Chapel Hill's Franklin Street is a long buffet: One walks the strip noting expensive artisanal sandwiches, reheated pizza slices, faux-Mexican fast food and endless iterations of the burger. A Franklin Street mainstay since 1992, Mediterranean Deli tends to bang the gavel on this internal debate. "FALAFEL" sounds the gavel.
Falafel is cheap, filling, healthy, quick and vegan. More to the point, the school cafeteria and the supermarket frozen-food aisle have not yet domesticated it. Unlike the reheated pizza slice or the microwaved burrito, falafel evokes the foodways of an elsewhere.
"Falafel comes from the desert," says owner Jamil Kadoura, a Jerusalem-raised Palestinian who immigrated to the United States in 1980. "People would travel from Iraq to Jordan and stay a month in the desert. Because falafel ingredients are dry, they could be carried. In the desert, travelers boiled the oil and made the falafel where they camped."
In the modern Middle East, says Kadoura, there is a falafel stand "on every corner of every street." Each stand has its own recipe, and competing spice schemes proliferate wildly. Med Deli's own recipe is notable for its eccentric omission of cilantro. "You see a lot of green falafel out there," says Kadoura. "Cilantro tends to dominate. I let the cumin, garlic and coriander shine through. Cumin and garlic are the soul of it."
Med Deli's falafel conceals relentless attention to detail. The restaurant uses only freshly ground spices. It expertly bakes its own pita throughout the day, using only organic, locally milled flour. And it declines to pander to the blunted palate for which one might thank the McDonald's across the street.
"Falafel is called the spicy burger back home," says Kadoura. "It's got to be spicy—keep that in mind."
Med Deli redeploys its pita dough to make its famous "fatayers," pizza-like boats of dough freighted with meat, cheese and vegetables. For a simple version, roughly chop tomato, red onion, kalamata olive, and feta cheese. Sauté spinach and minced garlic until the leaves are just wilted. Chop the spinach and combine with the other ingredients. Season with salt, pepper, oregano, and a dash of olive oil.
Place a mound of the vegetable mixture in the center of a pita dough round rolled to 9 inches diameter. Wet the edges of the dough and pinch closed at opposite ends to form an open-faced boat. Alternately, fold into a half-moon, entirely enclosing the filling in the style of a calzone. Prick the dough in two or three places to release steam. Bake at 550 degrees.
Falafel455 grams dried chickpeas (1 lb. or about 2 2/3 cups)
95 grams onion, roughly chopped (about 1/4 of a medium onion)
40 grams green pepper, roughly chopped (about 1/4 of a medium pepper)
25 grams fresh parsley, roughly chopped (about 1 cup, tightly packed)
2 tbsp. sesame seeds
4 tsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. ground black pepper
1 tbsp. ground coriander
1 tbsp. minced garlic
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. kosher salt
Canola oil, for deep-frying
Soak the chickpeas in at least 8 cups of water for 24 hours. Place the softened chickpeas, onion, green pepper, parsley, cumin, black pepper, coriander, garlic, baking soda and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture has become a coarse meal. The mixture should be granular and moist, roughly the consistency of couscous. Add the sesame seed and pulse to mix. Refrigerate the mixture for at least 1 hour. In a cast-iron Dutch oven or similarly large and sturdy pot, heat at least 2 inches of canola oil to 350 degrees. Form the falafel mixture into rounded patties (about 55 grams each) and place in the hot oil. Fry for 2 minutes or until dark brown and crispy. Serve immediately.
Pita740 grams unbleached bread flour (about 5 1/4 cups)
430 grams warm water (about 1 3/4 cups + 2 tbsp.)
50 grams sugar (about 1/4 cup)
6 grams kosher salt (about 1 tsp.)
5 grams "instant" or "rapid-rise" yeast, not "active dry" (about 2 tsp.)
With pizza stone in place, preheat oven to 550 degrees. Place all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the dough hook, knead for 5–7 minutes. The dough should be smooth, stiff and dry. Place the dough in a large bowl and seal with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to proof for 20 minutes, until slightly puffy. Divide the dough into 11 balls (each weighing 1/4 lb. or 108–109 grams). Allow the balls to rest for 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll each ball into a flattened round 6 1/4 inches in diameter. Allow the rounds to proof uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes or until slightly puffy. Place the rounds on the pizza stone (see note) and bake 4–6 minutes. The rounds should balloon dramatically, becoming nearly spherical. The pita is done when light brown patches begin to form (overcooked pita will become cracker-like). Serve warm or at room temperature.
Tahini-Lemon Sauce1–1 1/2 cups water
1 cup tahini
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice (or to taste)
2 tbsp. minced fresh parsley
1 tbsp. finely minced or pureed garlic
1/2 tsp. minced fresh mint
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Dash of olive oil
Mix tahini, lemon juice, parsley, garlic, mint, salt and olive oil with 1 cup water. Continue to add water until the sauce is thin enough to drizzle.
Notes: This recipe makes 11 pitas and about 22 falafel patties, enough for 11 sandwiches. Assuming you are not feeding a soccer team, you can half all recipes. The advisable approach, however, is to make the full recipe and enjoy the leftovers, which hold up remarkably well. The raw falafel mixture can be stored for several days in the refrigerator; alternately, it can be frozen and defrosted. The fried falafel patties can be reheated and re-crisped in a 350-degree oven. The pita bread can be kept for at least two days in resealable plastic bags. Alternately, it can be frozen immediately after baking and defrosted for a few seconds in the microwave, with almost no discernible ill effects.
Flour is a crucial variable in pita success. Med Deli uses Lindley Mills high-gluten flour, which is kosher, organic and unbleached—as well as hard to procure. I had complete success with King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour, available at many local supermarkets. All-purpose flour, which has less protein, is off-limits.
The pita can be baked on a pizza stone or metal cookie tray. The pizza stone produces a slightly crisp underside that I find appealing, while the tray yields a softer crust that is closer to the pita produced by Med Deli.
Kadoura rightly says that most brands of tahini are "pure garbage." Med Deli uses and sells Leila brand. Kadoura also recommends Sahadi brand.
Garnish with lettuce, tomato, onion, green pepper, sweet pickle and banana pepper, or anything else that is cold and crunchy, in contrast to the moist warmth of the falafel itself. I recommend one falafel patty per half pita.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Falafel by the forkful."