The Italians have their panzanella and the Lebanese their fattoush: fresh salad ingredients mixed with stale, day-old bread that soaks up the olive oil and acid (lemon or vinegar). Whereas the Italian version uses fresh mozzarella and basil, fattoush uses a variety of the freshest greens: romaine lettuce, parsley, mint and cress. On a recent trip to visit friends in the Beqaa Valley, the fertile and verdant region in east Lebanon, all these were available in roadside markets which are adjacent to the fields where they are grown. In order to keep them fresh, large troughs built into the ground are filled with cold water and the greens are set in, just bobbing at the surface. I’ve never seen or tasted fresher greens in such quantity and variety.
Calling fattoush a bread salad is a bit of misnomer. Flat, paper-thin Lebanese pita is but one ingredient of this tantalizing salad. The most important component is sumac, a dry spice whose dark, reddish-purple color gives a bright, lemony flavor to salads and meats. Without this one ingredient, it’s just a bread salad. Sumac gives fattoush a pop that is at first undetectable but slowly releases its flavor as it is eaten. Perhaps this is the reason that two or more helpings are not unusual when serving this salad. Adding some texture is the addition of thinly sliced radish and red onion. All of these ingredients are layered on a big platter (this is one instance when you don’t use a salad bowl) to which is added a lemon vinaigrette and finished with crispy pita.
This recipe makes a lot, enough to feed a crowd. Perfect for family gatherings or to make for a backyard barbeque. While it may seem a lot, you’ll be surprised at how much is eaten. Any leftovers can be saved; fattoush is quite nice the next day for lunch, though any longer and the greens loss all crispness.
Fattoush with Grilled Lebanese Pita
Rinse and dry:
1 bunch Romaine lettuce
1 bunch cress, stems removed
1 cup whole parsely leaves, stems removed
1 cup fresh mint leaves
1 large red onion
4 small cucumbers
4 plum tomatoes
FOR THE VINAIGRETTE:
juice of 1/2 lemon
4 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Brush both sides generously with olive oil:
2 Lebanese pita breads
Salt lightly and grill the pita until golden brown. Allow to cool.
On a large platter, layer half the greens. Sprinkle on top:
1 teaspoon sumac
Layer half of the remaining ingredients (tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and onion). Crush one of the pita breads into bite-sized pieces and add on top of the previous layer. Sprinkle on top:
1 teaspoon sumac
Pour half of the vinaigrette evenly over the salad.
Repeat until all of the ingredients are used, beginning with the greens and ending with the crushed pita.
Allow to rest for a 10 minutes and serve immediately.