A zippy, healthy meal kicks off your spring menu with oven-baked falafel and an herby sauce. Karen Schneider / For The Forecaster

This falafel recipe is one of my favorite vegetarian main dishes. I like these yummy chickpea morsels stuffed in pitas, but they’re also delicious over salads, grain bowls or on their own for a quick snack. Gluten-free and vegan, these make a perfect spring meal accompanied by fresh, crunchy vegetables and your favorite Middle Eastern sauces, such as tzatziki, zhoug or a simple yogurt-lime dressing.

Karen Schneider cooks and writes in the village of Cundy’s Harbor. You can reach her at [email protected]

Use dried then soaked chickpeas for this recipe. Canned chickpeas as a shortcut don’t work as well because they’re too wet and soft, requiring the addition of flour. The raw chickpeas, once soaked, will lend a delightful cakey texture to the herby falafel, so just take this extra step.

You can also double the batch of falafel to freeze after baking and enjoy later. Just reheat them in the oven at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Also, if you’re not a fan of cilantro, just leave it out and use straight-up parsley.

If you haven’t heard about zhoug, a spicy condiment that originated in Yemen, now’s your chance. A friend told me about it recently and because I’m such a curious human being, I had to try it.

Made with just a few green ingredients, this tastes like a zippy spring day. Just a small spoonful lends itself well to any dish that needs to be perked up with spicy flavor. The longer you store it (in a glass jar in the fridge up to a week), the more the flavor will morph and mellow.

Zhoug is wonderful with falafel and can also be stirred into yogurt, sour cream, hummus or even thinned with olive oil to dress a salad or to add zest to a bowl of rice. Go easy and adjust the jalapeño to your liking. If the zhoug tastes too bitter at first, add a touch more salt and give the flavors more time to mingle. Trust me on this.

The very best dessert after this meal is your favorite sorbet or gelato!

Crispy Baked Falafel

1 cup uncooked chickpeas, soaked overnight
1/2 cup chopped shallot or onion
3 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2-1 cup fresh cilantro and/or parsley, patted dry and chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling
4 pita bread, optional
Diced tomato, cucumber and red onion
Parsley and fresh mint for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Drain and rinse chickpeas, then pat dry. Place chickpeas, shallot, garlic, lemon zest, cumin, coriander, salt, cayenne, baking powder, cilantro, parsley and olive oil in a large food processor. Pulse until well-combined, but not pureed. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Use a 2-tablespoon scoop and your hands to gently form the mixture into 12 patties, being careful not to pack them too tightly or your falafel will be too dense. If they’re not holding together, give the mixture a few more pulses in the food processor or chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Place the patties on a baking sheet. Drizzle very generously with olive oil (this is the key to making the falafel moist and crisp). Bake for 14 minutes. Flip and bake for 10-12 minutes more or until golden brown. During the last few minutes, wrap the pita in foil and warm in the oven.

Assemble pitas with a slather of hummus, diced veggies, falafel, herbs and sauce of your choice. Yield: 4 servings

Zhoug

4 medium cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 cups packed fresh cilantro or 1 cup each of cilantro and parsley (about 2 bunches total; use mostly leaves, but small stems are OK)
4 medium jalapeños, seeds removed and reserved
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 cup olive oil

Place garlic in food processor and process until broken into tiny pieces. Add all ingredients except olive oil to the food processor, reserving jalapeño seeds for later if needed. Process until very finely chopped. While running the food processor, slowly drizzle in olive oil. Scrape down the sides and blend until smooth. Adjust to taste. For a spicier sauce, add jalapeño seeds and/or additional red pepper flakes (1/4 teaspoon at a time) and blend again. Yield: 1-1 1/4 cups

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