Falafel Faves and Favism

I flagged the Palestinian taxi driver with some relief: the streets were deserted, the restaurants in the old city of Jerusalem were shuttered for Shabbat and I was growing increasingly peckish. After I convinced him, with some effort and considerable diplomacy, that I did not want a tour of Bethlehem, he admitted defeat with good humor and took me to a little Palestinian restaurant where I had the most delicious falafels- golden nuggets of chickpea goodness drizzled with tangy tahini atop mounds of fluffy pita bread, still warm from the oven.

Falafels, made with chickpeas, Israeli style

Falafels, made with chickpeas, Israeli style

Back in the US, I succumbed to ordering falafel every time I saw it on a menu. Doomed to disappointment, I’ve endured pasty, tasteless balls of mush with poky exteriors and uncooked interiors. No matter, I would make my own. Foolishly, I picked up a cardboard box of falafel mix from the “middle eastern” aisle of my grocery store only to discover what was apparently cardboard on the inside as well. Next, I turned to a Food TV diva who pureed canned chickpeas in a food processor and attempted to “bind” the sorry mess with eggs and a punitive stint in the cooler. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the food blog of Tori Avey, who explained that cooked or canned chickpeas have too much moisture to achieve the right texture. Start with dry chickpeas. Fresh bought works best (save those fossilized pellets from the back of your pantry for ammunition in case of squirrel invasion). Soak the chickpeas overnight in generous excess of water and they will reward you by becoming pleasingly plump and doubling in size. One cup dry chickpeas should be plenty, two will feed a crowd.

Did you know that falafels were originally made from fava beans by the Egyptian Copts, who become vegans during Lent. But fava beans can trigger life-threatening anemia in a fraction of people of Mediterranean descent, including Jews, so chickpeas have been used as a safer replacement. Known as favism, the disorder is due to inherited variants in the enzyme G6PD, which stands for glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, a somewhat less tasty mouthful than falafel.


Favism results from G6PD deficiency. Cartoon reproduced with permission from http://www.medcomic.com/050414.html

In red blood cells, G6PD replenishes an important anti-oxidant, glutathione that guards against damaging free radicals generated from certain compounds (like vicine and divicine) found in broad beans. People with G6PD deficiency, nearly all males since the gene is located on the X-chromosome, lack this protective mechanism and their damaged red cells gives them anemia, jaundice and occasional hemolysis.  For extra credit: why did these harmful mutations persist in some populations instead of being weeded out by natural selection?  It turns out that G6PD mutations protect against malaria, likely by hastening clearance of red blood cells infected with the malarial parasite Plasmodium.

Now that we’ve got the important part figured out, making falafel is deliciously simple.

  • Take a roughly chopped small onion, a couple cloves of garlic, and a packed cup of parsley and give them a whirr in the food processor, to mince. I like my falafel to have flavorful flecks of green, so I use plenty of parsley and/or cilantro.
  • Next, add the drained and soaked chickpeas to the processor and continue to process until the mixture takes on the crumbly appearance of moist couscous. Add a tablespoon or two of flour to bind. You can use white flour, but since I have a handy stash of besan or chickpea flour in my Indian pantry, I use the opportunity to intensify the nutty pea flavor. Do not over-process, or you’ll be serving hummus.
  • Remove, and mix with seasoning: salt and ground pepper to taste, a tsp of cumin powder, tbsp of coriander powder, a pinch or more of cayenne. I sneak in some turmeric because I like the mellow yellow contrast with parsley flecks. As always, experiment and make the recipe your own.
Falafels, tinted with a hint of turmeric and flecked with green parsley

Falafels, tinted with a hint of turmeric and flecked with green parsley

  • By now, you should have heated the oil (peanut or other) for frying.  If not, store your mix in the refrigerator until you’re ready. Use your palms and squeeze lightly to form round balls with the mixture, and set aside. Don’t worry if some liquid squeezes out, the falafel balls will be delicate but will quickly firm up on frying. I promise. Test the temperature by dropping one formed ball into the center. If it browns too quickly, the oil is too hot and you’ll end up removing them prematurely before the insides are cooked. They should take about 3 minutes to brown on one side, so you can roll them over for another 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and taste-test one -or two, or three, all in the quest for perfection, of course.
Falafels should brown slowly, so that they are crunchy on the outside and tender but perfectly cooked on the inside.

