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

zesty lentil soup

zesty lentil soup

For the last few weeks, I've been putting the finishing touches on some fresh takes on classic Middle Eastern salads, and I'm very excited to start sharing all the recipes and photos. A couple weeks ago, I raved about beet salad with fresh chive blossoms. I recently posted this recipe for ruby fennel tabbouleh, and I've got two others (1, 2) in the works, so be sure to keep an eye out later in the summer for more tabbouleh variations. And on Wednesday, I'm posting a take on classic fattoush.

So, yes: everyone loves a crisp, refreshing seasonal salad with a bright, sunny dressing, and lots of fresh summer produce. But after about a month of nothing but salads with every meal, all those cool cucumbers and juicy tomatoes start to become a little monotonous. And that's when you remember that the right kind of soup can make a wonderful summer meal too.

mint

That's all just to say that this red lentil soup is not one of those hearty, stick-to-your-bones, warm your heart and soul, flannel-blanket-in-a-bowl kinds of soups with russet potatoes, roasted beef bones, cheddar cheese, roux, barley, mushroom, and gobs of roasted garlic. Instead of warming it, this soup will lift your soul, clear your head, and bring your senses back to life after an early summer salad burnout.

How does this soup do it? Lots and lots of cilantro, sumac, lemon, and—most importantly—mint. But you know how sometimes you accidentally add way too much mint to something and it ends up tasting like toothpaste? Dried mint is the key to this soup's subtlety. You can buy dried mint in some specialty stores, but if you can't find it, you can easily dry fresh mint at home, which is absolutely in season right now. If you have a friend who grows it, they're probably already trying to find people to take all the extra mint off their hands. And while it might sound strange to dry out an ingredient before adding it to something wet, it actually makes all the difference.

zesty lentil soup
zesty lentil soup

But I totally understand if you're skeptical—whenever a recipe tells me to add water and then boil to reduce, I roll my eyes and totally ignore both instructions altogether (because who wants to simultaneously waste time and make their house more humid?), but this is different, and absolutely not an oversight.

Just think about how different dried basil and fresh basil taste. Close your eyes and imagine a caprese salad with dried basil; then imagine a sandwich with fresh basil meatballs. I mean, both sound totally delicious, but completely different than what you're probably used to. No matter the herb, drying changes everything! The dried mint makes this soup herby without being too minty, and the red lentils make it filling without feeling heavy. And best of all, this soup is delicious at room temperature or chilled.

But if you're not totally on board with chilled soups, you can absolutely enjoy this one hot on a summer day. My great grandfather Paulos would always drink chai in sweltering weather, because he claimed that drinking a hot liquid actually cools you down. While I've never been quite sure if this is true, he was a wise man, and so on hot days when I'm craving a bowl of hot soup, I just go with it. Or you can just revel in the chill of your air conditioned kitchen while you eat hot soup under a blanket (no judgement!).

zesty lentil soup

zesty lentil soup

yield: 6 servings
active time: 20 minutes
total time: 30 minutes
download a
PDF to print

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 small or 1/2 of a large onion, minced (about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 3 carrots, diced small (about 1 1/2 cups)

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 2 quarts (8 cups) vegetable broth or stock

  • 1 pound (16 ounce) bag red lentils (slightly over 2 cups), sorted and rinsed

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled dried mint

  • 2 teaspoons paprika

  • 2 teaspoons sumac

  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)

  • Salt to taste

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (about 1 to 1 1/2 lemons)

  • For serving: chopped cilantro, sumac, crushed red pepper, lemon wedges, pita bread or rice

  1. Place a stockpot over medium heat and add the olive oil. Stir in the onion, carrots, and garlic, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring every minute or two, until they soften.

  2. Once the veggies soften, stir in the cumin and coriander seeds, and cook, stirring constantly, for another 2 minutes.

  3. Stir in the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for another minute.

  4. Add the vegetable broth, lentils, dried mint, paprika, sumac, and cayenne pepper. Stir together, cover, and increase heat to high. Once it comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, until the lentils are starting to fall apart. *

  5. Taste the soup and add more salt if necessary. If the soup looks a little dry add 1/2 cup of water at a time. Partially purée the soup, if desired. Once you're happy with the seasoning and amount of liquid, stir in the lemon juice.

  6. Serve either hot, chilled, or at room temperature. Garnish with cilantro, sumac, and crushed red pepper. Serve alongside lemon wedges and bread or rice.

* Most red lentils sold in US grocery stores are split red lentils. If you have whole red lentils, you should increase the cooking time to about 15 to 20 minutes. The lentils should be falling apart and not al dente.

zesty lentil soup