpeas. Then add 4 tablespoons bulgur and pulse, adding more if necessary. You want to add enough bulgur so that the dough forms a small ball and no longer sticks to your hands. Turn out into a bowl and refrigerate, covered, for several hours.

Form the chickpea mixture into balls about the size of walnuts or use a falafel scoop, available in Middle Eastern markets.

Heat 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep pot or wok and fry about a half-dozen falafel balls at a time for a few minutes on each side or until golden brown.

Drain on paper towels. Cut pitas in half and stuff with falafel balls, onion, green pepper and pickled turnips. Drizzle with tahini with parsley and lemon and serve with harissa hot sauce on the side. Makes about 25 balls.

Hummus

I have been making hummus for years and have concluded that despite the temptation to use canned chickpeas, the flavor is much better when it is made with dried chickpeas found at Middle Eastern or Indian food stores.

First I soak a large quantity overnight, cook some, and then drain and freeze the rest in 2-cup batches in plastic bags. Whenever I need them for hummus or for chickpea soups and stews, I just take them out of the freezer.

1 cup dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans) (see note)

1 cup tahini

½ cup lemon juice, or to taste

2 cloves garlic, or to taste

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

½ teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Dash of paprika or sumac

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or cilantro

Raw vegetables

Pita bread

Put raw chickpeas in a bowl with cold water to cover and soak overnight.

Drain and rinse dried chickpeas, then place them in a heavy pot with enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered, for about an hour, or until the chickpeas are soft and the skin begins to separate. Add more water as needed.

Drain the cooked chickpeas, reserving about 1½ cups of the cooking liquid. (If using canned chickpeas, drain them and use 1½ cups water instead of cooking liquid.) Set aside 1/4 cup of the cooked chickpeas for garnish.

In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, process remaining chickpeas with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper to taste, cumin and at least ½ cup of the reserved cooking liquid or water. If the hummus is too thick, add more reserved cooking liquid or water until you have a pastelike consistency.

Heat a frying pan and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Spread the pine nuts in the pan and stir-fry, browning on all sides.

To serve, transfer hummus to a large, flat plate, and with the back of a spoon make a slight depression in the center.

Drizzle the remaining olive oil on top and sprinkle the reserved chickpeas, pine nuts, paprika or sumac, and parsley or cilantro over the surface. Serve with cut-up raw vegetables and warm pita cut into wedges. Makes about 4 cups.

Note: A 15-ounce can drained chickpeas (garbanzo beans) can be substituted for dried. You also can add cayenne pepper to the hummus. Sometimes leftover hummus tends to thicken. If so, just add some water to make it the right consistency.

TAHINI WITH PARSLEY AND LEMON:

3/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)

½ cup lemon juice

1 clove garlic

1 cup Italian parsley, roughly chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, puree tahini, lemon juice and garlic until smooth. If the tahini is still too thick, add a few tablespoons of water and it will become a pleasing white color. Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste and pulse until blended. Adjust the seasonings and serve. Makes about 1½ cups.

HARISSA:

2 ounces small, dried hot red chilies, such as pequin or Thai

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more as needed, divided

7 to 8 cloves garlic, peeled

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste

Cut stems off chilies and shake out some of the seeds. Soak chilies for about 15 minutes in warm water or until soft; drain and squeeze out any excess water. Transfer them to a food processor and process along with 1/4 cup olive oil, garlic cloves, cumin, coriander and salt with a steel blade until you have a thick puree the color of deep red salmon.

If you want, put sauce through a food mill to get rid of any extra pieces. Spoon into a jar, add remaining olive oil, cover and refrigerate. Let sauce sit for a few days before using, until the harissa becomes less opaque. Use sparingly; it’s very hot. Makes about ½ cup.

Joan Nathan’s latest book is “Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook” (Schocken Books).

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