muhammara

Muhammara

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).

red peppers
roasting red peppers
roasting red peppers

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.

Muhammara

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.

Muhammara
Muhammara

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.

Muhammara
Muhammara

Muhammara

yield: about 2 cups
active time: 30 minutes
total time: 1 hour
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for more muhammara-inspired recipes, try
this flatbread and these lamb shanks

  • 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

  1. Turn one or two gas stove burners to medium heat and place the red peppers directly over the grates. *

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. While the peppers are steaming, pulse the walnuts in a food processor, until they're very finely chopped (be careful not to over-process).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Place the skinless, seeded red peppers in a food processor and only pulse 1 or 2 times to very coarsely chop the peppers. **

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

Muhammara

pomegranate sumac shish kebab

shish kebab

It's a long weekend and everyone with a grill will be grilling. Burgers and hotdogs are all well and good, but if you're looking for something a little punchier, with a lot more color, you're going to want to try this recipe. Chunks of lamb are marinated in pomegranate molasses, and then glazed with more pomegranate molasses as they cook. The tangy caramelized sugars make this lamb completely irresistible. As if that wasn't enough, the veggie skewers are marinated in za'atar and sumac, and they blister, char, and soften to perfection on the grill. This shish kebab is fabulous for entertaining because the whole thing can be prepared ahead, left to marinate in the refrigerator, and once they go on the grill, they're done in a flash.

leg of lamb
red onion, tomato, bell pepper
red onion, tomato, bell pepper shish kebab
leg of lamb shish kebab

There's no magical reason why this recipe calls for tomato, onion, and bell pepper. It's the veggie mix my family always makes, it's always easy to find, and it goes great with grilled meats. The sumac flavor adds just the right zest to the mellow flavor of the charred and blistered veggies. But feel free to experiment with skewering other produce for grilling. Mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, radicchio, asparagus, or even stone fruit like peaches, all work great here. It doesn't matter what color cherry tomatoes, onions, or bell peppers you find—a more colorful variety will give this dish a brighter presentation, but red tomatoes with red bell pepper and red onions look chic in their own monochromatic way.

And speaking of good looks: while it would be even prettier to put the veggies on the same skewers as the lamb pieces, this is one time when you've got to sacrifice some style for substance. The vegetable skewers will be done cooking a couple minutes before the lamb, and it's important that you take them off the grill as soon as they're ready. You know the veggie skewers are done when the tomatoes are blistered, slightly softened, and just starting to shrivel. You don't want to cook them beyond this point or you will make a delicious tomato sauce, which will slough off the skewers and sink right through the grill grates.

shish kebab
shish kebab

pomegranate sumac shish kebab

yield: 4 servings
active time: 35 minutes
total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes *
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PDF to print

  • 2 pounds semi-boneless leg of lamb (if you are buying bone-in, buy 2 1/2 to 3 pounds)

  • About 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons salt (to taste)

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (for marinade)

  • 1 small red onion

  • 1 green bell pepper (can substitute another color bell pepper)

  • 1 pound cherry tomatoes

  • 1/2 teaspoon sumac

  • 1/2 teaspoon za'atar (optional, add 1/4 teaspoon more sumac instead)

  • About 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoons salt (to taste) *

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (for grilling)

  1. Trim any large pieces of fat from the leg of lamb, and cut the lamb into chunks, discarding any bone or gristle.

  2. Place the lamb it in a ziplock bag (or another sealable container), add the salt and pomegranate molasses, mix it around by squeezing the bag, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 1 day. **

  3. Chop the onion and bell pepper into large chunks. Mix together in a ziplock bag with the cherry tomatoes, sumac, za'atar, salt, and olive oil. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 1 day.

  4. Once they're ready, skewer the veggies and the lamb separately. ***

  5. Pre-heat the grill to medium-hot and brush one side of the lamb with 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses.

  6. Once the grill is hot, add the lamb, molasses-side-down, and brush the other side of the lamb with the other tablespoon of pomegranate molasses. Then add the veggie skewers.

  7. Regularly check to make sure nothing is burning, and turn everything once or twice to cook evenly.

  8. Remove the veggies once they are charred and slightly wilted. For medium-rare, the lamb should be internally 135° F, although they're also very tasty when cooked beyond medium rare.

* Use a little less salt if your za'atar is seasoned.
** If you're in a hurry, you can get away with marinating it for 30 minutes, but the flavor intensifies if you leave it a bit longer. If you marinade for a shorter period, glaze the lamb with a little extra molasses during the grilling.
*** If you're making everything ahead of time: Simply mix the veggies with the seasoning, skewer them immediately, and refrigerate for up to a day. Start the lamb off by marinating it in a ziplock bag for an hour, then skewer and refrigerate for up to a day.

shish kebab