Looking to spice up a weeknight menu takes us to the Middle East, where herbs are treated like salad greens and bold flavors are easy with the right ingredients. We start with muhammara, a hummus-like puree of red peppers, walnuts, pomegranate molasses and toasted cumin, scooped up with flatbread. Savory chicken cutlets with a crispy za’atar-spiced breading come balanced with a simple salad of fresh parsley and a bright lemon vinaigrette. And on the side, mujaddara pairs earthy lentils and basmati rice with bay, cumin, and crispy, caramelized onions.
Makes 2 cups
Muhammara is a spicy-tart dip for flatbread made from walnuts and roasted red peppers. The name comes from the Arabic word for reddened. The dish originated in Syria, where it often is served alongside hummus and baba ganoush.
Aleppo pepper is made from ground dried Halaby chilies; it tastes subtly of cumin and fruit, with only mild heat. Look for it in well-stocked markets and spice shops, but if you cannot find it, simply leave it out — the muhammara will still be delicious. Serve with flatbread or vegetables for dipping or use as a sandwich spread.
Remember to pat the roasted peppers dry after draining them. Excess moisture will make the muhammara watery in both flavor and consistency.
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 7-inch pita bread, torn into rough pieces
1 cup walnuts
2 12-ounce jars roasted red peppers, drained and patted dry (2 cups)
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (optional; see headnote)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, plus more to serve
2 tablespoons lemon juice
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more to serve
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, to serve
In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the cumin, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and set aside.
In a food processor, process the pita bread and walnuts until finely ground, about 45 seconds. Add the cumin, roasted peppers, Aleppo pepper (if using), pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Process until smooth, about 45 seconds, scraping the bowl as needed.
Add the pomegranate molasses and lemon juice and process until combined, about 10 seconds. With the machine running, drizzle in the oil. Taste and season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a serving bowl. Drizzle with additional pomegranate molasses and oil, then sprinkle with parsley.
Za’atar Chicken Cutlets and Lemon-Parsley Salad
Makes 4 servings
This dish is inspired by Ana Sortun, who often uses the za’atar spice blend — which typically includes sesame seeds, sumac, thyme, oregano, marjoram, and salt — at her Oleana restaurant in Cambridge. Her recipe for crispy lemon chicken with za’atar calls for making a lemon confit and stuffing it under the skin of whole halves of deboned chicken along with cubes of butter. We take a simpler tack and coat chicken cutlets in a flour-za’atar mixture. We also use lemon zest and juice in our sauce, along with tart and smoky Aleppo pepper, which has a fruity, moderate heat. If you can’t find Aleppo pepper, sweet paprika is a decent substitute, but add a pinch of cayenne for a touch of heat.
Boneless, skinless chicken cutlets are ideal for fast cooking and are widely available. If you substitute chicken breasts, pound the meat first, using a meat mallet or heavy skillet to flatten them to an even ¼-inch thickness.
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast cutlets (4 cutlets), pounded to ¼-inch thickness
¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon za’atar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon Aleppo pepper
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
¾ cup lightly packed fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
½ teaspoon lemon zest, plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
3 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts
Season the chicken all over with salt. In a wide, shallow dish, combine ¼ cup of the za’atar, the flour, and the pepper.
In a 12-inch skillet set over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the oil and heat until shimmering. One cutlet at a time, transfer the chicken to the za’atar mixture, coating and pressing all sides. Add the cutlets to the pan and cook for about 3 minutes per side, or until well browned. Transfer to a platter.
In a medium bowl, mix together the parsley, scallions, lemon zest and juice, the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil, and a pinch of salt. Toss to coat. Drizzle the molasses evenly over the chicken, then mound the greens over the cutlets. Sprinkle with walnuts and the remaining za’atar.
Lebanese Lentils and Rice With Crisped Onions (Mujaddara)
Makes 4 servings
Rice and lentils with caramelized onions is a much-loved food in the Middle East. This is our take on the version we tasted in Lebanon. The rice and lentils are simmered together in the same pot, with the lentils getting a 10-minute head start so both finish at the same time. Meanwhile, the onions are fried until crisp and deeply caramelized — almost burnt, really — to coax out a savory bittersweet flavor.
Serve mujaddara hot, warm, or at room temperature, with a dollop of plain yogurt. It’s a delicious accompaniment to grilled or roasted meats, but it’s also hearty enough to be the centerpiece of a vegetarian meal.
Make sure to use brown lentils; French green lentils (Puy lentils) won’t get the right texture. Even when fully cooked, green lentils retain a firm, almost al dente texture, while brown lentils take on a softness that combines well with the rice.
Don’t worry if the onions turn quite dark at the edge of the skillet; deep browning is desirable. But do stir the browned bits into the mix to ensure the onions color evenly. However, if the onions brown deeply before they soften, lower the heat a notch or two and keep stirring until the pan cools slightly.
4 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
4 bay leaves
2½ teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground allspice
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 cup brown lentils, rinsed and drained
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
Plain whole-milk yogurt, to serve
In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, combine 5 cups water, the garlic, bay leaves, cumin, allspice, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil, then stir in the lentils and reduce to medium. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat to maintain a simmer, until the lentils are softened but still quite firm at the center, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the rice and return to a simmer. Cover, reduce to medium-low heat, and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the lentils and rice are tender, about 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onions and cook, stirring only occasionally at the start then more frequently once browning begins at the edges of the pan, until the onions are deeply caramelized and crisped, 10 to 15 minutes; adjust the heat if the onions brown too quickly. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the onions to a paper towel-lined plate and spread evenly. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and set aside; the onions will crisp as they cool.
When the lentils and rice are tender, remove the pot from the heat. Uncover and lay a kitchen towel across the pan, then replace the lid and let stand for 10 minutes.
Using a fork, fluff the lentils and rice, removing and discarding the bay. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Stir in half the scallions, then transfer to a serving bowl. Top with the fried onions and remaining scallions. Serve with yogurt on the side.
Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to email@example.com.