Saturday, November 3, 2007

Bella, the Popcorn Ball Princess, discovers falafel

Saturday is the high point of my week, because it's the one day when I can pretend that law school doesn't exist. A good Saturday usually involves a trip to an open-air market, a late lunch, and a lazy afternoon followed by an evening of cooking and eating. My partners in crime are usually Matt and Nathaniel (see previous post for more about Matt); the open-air market is the farmer's market in Waltham; and late lunch happens at the Taqueria Mexico.

But not this Saturday.

This Saturday I was dragged - despite the atrocious weather - on a mad expedition to Haymarket by my friend Bella. The child of foodie hippies from Vermont, Bella is my personal source for fresh homegrown produce. As her nickname would suggest, she makes fantastic popcorn balls: gloriously chewy, buttery, and caramelly. (In fact, if I'd known that she planned on making a batch on Tuesday, I would have written about popcorn balls rather than Tako the Octopus for Halloween.)

I've only been in Boston since late August of this year, so I didn't know about Haymarket until Bella mentioned it. The farmer's market in Waltham has good produce, but it's really a little too sedate for my taste. I discovered that Haymarket is more my style: boisterous and chaotic. It reminded me of Rome or Beijing. Had Bella warned me to keep an eye on my wallet, I would have felt completely at home.

We bought artichokes, lemons, pomegranates, and a vast quantity of basil. And then we discovered a falafel place. Not just any falafel place. It might be more accurate to describe it as THE falafel place.

My mother has an aversion to cooking, but dislikes eating in restaurants. Her standard solution to this problem is takeout, and in Sydney, which has a large Lebanese population, this often meant doner kebabs or falafel wraps. So when I saw a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese grocery advertising falafel, it seemed like a good place to get lunch – particularly when Bella confessed to never having tried it.

I had my doubts when we walked in. The prepared food area was a tiny stand with two metal folding chairs off to the side. Containers of baklava and piles of bagged flatbread stood in haphazard stacks on the counter by the cash register. In the back, I could see a plastic-wrapped platter of what looked like rice pilaf next to a tray of what appeared to be french fries. Oh great, I thought. Everything's premade and reheated.

There were a few customers in line, however, and the falafel, hot from a dip in a tiny deep-fryer, looked decent enough. I figured that Bella could try it, and I'd see how the seasoned flatbread held up. When we placed our order, though, the man at the counter smiled enthusiastically, and instead of a tray of premade or premolded falafel, he brought out a huge bowl of uncooked falafel mixture. I realized that these falafel were going to be something special, and promptly changed our order to a double.*

The man at the counter tasted the mixture, adjusted the seasoning, and then proceeded to mold the falafel by hand. Into the deep fryer they went, while he laid out pita, spread it with hummus, and added tabbouleh, onions, and tomato. Out came the falafel, golden brown and fragrant, and then the question: eat in or take out? He encouraged us to eat in, saying that he wanted to see us enjoy our food. I didn't mind staying, but Bella was ready to head home, so we chose takeout. The man at the counter must have been serious about wanting to see us enjoy the fruits of his labor, though, as he offered us a falafel each, straight from the fryer.

The first bite was almost enough to make me change my mind and settle into one of the folding chairs. The falafel were deliciously crisp on the outside, and wonderfully soft inside. They were solid without being heavy, and perfectly seasoned, too. Bella and I were silent as we ate them, and then effusive in our praise. The man at the counter seemed pleased by our reactions, and told us to come again.

There's no doubt that we will. With the Waltham farmer's market closed for the winter, but Haymarket open all year, I suspect he'll be seeing quite a lot of us in the coming months.

*Another place where you'll find exceptional falafel is "L’As du Falafel" in Paris, on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais (4th arondissement, Metro stop St. Paul. Look for the restaurant with the queue out the door.) The place does a roaring business, so the falafel are always hot and fresh. They come in a pita pocket with roasted eggplant and a deliciously drippy sauce.

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