Falafels should brown slowly, so that they are crunchy on the outside and tender but perfectly cooked on the inside.

I served the falafel with generous helpings of baba ganouj, my go to recipe with grilled eggplant in a creamy tahini sauce.

Baba ganoush is a creamy, tangy dip made with sesame seed paste (tahini) and mashed roasted eggplant, garnished with generous drizzles of olive oil and paprika.

Baba ganouj is a creamy, tangy dip made with sesame seed paste (tahini) and mashed roasted eggplant, garnished with generous drizzles of olive oil and paprika.

As any responsible scientist would do, I repeated this experiment for n = 3 before publishing. Many thanks to my enthusiastic students for confirming the protocol and consuming the product! 

2015-05-10 04.41.16

Hungry Hopkins students Donna, JP and David, who helped taste test the falafel recipe on a sunny spring Sunday …for Science!

Pots for the patio: mixing up petunias, coleius and dragon grass.

Pots for the patio: mixing up petunias, coleius and dragon grass.

2015-04-28 06.39.39

A prince amongst the coriander, waiting for a kiss?

Posted in FOOD, Humor, Middle Eastern, science, Travel, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Of Sweet Onion Jam and Patriarchal Hegemony

What, you may justifiably wonder, does onion jam have to do with the patriarchal hegemony? Nothing, of course. Unless, you count yourself as a member of my mad menagerie. Still, if you’re looking for some delicious comfort food that’s out of the ordinary, and willing to pay a paltry remuneration by nodding sympathetically through my maternal musings, Read On!

Comfort Food for my Feminist

Comfort Food for my Feminist

Like any self-respecting feminist, I yearned for my pragmatic teenage daughter to espouse the cause. More women in STEM! Independence! Equity! So when she won a merit scholarship at one of the Seven Sisters colleges, I exerted my not-inconsiderable persuasive powers to get her there. Four years later, she’s back, with a degree in neuroscience but somewhat bruised around the edges. Well, the college website did say heady and nervy, and that’s what we got. After looking up the patriarchal hegemony on Wikipedia, and nodding every time she said, That’s so hetero-normative, I sought a meeting of the minds in the old standby of comfort food. This being the child who asked for caramelized onions as pizza topping and used words like ramekin and macerate in her vocabulary, I turned to a French recipe for onion marmalade. The first time we made it, we dutifully converted the metric measures to American. Too bad we didn’t follow them. Since then, we’ve confirmed by innumerable replications (p <0.005) that it always tastes delicious.

You need large, sweet onions. Lots of them.

Start with large, sweet onions. Lots of them.

Slice them thinly. Or not. They'll all melt together anyway.

Slice them thinly. Or not. They’ll all melt together anyway.

In a quarter cup of olive oil, saute sliced onions, initially on medium high heat until they come together en masse.

In a quarter cup of olive oil, saute sliced onions on medium heat until they come together en masse. Then turn the heat down to low and leave them alone.

  • After the onions have been cooking for a long time on low heat, they get nice and caramelized. How long? An hour. Or two. As long as your patience. Then you may bring out the wine! Add about a cup of good red wine. To the onions! Okay, you may also have a fortifying glass. Or two. Continue to cook the onions until the wine evaporates. I usually turn the heat up first until it bubbles merrily, then turn it back down. Then add sugar. I think about a third of a cup. Actually, we just shake some out of the sugar canister.
Wine the onions!

Wine the onions!

  • Eventually, the onions coalesce into one darkly rich, sweet and tart jammy concoction.
Onion Jam

Onion Jam

  • A little bit of olive oil oozes out the edges. Mix it in before spreading.
Dark, rich and satisfyingly sweet.

Dark, rich and satisfyingly sweet.

