Monday, March 14, 2016

Muhammara (Red Pepper and Walnut Spread)

Reading recipes from other cultures shows me just how fat-aversive Americans have become. When I looked at this recipe for muhammara (red pepper and walnut spread), I was strongly drawn to the basic flavor profile, but greatly put off by the inclusion of five tablespoons of olive oil.

I like olive oil and am okay with some fat in my food, but this seemed like it was turning into a fat-based spread that contained walnuts, spices, and peppers rather than a walnut-pepper spread. Realizing full well that I was gutting the authenticity, I made one modification to the given recipe and used only one tablespoon of olive oil. The amount was based mainly on how strongly I wanted the olive oil flavor to come through. I did plan to do the drizzle of pomegranate molasses and olive oil at the end to put those flavors back into greater prominence.

In terms of the ingredients, getting the pomegranate molasses was the hard part. I live in a small, rural area right now and exotic ingredients are literally hours away. Given how important the commenters said this component was, I didn't want to substitute it. Fortunately, I got extremely lucky and was offered a free jar of this particular type of molasses to review. Fate was encouraging me to try this recipe.

I toasted the walnuts in the toaster oven and roasted my own fresh red bell pepper on the stove top. I used the red pepper flakes that I had on hand as I wasn't going to go out and buy fancy brands for such a tiny portion. For the bread crumbs, I used panko because it was what I had. Because I didn't use four of the five tablespoons of oil, the smaller amount of breadcrumbs were sufficient to firm up the mix.

My spread looked like this:

I wished I had had some sort of fresh bread on hand, but I didn't so I ate it with flatbread crackers. I figured a bland carb base is a bland carb base, though I'm sure that lovely, warm, soft, fragrant bread would have made this an overall more amazing experience. As it was, this was really tasty. It was impressively complex with all of the individual elements finding a little time to linger alone on my tongue. I used a chopstick to speckle it with pomegranate molasses and olive oil and I think that the molasses really mattered in enhancing the flavor. It has a vinegary hit to it that off-sets the cloying sweetness of the molasses as well as a citrus-like tang.

I can say for certain that this did not suffer in the least from the limited amount of olive oil. The texture was nice and the thickness very good. It spread well and stayed together. It really does not need so much oil and is nicely flavorful as is. I also skipped the second half of the hot pepper flakes and only used the 1/2 teaspoon in the spread. I love hot food, but I don't like heat to overwhelm all of the other flavors and I think more would have done so. I think the crackers actually went well with this as they gave a textural contrast between the soft spread and the crispy flatbread.

This is exotic, but approachable and is exactly the kind of new recipe I like to try. The only problem with it is that it's a good deal of effort for relatively small amounts of food. It's the sort of thing that fits well with special occasions and I'd definitely consider doubling it and taking it to a potluck or a party. For my own purposes though, it's a very special lunch treat that I'm likely to try again, but not often due to the complexity of preparation. 

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