Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pita Chips and Hummus Three Ways

I was eating hummus before hummus was cool.  Okay, so maybe that statement is a little misleading.  It's not like it was a part of our weekly meal plan, and we weren't famous for bringing the Banks Hummus to parties in the 80's.  But I did eat it way back in 1986.

We had never heard of it before we took a trip to Israel.  The first time that I specifically remember eating hummus was for lunch outside of Bethlehem, in a little tiny shack called Scheherazade.  Our tour guide (Eli, if my memory is to be trusted) told us the story behind the name of the restaurant.  At this particular lunch, and several after that day, we were served a basket of pita loaves and three spreads.  To be honest, I don't remember what the other two were, though I wouldn't be surprised to find that one was baba ganoush, the middle eastern roasted eggplant spread.  What I remember most was that it seemed an odd lunch.  Pita, I was down with.  But these weird pastes?  Not so much. Oh well, I was hungry, given the lavish breakfast buffet of unpitted olives (ouch!) and who-knows-what-else at the hotel.  It really was quite beautiful, but to my 13 year old eyes, it was the weirdest version of breakfast I could imagine.  So I was definitely hungry by lunchtime. As it turns out, hummus wasn't too bad.  The adults in our party loved it.  So much so, that when we had a reunion party a year later, my mom brought hummus and pita.  Except that she called it "hyoo-mis".  So fast forward a decade or so, I didn't immediately recognize the big bowl of stuff that my Lebanese boss' wife brought to the company Christmas party.  When she mentioned that it was made with chickpeas, I made the connection.  She may not have appreciated my story of first eating it in Israel, given her "PALESTINE" keychain, but I might have made up for it by telling her how good her hummus was.

Of course, I forgot about hummus for another decade or so, until it suddenly became the hip "new" party dip.  Suddenly, it was everywhere. And most of it was inedible.  Well, maybe not inedible, but I could find no good reason to bother eating it.  However, when I was pregnant with my youngest son, someone brought it to a party, and for whatever reason, I decided to try it.  It was fantastic!  I wasn't interested in anything else on the buffet.  The hummus was just amazing.  I asked for her recipe, but she said that she had just bought it at Meijer, in the deli section.  GREAT!  I could just go and get the Meijer hummus!  Except, there's a whole section of hummus.  I tried a couple of them, but they were all awful and went uneaten.  Was the hummus at the party really that great, or was it just pregnancy?  I'll never know.  But the positive experience at least made me want to find a good hummus or recipe.

Over the next few years, I found a couple of ready-made hummuses   hummi  versions of hummus that were quite good.  Mediterranean Island, a fantastic import grocery store on Kalamazoo, just north of 44th Street in Kentwood, MI has very good hummus in their deli section (along with the very best prices on excellent olives that you will find).  Le Kebob, the mediterranean restaurant on Alpine in Comstock Park, has absolutely delicious hummus that they serve with either pita chips or warm pita loaves.  I don't know which is better.  However, I don't get down to Kentwood very often, and it bugs me to pay so much at a restaurant for something that is so simple and inexpensive to make.

Trouble was, I just couldn't find a good recipe!  I tried trusted sources, internet finds that came with good reviews, even a cookbook that I had possessed for years without realizing that hummus was in there.  Nothing was very good.

Until......and this should come as no surprise.........until I tried the hummus recipe in The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.  Seriously, do the people at ATK (Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country) ever fail?  Finally, I had found a fantastic, easy, basic, inexpensive recipe for hummus that actually didn't end up in the trash when I cleaned out the fridge weeks later.

We had been pretty happy with this basic hummus, but there is always a desire to tweak things just for fun.  So I did that a couple of weeks ago when I needed to take the snack to our small group meeting.  I have a bad habit of experimenting on groups.  I think I just like the feedback.  Taste is so subjective, and while Jeff and I may or may not like something, it's still fun to see what other people think.  My kids aren't the greatest test subjects.  They like smoked oysters, so......I can't really trust their palates.  So I do the only thing I can do:  I experiment at potlucks and parties.  Usually, it works out okay.  Sometimes, not.  When I am expecting a negative reaction, I just make sure not to use the dishes that have a label with my name on them.

Anyway, the hummus that I sent to small group seemed to go over quite well.  First, I'll tell you how to make the basic ATK hummus, and then I'll show you how I tweaked it.

Here are the ingredients.  There is not much to the recipe itself.  Basically, you drain and rinse the chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), and throw them into a food processor or blender with some olive oil, tahini (sesame seed paste), lemon juice, a garlic clove, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and some salt.  Whir it around for a bit, stop the machine and scrape down the bowl, and whir again until everything is very smooth. Refrigerate it for at least an hour, and it's ready.

The two ideas that I had seen in stores and on restaurant menus and wanted to try are roasted garlic hummus, and roasted red pepper hummus.  So here's what I did.

