I am an ethnic foods girl. If you ask me what I want for dinner, I will most likely answer, "Thai." Or, "Italian." Or, "Mexican." And, often, "Middle Eastern."
Not that there's anything wrong with a simply cooked chicken breast or a salad, but there's something about "non-ethnic" food that, for me, doesn't hit the spot as often or as accurately. Maybe I prefer the foods of far-flung nations because of the herbs and spices -- which range from everyday (basil and cumin) to exotic (zatar and galangal) -- all of which I love in a very democratic and equal-opportunity way. Perhaps it's the knowledge in the back of my head that this food has traveled, metaphorically, many miles to get to my modest plate. Or it could be that these dishes remind me of places I've been, or inspire me to imagine those places I haven't. I don't allow my life to be boring; why would I permit that of my food?
So it is that I seek out the best of ethnic restaurants in whatever town I'm living or visiting. And so it was that I began to frequent a magical land called Pita Inn in the mid-1990s. Located northwest of Chicago in a town called Skokie, Pita Inn first came to my attention when Sister attended Northwestern the previous decade (Northwestern is in Evanston, just east of Skokie). I was still in middle school at the time, so, other than its name and location, it was otherwise unremarkable to me. I knew how Sister raved about it, though, so when I got to Northwestern on my own in 1993, I made it my business to do business with Pita Inn.
Trips to the Inn hit their zenith in 1995-1996, my junior year, because my awesome friend Crispin had a car and loved Middle Eastern food. A damn fine fellow to know. We'd load up his Saturn several times a week, head west to Dempster St. to the Inn. Though they've since overhauled the edifice and tripled the seating capacity, in 1995 the establishment was not much to see from the outside; in fact, if you didn't know any better, you'd probably think better of stopping and drive right on by. That would be a grave error. The restaurant's employees are frenetic but friendly -- think Soup Nazi, but a shade more pleasant. You walk up to the counter, place your order and wait for your number to be called. Meanwhile, the shawarma spins on its spit, the falafels are pulled rapidly from their oil baths and the scent of cumin is everywhere. When I was in college, there were fewer than 10 tables in the whole place, but since my friends and I were always occupying at least two of them, good luck ever finding a seat, other Chicagoland residents.
I always ordered a falafel sandwich, and it remains atop my list of Best Falafel. I am big on taste and texture, and Pita Inn's falafel had both: just spicy enough, pleasantly soft (but not mushy!) on the inside and browned to a tantalizing crisp on the outside. The cool tahini dressing was the falafel's perfect foil, and nestled in a pita with lettuce and tomato...well, it was enough to make me skip reading those last cantos in Spenser's The Faerie Queen just to make yet another trip to Skokie. (I was an English major.)
Then there was Pita Inn's hummus. I've had hummus in many places in my life, but nothing (not even my own recipe) beats Pita Inn's. I can't for the life of me understand how they get it so smooth and flavorful. I'm certain that it's a very simple recipe but, man alive, it goes to show you that perfection is often expressed in the most humble ways.
Since I developed this ravenous desire for hummus at such a formative stage in my life, it was a logical next step for me to start making it at home -- or, more accurately, in my first apartment, which I got the following school year. Mom, of course, had her go-to hummus recipe. I gave it a shot; friends loved it and it has been my go-to hummus ever since. It is easy and quick to make, and pairs as deliciously with standard pita chips as it does with kalamata olives, thinly sliced cucumbers and fat, juicy, summery tomato wedges.
Though it might not beat the Pita Inn (really, what could?), this hummus is a damn fine approximation. Eating it reminds me of all the good times and divine food I enjoyed at the Inn -- and really, isn't that the point?
2 20-oz. cans of chickpeas
1/2 c. reserved liquid from chickpeas (I normally rinse all legumes, but the reserved liquid works in this dish)
4 T. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 T. freshly-squeezed lemon juice
3 T. soy sauce
4 T. tahini
1/2 t. cumin, plus a pinch extra for garnish
1/2 t. coriander
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
1/2 c. sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 small clove garlic
Pinch paprika, for garnish
Any number of dipping mechanisms, such as toasted pita triangles, sliced vegetables or kalamata olives
Toast the sesame seeds in a dry frying pan over low heat until they throw off a nutty aroma and a hint of lovely brown color. Drain both cans of chickpeas, reserving 1/2 c. of the liquid. Then, rinse the chickpeas.
Combine chickpeas, reserved liquid, 4 T. olive oil, lemon juice, soy sauce, tahini, 1/2 t. cumin, coriander, cayenne, sesame seeds and garlic in a food processor. Give it a whirl until the mixture is relatively smooth, keeping in mind it will never be completely smooth because the sesame seeds will offer a bit of crunchy, seedy texture.
Spread the hummus on a large serving plate; drizzle liberally with olive oil to finish. I stole Pita Inn's garnishing method, and always sprinkle my hummus with a little paprika and extra cumin for a beautiful presentation and even greater taste. Serve with an abundance of pita chips, vegetables (I like cucumber, carrots and tomato) and kalamata olives.