How to make the perfect fattoush

In the Middle East, this chopped salad is eaten at almost every dinner. Should yours include radishes, peppers or both? And is it a no-no to add feta?

The ubiquitous chopped salad of the Middle East as Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi write in their book Jerusalem, theres no escaping it: Its a local affliction, quite seriously. Eat at almost every snack, fattoush, with its cool cucumber and crunchy radish, feels more like a proper salad than the equally famous tabbouleh, according to Sabrina Ghayour. It also happens to be an excellent way of using up stale pitta if, indeed, you happen to have any knocking around after last week. Infinitely adaptable and wonderfully refreshing, fattoush is a useful little number to have in your culinary armoury.

Fattoush
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimis fattoush. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The lettuce dilemma

Most of the recipes I try contain lettuce in varying sums, either little gem, or the larger version, cos but the recipe in Jerusalem( passed down from Tamimis mum) omits it, as does Claudia Roden. Fattoush is, I believe, rather a moveable feast Anissa Helou writes in her book Lebanese Cuisine that you can make it with whatever salad ingredients you have available as long as you use sumac( and, presumably, bread ).

In that spirit, Ill acknowledge I find lettuce adds crunch, but little else its hard not to pick through it to get to the good stuff, making it feel as if its there to add bulk, rather than flavor. But, with Ghayours Persiana, the restaurant chain Comptoir Libanais eponymous book, Jane Baxter and John Vincents recently published Leon Happy Salads and the Honey& Co cookbook all ranged against me, leaving it out solely constructs me nervous. I try reassurance online, and Helou tells me her mom also made it without, as did she for a long time, which is all I need in the way of validation. Anyone who objects to a lettuce-free fattoush on principle should take it up with Roden or Helou. If youd simply prefer a bigger salad, however, feel free to add two heads of little gem, chopped into broad strips.

Sabrina
Sabrina Ghayours fattoush. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The rest

Im keener on ingredients that add more in the way of texture and flavour, with cucumber falling securely into the first camp( unless you thinly slice it and salt it for an hour, as Rodens recipe in Jane Grigsons Vegetable Book suggests, when it savours pretty good, but feelings distinctly limp ). Try, as Ottolenghi and Tamimi write, to get small cucumbers for this they are worlds apart from the large ones we usually get in most UK supermarkets less watery, and with more bite. If you cant find them, then scoop out the seeds, as Baxter suggests.

Radishes are also popular, although less ubiquitous; if you follow Ghayour in quartering rather than slicing them, they add a satisfying extra crunch, as well as a mild pepperiness( Is it me or have radishes become less peppery in the past 20 years ?).

They also look very pretty, as do Comptoir Libanais and Honey& Cos pomegranate seeds, which should furnish a lovely burst of sweetness but pomegranates at this time of year tend to be disappointingly dry, so I wouldnt bother.

By the time the pomegranates are in season, tomatoes wont be, and tomatoes are( in my opinion, at the least) key here. I like the idea of using a variety of colours and sizings, chopped two or three different ways to give the salad some texture, as Honey& Co recommends, but go with whatever looks best if you dont have a big choice; cherry tomatoes are usually the safest gamble, but everything should be decent in midsummer. Theres no need to peel them as Roden does but, if they seem watery, rather than solid, you might be advised to core them, as in Baxters recipe.

Ghayour uses red and green peppers, which, of course, work brilliantly with the other ingredients, but I believe have a tendency to overpower them if you have some, put them in, but theyre by no means essential.

Honey
Honey& Cos fattoush. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

Onions and garlic

All the recipes I try( with the exception of Honey& Cos) use onion mostly the springtime variety, though Roden indicates a mild medium onion as a substitute, which, given most onions in this country tend to be eye-wateringly pungent, I wouldnt recommend. Spring onions, finely chopped, offer a grassier, fresher kind of heat.

If youre a fan of strong flavors you might, like Ottolenghi, Tamimi and Roden, decide to add garlic to the salad itself but, for a subtler kick, allow it to infuse the dres. If youd favor a milder kick, take it out before serving, as Honey& Co does, or crush it right in for a bit more fire.

Extras

Honey& Co adds feta to its salad, which is delicious, and makes it feel more like a standalone dish, rather than part of a mezze selection; its not traditional, but it is very good.

