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Piece of the Middle East

Piece of the Middle East

Hummus is a versatile menu item that can serve as an app or a meal

From its ancient Middle East origins, hummus has become an everyday staple for many Americans. The rise of Middle Eastern restaurants gaining acclaim like Philadelphia’s Zahav, Sitti in Raleigh, N.C., and Portland, Maine’s Baharat, hummus is recognizable on more menus.

A naturally healthy, protein-rich dish, hummus is easy to make. Comprising chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt and other seasonings like cumin or paprika, hummus can be served as is with some fresh pita bread or various vegetables like carrots, celery, bell peppers or radishes. It may also be added to dishes as a condiment.

Getting a creamy-yet-silky consistency takes some time to perfect, but Zach Engel, a James Beard Award-winning chef who opened modern Israeli restaurant Galit in Chicago, offers two simple tips: Puree it for five minutes to 10 minutes longer than you think it needs, and remove the skins from the chickpeas.

“We alkalize the chickpeas before going into the pot,” Engel says. “Cooking them after soaking with a little bit of baking soda helps break down the pectin in the cell walls of the skin. The skins rupture and come off easily and then the chickpeas absorb water faster and cook faster.”

Due to its simplicity, hummus is fairly versatile. While some chefs mix in other ingredients like beets or even chocolate while pureeing the chickpeas, Engel is more of a purist. That said, he does add other ingredients atop hummus to add flavor and even adds various proteins to add heft.

“If you do regular chickpea hummus, you can literally put anything on it,” Engel says. “It’s a great vessel to do anything—proteins like scallops, beef cheeks, braised greens and a soft-cooked egg or lamb ragu. You can do anything as long as it doesn’t make the hummus taste weird.”

While Engel prefers a traditional hummus, Jeffrey S. Merry, corporate executive chef with Reinhart Foodservice’s Boston division, doesn’t shy away from experimentation.

“When someone says hummus, they’re thinking of a dip made from a nut or legume,” Merry says. “That’s where they can push the boundaries.”

So where traditional hummus comprises chickpeas, Merry says you can fold in roasted red peppers, red beets, sun-dried tomatoes, savory herbs and even peanut butter for a dessert-like hummus.

“Hummus is definitely a chickpea dish, but if someone wants to use peanut butter and put it on a menu, I’d write ‘hummus’ in quotation marks,” Merry suggests.

Because otherwise it’d just be a run-of-the-mill dip.