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Dip into Muhammara 

Syrian red pepper spread

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I like to make world peace happen on my table. As I am going through a dip phase, recently I have prepared various batches of Romanian fasole b tut (bean spread), Russian eggplant ikra ("poor man's caviar"), and Syrian muhammara and served them next to each other accompanied by homemade crackers.

I read about Mohamad Aldebs, a Syrian man who, after losing his successful catering company amid Syria's crisis, fled to Europe. In Milan, with the help of volunteers of a nonprofit organization that assists refugees, he started a new career cooking in people's homes for parties. According to the article (in Italian), he is in high demand.

The accompanying video describes Aldebs as a "Syrian culinary ambassador ... who recreates smells and flavors of his country," and shows him preparing chickpeas to make hummus and oven-roasted eggplants to make baba ganoush (which he decorates with sparkling pomegranate seeds), and spooning lentils into a bowl. Hummus and baba ganoush were unknown to me when I was growing up in Italy and I was a young adult by the time I dipped my first triangle of warm pita into bowls of them and fell in love with their flavors, so exotic to me. I imagine the guests of the parties for which Mohamad cooks to be just as delighted as I was that day. I hope he also prepares muhammara.

I first learned about muhammara, a roasted red pepper and walnut dip, some years ago when I read The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber, a memoir that includes a number of recipes. Abu-Jaber says this about what she calls "Magical Muhammara:" "An enchanting opening dish, this dip or spread is good for when you want everyone to quit running around and come to the table."

Red peppers give muhammara its color, toasted walnuts give it a nutty flavor, bread crumbs contribute to its smooth texture and a small chorus of spices and condiments gives it flavorful nuances: a bit sweet, a bit tangy, a hint of heat. I hope I have made you curious. Once you have roasted peppers and toasted walnuts, muhammara comes together quickly with the help of a food processor or blender. It also disappears quickly.

Simona's Muhammara

Ingredients and method:

1 pound red bell peppers

¾ cup prepared walnuts (see below)

¼ cup breadcrumbs, preferably homemade

½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes

½ teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses

½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon tomato paste

3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Note: If you cannot find Aleppo pepper flakes, an alternative, according to the www.PepperScale.com, is the following: "Mix four parts sweet paprika to one part cayenne pepper. Optional: Add a tiny pinch of salt."

Prepare the walnuts

If your walnuts are freshly cracked, toast them lightly in a dry skillet, shaking the pan often. Otherwise, heat the oven at 300 F. Bring a pan of water to a boil, add the walnuts and let them stand for 1 minute, then drain and absorb the excess moisture with a towel. Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat and place them in the oven until they have dried out, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven as soon as they are dry. (I do this for 6 to 8 ounces walnuts at a time, since I use them often in my recipes. Store walnuts in the refrigerator.)

Roast the peppers

Heat the oven to 375 F. Place the peppers on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or aluminum foil. Roast them for 15 minutes, then turn them over 90 degrees. Repeat after 15 minutes then again after another 10 minutes. Continue roasting until the skin has turned dark and is detaching in places. Put the peppers in a lidded container or paper bag to steam, then peel off skin and discard the stems and seeds. Set the peppers aside. Drain them before using.

Make the muhammara

Put the walnuts and breadcrumbs in the food processor and process briefly to chop walnuts finely. Add the drained peppers and all other ingredients except the olive oil. Start the food processor and while it's running, add the olive oil in a thin stream through the tube. Purée until smooth.

Preparing muhammara in advance allows the flavors to blend. Cover and chill it, then bring it back to room temperature before serving.

Simona Carini also writes about her adventures in the kitchen on her blog www.pulcetta.com.

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Simona Carini

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