By Grace Elkus
Tribune Content Agency
My relationship with falafel is complicated. When it’s good, it’s good — few things compare to biting into a freshly fried falafel’s deep brown crunchy coating, revealing a creamy center of garlicky, herb-packed chickpea goodness. And when said falafel is smothered in tahini sauce or tzatziki and tucked into a warm pita packed with crunchy veg? Nothing is better.
But making that kind of falafel at home is a different story — at least for me. That’s because I don’t like deep-frying. I think of deep-fried foods as a treat. On the rare occasions I eat them, I leave making it to the experts. But I recently stumbled across a trick that lets me enjoy all the flavors of falafel in a healthier way, and with much less fuss — I think you’ll want in on it.
Falafel spice is my new favorite flavor-booster — and it’s easy to make at home
After continuing to spot the descriptor “falafel-spiced” on restaurant menus and recipe titles (falafel-spiced tomatoes, falafel-spiced chickpeas), I had to know: Were these recipes using a homemade spice blend or something pre-mixed? As it turns out, my local Middle Eastern market (Brooklyn-based spice importer Sahadi’s) sells Falafel Seasoning. You can buy it directly from them, but it’s available on Amazon, too). It’s a blend of cumin, coriander, black pepper, nutmeg, paprika, red pepper, and cloves. Spice Bazaar also sells one — theirs is a combo of coriander, cumin, white pepper, salt, garlic, and cayenne.
I quickly began to brainstorm all the potential uses for this new-to-me spice blend (which is officially the best spice-aisle discovery since Everything Bagel Spice). I could use it to season raw or roasted vegetables, or sprinkle onto dips. I could make falafel-spiced croutons, or popcorn, or pita chips. But I decided the simplest and most straightforward thing would be to make falafel-spiced roasted tofu and then give it the full falafel treatment, complete with tahini and fresh herbs and warm pita bread.
Unlike baked falafel, which I find usually turns out dry, baked tofu emerges from the oven with super-crisp edges and a soft, chewy interior, making it a much better candidate for my falafel cravings.
So that you don’t have to wait to get your hands on falafel seasoning (or have something shipped) I created a homemade blend that works very well. It’s a mix of garlic powder, cumin, coriander, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. If you want, you can triple or quadruple the mixture and keep it in bulk, then sprinkle it onto anything that needs a boost of flavor.
How to serve your crispy falafel-spiced tofu
I crave the nutty flavor of tahini when I eat falafel, but instead of a drizzly sauce, I decided on a dippable, swoosh-able base for the tofu and pita. Enter: whipped tahini, the product of whipping tahini in a food processor to aerate it. Here, I’ve added yogurt for extra creaminess (and to mellow the bitterness of the tahini), a squeeze of lemon juice for tang, and a bit of harissa for some kick.
The rest is simple: Spread the spicy whipped tahini into shallow bowls, top with the tofu, then add some fresh herbs, red onion, and crunchy sliced cucumbers. Instead of wrapping the tofu in a pita, I like to serve the pita on the side, using it to mop up any remaining tahini.
Falafel-Spiced Tofu with Whipped Tahini
Preparation time: 1 hour
1 (14 to 16-ounce) package extra-firm tofu, drained
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for coating the baking sheet
For the whipped tahini
(makes 1 cup):
1 medium lemon
1/2 cup well-stirred tahini
1/2 cup whole or 2% plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon harissa paste, plus more as needed
1/2 small red onion
2 Persian cucumbers
Torn fresh herbs, such as parsley and mint leaves
Warm pita bread (optional)
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F. Meanwhile, drain and press the tofu. Wrap the block in a few layers of paper towels, then set on a dinner plate. Weigh it down with a heavy object such as a skillet, pot, or large can, and let sit for at least 15 minutes to drain. Thinly slice 1/2 small red onion and place in a bowl of ice water (this will take off its bite); set aside.
Make the falafel seasoning: Place the 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon ground cumin, 3/4 teaspoon ground coriander, 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper in a medium bowl and stir to combine. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil and stir to combine.
Tear the pressed tofu into bite-size pieces, then add — along with any small crumbles of tofu — to the seasoning and gently stir to evenly coat. Lightly coat a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil (about 1/2 tablespoon), then add tofu and spread into an even layer. Roast for 20 minutes. Flip the tofu and roast until golden and crispy all over, 10 to 15 minutes more. Meanwhile, make the whipped tahini.
Make the whipped tahini: Finely grate the zest of half the lemon and place in a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Cut the lemon in half, then squeeze the juice from one half into the food processor (about 1 1/2 tablespoons). Add 1/2 cup well-stirred tahini. Process, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl if the tahini gets stuck, until it begins to aerate, 5 to 7 minutes. With the motor running, slowly stream in 1/4 cup cold water. Scrape down the sides and add 1/2 cup plain yogurt and 1 teaspoon harissa paste. Process until smooth. Taste and season with salt (you’ll likely need about 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt). If you’d like a spicier tahini, add more harissa 1/4 teaspoon at a time.
Thinly slice the Persian cucumbers and slice the reserved lemon half into wedges. Drain the onion. Divide whipped tahini between 4 plates or shallow bowls (you may not use it all). Top with the tofu, cucumber, onion, and torn herbs. Serve with lemon wedges, and torn soft pita, for mopping up any extra tahini.