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A new look for your lunchbox: Hummus

  • There's something you can put in a kid's lunchbox that involves fresh vegetables, simple cooking techniques and it's trendy? Direct from the Middle East, hummus made with things besides chickpeas has suddenly become one of the hottest food trends around. Carrot hummus "sushi" rolls, and hummus made with carrots, avocado and beets are paired with pita wedges. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

    There's something you can put in a kid's lunchbox that involves fresh vegetables, simple cooking techniques and it's trendy? Direct from the Middle East, hummus made with things besides chickpeas has suddenly become one of the hottest food trends around. Carrot hummus "sushi" rolls, and hummus made with carrots, avocado and beets are paired with pita wedges. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

  • This lunchbox serves up appealing hues and nutritious veggies: pita wedges with colorful hummus dips made with carrots, avocado and beets, along with carrot hummus "sushi" rolls. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

    This lunchbox serves up appealing hues and nutritious veggies: pita wedges with colorful hummus dips made with carrots, avocado and beets, along with carrot hummus "sushi" rolls. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

  • There's something you can put in a kid's lunchbox that involves fresh vegetables, simple cooking techniques and it's trendy? Direct from the Middle East, hummus made with things besides chickpeas has suddenly become one of the hottest food trends around. Carrot hummus "sushi" rolls, and hummus made with carrots, avocado and beets are paired with pita wedges. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
  • This lunchbox serves up appealing hues and nutritious veggies: pita wedges with colorful hummus dips made with carrots, avocado and beets, along with carrot hummus "sushi" rolls. (Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

What’s the first lunch lesson of the school year?

Embrace hummus.

Yes, it has a weird name (say it like we’re humming together – “hum us.”) And yes, it is usually made from ground-up chickpeas, which sounds like it should have all the joy of eating library paste.

But stick with me on this: If you think of it as the Middle East’s answer to peanut butter, it can be your best friend when it’s time to pack tasty, healthful lunches, for kids and adults.

“I use it for everything,” agrees Catherine McCord, the editor of the children’s food website Weelicious.com. “I almost always have a batch in the refrigerator. It’s so easy, it’s inexpensive, it keeps for a week, plus.”

It also can be a lot more than just ground-up beans. And tasting like library paste? That attitude is so 20th century.

McCord’s 2013 book, Weelicious Lunches, was the first place I saw a recipe for Roasted Carrot Hummus and realized that hummus didn’t have to be boring.

Pretty soon, I started seeing hummus variations everywhere – beet hummus, edamame hummus, pumpkin hummus, red pepper hummus. Georgia chef Hugh Acheson even makes a boiled-peanut hummus (it’s darn tasty, too).

In America, hummus has taken off lately: In 2006, it was found in only 12 percent of American households. That’s now up to 20 percent and growing fast. Since chickpeas are high in protein, grinding them up and mixing them with a few other ingredients make them a filling and affordable alternative to high-fat snacks. If you’re not a vegan or vegetarian, there are plenty of advantages to getting to know this basic technique a little better.

Hummus, of course, has been around the Middle East for centuries. People eat it almost every day there, always as a dip with pita bread, always made with chickpeas and tahini, the sesame seed paste that’s called tarator in Lebanon. The word “hummus” actually means “chickpea.”

To consider hummus in its native setting, I reached out to Joumana Accad, the author of the new book Taste of Beirut, coming out next month. Accad divides her time between Texas and Lebanon, where I reached her by email.

In Beirut, she told me, people still stick to the traditional version. A few chefs try variations, but those haven’t caught on. It’s definitely everywhere, though, and eaten almost every day.

“In Lebanon, hummus is as common as hot dogs and tater tots to kids in the U.S. Everybody eats it, children and adults.”

In America, though, even Accad mixes it up with her hummus. Her new book includes beet hummus, and her blog, tasteofbeirut.com, includes variations like zucchini. She’s even made it with green Hatch chiles.

McCord has branched out even more: White bean basil hummus, avocado hummus. She started playing with hummus as a baby food when her kids were small. Now that they’re 5 and 7, she’s found it’s a great way to get them to eat different vegetables.

“Once your baby gets past that 12-month phase, you want to get as much nutrition in them as possible,” she says. “A lot of parents complain they can’t get their kids to eat anything nutritious.

“Hummus is something that even the pickiest of eaters would want to eat.”

