Bissara is in some ways the Egyptian / Maghreb equivalent of hummus, as both are garlicky pulse pastes that are eaten as a dip for khoubz (pita) bread. But they really ought not to be confused: while hummus is a rather simple concoction of garbanzos, tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, bissara is made from fava beans and supports a much more complex flavor profile including cooked onions, various greens, herbs, and seasonings. And, as it has no tahini, it is a safe dish for those with sesame allergies. We were also stuck at how similar the making of bissara is to the making of refried beans: Both represent flavored pulse pastes that are cooked in oil and flavorings to bring out their flavor. A potential link between these two dishes should probably not be surprising given the strong Moorish influence in Spanish cooking, which was then brought to the New World and adapted to New World ingredients (common beans included) by the Spanish settlers. The following is an adaptation of a bissara recipe presented by Clifford Wright in his 2001 cookbook, Mediterranean Vegetables.
1 pound skinned, broken dry fava beans
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for a garnish
2 onions, chopped
¼ cup roasted garlic pulp
1 cup fresh dill leaf, chopped
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1 cup flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped
1 cup spearmint, chopped
1 tablespoon cumin, ground
1 tablespoon coriander, ground
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, ground
1 tablespoon salt or more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cover fava beans in a medium-size pot with 6” water, bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer, and gently cook for 1 ½ – 2 hours or until tender. Drain beans, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large pan until hot. Sauté onions until golden brown, at least 15 minutes. Then add in roasted garlic pulp, dill, cilantro, parsley, and mint. Sauté for another 3-4 minutes until the herbs have collapsed into the onions. Add in the ground cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt and black pepper. Sauté another 1-2 minutes until the mixture becomes fragrant from the spices.
Combine cooked favas and onion mixture and puree using a food processor or blender until the mixture is almost smooth.
Return onion-cooking pan to a medium-high temperature. Add in the remaining 3 Tablespoons olive oil and when hot, add in the fava/onion/herb mixture. Sauté the paste, stirring constantly, until it is well blended and flavorful, at least 5 minutes. Remove from heat, place paste into a serving bowl, and top with a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with khoubz.
There may be no more iconic vegetarian food from the Middle East than falafel. 'Falafel’ (فلافل in Arabic) appears to trace its origins back to the Aramaic language word “palpēl” which was used to describe round balls. It is generally believed that falafel originated in Egypt, possibly with the Coptic Christian community where these meat-free fritters were eaten during Lenten meals. They were then exported throughout the Middle East and became ubiquitous in the Levant. Falafel are now a common street food throughout Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, and are considered the national dish of not only Egypt, but also Palestine and Israel.
In its original Egyptian formulation, falafel were made with skinned, dry fava beans. As they moved north into the Levant chickpeas were added into the mixture, and became the dominant pulse used in the north. In either case, falafel is made from soaked beans that have been ground into a coarse paste. It is important that fully cooked pulses not be used, though, as the resultant dough would fall apart in the hot oil. To these ground pulses various flavorings have been added, such as garlic, parsley, sesame, and cumin, along with a little additional chickpea flour as a binder. The dough is then fried in hot oil to cook to increase the digestibility of the pulses and give the fritters a wonderfully crunchy crust.
Falafel are very reminiscent of akara, another fritter made from soaked – but not cooked – beans. Akara are characteristic of Nigeria and the west African countries, where they are made with the cowpeas indigenous to the area. This food was exported to Brazil and the Caribbean during the slave trade. We know of no direct connection between these two foods, and they may simply represent independent evolutionary events. However, it also seems possible that the concept behind akara was brought into west Africa through 13th-15th century Arabic slave traders from the Maghreb and Nile basin.
Our version of falafel is inspired by the recipe presented in Jeff Smith’s ‘The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors.’ It is typical of those made in the southern Levant as it uses equal proportions of fava beans and chickpeas. It will taste far better than any store-bought premix (and most restaurant falafel) that you can find, and you should consider making them a part of your normal kitchen activities. Makes about 12 falafel, depending upon the fritter size:
1 cup dried garbanzo beans soaked overnight
1 cup fava beans soaked overnight
½ cup chopped onion
6 cloves garlic
1 cup water
½ cup sesame seeds
½ cup garbanzo (besan) flour
¼ cup of fine bulgur
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 scant tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Canola or corn oil for deep frying
Remove the brown skin from the soaked fava beans. Finely chop or grind garbanzos and favas in a food processor or meat grinder. Blend in all remaining ingredients and let the mixture stand for at least 1 hour. We sometimes make this a day or two ahead, and hold in the refrigerator. Form into balls by pressing the mixture very hard into a mold so that it holds together when immersed in the hot oil. We use a two-inch ice cream scoop and a flat table knife to accomplish this task. Then unmold the pressed ball, flatten slightly with your hands, and drop into 375° F cooking oil in a deep fryer. Turn over the fritters as they float to the top and become nicely browned on one side. Continue cooking until both sides are equally browned. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. These can also be made by pan frying on the stove top.
While these can be eaten on their own as a meze, they are also excellent as a sandwich. To do this, cut a khoubz loaf in half open wide the interior pocket. Into this place one or two cooked falafel balls along with chopped lettuce, diced tomato, and a generous dollop of tarator sauce.
Fava Bean and Rice Stew
In this simple but delicious recipe adapted from Debra Mayhew’s The Soup Bible(ISBN 1840383976), fresh shelled fava beans are cooked in stock with onion, tomato and arborio rice to make a wet risotto that celebrates the first fava harvest from your garden.
2 pounds fresh fava beans
¼ cup olive oil
1 onion, minced
2 cups tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 cup arborio rice
2 tablespoons butter
4 cups vegetable stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Bring a pot of water to a boil and blanch the fava beans for 3-4 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Peel the tough skins from the beans and set aside.
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat and sauté onion until soft, about 5 minutes. Add in the rice and continue sautéing for another 3-4 minutes until the rice is toasted. Add in the fava beans and tomatoes and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add in butter and stir until it is melted. Then add in stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and cook until the rice is tender, about 15-20 minutes.
Serve with grated parmesan cheese and a dollop of pesto.