Sunday, January 10, 2010

It Depends, or, a Recipe for Hummus

The other night I brought one of my fallback, signature dishes to a party, partly because I can make it in 90 seconds with my eyes closed, and partly because one of the night's honorees really loves hummus. Unbeknownst to me, one of the night's other honorees also brought hummus, and so, following a few minutes of good-natured smack talk, we had a blind side-by-side taste test.

Both test subjects, one of which was my husband, chose my hummus as their favorite. I was a bit sheepish about showing up the birthday girl, but she was a good sport about it, and during our post-battle chat I promised to pass the recipe along.

Later that evening, we were talking with someone else about food and cooking, and I was kvetching about Indian recipes. Real ones, meaning ones from cookbooks printed in India or written down by women who grew up making them, are nearly impossible to work with. The amounts are a small issue -- I can always find a conversion site to flip grams to ounces -- but the real problem is the instructions.

If you look at the photo of the recipe in this coconut chutney post, you'll see what I mean. "Heat little oil and fry all the ingredients," taken at face value, could have 20 different outcomes. How much oil is "little"? What level should the heat be at? How long do you fry these things? What should they look and smell and taste like when they're done?

As I was thinking about writing the hummus recipe below, it occurred to me that I could easily make it maddeningly brief and vague: Combine all ingredients and blend until smooth. I entertained myself, briefly, by imagining the questions and answers such a recipe would spark. How long do I blend it? It depends on how smooth you want it. How smooth is smooth? It depends -- how smooth do you like it? How much lime juice? It depends -- how juicy is the lime?

For the sanity of my readers and the honoree who requested this recipe, I have tried to be as specific as possible so that my experience travels with the recipe, even though taking this tack could cause complete strangers to think I suffer from OCD. Whether that's better or worse than people I know thinking I suffer from OCD, I don't know.

A few notes before you begin:

- I use a Cuisinart to make this; if you don't have one, you can use a blender -- but be prepared for a lot of pausing and scraping. If you don't have either, then I hope your arms are strong, because you're going to be mashing beans 'til the cows come home.

- Great Northerns are my bean of choice for several reasons: They are cheaper and easier to find, and I can never get chickpeas smooth enough no matter how long I blend them. So go ahead, try garbanzos if you like, see what you think, but I can't abide them, the gritty little bastards.

- Tahini (sesame seed butter) is avaliable at international groceries and some larger conventional groceries. It's always cheaper at the specialty stores, though. If you live in St. Louis, go to Jay International on South Grand.

- As with almost all recipes, this is better the second day, when the flavors have had a chance to chat, dance around with each other and get on a first-name basis.

Hummus of Champions

2 cans Great Northern or cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly
2 to 3 Tablespoons tahini
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lime
Pinch of cayenne, or more to taste, or 1/2 t. of a spicy spice mix such as Old Bay
Olive oil

1. Combine all ingredients except olive oil in processor bowl fitted with basic stumpy blade, using lower amounts for items that have a range.

2. Turn the machine on, leave the chute open and pour olive oil through it in a slow stream as you start to blend the ingredients. Everything will roll around and start to combine smoothly (and the texture will change) as you pour more oil in. You can stop as soon as everything's running around the bowl smoothly, but you can also keep going until you achieve the texture you like. I won't even try to describe the texture I like, because A) it's impossible and B) I don't want to make my readers ill in the process of trying.

3. Scrape the bowl once or twice to make sure everything's well blended and to taste and adjust the seasonings, most notably lime and cayenne. You want a detectable tang and bite, but they should be balanced against each other, i.e., not fighting.

A final note: I have made this with lemon juice and vinegar when I've lacked a lime. I've also left out the tahini. Nobody seemed to know the difference, since the beans, garlic and cayenne are the main players.


  1. Awesome! I'm going to try this out, as my hubby is the world's biggest hummus fan, and I've never made it! --and congrats on winning the taste test!

  2. Yeah-- I just realized you don't state (or even estimate) the amount of olive oil required. I assume that's deliberate, but if you could give me a general idea, I'd feel more comfortable going in... Thanks!

  3. Try starting with a quarter cup -- that's my best guess.

  4. Dried beans are cheaper and tastier -- you'll take back everything you said about chickpeas if you buy a bag, put about a third of said bag into a pot with water, and boil them just short of forever. Keep adding water. They will get soft and sweet and you will be able to blend them the way you want to.

    Quit impugning the magisterial garbanzo!

  5. I have tried and tried to work with dried garbanzos and have never gotten them right. But you don't mention soaking, and I always soaked them. Is that the secret of the so-called magisterial garbanzo?


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