  • It tastes great spread on toasted bread, topping off some goat cheese. Or Brie. Or cream cheese.
Onion Jam on Goat Cheese

Onion Jam on Goat Cheese

  • I served it with a side of baked penne, tossed with roasted vegetables in a creamy sauce and topped with a layer of thinly sliced potatoes.
Pasta and potato casserole

Pasta and potato casserole

A medley of vegetables tossed with penne in a creamy sauce.

A medley of vegetables tossed with penne in a creamy sauce.

Top with sliced, partly boiled potatoes. Dot with butter and sprinkle your favorite melting cheese.

Top with sliced, partly boiled potatoes. Dot with butter and sprinkle your favorite melting cheese.

Comfort food for the collegiate.

Comfort food for the collegiate.

The Womyn Child. Hopefully contemplating a viable future.

The Womyn Child. Hopefully contemplating a viable future.

Stormy seas off Nassau Island

Stormy seas off Nassau Island

Posted in Baking, Family Life, FOOD, Humor, Vegetarian | Tagged | 5 Comments

Diwali: Then and Now

IMG_2672 ⌘ Picture a little girl, shaken awake in the pre-dawn darkness by her mother, shivering before a “head bath” with a pail of steaming hot water from the big copper water heater in the kitchen. Squeaky clean, her hair dried and braided into long mogra flower-laden plaits, she puts on some pretty gold bangles (from an ever-expanding stash of jewelry destined for her future bridal finery) and dresses in a brand new, long skirt of Kanchipuram silk , the traditional and sacred fabric of southern India. After excitedly holding a little sparkler on the balcony, she joins her family for a Diwali feast, full of sweets and special treats that last all day long, while explosions of crackers and the acrid smell of smoke fill the city air. IMG_2670 ⌘ Fast-forward many decades later, and the little girl has given up the silks and bracelets for a disciplined life of an academic scientist, transplanted into a distant western land.  It may be Diwali, but she must fly from one coast to another, evangelical in her passion, poring over 200-page reports on the plane and happily rolling polysyllabic words into hour-long lectures. But wait : just before leaving, there is time to whip together a simple family breakfast of beaten rice (“poha”) with crunchy, tangy, comforting and colorful notes. Today, the sweetness comes from dimly-recalled memories of childhood and the sparklers are in the bright eyes of the family who will welcome “madamescientist” back home :)  To all those who celebrate, Happy Diwali !


Clockwise from top: boiled, diced potatoes, chopped onion, chopped cilantro, whole spices for tempering (urad dal, dry red chilies, mustard seeds), poha with spices (turmeric, cayenne, salt and pinch of sugar), half a lemon.


After the tiny mustard seeds pop in a tablespoon of oil and the urad dal and chilies release their flavor, add the onion and lightly saute.


Add the cubed potatoes and let them develop a little bit of crunch.

Meanwhile, add a cup of water to 2 cups of beaten rice. The rice will rehydrate and plump up. Mix in spices and coriander leaves.

Meanwhile, add a cup of water to 2 cups of beaten rice. The rice will rehydrate and plump up. Mix in spices and coriander leaves.

Add the poha mixture, cover and steam for a few minutes to let the flavors meld. Season with lemon juice and top off with peanuts and grated, fresh coconut.

Add the poha mixture, cover and steam for a few minutes to let the flavors meld. Season with lemon juice and top off with peanuts and grated, fresh coconut.

A simple breakfast, enjoyed with a hot cup of coffee.

A simple breakfast, enjoyed with a hot mug of coffee.


Late blooming November daisy from the garden. Enjoy the fall colors, my friends!

Posted in Diwali, FOOD, Indian food, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Pumping up Pumpkin Pie


My postdoctoral advisor, Carolyn Slayman, could strike fear into us by the deceptively mild statement..”Wouldn’t it be nice..?” We all knew what that meant. At least another couple of months of experiments, if we were lucky. Twenty years later, I will confess to pumping up science. Just when my lab folk think they have a story neatly wrapped up, topped with a colorful title and shiny journal to target, I have no qualms in raising the bar on expectations up another notch. It’s the same with recipes. Who can resist the urge to dress up a nice but bland sauce, sneak in more spices or fiddle with the fixings? So when a collection of 50 canned pumpkin recipes came my way, I considered it only the start of a culinary excursion.

