Stuffing the Pita

During the summer of 1970, I found myself working on a Kibbutz in Southern Israel, about five kilometers from the Gaza Strip. After a grueling day (that began at 5:00 a.m.) of weeding acres of green pepper and hauling bails of hay, I often spent the evenings sitting alone on a mound of sand staring out into the desert dusk. As the sunset colors splashed across the wide horizon, the sound of shepherds and stillness filled the air. The intense work and fresh air brought with it an amazingly large appetite, something I will probably never again experience in quite the same way. Since this particular Kibbutz had a rather large group of vegetarians, it offered two completely separate menus. The food was served with freshly picked vegetables, whole grains, and various yogurt sauces. Just experimenting with a vegetarian diet myself, each meal became a surprise and delight.

One day, while venturing out into Tel Aviv, I discovered the roadside falafel stands. The humble falafel, made of fresh pita bread, salad, chick-pea balls, and plenty of sesame sauce seemed like the perfect combination of foods. Falafels never did taste quite the same outside of Israel, although there was a place that came close: a very small restaurant called Heshey’s, located in Spring Valley, New York. What made Heshey’s and the Tel Aviv falafels stand apart was the abundance of tahini sauce and warm, freshly baked pita bread.

Chick-peas, or garbanzo beans, are rumored to be the only food needed for survival on a desert island. Since most of us don’t find ourselves stranded on desert islands too often, it is nice to know that chick-peas are very healthy. Falafel is basically chick-pea balls that are traditionally deep fried, but they can also be baked with good results.

2½ C chick-peas, cooked & well drained (use can used canned chick-peas)
2 t parsley, freshly minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 t salt
1/8 t cayenne pepper
½ t ginger, minced (aids in digestion)
2½ t wheat germ, panko, or corn meal
1 T flour or corn flour
1 egg, beaten (2 egg whites alone can be substituted, or ½ t cornstarch dissolved in ¼ C water)
oil for deep frying

1. Grind or mash chick-peas coarsely; do not grind to a paste.
2. Combine all the rest of the ingredients.
3. Chill the chick-pea batter at least 15-30 minutes.
4. Shape into 20 balls; flatten slightly and coat lightly with flour.
5. Fry balls in oil until crisp. Oil should be heated to at least 375 degrees. If the oil is not hot enough the balls will absorb too much oil.
6. Drain very well on absorbent paper.

Baking Option: Place balls on a generously oiled baking sheet and roll them in oil to coat all sides. Bake at 375 degrees for at least 20 minutes. Turn over at least once during baking.

Tahini Sauce
Blend the following ingredients together:

½ C tahini (sesame paste)
1 small garlic clove, minced
½ t salt
¼ C lemon juice
½-¾ C water

To assemble the falafel:
1. Chop 1 C lettuce very small.
2. Chop 2 tomatoes very small.
3. Heat pita slightly, cut a slit on the top.
4. Place some lettuce and tomato mixture on bottom of the pita and top with two falafel balls.
5. Spoon 3 T tahini sauce on top.
6. Repeat above layer again.
7. Fold a small square of tin foil on bottom of pita.
8. Serve immediately with plenty of napkins.

Baba Ghanouj
This is a wonderful eggplant spread often served with warm pita.

1 medium eggplant, or two small
1 clove garlic, minced
½ lemon, juiced
2 T tahini
1 t salt
2 T olive oil
½ t cumin seed
¼ t crushed red pepper

1. Cut eggplant in half and place in a baking pan with a little water. Cover with tin foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes or until very tender. The preferred method (which may not be an option) is to char the eggplant directly over a flame until the outside is black and the inside is soft. This process adds a very special flavor.
2. Scoop the cooked eggplant into a bowl.
3. Combine eggplant with lemon juice, tahini, garlic, and salt.
4. Heat 1 T olive oil in a small pan and add the cumin seed and red pepper. Heat until cumin seeds are roasted.
5. Combine oil and spices with eggplant.
6. Sprinkle 1 T olive oil over eggplant spread just before serving.

Pita Bread
For the truly adventurous who wish to create an authentic Middle Eastern meal from scratch, I have included a recipe for baking your own pita. I find baking bread helps one to slow down, breathe, and let go. This basic bread, prepared since Biblical times (over open fires) is very simple to make. You have the choice of letting it rise from 3 to 11 hours. This means you could prepare the dough in the morning, let it rise all day, and bake it for dinner. Alternatively, you can prepare it in the evening and bake it in the morning.

1 C warm water
1 t yeast
1 t honey
1 t olive oil
1 t salt
1¾ C whole wheat pastry flour, sifted
½-1 C unbleached white flour, sifted

1. Proof the yeast by sprinkling it on top of warm water. Let it sit for 5 minutes. If the water is too hot it will kill the yeast. If the water is too cold the yeast will not activate.
2. Add yeast water, honey, oil, and salt to a large bowl.
3. Mix in whole wheat flour and ½ C white flour. Add just enough additional white flour to make it into a solid ball. (Sifting the flour adds air to it as well as remove any clumped pieces.)
4. Knead the dough on a floured board for about 5 to 10 minutes, until it is quite smooth.
5. Place in a lightly oiled bowl. Roll the dough in oil to coat all sides. Cover and let rise for 3 to 11 hours.
6. Punch the dough down about 60 minutes before you want to bake it.
7. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
8. Divide the dough into six balls. Roll each ball into a 6” circle, about 1/8 inch thick.
9. Sprinkle corn meal on two baking sheets and place the pita circles on top. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise about 40 minutes.
10. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. If you plan to eat the pitas immediately, remove them from the baking sheet and cover with a cloth to keep soft. If you will be using them within a couple of days, put them in the freezer.
11. Open the center of each pita gently with a sharp pointed knife.

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