We all have detailed recollections of pivotal moments in our lives. With no hesitation, I could give you a mind numbing replay of my first job, my first love, the first time my step-brother taught me to hot wire a car … and when I learned about the existence of tahini paste.
I was contemplating the cheese display in the old Fred Meyer when I saw a block of halvah, a candy confection lost in the world of cheeses. I turned to the woman standing next to me and practically yelled, “Look! Halvah. In Fairbanks! I haven’t had this since I was a kid!” To her credit, she didn’t run from me. Instead, she opened up a whole new world by saying, “You know it is pretty easy to make your own. All you need is some tahini paste.” Then she spelled tahini for me before leaving.
I practically ran home to look it up. Tahini is somewhat akin to peanut butter, only it is made with sesame seeds. You can make your own by following one of the numerous internet recipes that give you the exact proportions for pulverizing sesame seeds and adding a bit of oil until it reaches the consistency of a thick nut butter. You will see black and white sesame seeds for sale, but the black ones are unhulled and have a slightly bitter taste. Only rarely appearing in foods, they are customarily used for making oil, while the white ones are milder and have a nutty flavor so are more often used in cooking and baking.
And it turned out that tahini is not just central in making halvah, that fudgy treat of my youth, it is found in many common foods. I was not discovering a new culinary trend, which, embarrassingly, is what I initially thought. Tahini is well known to folks who are partial to hummus or falafel. For those of us who have an aversion to beans in any form, there are many other dips, sauces, baked goods, and meat and poultry dishes that have tahini as a primary or secondary ingredient. In my enthusiasm for trying to make my own halvah, I had purchased 5 pounds of tahini paste, so I was soon sampling many of these other recipes.
In the years since that day in Fred Meyer, a few of them have become my favorites. Ironically, halvah is not one of them because the texture of my homemade does not successfully mimic the fudgy yet honeycombed mouth feel of the commercial product. I order mine from www.halvaboutique.com but I still nearly always have a jar of tahini in the fridge. Unlike many ingredients, it has the ability to turn both sweet or savory, making it very versatile.
If you have tahini paste hanging about, or have hesitated to buy any because you were reluctant to bring another food item of limited use into your fridge, here are six ways to expand your repertoire:
• A sweet bread. I first saw this in a recipe for tarting up challah, but I have found that it works with all sorts of yeast bread or cinnamon roll recipes. Just add about 2 tablespoons of tahini to the dough when adding your other liquids and then, after the first rise, apply a tahini paste. The recipe sidebar gives more specific directions.
• A dip. The basic savory recipe in the recipe sidebar can be altered in an infinite number of ways, including making it sweet. I have been known to make it with just tahini, water and Nutella.
• A main meal. The recipe sidebar has the directions for Sesame Noodles with Swiss Chard and Chicken, which is fast and hearty and can be easily altered to use up protein or vegetables you have hanging about as leftovers. If you are a fan of those frozen meatballs that come in huge Costco bags, look up this wonderful recipe at bit.ly/3bxUTU5.
• A salad dressing that can make boring old lettuce seem lively and fresh. The sidebar recipe makes a lot, so feel free to divide it in half.
• As a cookie. I could not get permission to reprint it, but the tahini cookies from this blog are the bomb: prettysimplesweet.com/tahini-cookies.
• A frosting that will make your next cupcakes special.
Linden Staciokas is a freelance writer, gardener and cook who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Large Batch Tahini Salad Dressing
Yields one quart; will last two weeks in the fridge
2/3 cup well-stirred tahini
2/3 cup white balsamic vinegar (I have used black balsamic or regular vinegar)
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/3 cup water
2 to 3 teaspoons salt (Some tahini brands have more salt, so start with 2 and then add more if necessary. If you put 3 teaspoons in right from the start, you risk over-salting)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or to taste
2 teaspoons maple syrup (I despise the taste of maple, so I use sugar or honey, to taste)
Place all ingredients into a blender or food processor, and purée until smooth. Transfer to a jar and refrigerate any extra.
Note: This dressing likely will separate in the fridge overnight. When ready to use it again, give it a good stir or shake it well. It doesn’t thicken the way the cashew dressing does, but if necessary, thin with more water or a splash of vinegar to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
— Used with the kind permission of Alexandra Stafford, of Alexandra’s Kitchen at alexandracooks.com.
