I first had muhammara, a delicious Syrian red pepper and walnut dip, at my favourite restaurant, Frome’s wonderful High Pavement Evening Café. They specialise in Middle Eastern and Spanish dishes; I’ve had many a fine meal there and can recommend it wholeheartedly. (Make sure you sample a manzanilla or oloroso on the brilliant sherry menu too.)
It took me ages to remember the name muhammara but once I did, I became slightly obsessed with recreating its intense flavour. The first time I made it I used Turkish red pepper paste, which I bought in Bristol’s Sweetmart. Last weekend I’d planned a Middle Eastern mezze spread but Bristol is a long way to go from Frome for a jar of pepper paste, so I thought I’d have a go at making it with roasted red peppers. But if you can buy a jar of red pepper paste, it does save time, as does using shelled walnuts, although the flavour isn’t nearly as good.
Unlike the traditional version, which uses breadcrumbs or bulgur wheat, I decided to make a gluten-free muhammara, and serve it with bread on the side for dipping. I made the easy yet delicious Eastern-style focaccia recipe from Sabrina Ghayour’s gorgeous Persiana book, cut into fingers, and za’atar pitta bread triangles (see below). If you can’t get any za’atar you can use a sprinkling of smoked paprika and cumin instead, or just brush the triangles with olive oil. You could also serve it with plain pitta bread, flatbread or sourdough.
10 red peppers
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tsp chilli flakes (Aleppo ones are the most authentic)
6 tsp cumin
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp salt
Chopped flat-leaf parsley to serve
Za’atar pitta triangles
1 packet of 6 white pitta breads
3 tsp za’atar
150 ml extra-virgin olive oil
Serves 8-10 as part of a mezze spread
Roast the red peppers preferably on an open flame on a gas hob, under a grill or in a hot oven (220ºC, 200ºC fan, gas mark 7) until the skin turns black and blisters. This takes about 20 minutes. If you’re doing them on the hob or under the grill, turn them regularly.
Roast the red peppers preferably on an open flame on a gas hob, or under a grill or in a hot oven (220ºC, 200ºC fan, gas mark 7) until the skin turns black and blisters. Turn them a few times during the 20 minutes or so it takes for them to blister.
Meanwhile shell the walnuts (if necessary) and roughly chop them.
Slice open each pitta bread carefully so you have two ovals. Then halve each oval and cut each half into rough triangles. Mix the olive oil with the za’atar and brush onto the triangles, laying them out on to some baking trays so they’re in one layer.
When the peppers are done take them out and turn the oven down (200ºC, 180ºC fan, gas mark 6). Put the peppers in a sieve or colander with a plate over the top, and place it over a bowl to drain.
Put the pitta triangles into the oven (which should be slightly cooler now) and put a timer on for 10 minutes. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, remove the seeds and roughly chop them.
Keep an eye on the pitta breads to make sure they don’t burn, giving them a shake after 5 minutes.
Put everything except the walnuts in a food processor and blend to a rough paste (I prefer muhammara with a bit of texture), or use a blender or stick blender. Add the walnuts and blend again briefly. Taste and add more spices or salt if needed.
Take the pitta breads out when they’re lightly toasted and put on a cooling rack. Sprinkle the chopped parsley on the muhammara.
As this recipe is feel-good healthy and has a spicy kick to it, I’m entering it for the current Spice Challenge, with the theme Temple Food.