Food rules – everyone has them, right? I have a major one and I don’t mean weird picky-eater-type foibles like not allowing all the components of a meal to touch each other or not eating meat off the bone (confirmed carnivore that I am, I take a primal pleasure in tender meat that falls off the bone). My cardinal rule of eating out is to never order anything that I can competently make myself (it ultimately leads to dissatisfaction, disappointment and grouching that it isn’t exactly how I would have made it.) Carbonaras are always too dry or greasy; pasta and vegetables are overcooked and insipid; meat not rare enough. You might say picky, I’d pedantically correct you and say discerning.
Now falafel is one of those things that I always order and approximately 50% of the time, it disappoints me (too greasy or dry or incredibly, both). When it’s good, I’m in mezze bliss. When it’s bad, I feel like I should have just ordered a dirty kebab instead. (Incidentally, best falafel you can get in South London is the split pea and lemongrass falafel in The Sun & Doves, Camberwell. If you’re feeling a bit more carnivorous, the pork belly roast of a Sunday is a marvel, golden, crisp, salty and presented on a platter.) Nevertheless, I have always shied away from making falafel, partly because of the deep frying element of it (I clearly watched too much Casualty and 999 as a child…) So, Leon’s oven-baked sweet potato falafel presented the perfect compromise and it means that there is yet another casualty on my food rules list because it was a roaring success.
Don’t let the inclusion of gram flour put you off – whether it is hard to track down or you don’t want to buy a 1kg bag (though I was lucky enough to inherit half a bag from a dear friend). Gram flour is widely used in Indian cuisine – should you ever wish to make your own onion bhajis, pakoras or poppadoms you’ll be well prepared. Use in it batter or even better, as a swift coating for roast potatoes instead of normal flour. You’ll never look back. Trust me, have I ever let you down before?
As these falafel are oven-baked, not only are they healthier than the traditional chickpea alternative but they tick other boxes too. The inclusion of roasted and mashed sweet potato as the base keeps the mixture moist and imparts a beautiful caramelised note. Lemon and coriander provide a bright counterpoint to the sweetness and prevents them from becoming too cloying. Oh and did I mention, they’re a dream to make? It just requires a little time, as you need to roast the sweet potatoes for an hour first but if you were in a rush, I imagine that boiling would work just as well. You would lose the smoky sweet note that roasting the sweet potatoes in their own skins produces. Make it for Sunday lunch and rejoice that you have leftovers to cheer your return to work on Monday.
You can find the recipe for Leon’s sweet potato falafel on The Guardian website.
So what are you going to serve with these little wonders? You’ve already made falafel, why not commit and try your hand at homemade flatbreads; a garlicky cucumber yoghurt; and a tomato and harissa couscous?
adapted from River Cottage Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Note: the original recipe calls for just plain flour but I wanted a nuttier taste, so I opted for a mix of plain and wholemeal flour. I have made it with just wholemeal flour before and the flatbreads don’t have the required flop when cooked. As we all know, a bit of flop is essential for wrapping and mopping up leftovers.
150g plain flour
100g wholewheat flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
150ml warm water
a little salt
yields 8 flatbreads
Combine your flours together in a large mixing bowl and add a dash of salt. Meanwhile, add the oil to the warm water, preferably in a jug for ease. Slowly trickle the water into the dry ingredients, continually mixing all the while. Do so until you have added all the water, then roll up your sleeves and knead the dough together on a floured surface until it comes together in a plump, smooth dough (this should take about 5 minutes). Pop this back into your mixing bowl, cover with a clean and dry teatowel and leave until you are almost ready to eat.
When you are ready to cook your flatbreads, heat a shallow frying pan on the stove whilst you roll out your dough. Roll the dough out into a long sausage shape and divide into eight pieces. Roll each piece out on a floured surface into thin circles, large enough to fit in the frying pan. Place into the heated frying pan and dry fry on both sides until slightly charred and puffed up. I find that it’s easy enough to roll each flatbread out and fry them one-by-one. Wrap the cooked flatbreads in a teatowel to keep them warm.
Harissa & tomato couscous
I adore heat and spice, so harissa is close to hand whenever I’m dabbling with cumin, lemon and parsley. You can usually find it in the spice section of most large supermarkets and I’ve been lucky enough to find it in the odd cornershop too. If you can’t track it down, the best way to replicate it (that I can think of) is to combine a chilli sauce with tomato puree and garlic paste. I’m urging you though, track it down, smear it on fish before grilling; stuff it under the skin of a chicken before roasting; swirl it through yoghurt as an accompaniment. You’ll never look back.
40g dried couscous
a handful of parsley
a generous heaped teaspoon of harissa
juice of half a lemon
Boil a kettle and pour your couscous into a bowl. When the water has boiled, pour it over and cover the grains and leave to absorb for 5 minutes. Fork through to separate until light and fluffy. Meanwhile, dice your tomatoes and finely chop your parsley and combine with the couscous. In a small bowl, mix the harissa and lemon juice with some pepper. Dress your couscous with this mixture just before serving.
Garlicky cucumber yoghurt
This is a bastardised version of the Greek tzaziki and Indian raita – it takes the pungent garlicky and lemon notes of the former and combines it with the warm spice of the latter. It’s basically just a testament to how addicted I am to cumin. I make some form of this quite frequently, it’s a natural partner for any kind of grilled or barbecued food; mezze-type dishes; salads; or as a side dish for curries. Make a large batch and it’ll keep in the fridge for a few days.
Note: as cucumber has a high water content, most recipes advise salting the prepared cucumber to get rid of excess water. Not only am I too impatient and greedy for that, I find that it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference, particularly if you’re using a creamy and thick yoghurt, such as Greek.
plain or greek yoghurt
half a cucumber
a clove of garlic
salt & pepper
fresh chopped coriander, parsley or mint (optional)
Grate your cucumber (or finely chop if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to buying a grater which isn’t a bitty microplane number). Finely grate the clove of garlic. Combine the cucumber and garlic with enough yoghurt to generously cover it all, season with the juice of half a lemon and ground cumin. (If you only have cumin seeds, toast these in a dry frying pan and add them instead. Use both ground cumin and whole cumin seeds if you wish and win my heart.) Season to taste, adding fresh chopped herbs if you have them to hand.