The unmistakable influence of the Arab world in New Mexico came as a surprise to me when I was preparing a meal for a special Earth Day event a few years ago—a meal based on the fruits and vegetables in the gardens of “New Spain.”
Ultimately, it was the fragrant and concentrated flavors of orange blossom essence, rosewater, rose petal syrup and pomegranate molasses in some of the Spanish recipes I found that revealed the depth of the Arabic contributions to that cuisine.
A book published this fall by the late Juan Estevan Arellano, “Enduring Acequias—Wisdom of the Land, Knowledge of the Water,” provides detailed support for the argument that the Spanish colonizers’ Moorish past is one of the more neglected aspects of New Mexican history. The influence can be found in the language, the landscape and the way irrigable plots are divided, and the fruits and vegetables grown here.
The Arabs introduced quince, pear, and apples to Spain, among others. Spanish settlers brought those and several other fruit trees and vines to the Americas, including grape, fig, pomegranate and plum. Pomegranate had been cultivated in ancient times in the Arabian Peninsula, and was introduced in California by the Spanish in 1769.
Muhammara sauce includes ingredients often found in New Mexican dishes (peppers, garlic, cumin), along with ingredients associated with Spanish cooking (almonds, paprika, olive oil) and one ingredient that is most closely associated with Lebanese or Syrian cooking which makes the sauce special: pomegranate molasses.
This sauce is versatile. Delicious on fresh vegetables, roasted vegetables, pita bread and all meats, whether spooned over the top of chicken breasts or mixed into ground lamb. It is dairy-free, gluten-free and vegan.
Of course, there are as many muhammara sauce recipes as there are barbeque sauce recipes. Some of them call for bread crumbs or crushed rice crackers to thicken, and some of them specify Aleppo peppers. You may not have the time to roast your own peppers or toast and grind your own cumin seeds. The jar shortcuts below are fine and the sauce is delicious regardless.
Place the peppers, nuts, garlic, salt, spices, molasses and lemon juice in a food processor, and process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Drizzle in the olive oil with the processor blades running.
Serve, or refrigerate for up to a week to serve later. Sprinkle parsley or extra nuts over it as a garnish. Crumbled feta cheese makes a nice accompaniment, either as garnish or on the side.
This recipe makes 1 generous cup of muhammara sauce, enough to serve 4 as an appetizer dip, or 3 if you’ll be stirring in a pound of ground lamb to serve over rice.
Note: If you have any trouble finding pomegranate molasses, which is inexpensive but not always easy to find, send me an email and I will offer some suggestions or share some of my own. It is indispensable for that sweet-tart flavor that makes the sauce memorable. Mr. Arellano’s book is available at Mesa Public Library.
Photo by Felicia Orth
Felicia Orth is a local home cook and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.