The Italian dictionary translates spread as (cibo in) crema, pasta, meaning food with the consistency of cream, a paste. Growing up, I spread on bread burro (butter), marmellata (jam), creamy cheese, dairy products (like ricotta or mascarpone), or a combination thereof (like burro e marmellata, or ricotta e marmellata). Other kinds of spread have an aura of novelty for me.
As a book lover, I could not pass up the opportunity to participate to an event that marries books and food (in a different way from Novel Food, the event Lisa of Champaign Taste and I have been hosting for some time).
The event I am talking about is called Cook the Books and you can find the guidelines for participating here. After missing the first edition due to end of the year overload, I secured a copy of the book chosen for the second edition as soon as it was announced.
The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber is a memoir. Born from an American mother and a Jordanian father, Ms. Abu-Jaber describes her life experiences in both cultures "and the richness and difficulty of straddling them both" (quoting the book's jacket). The narrative includes recipes, many of Jordanian food prepared by her father or in the context of gatherings of his side of the family.
For the event, I chose to make Magical Muhammara, a recipe that appears at the end of chapter 9. Muhammara is a dip or spread that, according to what I have read, originally comes from Aleppo (Syria). It lists walnuts, red bell peppers and breadcrumbs among its ingredients. Ms. Abu-Jaber thus describes the dish:
An enchanting opening dish, this dip or spread is good for when you want everyone to quit running around and come to the table.
Hence, besides being delicious, muhammara is also a useful tool for difficult-to-manage situations, which may occur in the presence of several children and/or adults who get all wrapped up in pre-dinner discussions. I decided to halve the recipe, since I was planning to make it for the two of us. I also made a few adjustments to accommodate personal preferences and ingredient availability.
The version I made had the following ingredients:
- 1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 3/4 cup walnuts (blanched for one minute, drained, excess water absorbed and dried in the oven at 300 F for 16 minutes, or until dry: this is how I always treat walnuts before using them)
- 1/4 cup bread crumbs (I make them using some of my homemade bread and my wonderful grater)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste diluted with 1 tablespoon water
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1 roasted red bell pepper, peeled and chopped
- fresh parsley (from my herb garden)
I put everything, except parsley, in the food processor and puréed until smooth. Muhammara is of a nice red color. I spooned some of it in a small bowl for the photo-op. I sprinkled some chopped parsley and mixed it in, then decorated the top with a dollop of my freshly-made ricotta.
If you make muhammara in advance, cover and chill until ready to serve it. Paula Wolfert recommends to bring it back to room temperature before serving it. Ms. Abu-Jaber suggests to drizzle with olive oil before serving it with warm pita bread (for which she gives a recipe in chapter 8). I served it with slices of toasted homemade (by me) sourdough bread and the combination was a pleasure to eat. Warning: it is addictive.
This dish is also nice spread with lebeneh.
Having tasted both foods separately, I can see how they would go well together and will definitely remember this the next time I make lebeneh (or labneh).
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the qualcosa da spalmare sul pane audio file [mp3].