"Fa-what?" my friend joked when I explained what we were having alongside our flank steak at a cookout recently, "Fattoush! You'll love it; it's like panzanella, but better." After dinner was cleaned up, I wondered how many people might not appreciate the greatness of fattoush simply because they don't know what it is.
Fattoush is your basic bread salad, like panzanella, which partners pita with fresh produce and a juicy vinaigrette. Hailing from the Middle East and loaded with fresh herbs and tart sumac, fattoush is actually far from basic. In fact, I'd argue that fattoush is better than panzanella, especially if the softened bread of most bread salads leaves you sad.
Here's my love letter to fattoush. I hope that you'll try this Middle Eastern bread salad this summer. I promise you won't forget it.
What is fattoush?
Fattoush is a Middle Eastern bread salad made from toasted or fried pita bread, tomatoes, radishes, and cucumber and tossed with a lemon-sumac dressing. The Lebanese are often credited with its creation, but you'll find riffs on this salad throughout the Middle East.
Toasted pita is way better than stale bread.
My sister-in-law actually introduced me to fattoush many summers ago. "I'm going to use this pita to make fattoush!" she said on our weekly farmers market trip, her eyes rolling back in pleasure as she inhaled the fresh pita in hand.
Her version of fattoush includes black-eyed peas and pan-fried pita pieces. Crisp and golden on the outside, the little pita bites remained pillowy on the inside, like the most luxurious crouton you could imagine. I was hooked. Bread salad without stale or soggy bread was my first revelation of the glory that is fattoush.
Cookbook author Samin Norsat taught me that a few good glugs of olive oil and a hot oven could get me to crispy pita pleasure even faster without dirtying the stovetop or a frying pan. Samin also pointed out that this toasting step brought a missing flavor element to the salad party: heat. Toasting creates a cooked flavor in the final salad, even though the bulk of it consists of fresh produce ripe and ready for the tart, lemony dressing.
Sumac is the spice of summer.
Sumac wasn't a staple in my kitchen until I started tooling around with fattoush. Now I find myself sprinkling it on everything! Sumac on shrimp skewers headed for the grill, sumac-dusted fresh pineapple. If you've never had sumac before, the flavor is tough to imagine — it's lemon-pepper-like without any heat and a sort of pine-like aroma.
Sumac works well with both cooked and fresh food, which, in the case of fattoush, is toasted pita and fresh vegetables, respectively. It's also the kind of spice that will make your guests stop and ask, "Mmm, what is this?"
Fattoush is easy and impressive.
The things we love about panzanella remains true for fattoush: It's a way to serve bread as a side and salad main course in a way that playfully partners both. It also tastes like you put lots of work into making croutons and a salad dressing, when in reality, you can throw a fattoush salad together in about 20 minutes.
Fattoush is also adaptable. Our favorite has pita, radishes, and cucumber around the requisite tomato, but you can add chickpeas or, as my sister-in-law does, black-eyed peas, and turn it into a meal. You can use corn or even strawberries in the right seasons, as both love being dressed with sumac. Plus, fattoush is simply satisfying. That's high praise for a salad.