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
download a
PDF to print
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

vegetarian stuffed grape leaves | prakhe't soma

Making Prakhe / Dolma

Last weekend, I made a small pot of prakhe (stuffed grape leaves) with my mom. Growing up, she would help her mother and grandmother make prakhe almost every weekend, and she's helped them make it many times since then. They started her with the easiest job, separating the grape leaves and draping them over the side of the bowl while they worked. And once she was allowed to stuff and roll the grape leaves, she was only allowed to put her amateur rolls in the big family pot, instead of the special pots for her uncles (although she would sneak her rolls into the special pots when her grandmother wasn't looking). She's certainly paid her dues, and so last weekend was her first time being the head cook.

Making Prakhe / Dolma

While my family calls this dish prakhe, it's also known as yaprukh, warak dawali, warak enab, and many other names in other languages. And in most languages, including our own, "dolma" is a general category of stuffed leaves or stuffed vegetables, and not a particular dish. In Assyrian, we call the grape leaf versions of dolma "dolma't prakhe" or "prakhe" for short, and when the dolma is vegetarian, we call it "soma," because it's suitable for fasting.

So saying you like "dolma" is a little like saying you like dumplings—what kind of dumplings? In this case, what kind of dolma? Vegetarian or beef? Stuffed mixed vegetables, grape leaves, cabbage leaves, or cored apples? Spicy? Plain? Lemony? Herby? With raisins? Furthermore, from what region? Greek? Palestinian? Iraqi? Syrian? Lebanese? Serbian? Within these regions (and many more), the dish can vary from family to family, so even coming up with regional categories doesn't narrow it down enough. There's a whole world of dolma out there, and my family's prakhe't soma is my favorite.

Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma

This recipe for prakhe is in some ways very traditional and in some ways a little untraditional. To develop the recipe, I've used fresh grape leaves, which my mom and I foraged. If you have a reliably safe source of grape leaves, you can use them here, but otherwise, the kind that come from a jar will work too. If you're using the kind from a jar, you just need to make sure you rinse them first and use a little less salt, lemon juice, and oil in the recipe (taste a grape leaf to determine how you want to adjust the seasoning).

The filling is made with very traditional ingredients, although the addition of salsa might seem surprising. The thing is, all of the ingredients in salsa would otherwise go into the filling separately; but when you use prepared salsa, the garlic, spicy peppers, and tomato are already together in one delicious, convenient package, and it's nice to save a step in a recipe that is already very time-consuming, without sacrificing any quality. But if the idea of using something that isn't a "from scratch" ingredient irks you, feel free to make your own salsa out of stewed tomatoes, hot peppers, cilantro, citrus, garlic, and onion.

Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma

The most time consuming thing about this recipe is the rolling, but like many traditional dishes that involve a lot of rolling and stuffing (e.g., tamales, pasteles, joong/zongzi, etc.), it's best to get your whole family involved. If you're working with more than two people, you can circle a round table with the pot in the center and grape leaves and bowls of stuffing divided. Or you can start an assembly line, where the least experienced cooks separate the grape leaves and dole out the stuffing, and the more experienced cooks roll them and put them in the pot. Many hands make light work and you can quickly accomplish a double or triple batch if you pool your efforts. Put your phone away and just spend some time together cooking and talking.

Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma
Making Prakhe / Dolma

prakhe't soma | vegetarian stuffed grape leaves

yield: about 75 small rolls
active time: 1 1/2 hours
total time: 3 hours
for more dolma recipes, visit the
dolma archives
download a
PDF to print

the filling

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 pound mushrooms, diced

  • 3/4 cup diced onion (1 small onion)

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt *

  • 1 cup minced parsley

  • 3/4 cup minced cilantro

  • 1/2 cup minced dill

  • 1/2 cup minced green onions

  • 1 cup uncooked medium grain rice, rinsed (for example, Calrose rice)

  • 1 1/4 cups spicy salsa **

  • 1/2 cup very finely chopped walnuts

  • 2 tablespoons cooled, melted unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

  1. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil, mushrooms, onion, and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and stir. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the liquid has run from the mushrooms and evaporated, the onions have softened, and the mushrooms have shrunk significantly. Remove from heat.