For the roasted garlic hummus, I simply added a couple of cloves to the recipe, and instead of just tossing everything in the food processor, I coarsely chopped the garlic and put it in a small pot with the olive oil.  I brought it to a simmer, and then turned it down to a bare simmer until the garlic was lightly browned, but still soft, about 10 minutes.  Is this technically roasted garlic?  No.  But it comes out very similar, and has the added benefit of infusing the olive oil with the garlic flavor.  The combination adds a sweet garlicky punch to the hummus.  After the oil has cooled to lukewarm, just add it and the soft garlic to the rest of the ingredients in the food processor and proceed.  Nothing else changed.


Now for the roasted red pepper hummus, my personal favorite!

I like to char my peppers right on the stovetop.  Of course, this only works if you have a gas stove.  If not, you can actually roast them in the oven.  But this is quick and fun in a pyromaniacal sort of way.  Just turn your burner on high and put the pepper on the grate, right over the flame.  Let it sit until the skin is completely black (you'll need to check on it periodically with tongs), and then turn it and repeat until all sides of the pepper are back.  At this point, the skin only is blackened, and the flesh is pretty soft.  However, it's also really, really hot, with boiling juices inside, so handle only with a utensil--tongs work best.

Once the pepper is away from the flame, make sure that there are no sparks still attached, and then pop it into a small paper bag.  Fold the bag up and let the pepper sit for about 10 minutes.  This will steam the pepper, which continues to soften the flesh and also loosens the charred skin.

Once it's cool enough to handle, you can just rub the blackened skin right off of the pepper.  Just don't squeeze the pepper too much while you are rubbing, because there are still hot juices in there, and you don't want them to squirt out on you!

And there it is:  One fabulously sweet, soft red pepper.

As I said, you can accomplish the same thing in the oven, if you have an electric stove.  You can either set the peppers on a sheet pan and place them under the broiler to blacken (turning occasionally), or put them in a 450 oven for about 40 minutes.  Still place the blackened peppers in the paper bag to steam and loosen the skins.

But yes, you could just buy a jar at the store and use the equivalent of one pepper.  It will still be good, but the charred flavor will be muted, since it's been sitting in liquid for who-knows-how-long.

Now you will have to remove the stem and seeds from the pepper.  I find that the easiest way to do this is to hold the pepper over a bowl and use a paring knife to cut a circle around the stem, and then pull it out.  The bowl will catch the juice and some of the seeds.  Let all the juice drain out before proceeding. Then lay the pepper down on the cutting board and split it open from top to bottom.  You'll be able to lay it open, pretty flat, and scrape out the rest of the seeds with your knife.  Now, just chop the pepper flesh coarsely and put it in the bowl of the food processor.

The only other changes that I made were to use a bit of hot sauce instead of the cayenne (since it helped to make the color a bit rosier) and to add just a bit of honey to enhance the natural sweetness of the pepper.  I thought it was just a great balance of sweet and spicy, without being overwhelmed by either.

And favorite part!  The pita chips.

I hate store-bought pita chips.  They are dry, stale, bland little things that resemble cardboard.  Blech.

And homemade pita chips are super easy, so there's no reason not to make them!

Start out with regular old pita bread.  I got mine from Meijer.  They make a thicker chip, which I kind of like.  But if you go to Mediterranean Island to get their hummus, you should still make your own pita chips and use their pita bread, which is larger and thinner, so they make a thinner chip.

First, use kitchen shears or a paring knife to separate the halves of the pita loaf.  Of course, I forgot to do that, and just cut mine in half first, thus making more work for myself.  Don't do that.  Cut them so that you end up with two full circles, one side of each smooth (outside) and one side rough (inside).

Lay one piece, rough side up, on your board and brush lightly with olive oil.  Then place another piece on top of the first, and brush it.  Repeat until you have a nice stack.

Sometimes, brushing "lightly" is difficult.  The craggy nature of the bread seems to suck up the initial contact of the brush, and then it is hard to spread around.  The best technique I have found to avoid this is to lightly tap the just-dipped brush all over the surface of the bread, and then do my best to spread all of those spots.  Failing that (as the picture above illustrates), I just take the next piece of dry pita, and place it upside down on top of the one that is too heavily oiled, and press.  It helps to soak some of the excess oil into the dry piece.

Once you have a nice stack, cut the pita into wedges.  Each round can make 6 or 8 wedges, depending on preference and size of the loaf.

And from here on, I got too excited about the impending pita chips and forgot to take any pictures.  Fortunately, the rest is easy.  Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Spread the wedges out in a single layer on a sheet pan.  If you are doing a whole package of pita, you'll need to bake them in batches.  It's okay if they overlap just a little, but not much.  Now sprinkle them with salt.  I like the crunch and hit of coarse Kosher salt.  Sea salt would also be a good option.  I wouldn't use regular table salt.  It's just too easy to oversalt them that way.  But if you go light, it could work.

Now, just bake them for 8-11 minutes.  You'll want them to just be turning light brown in a few places, but most of them should not change in color.  They will just feel stiff to the touch, but again, some of them will still be slightly pliable.  Most of them will continue to crisp up as they cool.  If a few of them remain a little soft, count yourself lucky.  They are the best ones.  Enjoy!


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