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Falafel is typically eaten in a sandwich, tucked into pita with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Here it's served on top of a pita. Photo by Sue Doeden

The good life: Falafel one of many family-friendly recipes in new cookbook

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Over the last several years I've become much more interested in knowing how and where the food I cook and serve is grown and who was involved in its production. I feel happy when I know I am contributing to a healthier life for my family and myself. And I feel a responsibility to contribute to a more sustainable way of living on this planet.

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That's why I love farmers market season and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). And that's why I can't put down my new cookbook.

"Cooking Up The Good Life: Creative Recipes for the Family Table" by Jenny Breen and Susan Thurston is filled with no-fuss, no-fancy-ingredients-necessary recipes that use real food, fresh and seasonal, all packed with nutritious vitamins and minerals and plenty of delicious flavor.

Some may recognize Jenny Breen, a veteran of professional cooking and baking, as a longtime passionate advocate of fresh, local and sustainably grown food in Minnesota. She teaches cooking classes for adults and children. She gets her own two young daughters involved in the fun of food preparation. With her business partner, Breen runs Good Life Catering in the Twin Cities. And, with a Bush Leadership fellowship in 2009, she has returned to school to pursue a master's degree in public health nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Who better to celebrate wholesome food in a cookbook?

Many of the family-friendly recipes in the book include sidebars with tips on how to get children engaged with the preparation. Each recipe gives easy-to-follow instructions that allow cooks at all stages of kitchen experience to create delicious, wholesome dishes.

A recipe for Falafel (fah-LAH-ful), a Middle Eastern specialty consisting of small, deep-fried croquettes or balls made of highly spiced, ground garbanzo beans (chickpeas), is the first recipe I made from "Cooking Up The Good Life." Breen writes in the book that she fell in love with Falafel the first time she tried it and loved it even more on the streets of Israel. The garbanzo beans are rich and almost meaty, but carry strong spices with a lightness that is delightful and satisfying.

After recently enjoying a lunch of Falafel at a Minneapolis farmers market, I was anxious to try making it at home. I happened to have all the ingredients needed to prepare the recipe, even tahini (a paste made of crushed sesame seeds) needed for the sauce.

I prepared the recipe twice, once with canned garbanzos and the next time using dried beans that I had cooked. Both were moist on the inside and crunchy on the outside after a very brief time frying in a shallow pool of hot peanut oil. But I have to say those made with beans I cooked myself had deep, rich flavor that I didn't detect in the canned version. I totally enjoyed both batches, though. Canned garbanzos are convenient. Breen writes that cooked beans can be frozen for later use. If you plan to make Falafel on a regular basis, cook up a big pot of garbanzos and freeze them in 2- to 3-cup portions. Then just thaw them as needed.

Falafel, warm or at room temperature, is typically eaten in a sandwich, tucked into pita with lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. I like to add onion, too. I like Falafel served over a salad of fresh greens, topped with a sprinkling of feta and doused with a yogurt-based cucumber sauce. For busy people on the go, layer cucumber sauce, onion, tomato, lettuce and Falafel in a glass with a cover to create a transportable meal. Of course, small one- or two-bite-sized Falafel make a nice snack with tahini sauce for dipping.

In "Cooking Up The Good Life," the sidebar explains that Falafel is an unexpected kid favorite. I would say adults could be included in that statement. My favorite taste-testing guy says this is the only way he'll eat garbanzo beans.

Children will enjoy shaping balls of garbanzo bean mixture and mixing tahini sauce. Adults can do the frying. Everyone can enjoy a healthful meal.

Falafel

1 cup garbanzo beans (chickpeas) cooked in 3 cups water or 2 cups canned garbanzos

1 onion, coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh parsley

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 to 6 tablespoons flour

1/2 to 1 cup peanut oil for frying

Tahini Sauce:

1/3 cup tahini

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Salt

Puree the garbanzo beans and onion in a food processor. Add the parsley, cilantro, salt, garlic and cumin and process until blended. Sprinkle in the baking powder, and add enough flour so the dough forms a ball and no longer sticks. Add a little water if needed. Form the dough into small balls about the size of donut balls. Heat the peanut oil in a deep, heavy frying pan. Fry the falafel balls on each side until they're golden brown.

To make the tahini sauce, whisk together the tahini, water and lemon juice. Add salt to taste. Serve the falafel alone or as the quintessential falafel sandwich: a fresh pita filled with falafel, chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and topped with tahini sauce or your favorite hot sauce. Makes about 18 balls. Serves 6.

Recipe from "Cooking Up The Good Life: Creative Recipes for the Family Table," by Jenny Breen and Susan Thurston. University of Minnesota Press. 2011.

Tips from the cook

--Tahini is a paste made of crushed sesame seeds. Find it in the international aisle of your grocery store or in Middle Eastern markets.

--I flattened the balls slightly before frying. I find patties easier to fry.

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