After the barbeque we had on 12 July, I had a number of people asking me for recipes I used to make the chapatti, the hummus, and the marinades I used on the meat. I was pretty useless, though, in explaining how I did what I did, since I hadn’t really used any recipes. This blog entry is an attempt to explain how I approached my preparations of these particular foods, and links to a number of online recipes for those who are looking for some concrete instructions on how to make these things themselves.
Before I get started, I think it’s important to point out that when it comes figuring out how to cook stuff, the internet is a vast and inexhaustible resource. If you find a recipe for a particular dish that doesn’t make sense or looks too complicated, there’s always at least five or six other choices just a Google search away. So just keep in mind that in a world where there are literally thousands upon thousands of recipes available free-of-charge to anyone who can access the world wide web, my personal knowledge of the culinary arts really doesn’t count for much.
Chapatti is an Indian flatbread, kind of like a whole wheat flour tortilla. According to some recipes, you need the special chapatti flour (atta flour) to really make them properly, but I feel like you can do a very respectable job with some simple ingredients you probably already have in the pantry. I found one recipe online that describes pretty much what I do. I tend to like the heartier, more Indian-like whole wheat version, but in Kenya, where I first learned to make chapatti, they just use plain white flour, so don’t feel like you need to go out and buy something special in order to try this out.
The one thing I can say about making chapatti is that it’s important that the dough is smooth and well-kneaded. I usually knead the individual balls a second time just before rolling them out, just to make sure.
And that’s all that I’ve got to say about that.
Hummus is Middle Eastern food—meaning that there is no cultural precedent whatsoever for serving it with chapatti like I did. I first learned to make hummus from an international cook book a good friend once gave me as a birthday present. As with chapatti, there are also some good, basic hummus recipes online, like one I found just now. There are also a lot of others out there, with all kinds of delightful manipulations and variations. Scanning through a few of them hopefully gives you an idea of how many possibilities there really are here, and how little you need to tie yourself to one specific recipe. I’ve had some really good results using black-eyed peas, black beans, and soybeans along with or instead of the chickpeas. Sometimes I’ve added tomatoes, chives, onions, avacodo, peppers, cumin, yogurt, or anything else that happened to be lying around. My next batch I think I’ll try it with spinach.
For me the tahini (sesame seed paste) is the one ingredient that makes the hummus magic happen. Unfortunately it’s also the one ingredient that can be a bit hard to find. Most grocery stores carry it these days, but it is a rare employee who actually knows what it is when you ask about it, let alone one who actually knows where it is stocked. It usually costs around 5-6 dollars for a can.
A couple of things I’ve learned about making hummus:
First, if you’re using canned chickpeas, keep in mind that they may already be salted and that there’s a good chance that adding any additional salt, even if called for in a recipe, will ruin the whole batch.
Second, tahini is not only hard to find; it can also be hard to work with. It’s really sticky stuff—not unlike peanut butter—and it can ruin your blender. Even my mom’s industrial-strength blender struggled with it. My suggestion would be to process all the other ingredients first, pour the almost-done hummus into a bowl, and then stir in the tahini (if the tahini has settled in its can, you may need to break up the lumps with a spoon before adding it to the rest of the mixture). It is sometimes a bit of a pain, but that subtle nutty flavor is so worth it.
From the variety of recipes online, you should get a sense of how many uses there are for hummus. It’s a great with warm pita bread (with goat cheese and a tomato/cucumber/onion salad), but also as a dip for crackers, chips, or vegetables, or as a sandwich spread, or on pizza, or for a million other things. You might as well make a big tub of it, and freeze it in smaller containers so that it’s available in manageable quantities whenever the fancy strikes you. That’s what I do, anyway.
The marinades I used for the meat were pretty much imagined up on the spot. The steaks were marinated for several hours with lemon juice, some finely chopped Serrano peppers, some leftover diced tomatoes, crushed garlic and a little black pepper. A lot of tomatoes and peppers ended up sticking to the meat when it went on the grill, which I kind of liked. I won’t even try to sort through the online recipes for marinades; there’s a million of them. Acidic things (like lemon juice or tomatoes) are good because they can soften up the meat as well as adding flavor. At least that’s how I understand it. I like things spicy so peppers, or at least ground chili powder, are a natural addition for me.
The chicken I marinated in white wine for a few hours (the alcohol really does cook out, or you can use an alcohol-free white wine or white wine vinegar instead), and was sprinkled with granulated garlic when it went on the grill. I have another friend to thank for teaching me how to cook chicken this way, and it’s quite good.
And, of course, both the beef and chicken were salted while they cooked.
I really, really don’t have much experience or know-how when it comes to grilling meat. When I was very young my dad taught me that with steaks you should cook them on the first side really quickly at a higher heat in order to “seal the juices in.” As soon as there’s no more uncooked meat visible on that first side, you flip the steaks and cook from the other side more slowly on a lower heat setting. You keep turning the meat to keep the juices from rising out of the meat altogether (if juice is puddling on top of your steaks, that’s just moisture you don’t have in the meat anymore). And that’s as specific as my knowledge is on how to operate a grill. This was my first time to put the theory into practice, and it seemed to work out okay.
So … the real miracle here is that the food actually came together as well as it did at the barbeque.
Thanks so much to those of you who made it! Basically, I think we could all be really good friends … . It really was wonderful to see everyone. We missed those of you who were out-of-state or otherwise indisposed. Hopefully we have some equally enjoyable gatherings to look forward to with you as well.