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Cooking from the World Pantry: Tahini

Toasted Sesame Seeds | Photo by Maria Zizka
All photos: Maria Zizka

I have watched my boyfriend's mother make hummus more times than I can count. She has perfected the recipe. Of course, there is no recipe -- at least not a written one.

If you were sitting in the breakfast nook of Marla's kitchen, this is what you'd see: First, she pulls out her food processor, an old Cusinart model no longer available for purchase. Next, she fills a tiny pot with water and brings it to a boil on the stove. She peels three cloves of garlic and drops them into the water to cook for a few quick minutes. The garbanzos go from the can into a strainer and are rinsed well. If Marla is feeling like this batch of hummus will be a special one, she pinches off the garbanzo skins, one by one.

Then, she puts the rinsed garbanzos into the bowl of the food processor. She fishes out the garlic, setting the water aside, and adds all three cloves to the garbanzos along with a glug of olive oil, a spoonful of lemon juice, and some salt. The machine whirs and she rests her hand on top of it but doesn't watch the bowl that carefully. After a minute or so, in go a couple spoonfuls of tahini, more lemon juice and olive oil, and a splash of the water that the garlic was cooked in. I think that garlicky water is the secret.

Marla turns the machine on again, and then on occasion steps out of the kitchen. She never goes fa r-- maybe around the corner to fill a glass of water or look over the day's mail -- and by the time she returns, the hummus will magically look incredibly appealing: creamy, thick, cloud-like.

But she's not done yet. Marla tastes the hummus and moves her lips to one side of her face, contemplating what move she will make next. Usually, she adds more lemon juice and salt. She often solicits the opinion of whoever is in the house with her. If I'm lucky enough to be the one, I'll pronounce it perfect. And yet, she'll tweak it some more, and it gets better and better.

I have tried my hand at repeating this process in my own kitchen. The first time I attempted to make hummus, my boyfriend, Marla's son, actually chuckled after he tasted it. "How much tahini did you put in here," he asked, "the whole jar?"

I love tahini. It's rich, yet also slightly bitter. Its versatility is its splendor. Stir a spoonful into thick yogurt, season with ground cumin and salt, and serve alongside grilled vegetables. Thin it with rice vinegar and soy sauce, then pour it over cold soba noodles. Spread it across whole-wheat toast and drizzle on some honey. Tahini can even be used to make chewy, not-too-sweet cookies.

While I can't give you a reliable recipe for Marla's hummus, I can give you a recipe for tahini. It takes only minutes to make your own tahini and it's much cheaper than buying a jar. Look for sesame seeds in bulk sections or at Asian grocery stores, where they will cost much less than they do in the little spice jars at the supermarket.

Tahini | Photo by Maria Zizka

Makes about 1/3 cup

You can make smooth, light-colored tahini using white, hulled sesame seeds, or you can choose to toast the sesame seeds, if you'd like to enhance their natural nutty flavor.

½ cup sesame seeds
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons light, neutral-flavored oil such as canola, grapeseed, or mild olive oil.

If you'd like to toast the sesame seeds, do so either in a large skillet over medium heat or on a rimmed baking sheet in a 350°F oven. Stir the sesame seeds often and toast them until they are light golden brown, 5 - 10 minutes.

Transfer the sesame seeds to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the salt. Blend for 1 minute, until the seeds are very finely ground. Drizzle in 1 tablespoon of oil and blend for 45 seconds. Stop the machine, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Blend for 2 minutes or until smooth.

(Tahini will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least 1 month.)