Last week, I posted my recipe for "tabbouleh verde," which is the greenest salad you'll ever eat, since it calls for tomatillos instead of red tomatoes. So today I thought it would be fun to continue to celebrate monochromatic foods, this time taking a look at green's complementary color, red.
Muhammara is a Syrian spread, which literally means "reddened" in Arabic, and it's not hard to see how it got its name. In a little while, bell peppers will be in season in temperate climates, and using high quality peppers makes muhammara turn a deep, dark shade of red. While it looks nice and shiny with a drizzle of olive oil (pictured right), it looks even more dramatic with little puddles of maroon pomegranate molasses (pictured left).
Muhammara's striking look is certainly the first thing worth noting, but flavor development was the most important part of writing this recipe. When I go to a restaurant and really enjoy the food, it's usually because there was a really subtle and understated flavor that got under my skin. But vivid flavors, when used carefully, are just as crucial to good food as subtle flavors are. I think this is especially relevant when it comes to dips and spreads. A dip or spread that isn't flavored boldly can be such a let down, and muhammara is no exception.
The key to my muhammara recipe is an intensely roasted flavor. You begin most muhammara recipes (including this one) by roasting red peppers over a flame, which chars the skins and softens the interiors. Once the skins have sufficiently charred, and the peppers have spent some time steaming, the burnt skins will easily slough off, and the pepper flesh will maintain the roasted flavor with just the tiniest bit of char clinging to it. To add even more toasty flavor, my own personal technique is to pan-roast the walnuts and breadcrumbs before adding them to the dip. The cumin, likewise, gets toasted for just a few seconds to tone down its raw flavor and highlight its nuttiness. If you think you don't like cumin, I encourage you to try toasting it this way before cooking with it. It really makes a difference.
Pomegranate molasses is usually added to muhammara, because it's the perfect counterpoint to all that roasted flavor, and it's especially important in this one, since there's more roasted flavor than usual. It brings a lot of acidity and brightness, which also highlights the flavor of the peppers. And the crushed red pepper is just the thing that always sends muhammara over the top. There's so much going on with this dip: acid, heat, char, and toast. It's just right for spreading on pita bread, or serving with a dish that needs an extra something. Try it on some vegan pizza (manakish muhammara) or serve it with flatbread.
2 large or 3 small red bell peppers
1/2 cup whole walnuts
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (either homemade or store-bought)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (or substitute 1 small clove crushed garlic)
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
For garnish: extra virgin olive oil, pomegranate molasses, 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
For serving: pita bread (either homemade or store-bought) or anything savory that needs more flavor
Turn one or two gas stove burners to medium heat and place the red peppers directly over the grates. *
Cook the peppers, frequently rotating each as soon as one side becomes very charred. Cook until the peppers are somewhat soft and very charred (about 5 to 10 minutes total).
Immediately place the peppers in a glass container or bowl. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and microwave for 30 seconds on high heat. Then use the residual heat to let the peppers slowly steam for 30 minutes to an hour.
While the peppers are steaming, pulse the walnuts in a food processor, until they're very finely chopped (be careful not to over-process).
Toast the walnuts and breadcrumbs together in a skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until they turn golden-brown, about 4 to 7 minutes. Stir in the cumin during the last 30 - 60 seconds of cooking. Remove from heat and set aside.
Once the peppers have steamed long enough (they should be soft and cool enough to handle), use a paper towel to rub away most of the charred skins. Tear the peppers open and discard the seeds, pith, stems, and any excess liquid that has collected.
Place the skinless, seeded red peppers in a food processor and only pulse 1 or 2 times to very coarsely chop the peppers. **
Add the walnut-breadcrumb mixture, pomegranate molasses, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, lemon juice, garlic powder, oregano, and salt, and pulse 2 to 3 more times just until everything forms a chunky paste. Do not purée.
Place the muhammara in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil or pomegranate molasses and sprinkle with more crushed red pepper.
* If you don't have a gas stove, you can use your oven's broiler or a grill, using the same method and checking frequently.
** If you don't have a food processor, you can easily do this by hand. Very coarsely chop the red peppers on a cutting board, add them to a bowl, and use a potato masher to combine the peppers with the rest of the ingredients. You could also use a mortar and pestle, as Yotam Ottolenghi suggests. It's harder to over-process by hand, but be careful to stop as soon as it turns into a chunky paste.