I was raised in a country where the word vegetarian does not exist or, if by some unfortunate mistake one mentions it, the person in question is laughed at and given a platter full of veal, pork, and lamb. This does not mean that Albanians do not like vegetables and grains. In fact, we love vegetables and they are a very important part of Albanian food, but meat is central. As a child, I witnessed lambs butchered in my grandfather's front yard, in the corner butcher shops in the city, and eating meat was a battle that my parents had to fight with me on a regular basis. I did not like meat, any meat. Things have changed a great deal and now I enjoy a well-seasoned and well-prepared piece of meat, but I find myself craving the vegetables and salads that are ever-present on the Albanian table. In fact, I would say that vegetables are more central to Albanian food than meat (just don't tell my parents).
Since I have moved to the US I have known many people who are vegetarians. At first it was a shock: how can you be healthy when you don't eat meat? But plenty of people are and the choices for healthy, nourishing foods are not limited, even in a small town in East Texas.
My friend, Chrissy, is a vegan, but she is also very passionate about food. We have a weekly movie night where we all bring something, and usually Chrissy knows what she will make days in advance, hungry with anticipation. Her enthusiasm for food makes me happy.
When we first started sharing meals I had so many questions: What do you cook? How do you cook it? What constitutes a balanced meal? On our first get-together I made a bean salad; one can never go wrong with beans, right? Another time I made a black bean soup with avocado cream (will share this soon). Then I made Muhammara, a delicious red pepper dip with various nuts that I make in bulk when red peppers are on sale. It was beautiful and delicious and everyone present loved it. It is a mixture of roasted red peppers, various nuts, spices, and one of my favorite ingredients: pomegranate molasses. Is your mouth watering yet?
This is a dip that even the worse vegetable-phobe would love. It is sweet, tangy, salty, and smoky thanks to the roasting process, but also thanks to the smoked sweet paprika. I love to pile it on fresh baguette slices, use it as a vegetable dip (cucumbers sticks are wonderful with it), or use it as a sandwich spread. And, most importantly, I think my parents would love it even though it has no meat, although I suspect my dad would spread it on his delicious pan fried veal steaks. On a second thought, I would too.
Muhammara freezes well in freezer containers. Just remember to cover the surface with either wax paper or plastic wrap to prevent ice crystals from forming. It tastes even better then next day.
3 red bell peppers
1 cup of walnuts
¾ cup of pecans
1 ½ teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoon of sweet smoked paprika
1 1/2 teaspoon ground Chipotle Chile powder
3 cloves garlic
1 ½ teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons olive oil
1-3 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon of honey
2 -3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (substitute balsamic vinegar)
1 fresh baguette, thinly sliced (or pita bread cut into triangles), lightly toasted
1 English cucumber, cut into ¼ inch thick and 3 inch long sticks
-Preheat oven to 350 F.
-Roast peppers. Here are instructions from www.epicurious.com on roasting pepper methods:
To roast peppers:
Using a long-handled fork char the peppers over an open flame, turning them, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the skins are blackened. (Or broil the peppers on a rack of a broiler pan under a preheated broiler about 2 inches from the heat, turning them every 5 minutes, for 15 to 25 minutes, or until the skins are blistered and charred.) Transfer the peppers to a bowl and let them steam, covered, until they are cool enough to handle. Keeping the peppers whole, peel them starting at the blossom end, cut off the tops, and discard the seeds and ribs. (Wear rubber gloves when handling chilies.)
-Place the walnuts and pecans in a rimmed cookie sheet and toast for about 3-5 minutes until fragrant (oven temperatures vary, so make sure to keep an eye on them). In order to prevent the burning of the nuts, leave one nut half on the counter as a reminder that you have nuts in the oven, or set an oven timer. Let the nuts cool.
-In a food processor place peeled and de-seeded red bell peppers with all of the ingredients. Puree until smooth, scraping the sides of the food processor if the mixture keeps sticking. If the dip seems too thick, add 1 teaspoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice.
-Taste and adjust* the seasoning. Refrigerate until muhammara is completely cooled.
*If it tastes too hot, add more lemon juice. If it is not sweet enough, add more honey, and, of course, add more salt if it needs it.
Ju bëftë mirë!