Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Language of Baklava, and muhammara

Diana Abu-Jaber bounced like a ping pong ball between Jordan and America as a child. Her father was an exuberant, dashing Jordanian immmigrant to the United States, her mother a quiet but stubborn American. The Language of Baklava is Abu-Jaber's memoir, in which she describes her formative years. Their family connects and reconnects to the people and places around them, leaving Diana a little confused about where she belongs. "Am I still an American?" she asks, after her re-entry to Jordan. "And it confuses me, because it seems like a kind of unbecoming or rebecoming--to turn into this other Diana--pronounced Dee-ahna, a Jordanian girl who has forgotten the taste of fluffernutter sandwhiches or Hersey's bars."

Wherever they are in the world, the family is grounded by Diana's father's cooking--his Middle Eastern food is as lively as he is. The book is full of family vignettes, focused on the relationships, the loud or quiet talk, and the flavours on the table. Abu-Jaber includes several recipes with each one, which are connected to the stories with funny titles or whimsical headnotes. I found the methods and ingredients of the recipes to be simple and accessible. I have made two recipes already and I am eagerly anticipating more creations.

In addition, Abu-Jaber's writing is sparkling, both in its descriptions of the food and her family life. Lisa of A Fork on the Road chose The Language of Baklava as our Kitchen Reader selection for February and I am so glad she did. I have felt nourished by the insightful stories and the inventive recipes.

Today I am sharing the recipe for Muhammara, a dip for pitta bread made from roasted red peppers. I have been wanting to make it for quite some time, but I had not roasted a pepper before. I discovered that it is not at all hard to do and can be accomplished in three ways. Peppers can be roasted in a hot oven (similar to roasting potatoes). Alternatively, they can be roasted under the broiler or on the grill. Finally, they can be roasted directly on a gas flame. I decided this would be the fastest and easiest way for me. I was a bit nervous at first--I generally am around open flames. I was worried, for example, that the metal tongs might get too hot for me to touch. But it turns out that the tongs don't actually reach into the flames often enough to get hot. And the fire was just as manageable with the pepper on top and it is when there is a pot on top.

I also made "Special Rice for Special People" from the book and plan to share it with you shortly. It's an easy side dish that makes you want to eat only rice and forego the rest of your meal.
adapted from The Language of Baklava
makes enough for 6 people as an appetiser

Roasting the peppers gives them a soft, smokey taste that enlivens this dip.

2 red bell peppers
1 1/2 c (165 g) walnuts
1 t crushed red pepper flakes (or more, up to 1 T)
1 t cumin seeds
1/2 c bread crumbs
1/4 c olive oil
2 T unsweetened pomegranate juice
pinch of salt
1/2 t sugar
1/4 c (60 ml) tomato puree
1/2 t ground allspice
small handful of parsley, chopped

Wash and dry the peppers. Roast them over a gas flame by letting them sit in it. Watch carefully and turn them every minute or two, until they are charred all over, about 10 minutes. Place the peppers in a bowl and cover tightly for 15 minutes.
Peel the peppers by scraping them with a knife or using your fingers. The charred skin will slip off easily.
Roughly chop the peppers and discard the skin, ribs, and seeds.
(If using purchased roasted peppers, drain, rinse well, and chop roughly.)

Toast the walnuts in a dry frying pan until aromatic, about 5 minutes.

Combine the peppers, walnuts, and all the other ingredients except the parsley in a food processor or blender.
Process until smooth. Add extra olive oil if necessary to achieve a thick but fluid consistency.
Garnish with the parsley and serve with warm pitta bread.


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