1/2 cup tahini
1/8 cup lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin*
1 large (or two small) clove garlic, peeled
1/3 cup warm water (if the results are too thick, add more water)
pinch of salt and black pepper
Combine all ingredients in a blender, and puree until smooth. Will survive a few days in the fridge.
*Cumin is not common to everyone’s spice drawer, but there are adequate substitutions available. Coriander, caraway and fennel, like cumin, are all members of the parsley family, and the flavor is similar, so you can use ground versions of these three instead. Remember that fennel has strong licorice undertones so that will add another flavor to this dip. Commercial chili powder spice mixes all have cumin so you can start with small amounts of chili powder to add the burst of flavor that cumin is intended to do. Actually, I like things spicy, so I often add chili powder instead of cumin on purpose.
Sesame Noodles with Swiss Chard and Chicken
Yield: Serves 4
8 ounces boneless skinless chicken breast
8 ounces dried fettuccine (any pasta works, so don’t go buying special)
6 ounces Swiss chard, leaves removed from stems, torn into small pieces (I have also used spinach, broccoli, pattypan squash, or cauliflower with this recipe)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/4 cup peanut oil (I have used regular oil and once the oil that had separated and moved to the top of a jar of peanut butter.)
1/4 cup well-stirred tahini
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons chili oil (My husband does not care for this, so I omit it in my version)
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional
1 garlic clove, minced
6 scallions, thinly sliced (I have used fresh chives or baby leeks)
Kosher salt (I have used regular salt)
Fill a large saucepan 2/3 full of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Salt it so that it tastes good, add the chicken breast, and remove the pot from the heat. Cover and let the chicken sit until cooked but very tender, about 15 minutes. (If you’re using two smaller breasts, decrease the time by about 3 minutes.) Remove the chicken from the water (don’t throw it away!) and cut into it to check its doneness; if it’s still a little pink, return it to the water for another minute or two. Remove the chicken to a plate and let it rest while you cook the noodles.
Bring the water the chicken was cooked in back to a boil over high heat. Add the fettuccine, and cook to al dente according to the package directions. Place the chard in a large colander.
Meanwhile, make the sauce: in a small bowl, whisk together 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil, the peanut oil, tahini, soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, honey, cayenne, if using, and garlic until smooth. Note: It’s very spicy without the cayenne, but if you like heat, start with 1/4 tsp. cayenne, then add more to taste.
Drain the pasta directly over the chard, and shake the colander to allow water to drain out. Transfer chard and noodles to a large bowl. Toss with the remaining teaspoon of sesame oil. (If you are using spinach or thinly sliced squash, follow the same process. For more robust vegetables, like broccoli, par boil until just tender and then drain and add to the pasta.)
Shred the chicken with your hands into the bowl of noodles and chard. Add the scallions. Add the dressing and toss to coat. Serve immediately.
— Used with the permission of Alexandra Stafford, of Alexandra’s Kitchen at alexandracooks.com.
Tahini Spread for Bread
Stir together one cup of white tahini paste with one cup of sugar. After the first rise required by your favorite yeast bread or cinnamon roll recipe, remove from the bowl and roll your dough out into a rectangle, so it is about 20 inches long and 8 inches wide. Thinly spread the tahini/sugar spread across the rectangle, leaving about a half inch of space on all sides.
Starting from a long end, roll the dough up into a cylinder and pinch the seam really well to seal. Gently stretch the cylinder so it is about 28 inches long. While it rests for a few minutes, grease a standard cake pan. Coil the snake of bread around the pan, start at the outer edge and then tucking the end of the tail in the center.
Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let rise for about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 375. Brush the coil with beaten egg and sprinkle liberally with white sesame seeds. Bake for about 40 minutes, checking at 20 minutes to make sure the top is not getting too dark. If it is, tent with foil. Use a thermometer to make sure the bread’s internal temperature is 190 degrees or so.
— This was prompted by a challah and tahini recipe from the blog Myjewishlearning.com. Her site is a treasure chest for anyone who loves challah or tahini, separate or together!
Tahini Chocolate Frosting
1 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup tahini
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
First combine the butter and tahini, then add the powder. When they are well combined, beat in the powdered sugar and extract.