Hummus, once the province of Middle Eastern restaurants and health food stores, has hit the mainstream with resounding popularity.
Trend-tracking group Baum + Whiteman predicted that 2015 would be the year when hummus would become America's "it" food, going from a niche product "eaten primarily by Arab and Israeli immigrants" to an inescapable trend toward ubiquity. Hummus can now be found in 20 percent of American households, compared with 12 percent eight years ago.
One brand, Tribe, has even said its goal is to make hummus "the new salsa." A tall order? Maybe not: Hummus seems to appeal to all ages, with a reputation as a healthful snack or even light meal high in protein, fiber and good carbs.
But as is so often the case, the price of popularity is compromise. "When a dish gets popular, it loses something," said Michael Ginor, whose Lola restaurant in Great Neck has a section of the menu devoted to hummus. "These premade hummuses give hummus a bad name."
Ginor grew up in Israel, where eating hummus is practically a sacrament. "There are restaurants that serve hummus and nothing else," he said. "They make it fresh every day, sell it for breakfast and lunch and if there's any left over, they throw it out."
At Lola, Ginor's team makes hummus fresh every day, and his advice to home cooks is to serve it the same day they cook it. "After a few hours, it can turn on you," he said.
Another common failing of commercial hummus is graininess. Ginor said that his cooks puree it in the kitchen's heavy-duty commercial food processor for up to 10 minutes to get it perfectly smooth.
Americans are used to eating hummus chilled, but Ginor prefers it warm. "As soon as it's smooth, serve it," he said. At the very least, it should be drizzled with tahini and good olive oil (hummus tahini), but it can also be garnished with warm, cooked chickpeas (hummus masbacha) or with a side dish of onion "leaves" (wedges that have been separated into individual layers), chopped green chilies and lemon juice. "It's so rich, it's nice to have the heat and acidity to cut the richness."
THE SECRET TO MAKING IT AT HOME
To create the purest form of hummus at home, what's most important is what you put in it. There are so few ingredients in classic hummus that each one has to be at the top of its game if the result is to be what hummus dreams are made of: an ultrasmooth, thick, rich puree that spreads like a luscious buttercream, in glorious peaks and valleys.
Those few but important ingredients include:
The Chickpeas: Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic, so if there isn't a chickpea in it, it really isn't hummus. The most important thing to note about chickpeas is that they have translucent skins. Those skins are the cause of grainy hummus, and they dampen flavor. They have to go. Soaking or boiling the chickpeas with baking soda softens the skins and makes them easier to remove.
The Tahini: Not all are created equal. Too often this sesame paste is sludgy, unpleasantly bitter and so separated that it's difficult to stir the paste and its oil together. But tahini is a key flavor-maker in excellent hummus. The flavor of the tahini should be nutty and lightly, pleasantly bitter. Some recommended brands: Al Wadi, Alkanater and Lebanon Valle, Joyva, Soom. Tahini is made from roasted or raw sesame seeds; when made from the former, it is darker and has a deep flavor. Buy tahini as fresh as possible, then store it in a cool spot at room temperature (even after opening). It will keep for at least a year, but be sure to give it a good shake every now and then to prevent the paste from solidifying.
The garlic: Look for firm heads, and take a minute to slice the cloves in half lengthwise before tossing them into the mix.
The lemon juice: There is no substitute for fresh to give hummus bright, citrusy flavor. Get a good lemon juicer or reamer and have at it, straining out the seeds.
The chickpea cooking liquid: There has been some buzz lately about the virtues of this liquid (or even the liquid in canned chickpeas). It's something akin to a well-made stock, which translates to liquid gold for terrific body and flavor in hummus. Water is a fine substitute; just be sure either one is nice and cold, and used sparingly, or your hummus will be too thin.
The olive oil: Hummus gives finishing oil its purpose in life. This is the moment to pull out your bottle of very fine extra-virgin olive oil, drizzling it generously on top of the hummus rather than incorporating it in the mix, where it will just weigh things down.
RECIPE: WHIPPED HUMMUS
Adapted from "Rose Water and Orange Blossoms: Fresh and Classic Recipes From My Lebanese Kitchen," by Maureen Abood (Running Press, 2015).
1 cup dried chickpeas
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 medium clove garlic
1/2 cup good-quality tahini (stirred well before measuring)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, or more as needed
Extra-virgin olive oil, for serving
Ground sumac or paprika, for serving
1. Pour the chickpeas into a large bowl; cover them with several inches of water. Let soak at room temperature overnight. (Alternatively, cover the chickpeas with boiling water and let soak for an hour.) Drain and pat dry.
2. Transfer the chickpeas to a large pot over medium heat, sprinkle with the baking soda and stir to coat. Warm them, stirring, for 3 minutes, then cover by several inches with cool water. Increase the heat to high; once the liquid comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low or until the water is gently bubbling. Cook the chickpeas until soft, from 45 minutes up to an hour or two.
3. Remove from the heat and vigorously stir the chickpeas to loosen the skins. Tilt the pot to one side and use a skimmer or slotted spoon to skim off as many of the loosened skins as you can, stirring occasionally to get them to float. Carefully pour off the cooking water through a strainer into a bowl, catching more skins and reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Remove any remaining skins by gently rubbing them off between your fingers. Discard the skins. You should have 2 cups of cooked, peeled chickpeas; reserve any extra for another use. Chill the chickpea cooking liquid for at least 2 hours.
4. Cut the garlic clove in half lengthwise. Mince the garlic and transfer it to a food processor along with the cooked chickpeas. Process for a few minutes to form a very thick, smooth paste. With the machine running, gradually add the tahini, the 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, processing until well incorporated and stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Continue to puree; gradually add the chilled chickpea cooking liquid a tablespoon at a time, processing until the hummus has lightened. (You will probably use between 1/3 and 2/3 cup of the liquid.) Taste the hummus as you go, adding salt and/or lemon juice as needed but taking care not to add too much of the latter so the hummus stays thick.
5. To serve, spoon the hummus into a shallow soup bowl or medium plate. Use the back of the spoon to create a well in the center with a deep rim of hummus around the edge, turning the plate as you go. Drizzle generously with oil and sprinkle with the ground sumac or paprika. 10 servings (makes 2 1/2 cups)
Note: To use canned chickpeas, drain and pat dry 2 cups of chickpeas, reserving and chilling the can liquid for making the hummus. Place chickpeas in a pot, then stir in the baking soda. Warm the coated chickpeas on the stove top, then rinse in a large bowl, changing the water three times. With each rinse, rub the chickpeas vigorously, and the skins will fall off and rinse away.
Erica Marcus contributed to this story.