Muhammara is a tasty, mildly hot Middle-Eastern dip made mainly from roasted red peppers, walnuts, breadcrumbs, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, dried aleppo pepper flakes, olive oil and optionally spices, most often cumin. Aleppo peppers, which I unfortunately have not yet tried, are native to Aleppo, a town in the north of Syria. The small peppers are dried and crushed into flakes of bright red colour. From what I’ve read they have a very particular taste, being mildly spicy and fruity with a hint of smokiness and a cumin-like aroma. For that reason, it is often substituted with other dried mildly hot peppers and a bit of powdered cumin.
I first discovered this dip through this fantastic blog (it’s a pity that she is now writing less often, though). The second time I made it I was out of walnuts, but had just bought pecan nuts, not easy to find here, so gave it a try with them. I loved the result! I think the pecan nuts give it more personality without hindering the roasted pepper taste, simply adding a sweeter nuttier note…compensated with the lemon juice and I personally like to add some of the rind as well. So, now most of the times I make this dip, I use pecans if I have.
In terms of texture, you can adapt it to your taste, adjusting the amount of nuts and breadcrumbs to that of roasted pepper flesh. Though, increasing the relative amount of nuts will affect the final flavour, whereas increasing that of the breadcrumbs will just thicken it and make it “milder” in overall flavour. In fact, whenever I have a dip that I want to thicken, breadcrumbs always do the trick! Like baba ganuj or piquillo peppers and onion dip…almost anything! Most muhamara recipes make a drier paste, but I like to make it creamier to use it as if it were a “pesto” sauce…
I think it was last week that my brother sent me a link to a recipe from the NY times, it was green asparagus pesto, which honestly had never occurred to me. Recently I wrote a post on coriander pesto, with cashew nuts, which I really like, just as an example of how we can play around with the traditional “genovese pesto” (basil and pine nuts) recipe changing the basic ingredient and the nut used. But, this article really brought me to reflect on the possibilities this basic italian sauce has to offer.
Pesto comes from the italian verb “pestare” which means to pound. Thus, although it is often associated to the basil pesto, or even the sundried tomato “pesto rosso”, it can be extended to any pounded (well, now most often processed!! :) ) sauce based on a flavourful ingredient thickened with a nut, seasoned with a dry cheese and emulsified with an oil. So, think of the endless possibilities!(the different main ingredients, the nuts and the oils!) So many aromatic herbs will do…I’ve also recently read another excellent blog’s post on celery leaves and almonds pesto, which also had not crossed my mind before! Rocket or arugula pesto is now common to find. I thought of fennel leaves, which I love, typed it and found various recipes on the web.
Further from aromatic herbs, other cooked vegetables with a defined taste will do, as the green asparagus example. So, to me, muhammara is a variation of pesto that includes spices and excludes the cheese. But could well be made into a roasted red pepper pesto including the parmesan cheese and another herb to go with it…I’d like to try as well to dehydrate the peppers slightly as we used to do in a restaurant I worked in, to intensify the flavour (it actually changes) adding a reduction of Sherry (Jerez)wine vinegar and Pedro Ximenez sweet wine. I swear the combination with the semidried red pepper was incredible! So, if I make a “pesto” from it I will let you know about the outcome!
For the time being, I hope you enjoy this delicious sauce as a dip or to accompany grilled meats, or as a pesto for pasta dishes amongst other uses. Here’s also an example of it in a pasta dish…On the coriander pesto post I mentioned kritharaki or orzo pasta (shaped as rice) well, this is a way of serving it with muhammara, marinated grilled chicken and grated smoked cheese. I hope you enjoy it and hope to leave you munching on the idea of the endless possibilities of pesto making!
Muhammara with pecans
250g roasted red peppers (or 3 large fresh red peppers)
50g pecan nuts
30g extra virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove
1/3 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp lemon juice
rind of 1/2 a small lemon, grated
pinch of smoked salt (or plain fine salt)
freshly ground black pepper
parsley to decorate
First, roast your peppers, if you can do it over coals, better, to impart the smoky aroma. If not, but if you have gas hobs, do it over the direct flame as shown here. For this, though, the intensity of the fire has to be quite powerful…some home burners are too low for this. Lastly, the method I used, since I have neither of the previous…but works well is to do it in the oven. But at 220ºC minimum to burn the skin for the smoky taste. If you use this method, preheat your oven to 220ºC or even 240ºC, wash and pat dry your whole peppers. Place on a tray over aluminum paper for easy clean up and drizzle a bit of olive oil and sprinkle some coarse salt over. This should take about 30 minutes, no need to turn them or anything. Remove and let cool (you could wrap them to peel easier, but no need if well roasted).
Then, peel the peppers, remove the seeds and place over a sieve to remove excess juices. You can roast the peppers days ahead and keep until ready to make this recipe.
Toast your pecans on the oven for about 10 minutes at 150ºC to intensify their nutty flavour.
Place all ingredients except the olive oil into the processor: The peppers, the nuts, the breadcrumbs, the grated garlic, the grated lemon rind, the lemon juice, the spices, some of the smoked salt (to intensify the smoked flavour) and process until smooth.
Finally add the olive oil to emulsify the cream and adjust seasonings and lemon juice to taste.
Like I mentioned before, the resulting muhammara is quite creamy, if you prefer a thicker paste, add some more breadcrumbs and a bit extra olive oil. In that case you’ll probably need a bit more lemon juice to compensate for the olive oil.
It will keep well over a week in the fridge. To serve as a dip, just griddle some pitta bread or mexican tortillas and cut them into small pieces.
These are the “tortillas” I always buy and keep excellent in the fridge for months! They are super tasty! The best I’ve tried, sold fresh (in the fridge section) as opposed to those stored at room temperature. They just need a bit of toasting on both sides on a pan or griddle to accompany any dip or dish!
To serve, sprinkle the muhammara with some chopped parsley (or fresh mint) and a drizzle of olive oil)…To lick your fingers!
For the orzo pasta dish just boil enough orzo for 3 people. Meanwhile open up a chicken breast into a fillet, so it cooks faster (and has more surface that browns…those delicious Maillard reactions!) season it with salt and freshly grated pepper and to go with the muhammara, rub it with a grated clove of garlic, some grated lemon rind and a drop of olive oil. Preheat a pan over high heat and griddle it until golden brown on both sides. Give it a minute to cool and shred it with your hands.
Mix the orzo, muhammara and shredded chicken and to serve grate some cheese (I used a smoked spanish cheese), sprinkle some freshly milled pepper, some chopped parsley and drizzle a bit extra olive oil. That simple! It’s delicious!