Fattoush: Lebanese Bread Salad
Spinach ain’t got nuthin on fattoush, when it comes to those embarrassing “WAIT! I’m not READY to smile!” kind of moments. I learned these lessons the hard way, over time. The only thing more insidious than fattoush teeth is tabboulehteeth (and the lingering tabbouleh burps which follow the tabbouleh gorging), which means:
- No first dates
- Don’t eat this before you meet his parents for the first time
- You see that camera on the table? GRAB IT! STEAL IT NOW! Stuff it in your purse, and release it back to it’s rightful owner only after you’ve had the opportunity for two (2) tooth checks, and possibly a good brushing.
Fattoush (also spelled fattouche, fatooche, and -my favorite- f’toosh) is a Middle Eastern salad made with crispy pita bread that has been fried or toasted (five guesses which way I swing on that), and softened in a lemony vinaigrette and the juices of ripe tomatoes and veg. Fattoush is like the Panzanella of Lebanon: it’s ubiquitous as a simple no-cook lunch, considering that the pita was often dried in the sun or baked in advance, and there are as many variations for Lebanese fattoush as there are cooks to make it, or mouths to eat it.
The fattoush that I grew up with was always made with crispy toasted bread, juicy ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and radish, and a generous smothering of za’atar spice mix. When I lived on my own and started trying to make fattoush myself, it never tasted quite right. I just couldn’t get it, the ‘essence’ of my father’s fattoush. So, as I often do, I watched him the next time he made it to ensure that I wasn’t the victim of misinformation (“Oh, did I forget to tell you to add cinnamon to your tabbouleh? Huh. Silly me……(mine will always be the best, and you’d be wise to remember that, kiddo)….I don’t know how that could have happened….?”) and realized the errors of my ways. It’s all about the za’atar. I had a light hand, sprinkling the za’atar spice mix like fairy dust on top of the bread. My father brings out the big guns and uses his hand as a crop duster with the spice. And…..yup. That was it. The za’atar seasoning makes all the difference in the world.
Now I should mention that not every cook feels the need to use za’atar (there are a lot of silly people out there, who do a lot of silly things. No za’atar indeed!!), and I’ve even seen pre-bottled fattoush salad dressing in the grocery store which is just a blend of olive oil, lemon juice, onion salt, and some sumach -a main ingredient in za’atar- thrown in for good measure. Indeed, I have a magazine recipe, which I keep meaning to bring up to the cottage (nothing as relaxing as riling up my father on a long weekend), where the dressing is just lemon juice and vegetable oil. Philistines! Note: I don’t endorse this school of thought. I’m more of a realist than a purist, and if you can’t find za’atar, well, make your own blend. And if you can’t find sumach? Add more lemon if you must, because sometimes you just do what you’ve got to do. But if you have a choice, use the za’atar. It’s kind of a make-or-break.
Fattoush: Lebanese Bread Salad
Serves 4 for a meal, 6-8 as a side dish
- 3 large slightly stale pitas *
- 1/2 large sweet onion **
- small bunch radish (about 10-12)
- 4-5 ripe field tomatoes (about 1.5 lb)
- 1/2 large English cucumber
- 1/2 head romaine lettuce (or 1 small romaine heart)
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- heaping 1/3 cup za’atar ***
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1.5 – 2 lemons
- small bunch parsley
- small bunch mint
* You’ll want to use the Middle Eastern flatbread pita pockets, which have a larger diameter and are only about half as thick as a Greek style pita. Also, you may have noticed that my affinity for stale bread continues. What can I say? I’m a cheapskate. I’d rather not waste good food, even if it’s not quite fresh enough for me to serve to guests….or even make a sandwich. I can’t repeat it often enough: there is ALWAYS something else that you can do with stale bread.
** Yellow or white onions would be too strong in flavor for this salad, and overwhelm the other ingredients. A sweet and juicy onion, like Vidalia, is just what the doctor ordered.
*** And now, to steal a paragraph from our Midnight In The Garden of Bean Dip recipe: Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that normally contains dried herbs, toasted sesame seeds and salt. Za’atar (aka zataar, zat’r, zahtar, etc) is like Garam Masala in the way that the blend changes according to who mixed it and which area it is from. My favorite is Lebanese za’atar which normally contains marjoram, oregano, thyme, cumin, coriander, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. Sumac has a tangy, almost lemony taste, and it is also what gives za’atar the distinctive dark color. The spice blend can be sprinkled on flatbread before it gets baked (we used to eat this for breakfast when we were children), added to labneh (yoghurt cheese), used as a condiment to sprinkle on top of cooked food, or mixed with olive oil and used as a dip for breads or meat. When you’re using za’atar as a spice blend in cooking, be mindful of the fact that it already contains salt and adjust your seasoning after it has been added to the mix.
Preheat your oven to 350ºF with your racks set in the center.
Split the pita pockets in half so that you have nice, thin, flat rounds and spread them out on 2-3 baking sheets (depending on the size of your sheets). Tuck the pita into your oven for 10-12 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through, until the bread is dry, crispy, and golden brown around the edges. Set the toasted pita aside to cool as you prepare the rest of the salad.
When it comes to the vegetables for fattoush, size really does matter. There are some people who may not mind eating an onion like an apple, or popping radishes like cherries, but I’m not one of them. The stronger the flavor of the vegetable, the thinner you want to cut it….which is my way of saying buckle up and get ready, you’re about to get hit with a flurry of produce pictures.
Top and tail your radishes, slice them vertically in half and then crosswise into half-moons that are less than 1/4″ thick. Chop the onions about 1/2″ wide and roughly the same thickness as the radish.
Core just the stem end out of the tomato and slice it up into large chunks that are at least 1/2 – 3/4″ thick. Cut the cucumbers lengthwise into quarters and then slice them into roughly the same size.
Wash the lettuce, spin it dry, and chop it up into the bite-sized pieces that you would expect to see in your caesar: no more than 2″ wide.
Throw all of the chopped vegetables into a large bowl. Gently snap the pita into large, coarse pieces (remember, this is peasant food. If you had perfectly square pita chunks it would just look….odd) and place them on top. Sprinkle the cinnamon and za’atar over top and season with salt.
I don’t really like to tell you how much salt to use, because everyone has different tastes and preferences. However, between the dried pita and the fresh vegetables you’ll hear a plaintive cry for liberal seasoning. Before you have too heavy of a hand though, remember that many za’atar spice blends also include a generous ratio of salt to spice, and you would be wise to start out lighter and add more salt to taste before the salad is served.
Gently, very very gently, toss the salad together. You want a light touch to avoid breaking up the bread any more than necessary. Make sure that the spice blend gets well incorporated throughout the salad, and dig deeply to bring all those onions and tomatoes up from the depths of your bowl. Don’t be squeamish, because you really want to use your (clean) hands to do this. There is no lighter touch than the fingers of a conscientious cook, so get right in there, elbow deep in pita and radish, and gently fold the ingredients over one another until you feel fairly confident of a good mix.
Nip the leafs off of your herbs and discard the stems. Finely chop an equal amount of parsley and mint together (there should be about 3/4 cup in total) and add this to the mix.
Squeeze the juice of 1.5 lemons into a small bowl and add the extra virgin olive oil, whisking as you do so. If it’s not as homogenous as your regular salad dressings, well, no worries. The liquid will be absorbed by the bread so quickly that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a KitchenAid for a right arm.
Pour the dressing over the salad, toss it (gently, always gently) together, and let it sit for 10-20 minutes to soak together. The toasted pita will get soft and pliable, and the flavors of the za’atar will start to meld with the rest of the bowl. Does it need just a bit more pungency and bite? Add the other half lemon. It’s all about what tastes right to you.
As far as dinners go, I consider this to be lighter fare. However, if you are mindful of the carbs and wanted something even fresher on these hot summer days, you could always up the ante on your lettuce and vegetables (use the full head of romaine and a full cucumber) which will also stretch the salad further to feed more people.
I consider fattoush to be a meal unto itself, but if you were making this for your family and wanted to make sure those kidlets of yours were getting their protein, you could always add in a can of chickpeas to the mix. The creamy chickpeas are a lovely complement to the softly chewy toasted bread. Also, chickpeas totally sent za’atar a note during math class last week that said,
I like you. Do you like me?
Check a box: ◊ Yes ◊ No.
True story. I bet by now they’re going steady.
If you weren’t engaged to the idea of eating bread salad as a full meal, it makes a fabulous side dish to BBQ chicken or whole grilled fish. Or sausage. And corn on the cob. Maybe string beans as well. Just sayin’.