A few years ago, I went to a luncheon of the Chicago Culinary Historians at Big Bowl Asian restaurant. The inspiration for the restaurant, along with the very popular Wow Bao restaurants in Chicago, is Bruce Cost, who was the speaker for the luncheon that day. Bruce has been a major force in bringing the flavors of China, Japan and Southwest Asia to the American palate through his restaurants and cookbooks. And yet, when he was asked during his talk where one could find authentic Chinese food in Chicago, his answer was jolting: nowhere. Don’t expect it to be authentic. Make it yourself or go to Asia.

OK, so he’s a purist, we all thought. The interlocutor rephrased the question: understanding that there is no truly authentic Chinese food here then, if you were just going out and wanted some decent Chinese, where would you go? Bruce didn’t waver: I wouldn’t, he said.

When it comes to hummus, I have something like Bruce’s attitude toward what can be had in restaurants or purchased in the grocery store. It can be bland at best, and grainy at worst. With one caveat—Sabra hummus always struck me as very good and very creamy. That is, until I OD’d on it when I was working in Chicago by eating it at my desk every day for a lot—and I mean a LOT—of days, days that morphed into months, and I’ve never been able to eat it since.

My worst hummus experience was, actually, at the apartment of a friend. This was many years ago, so many that I was still in school. This friend was someone with whom I wanted to be more than friends. He asked me to stop over one evening, and when I got there he was making hummus. From a box. Which must have had an expiration date from the prior decade. My desire to date the dude abated on the spot. Yet my respect for social propriety ruled the day. I ate a bite or two of the hummus made from an amalgam of unreconstituted dried chickpeas and tahini while he talked on and on about some girl he had the hots for, who happened to be Lebanese too. Good thing there was the bad hummus to keep me from feeling down.

For me, hummus bi tahini must carry the distinct flavor of tahini, not be too lemony or garlicky, and most importantly, hummus must be smooth and creamy. There’s some debate about peeling the chickpeas to achieve that smoothness. Even at my most insane kitchen exactitude I have no interest in peeling a pound of cooked chickpeas, or pressing that same amount through a tami (a huge drum sieve) so I’m going to count on you feeling the same.

Here’s what I’ve learned–from trial and error of my own and my sister’s because she has perfected her hummus–about how to make great hummus:

  1. Use a high-powered blender. If you don’t have one, consider it one of those purchases that is simply worth it. Ask Santa for it if you must, even if you’d prefer a new pair of shoes. I like Waring blenders, but got turned on to Vitamix blenders when I worked in a restaurant for a short time, so one of those may be on my hit list for the day when I have disposable income again. A good blender not only gives your hummus the right texture, it will do the same for your smoothies with ice cubes and a million other things.
  2. Don’t expect the blender to do all of the work. It’s a good friend, but not that good. You’ve got to stop it and stir numerous times throughout the blending process. Place the liquid ingredients in the blender first so that the mixture will blend and not get caught in the blades from being too dry.
  3. Blend for a longer duration than is comfortable. It takes a good 10 minutes of blending, stopping and stirring, tasting, adding more of this or that, and blending some more, to achieve good hummus.
  4. The addition of a little water assists in a creamy texture.
  5. The real secret to good hummus is not starting with canned or dried chickpeas and it’s not tahini. The secret to good hummus is…yogurt. Laban, or labne, to be precise—thin or thickened (I like using thickened, or labne). A healthy scoop, and then maybe a little more, will give your hummus the right body so that when you swirl it onto a plate, you’ve got a velvety whip of a hummus. It will taste that much better if you’ve made the labne yourself.

Hummus bi Tahini
This hummus is also delicious topped with toasted pine nuts. If you are a heat hound, add cayenne pepper to the mix for some kick. And while the yogurt lends a smoothing element to the hummus, make it vegan by leaving the yogurt out and add about 1/4 cup of water instead.

2-4 T lemon juice
½ cup plain yogurt
2 T high quality olive oil, plus 1-2 T for garnish
1 small clove garlic, minced
½ cup tahini (stir before using)
1 lb. chickpeas (from a 16 oz. can, or from dried, then cooked, chickpeas)
2 t salt
½ t paprika

Place the lemon juice, yogurt, olive oil, garlic, tahini and chickpeas in a blender (the liquid is at the base of the blender). Blend on high, stopping to stir frequently, until the hummus is smooth, adding 1-2 tablespoons lukewarm water. Taste, and season with salt. More yogurt and olive oil can be added as desired, to smooth out the hummus.

Spread the hummus on a medium-sized plate, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with paprika.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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