Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lanai salad, from the lanai

As I blog I'm lucky enough to be on the beach in South Carolina for my family's annual trip to Grandma's Other House. I wasn't planning on writing this week, but, lo! I can get a signal from the lanai! Thus, I thought this would be an excellent time to tell you about a salad that we make each time we're down here that we've rather appropriately dubbed "lanai salad." It's falafel on a lush bed of salad greens, dressed by Sister with a perfect olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette. (She is so good at this task that I joke that she's earned a Master's degree in dressing salads -- an M.S.D.) Though you don't have to be sitting on a lanai to enjoy lanai salad, I won't lie to you: it definitely helps.

The first time I came to Grandma's Other House -- around 1996, before it was known as Grandma's Other House; indeed, several years before Grandma was a grandma -- I remember making a falafel-topped salad with Mom and enjoying it on the porch. It was so good, the two of us ate the whole bowl. We decided the salad deserved a name of its own, and what better place to inspire a name than an open-air lanai overlooking the ocean. That particular trip is rich with memories: just Mom and I were here, enjoying a (apologies for the extremely cliché concept) girls'-week-at-the-beach. I was going through some of the "off" parts of my on-again, off-again relationship with The Fellow Who Would Eventually Become Husband, and a week at the beach was a perfect way to get my mind off him and on myself and the fun relationship I enjoy with my mother. Lanai salad was born at the same time as the yearly tradition of traveling to this beach; the dish's inception also coincides with the somewhat tumultuous beginning of what would become a lifelong partnership with my best friend and the love of my life, even if I didn't know it then.

I suppose that's quite a bit of nostalgic weight to place on lanai salad's zesty vegetal shoulders, but with all that spicy, filling falafel and tangy lemon dressing, it can handle it.

Now, I am completely aware that falafel on salad is not a particularly groundbreaking dish. It isn't even much of a recipe: in fact, it's quite acceptable in a pinch to make a salad and top it with freshly-fried falafel of the Near East boxed variety. But since I would feel very slackerly posting a "recipe" for boxed falafel atop a bowl of triple-washed greens from a bag, well, I had to complex it up a bit. Enter Joan Nathan, Jewish home cook extraordinaire. Shall I point out the obvious? Once you make homemade falafel, trust me, you won't be reaching for the box anytime soon.

Joan's recipes are marvelously authentic and totally delicious. I always seek them when preparing holidays meals for Husband, or just when I feel like trying something new. Her recipe for falafel doesn't disappoint. Simple to prepare (even when you're at the beach and don't have access to a food processor or, really, much of anything in the way of cookware!), immensely flavorful and pleasantly nourishing, this falafel is definitely the way to go. Indeed, if you're at home and within close range of a Cuisinart, homemade falafel takes barely longer to prepare than the boxed version. And its taste and texture is so vastly superior I really don't see a reason not to put in the iota of extra effort. Of course, you can serve this falafel in a pita with some sliced tomatoes, lettuce, a round of cucumber or two and a little tahini -- but, well, the recipe isn't called "lanai sandwich."

The ocean is calling me. I cannot prattle on too long, not in these surroundings. But before I go, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the party boat seems to have been replaced by some newer-looking but just as ridiculous vessel, Sea Thunder, which loudly makes its reveler-filled presence known each afternoon. Guess what? We dutifully point at it and laugh like hyenas.

I wish you all many servings of lanai salad and a very happy vacation -- even if your vacation consists of no travel whatsoever but rather a few hours you're able to carve out for yourself on a Saturday to do strictly what you want.


Falafel recipe adapted from Joan Nathan
Salad dressing courtesy of Sister, Sue Ketler, M.S.D.

For the falafel:

1 15-oz. can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/2 large onion, roughly chopped

2 T. fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

2 T. fresh cilantro, chopped

1 t. kosher salt

1/2-1 t. hot pepper flakes, to taste

4 cloves of garlic

1 1/4 t. cumin

1 t. baking powder

8-10 T. flour

Vegetable oil, for frying

For the salad:

4 c. mixed salad greens

1 tomato, diced

2 medium-sized carrots, sliced

1 medium-sized cucumber, sliced

1/2 green bell pepper, diced

4 oz. feta, crumbled

For the dressing:

5-6 T. extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 t. kosher salt, or more to taste

1/4 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

About one hour ahead of time, make the falafel. Place the chickpeas, onion, parsley, cilantro, salt, hot pepper flakes, garlic and cumin in the bowl of a food processor. Process until blended but not pureed.

(If you happen to find yourself at a beach-side condo, finely chop the onions, garlic, fresh herbs and chickpeas -- or, alternatively, push the chickpeas through a box grater, seriously, this works -- and mix them together with the salt, hot pepper flakes and cumin in a large bowl. I find it works best if you squeeze the mixture through your impeccably clean hands. Then follow the rest of the recipe, below, as written.)

Sprinkle in the baking powder and 6 T. of the flour. Mix together with your hands, adding the rest of the flour one tablespoon at a time, up to 10 T. total. You want to be able to form the mixture into a ball easily, with only a minimum of sticking to your hands. It takes about 10 T. of flour, total, when I make it. Form the mixture into a ball and refrigerate it, covered, for about a half-hour.

While the chickpea mixture is chilling, assemble the vegetables for the salad in a large bowl but do not dress it. You'll want to dress it at the last minute.

Remove the chickpea mixture from the refrigerator and form it into walnut-sized balls. Heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a dutch oven or large skillet to about 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Over medium heat, fry about 6 pieces of falafel at once, turning a few times, until the balls are a golden brown -- about 8-10 minutes. It's important to do this over medium heat, as frying on high heat will cause the falafel to burn on the outside before the inside is cooked. Remove the falafel to a plate lined with paper towels and allow to cool slightly.

Dress the salad. Pour the olive oil and squeeze the lemon juice over the salad; mix. Add the salt and freshly ground pepper. Taste and adjust for salt and oil. This seems quite simple but trust me: Sister says that the key to this deliciousness is not to skimp on the salt and oil. It might not be lo-cal, but olive oil is a good fat.

Add the feta cheese and falafel to the salad. Toss to mix and coat with the dressing. Serve while the falafel is still warm; the heat and crunch of the falafel is such a nice foil to the cool salad.

The falafel recipe makes about 14 pieces; the salad serves 4-5 comfortably.

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