Food

Why Reem Assil’s California Fattoush Salad Is Genius

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Fattoush is one of the bright, simple joys of summer: Tomatoes spill sunshine, pita shards and cucumbers take turns showing off their snap, sumac puckers, and mint and parsley cool, often, in a single bite.

But at her restaurant Reem’s California, chef Reem Assil keeps the peak experience of this staple Arab salad alive year-round. “The medley of vegetables is what makes fattoush so special,” she writes in her debut cookbook Arabiyya. “If you’re not a purist, you can make it a medley of anything.”

Peak summer (and fall, winter, and spring).

Photo by Julia Gartland.

In winter, when tomatoes go into hibernation in the Northern hemisphere, that can mean swapping in juicy citrus and fried sunchokes to mimic cucumber’s crunch. In spring, it could be a rainbow of heirloom radishes. Even in summer, Reem cycles in grilled or raw corn, pomegranate seeds, pickled cherries, or fresh purslane.

The anchors that define her always-in-season California Fattoush Salad are greens like arugula and Little Gem lettuce, craggy pita chips (homemade from stale pita or even store-bought), and a vinaigrette so simple and powerful, it deserves a role in our dinners forever.

It’s made up of a handful of ingredients that are easy to keep on hand, either buzzed in the blender or whisked in a bowl. The crux is the pomegranate molasses, a powerhouse of sweet-sour brightness made by simmering pomegranate juice down to a sticky syrup. Add lemon juice, crushed garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper. Done.

Reem adds depth but not effort by layering the salad with a chef’s perspective: She tosses the sturdiest ingredients—tomatoes, cucumbers, onions—in the dressing, adding only half the pita to start soaking.

Then she piles the arugula onto a platter naked to keep it from wilting, tops with the dressed salad, then tucks in the remaining pita for maximum crunch. Whole parsley and mint leaves and sumac are the last bright bursts, riding on top.

Reem’s thoughtful construction also means this is an ideal salad to take to a potluck or picnic. Of course the grilled pizza and root beer floats at my husband Mike’s birthday barbecue were popular, but the moment that brought everyone together was when I pulled out all my Tupperwares of radish slivers and cucumber wheels, tossed, and then piled it up layer by layer.

For everyone.

Photo by Penguin Random House

It felt a little like the cover photo of Arabiyya—a crowd at a table cheers as the host unmolds a ma‘louba. It wasn’t the intended cover, Reem told me as I interviewed her for this week’s episode of The Genius Recipe Tapes, but she knew it was the right one as soon as she saw it.

“Hospitality is for everyone,” she told me. “Everybody is welcome at the Arab table.”


Got a Genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what’s so smart about it) at [email protected].

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