By Jessica Roy There is this delicious little café called Crema in Harvard Square that my friend Laura and I often walk to for lunch. They serve typical cafe with international flavor fusions into seemingly simple dishes. There is one special wrap that she adores, and pretty much every time we eat there, she asks me "What is this amazing red sauce?" The answer? Muhammara! So, Laura, this one's for you.
Muhammara is a rich and fiery Middle Eastern sauce or spread made primarily of roasted red peppers and walnuts. When served alone it's usually seen with grilled pita and lettuce spears for dipping. It also can be tossed with hearty grains and veggies for a great side, or as a beautiful finishing sauce on meats.
One of the especially unique ingredients in muhammara is pomegranate molasses, a sweet and tangy complement to the bold spices and red pepper. It can be found in the grocery store's international food aisle. In a pinch, a sour cherry or not-so-sweet strawberry jam can be used with a little bit of extra lemon juice. Also, if you're in a time crunch, you can always purchase fire-roasted red peppers in a jar to skip a step.
In this recipe, we are combining pretty much all of the afore-mentioned options for the perfect light lunch or appetizer starter.
Muhammara Chicken Salad
For Muhammara spread:
2 red bell peppers
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 lemon, halved (grill if desired, see step 2)
1 Tbs. pomegranate molasses
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. ground clove
2 Tbs. olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Endive or romaine lettuce hearts / pita bread (for serving)
Place red peppers directly onto an open flame on a gas stove or grill. Allow to char on all sides. Place peppers into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for about 5 minutes. Using paper towels, clean the charred skin from the peppers completely. Remove and discard the stem and seeds.
Optional, for extra flavor boost: Place the lemon halves face down on a hot grill or seasoned grill pan until slightly charred. Meanwhile, put the dry ground spices into a small sauté pan over medium-low heat. Allow to toast until fragrant, and then remove from heat.
Pulse peppers, walnuts, garlic, juice of charred lemon, molasses and toasted spices in a food processor until ingredients are finely chopped. Next, continue to blend while streaming in olive oil until mixture is pureed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
For chicken salad:
1 1/2 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. salt
Black pepper, to taste
3 Tbs. muhammara spread
1 small cucumber, peeled, cored and 1/2 inch dice
1/4 cup raisins
2 Tbs. chopped walnuts
Additional salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cut the chicken breast evenly into 2 inch wide strips, and place in a baking dish. Rub the chicken with olive oil, vinegar, onion powder, salt, pepper and 3 Tbs. of the muhammara spread. Bake chicken at 375 degrees F for 25-30 minutes or until meat is fully cooked through. Shred the chicken with a fork, and toss with the pan juices. Allow to cool fully before serving.
Toss the shredded chicken with muhhummara spread, diced cucumbers, raisins, walnuts, and additional salt and pepper to taste. Set aside for about 10 minutes for the flavors to incorporate.
To serve, scoop a spoonful of chicken salad into clean and dry lettuce spears, or into warmed pita pockets.
Jessica Roy is a specialty chef and caterer, food writer and chef instructor, and owner of Shiso Kitchen in Somerville, where she teaches classes. Follow her at http://blogs.lowellsun.com/ yourpersonalchef.