Ingredients: falafel mix, broccoli, red bell pepper, onion, pine nuts, egg, crème fraîche, flour, butter, soup mix, za’atar, black pepper, salt.
I needed to use up a rather large head of broccoli, so I decided to make a casserole. Despite the deserved reputation as bland cafeteria food,* I actually love casseroles. In my life, excitement over that first tasty forkful has been responsible for many a burnt palate and/or tongue.
The best part of a casserole is, of course, the crusty top layer. Having no crackers to crush, I went in search of an appropriate substitute. What I found was a box of falafel mix. I’m happy to report that this worked beautifully! I was a little paranoid that the moisture from the broccoli would prevent the falafel from setting properly, so I pre-baked a slab of it in the same dish, with a layer of foil underneath for easy lifting.
Normally I would use some sort of cheese in a broccoli casserole, but I was leery of clashing with the falafel. Instead, I came up with an original (but not particularly risky) sour cream and pine nut sauce.
Toasting pine nuts is a precarious ordeal, so I did that first while my attention wasn’t split. I simply tossed the nuts around in a hot pan until they began to pick up some color, then set them aside.
Next, I browned some diced onion in plenty of butter, and turned it into a roux by adding flour and stirring for a while longer. I added milk to the roux and brought it to boil before turning off the heat and blending in a package of crème fraîche (thick sour cream). A trick here is to temper the cream first; do this by gently warming it in a separate bowl, using small amounts of the saucer’s hot contents. This lessens the danger of curdling the cream when you add it later.
I flavored the sauce with powdered soup and za’atar, which is a Middle Eastern combo of thyme, sumac, salt, roasted wheat, and sesame seeds. [Check this stuff out if you can. It makes a nice bread acccompaniment when mixed with olive oil, and works wonders as a rub on proteins.] I also added my pine nuts, and a raw egg for binder.
I assembled the casserole by pouring the sauce over a bed of broccoli florets and red bell pepper. Then I carefully placed the giant falafel disk on top, covered it all in foil, and baked it for about 40 minutes on low heat. I removed the foil during the last 5 minutes so as to crisp the falafel.
This casserole came out really great. The broccoli and sauce had condensed into a solid layer which was chewy and dense, but not overly so. The pine nuts added a flavor that matched the falafel really well, with nice tart sumac accents from the za’atar. My falafel was a bit overdone, so next time I will let the lower half of the casserole cook for a while before topping it. Another thing I will try next time is to add toasted whole coriander seeds to the sauce, since ground coriander is one of the primary flavor components of falafel.
* — I’ve found that the cure is more salt during the cooking process. The liquid component of a casserole will be absorbed by (and thus must support) the starchy component. In other words, the “sauce” for a noodle casserole typically needs to be quite a bit saltier than what you’d pour over noodles.