Saturday, February 9, 2008

Jerusalem of Gold

You could say that I have a small, slight weakness for kitchen gadgets and appliances. Tart pans and cookie presses have been known to float in and out of my fevered dreams on occasion and things like this make me salivate. The thought of a KitchenAid mixer makes my knees all weak and wobbly (when A. and I are old and grey and bored with each other, am I going to ask him to dress up as -- not a fireman or a cop -- but a KitchenAid Stand Mixer [Cobalt Blue]? I don't know, I just don't know). What is this leading up to? Well: today, I failed to simply drive by Bed Bath & Beyond, and as a result, I am the new proud owner of this little beauty:

Hello, little guy! Welcome to my kitchen!

In order to justify this new affaire, I am going to make something grand, something very ambitious (and perhaps a little bit crazy). I am going to make my own pita bread and falafel.

I lived in Israel for a glorious, sun-filled three months after college. Words fail to describe how lovely and unique a country it is. The moment you step onto its soil, you know that you are there, somewhere indescribably special and different from any other place in the world. A place that, despite its warts and cracks and injustices (and let's face it, there are some everywhere, and on the world scale of injustices, Israel has less than 90% of the countries out there), still manages to maintain a sense of history and community and an energy and a joy of life that is rarely seen anywhere anymore. I lived in the dormitories at the Haifa university. It was on top of a hill and my room, though the size of a small closet and not air conditioned, had a 180 degree view of the impossibly blue, sparkling expanse of sea and sky that could, and frequently did, make my heart soar. Most of my neighbors in the dorms, besides other foreign students, were Arab, Druzi and Russian-Jewish kids, because they were poor and dorm housing is a luxury that is only given based on religion/nationality-blind financial need. As you can imagine, there were many noisy dinners where we cooked mostly bad food (hey, we were 21) and met mostly amazing people and had mostly screaming arguments about politics and women's rights (no one argues like a Jew and an Arab together) that ended in coffee and sweets. Those three months will always stand out in my mind bathed in the golden light of the Haifa afternoons.

Oftentimes, my roommate Erin and I took a taxi down to the shukh to wander among its many cramped stalls smelling the sweet, strange smells and watching the women expertly turn the fruit over in their hands (what distinguishes one perfect apple from another anyway?). There would, inevitably, be a falafel stand with an Arab man and his son turning over the golden-fried falafel and cutting paper thin slices of shewarma into home-baked pitas. They would smile at us and whistle and wink at Erin who, golden haired and blue eyed, seemed to them much more beautiful and exotic than me, with my pedestrian black hair and almond-shaped dark eyes. Sometimes the whistling would annoy us, but sometimes, we just winked back and bought the pitas and falafel, and I tell you, there is nothing better than that in the mid-day heat. The pillowy, soft pitas have nothing to do with the flat dry stuff we are offered at the supermarket here, and the falafel... golden and crunchy on the outside, soft and spicy and fragrant inside, tempered with a lot of hummus and tahini sauce (that's how I liked it) and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers... Yeah, I would go back in a second just to do it all over again, and then to sit in the evening in a cafe on the beach drinking beer while the waves lapped the shore gently two feet away from our flip flops, listening to wafts of loud music and louder converstaion drifting to the water from the boardwalk.

I can't recreate the magic, I know that. It's all time and atmosphere and friends and -- well, that Arab guy has probably been making falafel and pitas half his life, and it's a first for me. But maybe somewhere in my Jewish ancestry, there is a falafel maker, the instincts of whom will guide me (very unlikely, but hey, call me an optimist).

Pita bread recipe

1 envelope dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups white all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine the yeast and sugar in a small bowl, add 1/2 cup warm water and let it stand for 10 min. Dissolve the salt in the remaining 1 cup warm water. Put the flour in a large mixing bowl, making a well in the middle and put the dissolved yeast and salt water into it. With your hands, blend it into a dough (adding a little more water if too dry). Knead the dough in the bowl with your fists for 10-15 minutes until smooth. Pour oil over the dough and knead until oil is absorbed.

Cover the dough in the bowl with a towel and set in a draft free area to rise to double (aobut 1.5 hrs), then punch it down and knead again for a few minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F. Separate dough into egg-sized pieces, shape them into balls and roll out over a lightly floured surface to 1/4 inch thickness.

Set 2 or 3 pitas on a lightly oiled cookie sheet and bake 2-3 min each side. Pitas should be white and soft. Wrap in clean towel until they are cool, then store in airtight containers. When ready to use, can fry them a minute or so on each side in oil to brown and serve immediately.


3 cups cooked chickpeas, drained
1/2 bunch flat leafed parsley, finely chopped
1/2 bunch coriander/cilantro, finely chopped
4-5 green onions, finely chopped
1 teaspoonful salt
1 teaspoonful cayenne pepper
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 teaspoonful baking powder
4-6 tablespoons flour
vegetable oil for frying

Dump all the ingredients except the baking powder and flour into a food processor. process until blended, but still somewhat chunky. Sprinkle in the baking powder and 4 tablespoons of flour then pulse. Check to see if the mixture holds together but isn't too sticky--if it's still sticky, add more flour. Transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate for 2 hrs. Form the mixture into small semi-compact balls. Heat about 2-3 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a pot, fry a ball to test. Add a little flour if the ball falls apart. Fry 4-6 balls at once for a couple of minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

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