Brainfood : Just for starters...

Appetisers exist to sop up the excess alcohol which all too many think they must drink to show that they are in a `partying' spirit
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If hummus had feelings, it would probably feel as incensed as any relegated Premier Division team to be reduced to the level of a cocktail dip. It is far too lofty a dish for that: and what's more, it does not go particularly well with gin, whisky and other grain spirits. It is too individual and marked a taste.

But then I have strong, antagonistic feelings about the whole hors d'oeuvres, antipasto, mezze scene. "Starters" or "appetisers", as we misleadingly call them, exist for a very limited number of reasons, all of them specious. At home, we serve them to cover for Humphrey and Lydia who think it beguilingly chic to come late (in California, lateness has been raised to an art-form, a statement about time and its unimportance in the life of the creative) or because we're not all equally skilled at putting a dinner on the table on time. In restaurants, they are another form of parting the fool from his money. By and large, because they take care of the first pangs of hunger, they serve to allow the meal to follow to be more frugal; they also serve to sop up the excess alcohol which all too many think they must drink to show that they are in a "partying" spirit.

As drinking to excess is one of the few vices that rouses the old American Puritan in me, "pre-dinner" in my house never runs beyond a brief half- hour, and nothing offends me more than to arrive chez someone at eight and not eat until ten.

Now, hummus is one of civilisation's many gifts from the Near East. It is quintessentially an accompaniment, not something to be eaten alone. As the weather has been turning hesitatingly towards summer, we have been making Hummus bi Tahini, and using it in all sorts of ways novel to me under the influence of Number Three Son and his Lebanese friend Raouf. Here is Raouf's hummus, and you may take my words for it that you can discard any other version, save for the pleasure of elegant variation.

Raouf's Hummus bi Tahini

8oz chick peas; 2 cloves garlic; 2tbsps tahini; juice of two lemons (at least); 12tsp ground cumin; salt and pepper, olive oil

Tahini, a roasted sesame seed paste, is readily available. I strongly recommend organic tahini, in which the seeds are mechanically rather than chemically hulled. A good tahini is smooth and oily. So is a good hummus.

The chick peas are simmered for between three and four hours (watch your pot, they absorb water quickly) until tender but not mushy; add water when necessary. (My advice is not to soak the beans overnight and then cook, for this does nothing for their fragile flavour and my indeed cause them to germinate.) Remove and leave to cool overnight. The bean-liquid should jellify.

The next day, strain the beans and reserve the liquid. Then blend beans, garlic and tahini until very smooth. This takes patience, even with the best of machines, ten to 15 minutes, and constant tasting. As you blend, bit by bit, add lemon juice, salt, pepper and cumin. You have to remember that not all tahinis are alike, and even more assuredly, that garlic varies greatly in flavour, as do lemons. You have reached the right point when no one taste dominates the others.

The heart of the matter is texture. This should be thick, incomparably smooth, creamy and utterly consistent. If your hummus becomes too thick, add some of the reserved cooking liquid; if it is too thin, continue to blend to get the tahini to do its magic, and allow to settle overnight (it will thicken.) The proper taste is a balance: the chick peas are an inert taste, but they give body; the lemon is sharp; the cumin adds zest; tahini offers the bitterness that cuts through the oiliness. If to your taste the hummus is too bitter, add lemon (carefully) to counteract; if too sharp, add tahini; if too bland, add salt. The cumin should be no more than an aftertaste, and beware of garlic: it must be fresh and it should not be overdone.

When your hummus is ready, cover with a thin layer of olive oil and refrigerate. It will keep three to four days. Not to be wasted on the cocktail crowd, but served with anything clean and sharp-flavoured, such as kebabs of lamb or pork. Or blended into salads. By all means experiment, but a word of warning: hummus is rich and filling, which is one of the reasons why it should not be wasted as a mere appetiser

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