Celebrate Arab American Heritage Month with Healthy Fattoush Salad
By: Blanche Shaheen / Arab America Contributing Writer
As April has been officially recognized as Arab American Heritage Month, Arab Americans are flooding social media with their favorite family recipes, from overfilled shawarma wraps and crispy falafel, to artistic hummus plates and buttery baklava. In the Arab salad category, fattoush is one dish that has made a massive mark on global culinary culture. This salad is ubiquitous in middle eastern restaurants worldwide, served as a side with kabobs and rice, or turned into a main meal with the addition of protein like chickpeas or roasted chicken.
Fattoush is quite possibly the first salad in history to use croutons. Arabs are extremely resourceful with leftovers, using toasted bits of day-old bread as a foundation for main dishes like fattet hummus, or for luscious salads like fattoush to absorb all of that fruity olive oil. This salad was specifically named for the croutons, as they are an integral part of this dish. The word “fattoush” is Arabic for bits of something, in this case bits of crispy pita bread croutons.
To build the perfect fattoush salad, start with a foundation of crispy romaine lettuce. Ideally use fresh tomatoes in season, from meaty romas to sweet cherry tomatoes. Hydrating Persian cucumbers are ideal since they have fewer seeds. Aromatics like parsley, mint, and red onions or scallions offer zest and peppery balance. Bell peppers add a sweet crunch. While traditional fattoush uses the more bitter green bell peppers, you can use red, orange, or yellow peppers for more sweetness and vibrant color.
Traditional fattoush often contains fried pita croutons, but that can defeat the purpose of a low calorie salad. Oven baked croutons do not sacrifice flavor, as a smaller amount of robust olive oil and seasonings can go a long way to create savory flavor and crunch with fewer calories. You can get creative by adding garlic or onion powder, za’atar, or dukkah spice to your croutons to add layers of flavor. If you want to save time, you can also use leftover store bought pita chips.
Sumac, the main spice in this salad, is made from the dried dark purple berries of a bush that grows wild in the Middle East. It has a distinctive lemony and tart flavor and is relatively inexpensive. Middle Eastern cuisine uses sumac often to flavor meats and vegetables. If you like a bit of sweetness in your salads, you may also add a bit of antioxidant rich pomegranate molasses. This molasses is versatile for both sweet and savory dishes. This salad should be served immediately, and makes a light and fresh accompaniment to seafood and chicken dishes.
For a video tutorial on how to make this popular salad, check out the video below:
- 1 ½ cups pita bread, cut into roughly 1-inch pieces (or store-bought pita chips if short on time)
- Olive oil for brushing bread
- Salt to taste
- Garlic powder
- 2 large tomatoes, diced
- 2 cucumbers (Persian, Japanese or English), sliced
- 1 green or red pepper, diced
- ¼ red onion, finely sliced
- 1 bunch mint leaves, finely chopped, or 1 tbsp. dried mint
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
- For lemon-garlic vinaigrette:
- Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste
- 1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra olive oil for brushing bread
- Salt to taste
- 3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons sumac
Brush the olive oil on both sides of the bread pieces, then sprinkle them with salt and garlic powder. Bake the pita pieces in a shallow pan at 400 degrees until lightly toasted, about 7 minutes. Let cool. You can also deep fry the bread by heating up a saucepan of avocado oil on medium heat, then frying the pitas until golden brown. If using store bought pita chips you can skip this step.
Combine the tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, pepper,red onions, mint leaves and parsley in a salad bowl. Combine all of the vinaigrette ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, cover, and shake to blend. Toss the vegetables with dressing. Add the toasted bread pieces to the salad and combine right before serving to ensure extra crunch.
Blanche Shaheen is the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine” which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113 She is also a journalist, and host of the popular cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/