I came of culinary age on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the world of food — meaning food that came from across oceans and mountains — was minutes away. There was (and still is) Zabar’s, a store that taught me as much about food as the cookbook recipes that sent me there to search for za’atar, herbes de Provence, flageolets or arborio rice. And there were the small ethnic shops, the Thai grocery, the bodega, the Italian green market and the dairy that made its own pot cheese to satisfy its Eastern European customers. You could get just about anything you wanted, but you had to go from place to place to gather ingredients, and so many of the things that I now buy in the supermarket required either a special trip to a special shop or time whipping them up in my own kitchen.
Case in point: hummus.
Back in the day, hummus didn’t own huge tracts of refrigerator real estate in every supermarket and corner convenience store. It didn’t come in flavors, and it wasn’t even all that well known. Serving it (always accompanied by cut-up vegetables) was a sign of sophistication or proof that you were a counterculture type, at least in the kitchen.
Nowadays, I always have a tub of supermarket hummus in the house — it’s a just-in-case food for me — but I still make my own. It takes about five minutes in a food processor or blender, and I can do with it what I love to do with all recipes: Change it up.
Turning homemade hummus into pancakes and serving them with tahini mayo was a big change-up. I first did it the ’90s when I was working on several pancake projects (ah, the life of a cookbook author). Going back and looking at my original recipe was a small lesson in how tastes change. All versions of this pancake were essentially the same: You make a quick hummus with chickpeas, some of their canning or cooking liquid and tahini, and then you season it with garlic, cumin, salt, pepper and lemon juice. What turns it into pancake batter is the eggs and flour. Now, 20 years later, I find that the batter needs less garlic and more salt, more cumin, more lemon juice and a hit of hot pepper. The changes are small, but the flavor jump is high.
What hasn’t changed is the way I like to serve these savory, silver-dollar-size flapjacks: as a sit-down starter, a pass-around party food or a put-it-together-yourself platter at a buffet. My standard, no matter what position the pancakes play, is to include the mayo; something green, like arugula; something crunchy, like cut-up cucumbers; and something colorful and juicy, like grape tomatoes. The salad-ish stuff gets seasoned with a little oil, salt and pepper, and then the fun begins.
You can make like a chef and plate the starter, arranging the pancakes as the base, topping them with the mayo and then going all toss-and-scatter with the salad. (I say the salad is “optional,” but I hope you’ll include it.) If neat and orderly is your look, you can arrange the pancakes, the tahini mayo and the vegetable trio in a trimmer fashion. For buffets, it’s great to treat the components like a salad bar and put them in bowls around the pancakes. Or just go minimal and serve the pancakes as finger food and the mayo as a dip. All of this is possible because the pancakes are good hot off the griddle, warm or at room temperature.
And yes, I hope you flip over them.
Photograph by Deb Lindsey. (This story appeared in my Everyday Dorie column in Washington Post Food.)