Take for example, the Pumpkin Alfredo sauce: whisk together a cup each of pumpkin puree and light cream, season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg, and heat through. Nice, but surely there’s more? It needed some tang: in went a quick puree of sundried tomatoes in olive oil, with a sparse bunch of rosemary and sage scavenged from my fast fading fall garden. The little specks of deep red and bright green were a lovely addition. What, no vegetables? I folded in roasted florets of cauliflower to the penne with the pumpkin sauce. Topped it with crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese. Next time, I might try layering the pumpkin cream with no boil lasagne, fresh mozzarella and something yet to be determined. Consumed before digital capture, this one is worth repeating.

Now that I was on a pumpkin quest, pie loomed on the next horizon. I am not a pie person, however. So I settled for prudence and a recipe on the can of Libby’s pumpkin puree. It sounded easy enough, besides it’s been on the label since 1950!


  • For the filling, mix a can of pumpkin puree, a can of evaporated milk, half cup sugar and two eggs. Season with powdered cinnamon and cardamom, and a pinch of salt.
  • For the crust, I turned to my trusty crusty Graham cracker base: crush about a dozen of them in a food processor, add half a stick of melted butter and half cup sugar. Pat into a 9″ pie pan and bake for 12 min in a 325F oven. Easy!

Now pour the filling into baked crust, and return to the oven, turning up the temperature to a sizzling 425F for 15 min. Then turn it back down to 350F for another 40 min. Poke to see if done. Confronted with a gash on the smooth and glistening pie surface, I devised some dressing: sprinkle walnut bits around the edge and arrange some pecan pieces strategically as covering. Return to oven for another 10 minutes so the nuts get lightly toasted.

Serve with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and a scoop of your favorite ice cream. The creamy smoothness contrasted nicely with the crunchy cracker base and the nutty goodness on top. Although my prudency was rewarded with a perfectly pleasing pumpkin pie, I have a hankering to veer from the straight and narrow next time. How about adding a dash of smoked paprika?


fall colors 191

Posted in Dessert, science, Vegetarian | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Springing into Green: Collards and Chard

IMG_2404There is a brief window in spring when my Maryland garden is lushly verdant. When the so-called lawn springs joyously forth, requiring Benny and his boys to mow maniacally over it every five days. When the bunnies boldly brave the prowling neighbor’s cat to nibble on the emergent lilies to my great ire, prompting me to rethink my vegetarian diet. When the foolishly delicate David Austin roses bloom all-too-briefly in this hopelessly non-English garden, before the voracious Japanese beetles arrive and the sun burns off all but the most plebian of the Black Eyed Susans. Before the crescendo of the emergent 17 year Magicicadas drowns out any pretense of genteel patio conversation. IMG_2418IMG_2416IMG_2412On such a day as this, we harvested spring greens from our backyard patch. Sturdy collard leaves, Swiss Chard with their comically colored bright stalks of yellow and red, darkly green spinach.

IMG_2371Fold the washed leaves in half, and pull/slice out those pretty stalks unless they are really tender. Then layer, roll lengthwise and slice through to make a chiffonade of fresh ribbon-like greens.

IMG_2375Collard Greens with Cumin Potatoes

Not being Paula Deen, I was not going to ham hock the living daylights out of these innocent botanical beauties, boiling them blandly for hours with only salt and pepper for company. Instead, I began by flavoring a couple tablespoons of hot oil with a satisfying sizzle of cumin seeds, fennel seeds and crushed red pepper flakes. To this, I quickly added some slivered ginger and sliced garlic.

IMG_2377Next, I added lengthwise-sliced potatoes. I used three medium sized red ones. Tossed them in the spices and flavored with a big pinch of turmeric and coarse salt. Covered and cooked on low until the potato slices were nearly done, crispy and slightly browned on the outside.

IMG_2380IMG_2381Add the sliced collard greens, toss and cover for about 5 minutes on medium-low heat. If you need to, add about a quarter cup of water at this point.

