01 October 2007
As we dug our spoons into a heaping platter of tabboule, my friend Alex remarked through his mouthful, "this is really good, I'm usually more of a fattoush man myself." I loved this idea, a fattoush man, in a country where people are passionate about their salads. The following discussion revealed that many of my male friends had strong preferences in the tabboule verses fattoush arena, though no one would go so far as to refuse either one.
I often overlook fattoush, the classic Levantine salad of chopped vegetables and pita chips, but it is delicious and a perfect use of those late summer tomatoes and cucumbers, and really, who doesn't love a good pita chip, like an Arab crouton? We've talked about tabboule and hummus before, so here are a few important notes on how to make standard fattoush:
1. The dressing uses sumac, a powdered dried berry, that adds a purple hue and a tart acidic note. Sumac is a great thing to have your spice rack, but if you don't have it, substituting a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar can be a good alternative.
2. The vegetables, tomatoes, cucumber, and green pepper are chopped and laid over a bed of greens. Green pepper is traditional because of it's slightly bitter note.
3. The herbs: One of the main concepts in fattoush is that you have a lot of different flavors and textures playing against each other, so you want to look for a range of herbs and lettuces that fulfill this idea. Mint and scallions are traditional, and purslane is used when in season because of it's thick texture. Use a good mix of different herbs and don't shy away from stronger flavors: Umm Hana taught me to add lemon verbena and now I often use it.
4. The pita chips are usually fried for the ultimate crispy flavor, but you can also bake them. This was obviously a way to use up stale pita bread, which is common in Arab households, however, if you don't have pita lying around (as good thin pita bread is terribly hard to find in the U.S.), you can substitute purchased pita chips and use them instead.
5. Presentation: Fattoush is pretty much a toss-it together salad, but for a special occaision here's what we do: Place some lettuces in the bottom of your serving vessel, then toss the vegetables and chopped herbs with half the dressing. Now take some big stalks of pretty herbs (we use lemon verbena and mint) and arrange them over the vegetables. When you make the pita chips, break the pita into large (6 to 8 inch tall) triangles and toast or fry them this way. Arrange the pita triangles, points up, on top of the salad. Pour remaining dressing over. When you serve, hand each person a pita triangle, they can break it up and mix it into the salad themselves.
Phew, I think that covers it. Please, please do not add olives or cheese to your fattoush, this is not Greek salad. Also, I should add that fattoush pairs marvelously with roast chicken, somehow a pile of fattoush and a little roasted chicken breast are a perfect meal. Ok, as if you need it at this point, here's the recipe:
2 cups shredded lettuce, like romaine or mixed lettuces
1 large or 2 small cucumbers, cut into small dice
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 small green pepper, diced
3 scallions (green onions) sliced
1/2 bunch parsley, stemmed and finely chopped
1/4 cup mint leaves, finely chopped
1 large or 2 medium pita breads
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp sumac
1 garlic clove
1. Smash the garlic clove with a pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle or press through a garlic press. Combine garlic with lemon juice in a bowl, then whisk in the olive oil and sumac to combine.
2. For the pita toasts, brush the bread all over with some olive oil, then toast it in the oven until golden and crisp. (alternately, you can deep-fry the pita if your prefer). Break the toasted bread into bite size pieces.
3. Arrange the lettuces on the base of your serving platter. Toss the diced cucumber, tomatoes, and pepper with the chopped herbs, toss with half the dressing to coat. Place vegetable mixture over the lettuces. Top with the toasted pita pieces, then pour the remaining dressing over top.