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Cooking from the World Pantry: Dukkah

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Marla Frazee (of hummus fame) has a particular ritual she performs after completing her work of illustrating a children's book. She gives her studio a deep clean. The pencils all get sharpened and corralled into tins. Errant scraps of paper get crumpled and tossed out. She takes a whole day to create order, setting herself up for the next book project with a clean slate and a refreshed perspective.

Since I have just finished my own work of writing the Sqirl cookbook in collaboration with Jessica Koslow, I decided to follow Marla's lead and give my kitchen a good scrub. There's something awesome about seeing the immediate results of cleaning. When you compare that to the many, many months of non-linear work it takes to make a book, the outcome of a single day's scrub seems downright magical.

In the process of straightening up the pantry, I tossed out spices and dried herbs that had languished for too long in the dark recesses of our kitchen cabinets. I'd like to take this opportunity to encourage you to do the same. There's no point in cooking with dusty dried herbs. I also combined the half-full bags of almonds and stashed them in the freezer, precisely where nuts belong. Nuts are rich in oils that can quickly turn rancid if exposed to too much heat or light. (The same storage rules apply to ground nuts like almond flour.)

It pains me to throw away food of any kind, so I started keeping a pile of items that didn't quite merit a spot in the pantry but also had no obvious flaw -- the last tablespoon of cumin seeds; a meager dusting of dried Aleppo pepper flakes; a handful of walnuts, some whole and some chopped. Each item by itself looked a little sad. However, the ingredients as a group could be made into something great -- dukkah!

Dukkah is a mixture of nuts (these can be peanuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, or pine nuts), seeds (typically sesame seeds or nigella seeds), and spices (coriander and cumin are common, although dried herbs are not out of the question). Throughout the Middle East, the recipe varies from country to country, town to town, and even family to family.

Traditionally, dukkah is eaten as an early evening snack. A piece of bread is dipped first in olive oil, then in dukkah. You can also sprinkle dukkah on fillets of fish or pieces of meat, pressing it in to form a flavorful crust. It's delicious as a crunchy dip for raw vegetables and there's no reason not to sprinkle it on pasta or grain dishes.

Why not create your own house recipe for dukkah? Follow the general proportions below and use up any odds and ends from your pantry.

You could use a food processor to grind both the nuts and spices, but I think much of the charm of dukkah is in the irregularity of its components. I like when there are some chopped nut pieces that resemble pebbles and others that feel like sand.

Dukkah (and Dukkah Crackers)
Makes about 1 cup of dukkah and about 45 crackers

½ cup toasted nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, pine nuts, or peanuts)
¼ cup toasted white sesame seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
½ teaspoon Aleppo or ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 (approximately 10- by 19-inch) piece lavash or 4 pita breads
Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing

To make the dukkah: Chop the nuts very fine and place them in a bowl with the sesame seeds. In a small, dry skillet set over medium heat, toast the coriander seeds, shaking the pan often, for a few minutes, until fragrant. Transfer the coriander to a mortar and let cool, then toast the fennel seeds for a moment, until fragrant and lightly brown. Transfer the fennel to the mortar, then toast the cumin until fragrant and add it to the mortar as well. Pound the spices to a coarse powder and add them to the bowl with the nuts. (Alternatively, if you do not have a mortar and pestle, you can use a spice grinder, a coffee grinder, or even a food processor.) Stir in the Aleppo and salt.

To make the crackers: Heat the oven to 400°F. Brush the lavash with a generous amount of olive oil. Sprinkle some of the dukkah evenly over the lavash. Cut into cracker-size pieces and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until brown and crisp, 6 - 8 minutes.

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