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Give Carrots A Middle Eastern Lift With Tahini

Carrots can pair nicely with traditional Middle Eastern flavors. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

Carrots can pair nicely with traditional Middle Eastern flavors. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto

Here’s a vegetarian idea — carrots with tahini. Think hummus, only with the mild sweetness (and vitamin A) of carrots.

The Middle East has an ancient tradition of meatless dishes. As the 13th-century cookbook “The Description of Familiar Foods” shows, Christians in the Arab world approached Lenten cuisine differently than did the Europeans, replacing red meat not with fish (since the eastern Mediterranean is relatively fish-poor) nor with almonds (which probably didn’t have the same luxury appeal as they had for, say, the French, since one might have an almond tree of one’s own in the backyard). Instead, they mimicked the richness of meat by stewing vegetables long and slow with oil. This tradition survives in Turkey as a class of dishes called yağlı yemekler, and it eventually entered French cuisine under the name légumes à la grecque.

Some of the fast-day recipes in “The Description” use sesame oil rather than olive oil, and this gave me the idea of replacing the meat with sesame paste, better known as tahini. You want heft and meatiness? Tahini can handle that, as any hummus eater knows. (But as any hummus cook knows, tahini separates easily and must be thoroughly stirred up before use.)

Here are two versions of my idea. The first is modern in style; in effect, it’s hummus made with carrots instead of chickpeas. It’s bright and savory and has a charming salmon color. The other gets its exotic, intoxicating sweet-sour flavor from honey, vinegar and sweet spices. It’s based on the medieval dish sikbâj, which was always flavored with vinegar and saffron, whatever other ingredients it might contain. In the late Middle Ages it traveled to Europe, where it evolved in two directions: aspic (which requires the use of meat, of course) and the Spanish preparation of cooked vegetables dressed with vinegar known as escabeche. Both words, aspic and escabeche, come from sikbâj, by the way. (Take my word for it.)

It’s clear that tahini existed in the Middle Ages, because cookbooks of the time call for it in a number of recipes — but none contain carrots. I can’t say that either of the following dishes has ever actually been made in the Middle East, but that has not stopped me from giving them plausible Arabic names.

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright Charles Perry

Carrots With Tahini (Jazar bi-Tahini)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

Directions

1. Peel the onion and slice half of it crosswise as thinly as possible (reserve the remaining half onion for another use).

2. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes or so over high heat. Add the onion slices and fry for 10 minutes, stirring often to separate the rings and prevent uneven browning. Reduce the heat to medium and stir continuously until golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Transfer the onions to a paper towel to drain. Pick out any excessively browned bits.

3. Peel and trim the carrots and chop roughly. Bring the water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add the carrots and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain, transfer to a food processor and purée, about 40 seconds.

4. Add the tahini, lemon juice, salt and cumin to the carrots. Process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds. Adjust the seasonings to taste. To serve, garnish with the browned onions.

Carrot-Tahini Escabeche (Sikbâj Muzawwar)

Prep time: 4 to 5 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

Ingredients 

1 onion

2 tablespoons oil

1 pound carrots

2 cups water

10 threads saffron

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup honey

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 cup tahini (stir before measuring)

2 to 3 sprigs mint leaves

Directions

1. Peel and chop the onion. Pour the oil into a frying pan and heat for 2 minutes over high heat. Add the onion and fry until golden, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often. Transfer the onion to a paper towel to drain.

2. Peel and trim the carrots, then cut into chunks about 1/3-inch long.

3. Pour the water into a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots and cook until soft, about 20 minutes. Drain the water and transfer the carrots to a bowl.

4. In a separate bowl, crush the saffron to powder with the back of a spoon and dissolve it in the vinegar, then add the honey, cinnamon and coriander. Add the tahini and thoroughly stir everything together. Adjust the vinegar, honey, spices and salt to taste.

5. Mix the carrots and fried onion with the tahini-saffron sauce. To serve, garnish with mint leaves.

Main photo: Carrots with tahini, two ways. Credit: Copyright 2015 Charles Perry



Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock 'n' roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times' award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.

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