There are a number of kitchen breakthroughs that have made me ecstatically happy in the past: finally mastering a soft-centered chocolate fondant, for example, or finding the perfect pizza dough, but none so much as finding an oven-baked falafel recipe that actually works. Of course, as you can tell from both the picture and the description, it is not traditional falafel; but it isn’t little balls of chickpea-flavoured sand either, so you win some, you lose some.
I have an ongoing disagreement with my husband about whether to get a deep-fat fryer. I assert that I need one for doughnuts and such; he is concerned that I will spend my whole time cooking fried chicken and nothing much else. I’m sure that eventually he will cave, but until then there is very little deep fat frying going on around here. (I know that you can do this without a fryer, but my neighbours had a chip fan fire when I was a kid and I think of it every time I start pouring oil into a saucepan and freak out a little.)
This means that I don’t tend to make falafel very often, and instead use it as an excuse to visit my favourite falafel joint in town (Mr Falafel in Shepherd’s Bush, if you’re interested.) There is a reason that all of these places fry their falafel: because it makes the best kind, soft and slightly creamy in the middle with a very crisp crumb. I have made falafel in the oven before, but there is no real way to get the same results. Usually mine just has a crumbly consistency all the way through and saps all of the moisture out of your mouth in the way a dry Weetabix would (don’t pretend you don’t know.) I’m sure that somebody out there has found a way of making good oven-baked falafel, but they are a far more talented cook than I.
I was about to give up entirely when I found a recipe for sweet potato falafel in a very old Leon cookbook by Allegra McAveedy. I vaguely remember the days when they use to sell these in their restaurants, before the more traditional variety they sell now, and how much I liked them. Purists might argue that these are not really falafel, for they don’t contain any chickpeas, but the addition of gram flour gives a little bit of chickpea flavour to them. They are simple to make, with mashed roasted sweet potatoes, gram flour, herbs and spices and some lemon juice. I swapped out the sweet potato with a butternut squash, simply because I had a spare one in the fridge after buying ingredients for the same dinner twice during a particularly busy and stressful day, which worked just as well.
Again, before I get picked up by the falafel police, these are a different beast altogether, but ‘little butternut squash morsels’ didn’t quite have the same ring to it. The best way to eat them is exactly as you would: flatbread, hummus, a little chilli sauce, some raw shredded vegetables and a couple of pickled things. My favourite wrap from Mr Falafel also contains a little bit of crumbled feta, an excellent addition if you aren’t too worried about these being vegan.
Butternut Squash Falafel
1 butternut squash, deseeded, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
1½ tsp ground cumin
1½ tsp ground coriander
2 garlic cloves, crushed
30g fresh coriander, leaves and stalks, finely chopped
Juice of ½ lemon
140g gram flour
Sea salt and black pepper
1 tbsp sesame seeds (I used a mixture of black and white)
Preheat the oven to 200°c. Scatter the butternut squash pieces on a large baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Bake in the oven for around 20 minutes until tender. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Mash the squash in a large bowl until smooth, then add the cumin, ground coriander, garlic, fresh coriander, lemon juice, gram flour and a pinch of salt and pepper and beat to combine. It should be a smooth, sticky mixture. If it is too wet, add a little more gram flour. Place the mixture in the fridge for half an hour to firm up a little.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven again to 200°c. Spoon mounds of the falafel mixture on to an oiled baking tray, using your hands to shape them a little if you wish, and sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes until browned.
Serves four. Adapted from a recipe from Leon: Ingredients and Recipes.