Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mmmmm: Hummus!

Hummus may seem an unlikely food for me to be excited about, but when it’s good, it’s very, very tasty indeed. In an earthy, good-for-you, kind of way. No chance it will ever dislodge cake from the top tier of my food pantheon, but it deserves a place in the good eats hall of fame nonetheless.

That said, it’s also true that I can go long periods of time without thinking about, eating, or missing it. One of those hummus-free cycles ended recently as I was reading Jane Smiley’s 10 Days in the Hills. There I was, happily lounged on a deck chair with book in lap, when one of the characters spread some roasted garlic hummus on a piece of whole grain toast, and I immediately planned a trip to the store to pick up a tub of the stuff and a nice loaf of whole grain bread. Later that day, standing around the toaster getting crumbs on the floor, hubby and I unanimously agreed that we’d been fools to forget what a great combination that is…

… and how easy it is to make, if you’ve got a food processor in the house. Since the two health food stores in town already rake in a monstrous portion of our disposable income every month, I did not feel disloyal about picking up a can of garbanzos and a jar of tahini instead of a tub of house brand hummus the next time I went in. Here’s how the essential ingredients came together in my kitchen:

1 15 oz. can garbanzos (chickpeas), drained but not rinsed (reserve some of the water from the can, just in case)
1/4 cup tahini (roasted, not raw)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
1 T fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric (if you’ve got it, for color)
1/4-1/2 cup fresh basil, parsley, or cilantro leaves (or a combination)
salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Dump all the ingredients in the bowl of your food processor and whiz away. If it’s too dry, drizzle in a little of the reserved garbanzo liquid. Keep blending until it’s nice and smooth.

There are several tricks to getting hummus just right. These are important because, in my opinion, not-right hummus just mopes in the fridge feeling sorry for itself as you consistently pick something else to eat day after day, until it turns sour and slimy and takes that long leap to the trash bin. Worst, in my opinion, is a hummus is that is both runny and lumpy at the same time: pleh. Double pleh if it’s been made with so much tahini you might as well just stick a spoon in the tahini jar as bother with the hummus.

Trick #1: Hummus should be as smooth as pureed chickpeas can get. Be patient. If you process it long enough it will smooth out.

Trick #2: Hummus should be neither dry nor runny. It may be a little thick while it’s pureeing, but take care when adding additional liquid. It doesn’t take much to push it over the edge into drippy territory.

Trick #3: Tahini is a grace note, not the main player.

Trick #4: Garlic, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper are all essential, but too much of any one can tip the flavor balance from oh-so-good to not-your-best-effort.

But that’s all just my opinion. Your favorite hummus may break all of my rules, so go ahead and have it your way: go wild with the tahini, double the garlic, squeeze in the lemon juice until your fingers hurt! Or fancy it up with chopped olives and roasted red pepper: hummus is infinitely flexible and very forgiving, and it wants to make you happy.

I think hummus (creamy and earthy) is at its best on a slice of toasted whole grain bread (warm and chewy), topped with very thinly sliced fresh radish (cool and crisp). What a great combination of flavor, temperature, and texture!

BTW: I’ve been inching towards a really good all-purpose whole-grain bread recipe to be a worthy companion to a great batch of hummus. I'm very close to getting it just right. Watch for that in a future post…

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