- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

Walnuts are wonderful straight from the shell as a snack, toasted as a topping for green salads and as a classic component in chocolate chip cookies. Yet they have other uses.

Dining at Marouch, a Lebanese-Armenian restaurant in Los Angeles, offered a terrific example. I began my meal with a spicy chunky walnut dip called “mohammara” that really fulfilled the function of an appetizer. It woke up my palate with its lively flavor.

The dominant tastes came from walnuts and a liberal dose of red pepper, which contributed a fair amount of heat and a reddish color. The light-textured dip had little chunks of walnuts and held together just enough that it could be spread on wedges of pita bread.

I was surprised that I had not come across this appetizer during the seven years I lived in the Mideast, but later I discovered it is a specialty of a fairly small area of Syria, north Lebanon and southeast Turkey.

So after visiting the archeological excavations at Zeugma in southeast Turkey recently, my husband and I enjoyed mohammara in a small restaurant along the banks of the Euphrates River.

Rather than being served as a spread, this version was crumbly, and we ate it with a fork. That particular appetizer was especially spicy and had a deep reddish-brown hue, as if it had been made with dark dried hot chilies that resembled ancho chilies.

The technique for making this delicious dip is straightforward. The ingredients are crushed together to form a paste. In the past, this demanded a fair amount of effort, since cooks had to use a mortar and pestle. Today, the ingredients are easily blended in a food processor and, thus, the appetizer is the perfect choice when you need a starter in short order.

What gives this dip a unique flavor is the mixture of cumin and red pepper. In its native region, the favorite pepper is a semihot dried red pepper, such as Aleppo pepper from Syria or Maras pepper from Turkey. Both are found coarsely ground in Mideast spice markets.

These peppers give some heat to the dip but also leave the fruity taste of ripe pepper. A good substitute is a mixture of cayenne and good-quality paprika. Some cooks add roasted red peppers, too.

To balance the richness of the walnuts and the spiciness of the red pepper, cooks add a touch of tartness and a hint of sweetness. Pomegranate paste, made of the concentrated juice of pomegranates, is the favorite ingredient for this purpose, since it is both tangy and sweet. Another approach is to squeeze in fresh lemon juice and add a pinch of sugar.

Bread crumbs are a time-honored addition, too. When blended with the nuts, they give the appetizer a slightly crumbly texture and prevent it from turning dense and pasty like peanut butter.

For a new twist, I turn my walnut and red pepper dip into a sauce for pasta. I use it like pesto. To complement the flavors in the sauce, I add a little olive oil, roasted or sauteed red peppers, jalapeno peppers, scallions and a garnish of toasted walnuts.

Red pepper walnut dip (Mohammara)

Leave the mixture chunky, and eat it with a fork like a salad, or use more olive oil and blend it until smooth, for spreading on wedges of fresh pita. If you like, drizzle a little more olive oil over the dip at serving time.

1 cup walnuts

1/3 cup bread crumbs

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses or lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon paprika

teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 teaspoons Aleppo pepper or teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Grind walnuts and bread crumbs in a food processor. Add 1 tablespoon oil, pomegranate molasses or lemon juice, sugar, cumin and paprika, and process to a slightly chunky paste.

If it is too thick, add remaining oil. If it is still too thick, add 1 or 2 tablespoons water. Transfer to a bowl. Season to taste with salt and Aleppo pepper or cayenne, adding enough to make the mixture hot. Serve it at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

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