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The ground sesame seed paste tahini is a pantry staple ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking and increasingly easy to find in the U.S. It’s shelf stable and will keep for up to a year after opened, but it doesn’t tend to last long in my house because it can be used in so many different ways.
Classically, tahini dressing is made by mixing it with minced garlic, lemon juice, and water to make a delicious, creamy sauce that is equally good spooned over fish or lamb as it is tossed over raw vegetables as a salad dressing.
But the dressing is flexible, and you can really modify it and make it your own depending on how you plan to use it. Blend in a little harissa or chopped jalapeño to add heat and fold it into mashed potatoes for something completely different and unexpected; stir in mint and serve it over a platter of dead-ripe summer tomatoes; mix in lime or sour orange juice instead of lemon, then drizzle over a complex chopped salad of six or eight fresh and pickled vegetables.
One of my favorite dishes of all time is a Lebanese dish of kibbeh cooked in a tahini and bitter orange juice sauce, with a handful of chickpeas thrown in for good measure. And recently, someone back from baking in Lebanon told me that bakers there even use tahini to coat their baking pans, the way we use butter or oil.
As with everything, I encourage you to taste and play. I like my dressing hot with garlic, sharp with a very pronounced lemon flavor, but I also like to make it green with parsley, cilantro, mint, or a combination of all three. I like to drizzle it over plain rice as a simple side dish or smear it over vegetables before roasting them in a hot oven so that the tahini browns and caramelizes and sweetens as it cooks.
But most of all, I love to use it to dress fresh, warm fish, its residual heat bringing out the sauce's flavors. Fish with tahini is a common dish along the coast of Lebanon, and I like to pair it with another very Lebanese recipe: buttery long-grain basmati with caramelized onions and toasted pine nuts.
I am going to confess that the way I learned to cook rice is not Lebanese: I do it like pasta, dumping the grains in abundant boiling salted water and then draining it when it’s done. I know this isn’t the traditional or “proper” way to cook rice, but it works really well in this case.
For the tahini sauce (about 1 1/4 cups) and the rice:
- 1 to 2 cloves garlic (if you really like the garlic the way I do, add another clove)
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
- 3/4 cup tahini
- 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 to 3/4 cups water (the water is extremely variable, depending on the brand of tahini and is used to thin the sauce out to a thick cream consistency)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rings
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
For the fish and the assembly:
- 2 pounds fish filet (I recommend a firm meaty, white-fleshed fish, something like halibut or hake, although grouper would also work)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper, for seasoning
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 limes, quartered
- 1/2 bunch cilantro or parsley, for optional garnish
How to make this even faster:
This recipe has a few elements to it, but they all come together fairly quickly. If you are pressed for time, toast the pine nuts and blend the tahini dressing a day ahead. While the tahini sauce is remarkably quick to whip together, it will keep for several days in the fridge; I like to make extra and have it on hand, as I find it incredibly useful in jazzing up leftovers or simple basics like a steak or a salad.
Flaky white fish likes a creamy sauce: What's your topping of preference—dilly sour cream, lemony yogurt? Tell us in the comments!