In the United States, tabbouleh has become the Middle Eastern salad, which is pretty understandable, since it's so delicious, colorful, and goes with just about anything. But if you haven't tried fattoush, you'd better make room on your plate for one more Middle Eastern salad, because you're going to need it!
Last week, I posted about sumac, the tangy, wine-red spice that adds acidity and color to anything it's dusted over. While it's sometimes possible to replace sumac with lemon juice, there are certain dishes that absolutely require it. Fattoush is one such dish. It's the perfect salad to highlight the unique flavor of sumac. With so many different herbs and veggies, there is a gestalt of flavors, textures, and colors, but the sumac is always in the foreground of every bite.
In addition to its bright sumac flavor, you can't have fattoush without a heap of crunchy, shattered shards of pita. When combined at the last moment, everything melds together perfectly, and the lemon and tomato juices soften the dry, brittle pita chips to just the right consistency, like really good croutons or panzanella. When it all gets tossed together, crunchy, soft, tangy, and plain all meet in the middle in one perfect moment, like the second you put hot fudge on cold ice cream.
Fattoush works great as a side salad with a big meal; it goes particularly well with grilled chicken, kebabs, and riza sh'ariyeh. But if you want to make it into a vegan main course, you can add a few cans of chickpeas to the dish to make a complete protein. I only eat meat once every week or two, so the chickpea version is my go-to for an easy week-night dinner. If you're really feeling ambitious, you can even crisp up the cooked chickpeas by drying them very well, coating them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, spreading them out into one layer on a rimmed baking sheet, and roasting them at 450° F until they're golden brown and crunchy, about 30 minutes. But if you don't have the time to roast your beans, the soft, straight-from-the-can chickpeas will be offset nicely by the crunchy pita bits. Either way, you can't go wrong!
3 small or 2 large pita rounds
1 medium head of romaine lettuce
4 plum tomatoes
4 small Persian cucumbers or 1 large English cucumber
1 big green bell pepper
1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves (or 2 tablespoons dried)
1 bunch green onions
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, stems removed
3 tablespoons sumac
Juice of 1 to 2 lemons, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Optional for main course version: 2 14-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Lightly toast the pita bread, then leave it in the toaster oven to dry out for a few minutes after the heat kicks off. Once they're very brittle and crunchy, break them into bite-sized pieces and set aside. *
Chop the romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell pepper into bite-sized pieces (medium to large dice)
Coarsely chop the mint leaves, green onions, and parsley leaves.
Add the veggies and herbs to a salad bowl and toss with the sumac. Taste the salad, and then add some of the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste. Adjust the seasoning, tossing after each addition, until you're happy with it.
Optional: Add the chickpeas to make this salad a main course.
Add the pita shards and toss everything together at the very last minute.
* If you're having guests over, you can deep fry the pita chips to make the salad extra special. But even the fanciest guests will be impressed by the non-deep-fried version.
Storage suggestions: If you are planning on keeping some of the salad as left overs or packing it to take to work (or, more optimistically, to a picnic or a glamorous dinner party at a friend's house), it's best to mix up the dressing (lemon juice, olive oil, sumac, salt, and pepper) on the side. First, add the juice of one of the lemons to the 3 tablespoons of sumac. Then add some olive oil, salt, and pepper, mix it together, and taste it. If it needs more acidity, add more lemon juice. If it's too tangy, add more olive oil. Adjust until it's your perfect lemon vinaigrette. To pack up your salad, put some of the dressing in the bottom of the storage container, add the veggies and herbs, then add the lettuce, and pack the pita chips in a sealed plastic bag on top of the greens. If the lettuce is fresh, it will keep this way for a few days. Once you're ready to eat, you can toss everything together and enjoy.