A couple of months after we started dating, Joel went on tour for about a week. For that trip, I packed up a large picnic basket of home-made treats for him, his bandmate, and his former bandmate to eat on the road.
Did they eat them? No.
My elegant snacks made from local produce and fair-trade ingredients could not compete with the savory crunch of Andy Capp Hot Fries, and the saline tang of gas station wieners.
That doesn’t mean that my food went to waste. Joel chowed through the whole lot. He came home reasonably nourished and scurvy-free. In my imagination, I want to picture him declaring that everyone in the van was a loser for preferring garbage to real food, but since Joel is so low-key, he probably just ate the food and left them alone.
He did rave about this red pepper-walnut dip that I had tucked into the bag. To this day, it remains one of his favorite spreads.
Muhammara is a hearty dip of Syrian origin. Like hummus, there are numerous versions, but almost all include roasted red peppers, walnuts, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. My variation is a twist on Heidi Swanson’s version on 101Cookbooks, which I basically follow, but add about 3 ounces of creamy French feta.
Why the feta? This muhammara recipe is wonderful without it, but when I tried the recipe for the first time, I think I had an extra lump of cheese in the fridge and thought, “Why not?” When combined with the other ingredients, the feta adds a wonderful creaminess to the spread, and creates a harmony between the sweetness of the peppers and the earthiness of the walnuts.
Ever since, I have never made muhammara without it.
Another word about one of the ingredients: pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate molasses is simply a reduction of pomegranate juice, sugar and water. Wait, you must be saying, isn’t that grenadine? No, grenadine and pomegranate molasses differ in that grenadine is really more like a flavored simple syrup, and pomegranate molasses is much thicker, tarter, and denser.
Pomegranate molasses is a common ingredient in Middle Eastern, Persian, and Turkish cooking. Usually, you can find it in the ethnic foods aisle of the supermarket, next to the rose water. You can also order it online. However, if in the case that you can’t find it, or don’t feel like ordering it, you can easily make it at home by reducing pomegranate juice (check the label to make sure that it is 100% pomegranate juice, and not a blend), sugar, and lemon juice until you get a thick, dark syrup.
Pomegranate molasses, like miso, basically lasts forever in the fridge. In fact, the giant jug that I have in my refrigerator was made by my friend and fellow blogger, Siobhan at Garden Correspondent: Letters from a gardener in southern Turkey, and hauled back to the US by her wonderful mom — who is also a dear friend.
Even if it is trickier to find, or kind of a hassle to make, I strongly recommend not omitting the pomegranate molasses from the recipe. It adds an undefinable tart fruitiness to the final product, making a simple spread into an extraordinary one. Plus, you will find that pomegranate molasses is an excellent addition to salad dressings, sauces, and for rubbing into the skin of chickens before roasting (your reward will be the most burnished bird to ever come out of your oven).
This dip travels very well. It is great for picnics, and for eating on the road to hard-core punk shows when the gas station is sold out of Hot Fries 🙂
2-3 red field peppers, or red bell peppers
3/4 cup of walnuts, toasted
1/4 cup of whole wheat bread crumbs
≈ 3 ounces — about 3/4 cup — of creamy feta (French, preferably)
1/4 cup of tomato paste
2 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
Crushed red pepper flakes to taste
Salt to taste
≈ 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil + more to drizzle
How to prepare:
1. If you have a gas range, set the red bell peppers directly on the gas burner with the heat on high. Turn the peppers periodically to make sure that the skins char evenly.
If you have an electric range, rub the bell peppers with olive oil and place them on a cookie sheet set underneath the broiler. You can also rub the peppers with olive oil and pop them into a 450° oven. Remove them when the skins are blistered and blackened.
When your peppers are nice and charred, put them in a clean plastic grocery bag or a small paper bag and wait for them to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, you should be able to gently rub off all the charred skin from the pepper. Seed the pepper, and discard the seeds and the stem. You can rinse the peppers of any stray bits of charred skin and/or seeds if necessary.
2. Add all the ingredients to the food processor bowl. Purée the peppers, the walnuts, the bread crumbs, the feta, the tomato paste, the pomegranate molasses, the spices, the seasoning, and 1/4 of a cup of olive oil together until the the mixture is smooth and even. With the machine running, slowly add a drizzle of warm water to the spread to thin it (up to 1/4-1/3 of a cup of water). You will notice that the dip will become creamier and a little lighter in color. The final consistency should be like thick yogurt. Adjust the seasoning.