  2. Combine the parsley, cilantro, dill, green onions, medium grain rice, salsa, walnuts, melted butter/oil, and the other 1/2 teaspoon salt. Once it's slightly cooled, add the mushroom/onion mixture and stir to combine.

wrapping and cooking

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1 peeled russet potato, in 1/4 inch slices

  • About 100 medium grape leaves ***

  • 1 1/4 cups boiling water

  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

  1. Coat the bottom of a 4-quart enameled dutch oven or stockpot with the olive oil, and then line it with the potatoes. (You may have a couple slices left over, depending on the width of your pot and size of your potato. Only make 1 layer).

  2. Drape some of the grape leaves on the edge of the stuffing bowl, to get them ready to wrap.

  3. Place a grape leaf flat on a cutting board, with the stem end pointing toward you, and the veiny side of the leaf facing up.

  4. Roll the dolma like very small burritos (see the video above). Spoon about 1 tablespoon of filling near the stem of the grape leaf and roughly shape it into a sideways log, leaving a border around the sides. Wrap the stem-side up to cover about half of the filling, then fold the sides of the leaf in toward the center. Keeping the sides tucked in, roll the grape leaf away from you, putting a little pressure on it so that you end up with a snugly packed roll. The roll should be somewhat soft, but a little firm. It shouldn't feel like it's about to burst, but it should be fairly tightly packed.

  5. Repeat with the remaining grape leaves and stuffing.

  6. While you work, layer them over the potato slices, alternating the direction of the rolls whenever you start a new level.

  7. Layer any remaining grape leaves over the top of the dolma (you should have about 25 left over, if you started with 100). Also feel free to add any clean leftover herb stems to the top of the grape leaves.

  8. Add the 3/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and butter/oil to the boiling water and slowly pour over the grape leaves.

  9. Take a ceramic heat-resistant plate and invert it over the dolma, gently pressing down to work out big air bubbles. It's ok if there is a gap between the plate and the sides of the pot.

  10. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the pot to a simmer. Once it is simmering, immediately reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Keep an ear out to make sure the prakhe isn't too dry. You should always hear water bubbling. If the bubbling suddenly stops, add 1/4 cup more water.

  11. At the end of 20 minutes, add the lemon juice, cover, and continue to simmer for 25 minutes.

  12. Once the 25 minutes have passed, keep the pot covered, remove from heat, and let it rest for at least 15 minutes.

  13. Once you're ready to serve, either carefully invert the pot onto a plate (if you dare! For this, it's best to wait another 15 minutes) or serve it straight from the pot. If you're serving the prakhe to guests, remove the potatoes after inverting and save them for yourself for later. ****

* If you're using table salt or fine sea salt, use less than the recipe calls for. Kosher salt is coarser and less compact.
** Any tomato-based spicy salsa will do, except for fresh salsas like pico de gallo.
*** If you're using fresh grape leaves, this recipe will work just right. If you're using store-bought pickled grape leaves from a jar, hold back a little on the lemon and salt and be sure to rinse and dry them. If you're using frozen, make sure they're thawed ahead of time. If the grape leaves you've picked are on the small side, you'll need more of them. In this case, layer one more on top of the other, with the stems staggered about an inch apart, to form one long grape leaf. But if they're all medium, try to use the larger ones for stuffing, and the smaller ones to layer over the top. Make sure you prepare fresh grape leaves ahead of time.
*** The potatoes taste really good, although they look extremely ugly. They're just there to keep the delicate grape leaves on the bottom from scorching. They're a treat for the chef, not for the guests.

Making Prakhe / Dolma