Monday, 4 November 2013

You Can, We Can, Vegan

Falafel di Lenticchie Rosse & Farina di Ceci, al Forno, con Cicoria
Oven-Baked Red Lentil & Gram Flour Falafel & Chicory

I enjoy meat very much, but compared to many people I know, I eat much less of it than most of them. For most people, eating meat is a force of habit, based on this strange notion that a meal that does not contain meat is not a "full meal". I respect completely the ethical reasons of many people who chose not to eat meat or any living animal matter- and think that is fine. What irritates me is the way that veganism or vegetarianism gets marketed, turned into a trend and takes on a whole new meaning, a new dimension and a suddenly greater importance to most people, than it simply being a dish that contains no meat.

Being Sicilian, and one of 9 children, growing up in England, I was brought up eating meat maybe 2 or 3 times a week at most. My mother always prepared pasta dishes, noodle soups and so many vegetable dishes, that to us were simply "food". It was all good- it was never just a side-dish with the meat missing! It was not spoken of as being a vegetarian meal- there was no distinction. It was just a regular meal and sure, meat was considered something a little special. I am glad I was brought up that way- I think it taught me how to appreciate so many other things and to not take eating meat for granted. It has helped me think a lot more about just what I eat and to be open for new ideas, rather than eating the same-old, same-old... nah! That was never the way to go for me!

This evening, I decided to make use of the outer leaves of the "puntarelle" that I bought at the market hall on Saturday. Puntarelle is an unusual variety of chicory, as it has those wonderful, juicy bulbs in the center that I turned into a wonderful salad. The cool thing about it is that the outer leaves are just plain old ordinary, slightly bitter and totally delicious run-of-the-mill chicory... which means you get 2 great meals in one great plant... and I like that!

So, I needed to decide just what I wanted to do with the chicory and what I should make to accompany it. I decided on red-lentils, as they would cook quickly and their nutty flavor would go well with the lightly bitter greens. And then I had an idea of how I could make those simple little lentils into something much more exciting!

I boiled one good cupful of lentils in 2 cupfuls of water, along with a half of a finely chopped onion. After 4-5 minutes and occasional stirring, most of the water had been absorbed and the lentils were almost cooked. At this point, I added a tablespoon of tomato paste, a teaspoon of Ras al Hanout, a pinch of ground cumin and a squeeze of lemon juice. 

In the meantime, I cut the chicory leaves in half, down the stalks and also length-ways to make them more manageable, popped them onto a steam rack and into a saucepan and let them steam for 5-6 minutes, whilst I continued preparing the falafel. By now, the water had evaporated away and the lentils had taken on a deep orange color from the tomato paste and spices. I took them off the heat and got ready to do some serious stirring!

Whilst the lentils were still moist and warm, I added 2 tablespoons of gram flour and stirred them in with a wooden spoon, making sure to mash the lentils and onion into the flour and turn it into a nice, compact, smooth paste. I checked it again for seasoning, as of course the flour will need a little seasoning of its own, but the great chickpea flavor it adds is amazing! 

Finally, I stirred-in a tablespoon or two of bread crumbs, working them in using a fork, to get a nice even blend and to now slightly "loosen up" the dense texture the lentils and gram flour had take on. The onion in there also has good juiciness and the bread crumbs will bind nicely and at the same time make for a softer bite once the falafel are cooked. 

Once the mixture was cool enough, I pinched it off in little sections and rolled them into small balls, dipping my hands into a little olive oil to keep them from sticking and this giving the falafel a very light coating, which would be plenty to keep them from sticking as well as for letting them get nice and brown in the oven- so much more appealing to my mind than deep-fat frying them! I shaped them a little narrower at the ends, simply because I thought they looked prettier that way- but really- the shape is unimportant... the great flavor is all that matters!

I baked them in a hot oven, at 300°, for 4-5 minutes from each side until the crisped-up and became lightly golden brown. In the meantime, I drained the chicory, squeezed out any excess moisture and then quickly sautéed it with a little crushed garlic in a little olive oil.

As soon as the falafel were lightly toasted and piping hot, I served them up on a bed of chicory and gave them a light drizzle of Tahini to knock them into orbit flavor-wise. And I am not kidding! This is one dish you need to try- and one that will definitely convince you that you can occasionally leave out the meat! And remember- you saw it right here!

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