I honestly had barely heard of let alone made muhammara when I worked as an intern at Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco. I had just finished culinary school and the internship was considered a two-way street: I was there to get my booty kicked, say thank you and ask for more. They had me there to get the work done, but also because I came bearing a personal Lebanese culinary treasure trove, which was of some interest.
The restaurant is open-kitchen style, and up front there is also a counter where a select menu of prepared foods of the highest order are sold: a gorgeous chicken soup made in the most exacting manner, a variety of perfectly prepared baked goods and vegetables or meats, and also muhammara, red bell pepper dip. Lots of muhammara. The dip was the super-star of the counter, in fact, made in huge quantities and sold out week after week to adoring eaters.
I was put on muhammara (mu-HUMM-a-da) duty early on and often. The process was as exacting as the soup, and because so much of it was sold, it had to be the same every time. Chef figured I had been making muhammara since I was child at my grandmother’s apron strings. She wanted to know what I thought of it, how it was made at home, that sort of thing. I didn’t have so much to offer in the way of making muhammara as I did in the pronunciation of it. Everyone there called it mooah-MARA, which I sensed was off even though this was far from a household word on Wagon Wheel Lane. I refrained from giving chef et al an Arabic lesson, which was wise of me, and just pronounced it my way every time in hopes that it might rub off. Probably they thought I was wrong.
Perhaps it was my Arabic that got me into trouble, because the making of the muhammara became the bane of my internship existence. Imagine the largest can of anything you’ve ever seen, then double that, and here was the can of roasted red bell peppers from which I had to remove the skins. It was of course canned peppers of the highest order, given that this was one of the very few items in the restaurant that didn’t start from scratch. But those little suckers had not gone into a bowl and been given their due in steam to ease off the skins. No. The roasted skin of the peppers clung for dear life, and seemed to take a sick pleasure, along with the sous chef, in watching me work like a maniac to get them cleaned in the short window of time I was allotted to complete the task. Yes, I was given the tip to remove the skin under cool running water, and that helped but did not solve the fact that I needed the skin off and it did not agree.
That should have been the most irritating of the muhammara-making tasks, but it was compounded by a large-quantity nut- and bread-crumb-toasting task that ranked up there with the peppers in making my brow sweat. Yes, I did nearly burn the nuts at the get-go, and that caused sous to not trust my ability to toast the nuts properly and caused me to pull them out before they were ready according to her specifications—once it took five tries with her scrutiny before the nuts were deemed properly toasted. It was almost as bad with the breadcrumbs, which take particular attention to prevent burning and require a good stir or two to be sure the crumbs brown evenly all over.
I came to understand the muhammara-making as an exercise in both the break-down and build-up of my kitchen ego, an extension of the process that had just taken place in my culinary school program. I’m glad for that. Yet instead of inciting my desire to move on and conquer the brow-sweat of working the line, it worked an opposite effect, so that I take that much more pleasure now in peeling the skin off of just two red bell peppers, toasting just a cup of nuts and breadcrumbs, and putting together a little bowl of muHUMMada with you, to eat right here at home.
The more you make muhammara the more you will adjust the spices to your own liking. A jar of roasted red bell peppers will work just as well as roasting your own. This is delicious as a dip with fresh pita or pita chips, or spooned atop chicken, grilled meats, or fish. Muhammara will keep, refrigerated in an airtight container, for about a week.
2 red bell peppers, roasted and peeled
1 cup walnuts, toasted
2/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs or panko, toasted
2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon cumin (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
Combine the peppers and walnuts in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the olive oil and pulse until smooth. With the processor running, add the olive oil slowly and blend until the oil is completely incorporated. Turn off the processor and scrape down the sides of the processor bowl as you go. Serve the muhammara in a small bowl, chilled or room temperature.