IMG_2382IMG_2386Layer on your favorite spice mix: I have an ongoing love affair with Tagine spice, so that’s what I used. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice over it all. At the last minute I tossed in a handful of golden raisins and sliced almonds. Why? Because they were there. If George Mallory could set forth for Mt. Everest “because it’s there“, surely I may be permitted to ad hoc my ham-hockless collard greens sans Deen? :) This was so good that my 14 year old picked off collard festooned potato wedges every time he found an excuse to walk by.


Dal Puree with Tomatoes and Chard

I made this dish because I had some pre-cooked mix of lentils (split urad dal and mung dal) languishing in the refrigerator. This time, I added black mustard seeds and nigella seeds to a tablespoon of clarified butter or ghee. These infuse a slight bitterness and texture to the smoothness of the dal. When the mustard seeds popped, I added a sliced red onion and tossed it on high heat. The shredded chard was mounded on, but it quickly collapsed into a more manageable mass.

IMG_2392IMG_2396IMG_2397Next, I added the cooked dal, a couple of diced tomatoes and flavored it all with salt, turmeric and ras al hanout, which is really a fancy Moroccan version of garam masala. This also received the benediction of freshly squeezed lemon juice at the very end.

IMG_2399I would have tossed in some chopped cilantro from our herb patch but our neighbor spied a black rat snake slithering amongst them yesterday. So I passed, despite all logic and the knowledge that my husband had heroically transported the serpent, dangling from a stick, into the blessedly vast woods behind. There are some benefits to winter, after all.


Posted in FOOD, Garden, Indian food, Spices, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Test Driving a Tagine

Tagine. The very word conjured up a magical mirage of Marrakesh and Casablanca, dashing Berbers and belly dancers, hookahs and saffron-laced spicy stews.  I gazed at the overpriced albeit charming hand painted glazed clay artifact in the Williams Sonoma store, and in a fit of self-indulgence, bought it. My children were less impressed. “It’s a pot”, explained the world weary, newly minted college graduate. The beatnik teenager sniffed the air hopefully, “Mom bought pot?”

Tagine and harissa sauce

Tagine and harissa sauce

Online, opinions and advice flew in, fast and furious. You’ll need a heat diffuser for the stove top. Don’t place it in a preheated oven. You have to temper it first. Just use it as a serving dish. The clay will leach heavy metals. Never try to wash it until completely cooled. Intimidated, but determined, I applied the same (lack of) logic I use to call upon divine spirits to bless our laboratory research. I soaked the tagine overnight, then rubbed in some olive oil, and baked it for an hour despite a strong suspicion that the glazing on the pot made this exercise unnecessary. I sent my husband to the store for some tagine spices. Prudently, he purchased every exotic mix he could find: Harissa, Za’atar, Ras-el-hanout.  The aromas were all-too familiar though: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon. “Mom, you’ve been had”, the 14 year old wisely concluded, “It’s Garam Masala”.

Vegetable Tagine

Tagine Vegetables

Tagine Vegetables clockwise from top: butternut squash, red onion, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots and beans.

Sliced onion sauteed with minced garlic and ginger

Sliced onion sauteed with minced garlic and ginger

Spices, clockwise from top: coriander powder, tagine spice mix, turmeric and saffron

Spices, clockwise from top: coriander powder, tagine spice mix, turmeric and saffron

Toast the spices, briefly

Toast the spices, briefly, with the lightly browned onions.

Add a cup of tomato puree

Add a cup of tomato puree. Add salt to taste.

Toss the sauce with the cubed vegetables and mound into the tagine base

Toss the sauce with the cubed vegetables and chickpeas. Mound them into the tagine base. Cover with the cone shaped lid and place in oven. Turn heat up to 350F.

Bake for an hour until the aroma is heavenly and the vegetables are fork tender

Bake for an hour until the aroma is heavenly and the vegetables are fork tender.

Garnish with fresh herbs.

Garnish with fresh herbs.

