In our most recent series we are having a look at the cuisine from the Middle East, specifically Syria. And one of the first things we notice is that there a few ingredients that pop up quite often, so we should get to know them, how to access them or prepare them and have them handy. Za’atar, preserved lemons, and sesame oil feature prominently in the culinary traditions of Syria, and today we are examining another must-have ingredient; tahini.
At its simplest, tahini is just sesame seeds ground fine to form a smooth, spreadable paste. Sesame seeds have a high oil content so the pureé has a high oil content as well, and it is natural for the oil to separate and sit on the top, similar to natural peanut butter. A quick stir to redistribute the oil should do the trick. Sometimes the seeds have been roasted beforehand, giving the puree a nuttier flavor, and often the seeds have the shells, or bran removed before it is pureéd, resulting in a smoother end product. Tahini is often served as a dip on its own, jazzed up with lemon, a drizzle of olive oil and za’atar but most often makes an appearance as a staple ingredient in a variety of dips and pastes like hummus, baba ganoush and halvah. It makes a great topping for falafel and shawarma and can also be sweetened with honey, date or pomegranate syrup and served with slices of fruit and pita.
It is really easy and cost-effective to make your own tahini. You can go deluxe and remove the bran if you wish, but this is more time consuming, and the bran is good for you anyway as it is high in fiber and, especially if you toast the seeds, high in flavor too. If you do wish to remove the bran, crush or pulse the seeds in your food processor a bit, then soak them in lightly salted water; the bran will sink to the bottom and you can skim the seeds from the top.
Why not have a go at making your own? To make about a cup of tahini, set a large cast iron pan on medium heat and pour a cup of sesame seeds into the pan. Gently stir for about five minutes or until the seeds become uniformly gold in colour; they will emit a warm, toasted nut fragrance. Pour the seeds onto a platter and let them cool to room temperature. Next, pour the seeds into your food processor (or crush them with a mortar and pestle) and grind them for a few minutes or until the seeds become a mushy and crumbly paste. At this point add a couple tablespoons of olive oil, or sesame oil and continue to process until the paste gets smoother. If you want the tahini to be runnier, add more oil until the desired consistency is achieved. Here you could add salt or pepper, but that would render your tahini unsuitable for sweet applications and suitable for savoury dishes only, so maybe just season it-or sweeten it- as per usage.
There you have it; homemade tahini, ready to be pressed into service. We thought we’d start you off with a super simple, bright, beautiful and healthy recipe to get the tahini flowing. This fabulous beet and tahini dip combines the goodness of roasted beets with sesame, garlic, olive oil and lemon. Served with crudité and pita, it makes a healthy afternoon snack or irresistible appetizer. Although we recommend roasting your own, fresh beets and using those, you could use canned beets in a pinch for a quickie dip.
Beet and Tahini Dip
Makes about 2-1/2 cups
1 pound cooked beets, trimmed and peeled
1 clove garlic, chopped
¼ cup tahini
2 tablespoons olive oil or sesame oil
2 or 3 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
Cut up or slice beets and put in food processor with the garlic. Pulse until relatively smooth. Add tahini and oil and process some more. Stir in lemon juice to taste. Add salt and pepper to taste.