Jane
Jane Baxters fattoush. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The bread

Fattoush is not fattoush without bread thats the whole point. Any kind of Middle east flatbread will do( or, in fact, most various kinds of flatbread ); the important thing is it must be crisp. There are various ways to achieve this, from Baxters frying to Honey& Cos grilling, but the most reliable, if you can bear to turn the oven on, is to bake it, which devotes a dryer, crunchier outcome; the dressing should supply all the petroleum the dish wants. If its too hot for the oven, toast the pitta as Roden does. Some recipes season it with sumac, but as this intensely lemony spice is a key ingredient in the salad itself, the bread is, I guess, better left plain as a contrast.

Roden moistens the pitta with lemon juice, and Ottolenghi and Tamimi add the dres and salad on top, giving a soggier, more panzanella-like result. My testers overwhelmingly opt the pieces added at the last minute, so they bide crisps for as long as possible.

Comptoir
Comptoir Libanaiss fattoush. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The herbs

Like tabbouleh, this is a dish that requires a generous hand with the herbs, as Helou reminds us. The usual suspects, parsley and mint, are the most popular selections, although Honey& Co go for the rather intriguing oregano, which I love, but which tastes dangerously uncanonical. Rodens coriander is similarly daring I think it runs, but others arent convinced. In any case, parsley and mint merely taste right; and if it aint violated

Some recipes also use dried mint, too, but its more aniseedy flavor spoils the fresh flavor of the other kind as far as most testers are concerned, with one likening it to their grandmas mint sauce in a not entirely complimentary way.

Summer purslane, a tangy succulent with fleshy leaves and something of the lambs lettuce about it, is usually found in fattoush in its homelands, and is well worth adding for its lovely lemony flavor if you can track some down at the farmers marketplace, greengrocer, or Middle Eastern grocer, that is.

Honey& Co also flings in got a couple of teaspoons of zaatar, a Middle east spice mixture that generally also contains dried oregano as well as thyme, marjoram and sesame seeds. Good, but not as refreshingly sour as the sumac Im going to use.

Claudia
Claudia Rodens fattoush. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The dressing

At its simplest, fattoush is dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, la Roden, but a little vinegar, whether cider or wine, gives a more interesting flavor, while Comptoir Libanaiss pomegranate molasses adds a sweet and sour note that I really like; it feels like an optional extra rather than an absolute must, but if you find my garmenting too tart, add this to taste.

Tamimis mother utilized a homemade yoghurt dressing that the pair believe was likely her own creation. Sami cant recall anyone else in the neighborhood stimulating it. It is indeed terribly comforting, and both richer and more cooling than your average fattoush its a dish for when you want something a little more substantial.

You can add spice, too Baxter suggests allspice and cinnamon, as well as the more usual sumac, and Id also recommend the latter sprinkled over the top of the dish itself, as in Ghayour, Ottolenghi and Tamimis recipes, for a final acid hit. This is a dish thats all about refreshment so be bold with the flavors. It may not be designed for the British climate but, right now, for most of us at least, its perfect.

Felicity
Felicity Cloakes perfect fattoush. Photo: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian

The perfect fattoush

Serves 4
2 stale pitta or other flatbreads
1 garlic clove
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/ 2 tbsp cider vinegar
3 tbsp good olive oil, plus extra to grease
1 tsp sumac, plus extra to sprinkle
500g ripe mixed tomatoes
3 small cucumbers or 1 big one
2 spring onions
25g flat-leaf parsley
15g mint
100g purslane( optional)
100g radishes

Heat the oven to 200 C. Toss the pitta with a little olive oil, then bake for about 15 minutes until crisp. Permit to cool slightly, then break into shards.

Meanwhile, crush the garlic clove and put in a jar with the lemon juice, vinegar, petroleum and sumac. Season and shake well then leave to infuse until the salad is finished.

Meanwhile, cut the tomatoes into irregular chunks and the cucumber( deseeded if the large assortment) into rough 1.5 cm dice. Finely slice the spring onions and pick the leaves of the herbs and approximately chop. Pick the foliages of the purslane but leave whole. Combine in a large bowl.

Toss the dressing with the salad, then, just before serve, cut the radishes into one-quarters and use to top the salad, along with the bread and a final prosper of sumac.

Is fattoush the king of Middle Eastern salads, or are there fancier competitors to its crown? Is crisp lettuce a must? And what other lovely stuff do you construct with stale bread ?

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