Serve on a bed of couscous cooked with a touch of olive oil, parsley and lemon juice. Garnish with lime wedges

Serve on a bed of couscous cooked with a touch of olive oil, parsley and lemon juice. Garnish with lime wedges.

Clean up was a breeze!  My husband dug into his plate, saying “Mmm…all it needs is some lamb”. He was assigned dish washing duty for making mischief.

Spring has sprung in Maryland!

Magnolia blooming in the yard.

Magnolia blooming in the yard.

Easter bunny knows I'm a vegetarian and grows bold.

Easter bunny knows I’m a vegetarian and grows bold.

Hyacinths bloom before the opportunistic weeds arrive. I'd better get to work!

Hyacinths bloom even as the opportunistic weeds poke through. I’d better get to work!


Posted in FOOD, Garden, Moroccan cooking, Spices, Vegetarian | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Fun With Furans: Making Flat Bread with Fenugreek

The first reports of a strangely seductive aroma wafting over Manhattan, Queens and nearby New Jersey began in 2005. People smelled maple syrup, which got them fantasizing over pancakes and waffles. No doubt, the local Denny’s did brisk business. But there were enough calls to 311 to set the authorities sniffing. It was not until 2009, after the Department of Environmental Protection analyzed dozens of air samples and computed wind routes, that Mayor Bloomberg announced the mysterious source: a spice factory in New Jersey that processed fenugreek.

Sotolon, or more precisely 4,5-dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2[5H]-furanone, is an extremely strong aroma compound. In low concentrations, it smells like maple syrup, caramel or burnt sugar, and at high concentrations it evokes the smell of curry and spices. It is the major aroma and flavor component of fenugreek and lovage, but also flavors rum, white wine, aged sake and tobacco. Why you complain, New Yorkers?

Remarkably, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is used three ways: as a spice, herb and vegetable. The yellowish cuboid seeds (methi) are roasted and widely used in Indian cooking, the dried leaves (kasuri methi) are used as herb, and the fresh leaves (methi) are cooked as greens (as in my recipe for Alu Methi). This time, I chopped the leaves up finely in my food processor and incorporated them into a verdant and pliant dough, to make methi parathas, a flaky, flat bread full of flavor.

Flat bread with fenugreek leaves (methi paratha), flavored by my favorite furan, sotolan

Flat bread with fenugreek leaves (methi paratha), flavored by my favorite furan, sotolan

  • For the dough, add 0.5 cup of chick pea flour (besan) to 2 cups of wheat flour (atta). You can omit the besan, but it imparts a distinctive texture and aroma that is irresistible. Add a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil when making the dough. Normally, I skip the oil when making ordinary Indian flat breads (chappatis), but it helps to have a softer dough when making the stuffed varieties.
  • Add a pinch of turmeric, chilli powder, cumin seeds and salt to taste. Chop up a green chilli or two if you want it hotter. I made the dough in the food processor, adding water slowly until the dough just began to form clumps. Turn out on the counter top, knead briefly and let it rest covered.

Fenugreek leaves, washed and de-stemmed


Make the dough with minced fenugreek, spices, whole wheat and chick pea flour. Let rest, covered, for half an hour.


Roll out into a circle


Spread a thin layer of oil on the surface


Make a cut to the center, then roll dough around the cut end to form a cone


Flatten the cone into a circle, in the palm of your hand. Note the concentric layers in the dough.


Roll out the dough again. This time, the circle has concentric layers that make the paratha flaky.


Cook on a hot griddle with a scant teaspoon of oil on each side until light brown spots appear


Leftovers are delicious packed for lunch! I served the methi paratha with black eyed peas, roasted wedges of brussels sprouts with cumin seeds, topped off with a cranberry raisin relish. The green chilli is to get my endorphins going.

We were too hungry to wait for any more photos, so I’m sharing the left overs with you. I hope you enjoyed my favorite furan. Until next time, I’ll leave you with a substitute for the cheery yellow flowers of fenugreek and a walk down memory lane.


Path leading from my conference in the village of Les Diablerets, tucked away in the Swiss Alps (banner picture).

Posted in FOOD, Herbs, Indian food, science, Uncategorized, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments