Friday, June 22, 2007

The Bread Bowl of Beirut - Fatoush

Soggy. It happens. You get caught in the rain, and your shoes get soggy. You go for a dip in the pool, and your swimsuit gets soggy. You dry yourself after a shower, and your towel gets soggy. Soggy is one of the most uncomfortable and unattractive states of being wet. No one likes soggy. It has negative connotations, like the swamp it was named after. We don’t like being in a swamp and we certainly don’t like eating one.

If ever a food looses its charm, it is when it goes soggy. Flabby French toast, clumped cornflakes and plastered pie crust -- the list is as endless as that rather wet river flowing to the sea. Nowhere is damp more unappealingly dull than when a perfectly well-constructed sandwich is sodden with torrents of oil and vinegar in the old American classic, the sub, hero, grinder or hoagie. A national institution, the bullet-shaped delicatessen sandwich is as popular as it ever was, with fierce competition among a handful of corporate chains vying for market share not unlike the cola wars.

I wish I could say I was one of their customers. Never mind trying to fit my small hands and jaws around the clumsy girth of a football spilling its layers of cold cuts and salad shred all over the table, but the squish of limp, leaden bread weakening the last walls of civilized eating was the last straw.

It wasn’t until several years later, when my tastes matured and culinary curiosity got the best of me, that I revisited the idea of bread and salad in the same breath. Broadening my scope beyond U.S. borders, I perked up at the idea of pan bagna, spinning a diaphanous French fantasy of opening carefully wrapped picnic parcels on the side of a provincial road on midsummer’s eve. The quest, unfortunately, was still on. The French are a fine people with remarkable food, but a sloppy sub sandwich by any other name is still a sloppy sub sandwich.

Zahtar - sesame, sumac and thyme.

By the time I discovered the meals of the Middle East, I was more than a little wary of fatoush, the popular Lebanese bread salad. While I was intrigued by the use of zahtar seasoning, I couldn’t get my mind passed the prejudice of my earlier wet-ragged disappointments. I could see myself picking out dead chunks of bread all over again. I just knew fatoush would not live up to my expectations, so I went out for all the ingredients, just so I could prove myself right.

Fatoush and I are now friends, but not before it made a fool out of me. I had it coming, I suppose. When pre-conceived notions stand in the way of progress, all you are left with is a soggy mind. I was all wet.

Fatoush - My own recipe

[Fatoush has as many variations as there are cooks. The only constant is pita bread.]


2 pita bread pockets (cut into strips or squares)
2 cups cucumber, cubed (peel if waxed)
1 cup chopped tomato
½ cup chopped red onion
1 handful chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice, strained of seeds and pulp
1 tablespoon zahtar seasoning (or spice mix of your choice)
1/8 teaspoon salt

Optional protein additions – small can of drained chickpeas and/or 1 cup cubed feta cheese


Bake pita pieces in 400 degree F oven for approximately 8 minutes or until hard and toasted, but not overly browned.

In a large bowl, combine cucumber, tomato, red onion and parsley. In a separate bowl, mix oil, lemon juice, seasoning and salt. Set dressing aside for ten minutes then mix into vegetables.

Right before serving, add chickpeas and/or feta (if using), then gently mix in pita.

Tip: The pita must always be added last. Unlike croutons which are tossed on top of a salad, the pita is mixed in. The crunchy texture is at its best when consumed right away.

Serves 2. --

This post is being submitted to Lis of La Mia Cucina for the food blogging event, Salad Stravaganza, which she is co-hosting with Kelly of Sass & Veracity.


Rosa said...

A well made pan bagnat can be a beautiful thing, and at least it's round, not bullet-shaped! But I have to admit that your Fatoush looks like it's in another league. Now that you are reconciled with soggy bread, you might like panzanella too!

Susan said...

Does pan bagnat not mean "wet bread," Rosa? I like the components of this French classic very much, but the sandwich I had was too wet for my personal taste, regardless of its shape. Obviously it wasn't well made.

sra said...

Funny you should mention soggy sandwiches. I don't eat bread but had a sandwich recently and found myself fantasising about soft white bread gone limp with tomato ooze - in India we do a simple vegetarian sandwich with butter, cucumber and tomato slices - never liked it but strangely enough ...

Lydia said...

Oh, boy, do I love fatoush! It's the middle eastern panzanella, only better -- with the fresh taste of lemon and za'atar. I like to use pickling cucumbers for this salad.

Shaun said...

Susan, lovie - You have inspired me to make dukkah and flatbread some time soon. I am tired of having soup for lunch, day in and day out. Soggy bread puts me in a foul mood...your fatoush sounds like a great way to have my cake and eat it, too (well, bread and salad...). Zahtar is one of my favorite spice mixes because it contains sumac, possibly my most preferred spice (or at least it shares the mantle with cumin).

The Cooking Ninja said...

Susan, thanks for dropping by. Btw, your Fatoush looks so delicious.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

hey soggy Susan (just kidding!),
I have always loved salads ... I like its freshness and crunchy taste !
never tried Zahtar before...
Your salad looks healthy too!
it is somewhat similar to the bread upma I make...but there I season and stir fry the veggies , add in chick peas , spices and roast bread slices.

Lucy said...

Many years ago I made Fatoush for a vegan friend who angrily chastised me for putting tinned tuna in her salad. When I explained that the 'tuna' was, in fact, bread soaked in oil, lemon and spices, she declared it a triumph.

Your zahtar looks gorgeous. Lovely recipe!

Nora B. said...

Susan, I really enjoy reading your blog. You always have an interesting angle. And as for your experience with fatoush, at least you were able to try it out yourself before making any permanent conclusion. Your recipe sounds great. I will try it out when summer comes 'round. Love that pic of the zahtar!

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Oh Susan that is so much fun to read!
Fatoush is one of my very favorite salads! but I have to have the chick peas and feta.
Great photos.

Simona said...

I love the story! I also like a lot the photo of the spices: it evoked the image of a trail, like the long routes spices traveled on in the old days, across deserts, up and down mountains. I had heard the name of this recipe, but did not know what it was.

Lis said...

Susan, I am a huge fan of Panzanella.. so when I saw your beautiful salad, I knew right away that I'd love it. It's simply gorgeous and the flavors sound so good together!

Thank you so much for contributing this to the cause - I truly look forward to trying this soon!


Susan said...

Sra - You're so funny. Tomato ooze. Please, I'm trying to erase that image from my mind. : D
Lydia - It is addictive. Very much like a Greek salad (w/ the cucumber), yet not.
Shaun - I like sumac, too, but for me I think cumin takes the cake...or is it cardamom...or is it coriander...or? Never mind - I just love spices, period.
Thanks, Cooking Ninja. I made blue corn muffins today using no flour, like your recipe. They came out very well, very rustic.
Hi, Nanditha. Thanks! It is a healthy salad, lots of color. I'm really happy w/ the texture. Upma sounds delicious. I am a BIG fan of Indian food.
Thanks, Lucy. There's no reason for any vegan to ever doubt your table. I'm sure your fatoush was a triumph even without her belated blessing.
Thank you, Nora. I played with the zahtar a long time before I got that shot.
Hi, Tanna. I was being a purist for the post, but I'm all for the chickpeas and feta, too - make a full meal out of it. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks!
Thank you, Simona. I knew you would see the zahtar that way. : )
Lis, your enthusiasm is infectious. Thanks for your kind words. Can't wait to check in on the round-up!

Johanna said...

that looks lovely - I love fatoush - despite agreeing with you about soggy sandwiches - I avoid buying premade sandwiches for just that reason - ugh! But fatoush is really an salad where you can be proud of soggy! I have never used zahtar - will look out for it as it sounds delish and the name is a delight to roll off the tongue!

Cynthia said...

I've heard a lot about fatoush but never had it. I've bookmarked your recipe to try it sometime.

As to soggy, I am not sure exactly where I stand because I am a dunker - by that I mean, I like dipping by bread, biscuits, some cakes into my tea and then eating it. Please don't hate me (lol)

kathryn said...

Lovely fatoush recipe. I must admit to being a fan of soggy bread, especially in soups. I have a big bunch of cavalo nero that's currently taken over my fridge - ready for ribollita. Plus I love the whole onion soup with bread in thing.

One of my favourite Middle Eastern recipes is fattet - chick peas layered with toasted pita bread, soaked in their cooking liquid and then smothered with a yoghurt, tahini and pine nut topping. It's delicious.

Susan said...

Thanks, Johanna. I agree, fatoush is a word you want to savor; it does "sound" divine. We ate this right away, after assembly, so soggy was never even an issue.
Hey, Cynthia! Dunking! The scandal of it all, you and millions of others! I know, I am among the odd girl out.
Thank you, Kathryn. Fattet sounds fantastic. It wouldn't be authentic, but I could probably put the salad together in such a way to keep the bread away from the liquid. It's too tempting not to try. Thanks for telling me about it.

Patricia Scarpin said...

Susan, I have never had fatoush but I can tell I would love it - pita is one of my favorite types of bread. It's versatile and delicious (in my humble opinion).
Being a salad lover I can see that I should waste no more time and make this asap - looks so good! :)

Sandeepa said...

It seems my comment got lost !!!!
I left a comment last week :(
Anyway, I had said that I like the fresh taste of fatoush, but have had it only at retaurants so far. Do you make your own zahtar or is it something that can be bought ?

Suganya said...

This is something that I cud make in minutes. Perfect summer dish .. And Susan, Thanks for adding me to yr blogroll :)

Susan said...

Thanks, Patricia. Pita is one of my favorites, too. It's perfect when you want something light.
Your opinion is important, too.
Hi, Sandeepa. Leaving Blogger comments can be a pain sometimes. :\ The zahtar is Seasoned Pioneers brand, found in some grocers, but there are other brands, too. I'm sure I could make my own, but it was easier to find the mix than find sumac alone.
Thanks, Suganya. You've got a great blog, well written and beautifully photographed; I'm happy to read it!

Sandeepa said...

Hi Susan
Some chiili facts :)

I use small green chillis for my kind of Indian cooking. I could find them only at the Indian Grocers though. They are pretty hot if you use them chopped. Be careful with your hands if you are chopping.

However in some of my food like Dal etc. I sometimes add these green chillies whole, without chopping at the very end. This lends a flavor to the dish but the hotness is minimal which suits my daughter.

Sometimes I use Dried Red Chillis for tempering. One or two of these do not add that much of heat(by my standard) but again lends a flavor. Be careful to wash your hands afterwards though.

There is a slightly bigger green chilli also found at the Indian Grocers which does not have that much heat. I prefer the small green chilli though.

My opinion -- cooking with these small green chillis gives me the flavor which I don't get if I am using jalapeno in my style of Indian cooking

Hope this helps :)

A pic of Indian Green Chillies
Indian Green Chilli

Mishmash ! said...

Susan, Sorry, I could not respond to your comment(the one asking for difference between Ghee Rice and Biryani) earlier.Now I have made a short note in my comment section in the same post,"Vegetable Ghee Rice" Hope it clarifies your doubt! I will blog Biryani recipe soon.


urban vegan said...

Oh how I adore fatoush salad. I like the name. I like the crunchy factor. I like the greens. Fa-fa-fatoush!

bee said...

bread makes everything taste nicer. i'm a big fatoush fan.

Jyothsna said...

Nice soggy post!! :) Reminded me (like Sra) of Indian sandwiches where we add soggy chutney, soggy ketchup and soggy tomatoes among other things and eat them as soon as they are prepared before it turns soggy!! :)))
The fatoush is great! I get all the spices here but rarely make this at home!

Susan said...

Thank you, Sandeepa. You've been very generous w/ your advice. I love Indian food and want to prepare it as authentically as possible.
Shn - Makes very good sense. I do understand the difference now, and want to taste the difference as well!
Thanks so much!
Hello, Urban Vegan! Welcome. I love it, too. All the more so because of that crunch factor.
Hi, Bee. I don't know that I can ever give up bread.
Thanks, Jyothsna. I'm glad I'm not the only one who isn't fond of soggy. You must have access to so many great spices in AE.

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

I just wrote about Fattoush salad as well! It is THE perfect summer salad! So many of the beautiful bounties!

Susan said...

Hi, Jenn. It's probably the most interesting yet easy salad I've ever made. I'll come by and have a look at yours.

librariane said...

I really appreciate this entry--I also struggle with soggy bread in salads (or other things). My hubby has a recipe for a tomato, basil, bread and onion salad that is quite tasty and has helped me a teensy bit with mushy things that I don't think should be mushy. :)

christine (myplateoryours) said...

I love this salad. My dad's favorite snack was bread and zatar -- Syrian bread (thin pita) drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with zatar, then run under the broiler. Sometimes I eat it just to remember him and feel like a kid again.

Susan said...

Hi, Librariane. I'm glad you understand. : )
Christine - Sounds like a great and nearly guilt-free savory treat.