It’s also a good lunchbox solution, and not just for vegan and vegetarian kids, she says. Children with peanut allergies can often eat hummus because it’s made with tahini instead of peanut butter. (Read the label carefully, though: Some tahini includes peanut oil or is processed in plants where nut butters are made.)

McCord uses it as a sandwich spread, and she sends her kids to school with different flavors of hummus and lightly steamed or raw vegetables for dipping, including all colors of bell pepper strips, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes and celery.

“How many kids will eat beets?” she says. “But red beet hummus – it’s vibrant, it’s colorful, it’s pink. I’ve seen both of my kids eat fistfuls of it.”

Do a lot with a little hummus

You don’t have to use hummus only with pita triangles. Use it for:

∎  Deviled eggs, mixed with cooked yolks.

∎ Salad pizza. Spread it on flatbread and bake, then top with fresh greens tossed with oil and vinegar and crumbled feta.

∎ Chicken salad or egg salad, to replace or cut down on the mayonnaise.

∎ A warm dip. Top it with a little butter and pine nuts and bake it.

∎ Pasta salad dressing. Mix a little with oil and vinegar.

The sum of its parts

Traditionally, “hummus” means chickpea, and it is made with olive oil, lemon juice and tahini.

∎ Chickpeas. Called garbanzo beans in Spain and ceci in Italy. You can use canned beans or cook dried beans. For really smooth hummus, skin them: Add 1 teaspoon baking soda to the cooking water for dried beans, or lightly squeeze rinsed canned beans.

∎ Tahini. A paste of ground sesame seeds. Look for it in the supermarket near the peanut butter or on the international aisle. Stir it well to remix the oil (try an immersion blender), then refrigerate it almost indefinitely. If you have any, you can use natural peanut butter or almond butter in many recipes.

TRADITIONAL HUMMUS

If you’re making this for kids, skip or cut down on the garlic and cayenne.

1 (15- to 19-ounce) can chickpeas (see note)

1 to 2 cloves garlic

2½ tablespoons lemon juice (about 1 large or 2 medium lemons)

1 tablespoon tahini

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse and drain chickpeas. If you want a smoother texture, run your fingers through them and remove any skins.

Drop garlic into a food processor with the motor running to chop. Stop processor and add the drained chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, cayenne (if using) and 1/4 cup olive oil. Process until smooth. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed (the canned beans may be salty enough). Process again to combine.

Refrigerate in an airtight container up to a week. To serve as a dip, serve at room temperature topped with a little more olive oil and cayenne pepper.

Note: To use dried chickpeas, rinse 1 pound chickpeas and cover with cold water. Let stand 12 hours or overnight. Drain. Place in a cooking pot with enough water to cover. Add 1 teaspoon salt. (Optional: Add 1 teaspoon baking soda, which will help to remove the skins for smoother hummus.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, 1 to 2 hours. Drain and cool. Cooked beans can be frozen several months.

Yield: About 2 cups.

AVOCADO HUMMUS

From Catherine McCord on Weelicious.com. Avocados makes a silky smooth hummus. It won’t keep as long as other kinds of hummus, but if you cover the surface with olive oil and refrigerate it in an airtight container, it will keep a couple of days before it turns dark.

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 medium ripe avocado, pitted and peeled

1 clove garlic, peeled

2 tablespoons lemon juice

½ teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for covering

1 tablespoon tahini

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and puree until completely smooth. (Stop the processor and scrape down the sides if needed to get all the avocado pureed.)

Scrape into an airtight container and cover with a little olive oil. Refrigerate up to 2 days.

Yield: 4 servings.

BEET HUMMUS

Adapted from Taste of Beirut, by Joumana Accad (HCI, due out next week). Try this, beet haters. The color is vivid and the beet flavor is very mild.

2 large or 3 medium raw beets (about 1½ pounds total)

Zest and juice of a large lemon

Juice of 2 large lemons

2 cloves garlic, sprinkled with salt and mashed in a mortar or with the flat side of a knife

½ cup tahini

Wash the beets, then trim off the leaves, leaving an inch of the stems. Break off the long root if needed, but don’t trim it close. (Beet juice can stain, but leaving the top and bottom intact reduces the problem.) Wrap each beet loosely in aluminum foil, closing the top to hold in the juices, and place on the oven rack. Roast at 400 degrees for about an hour. Open the foil and poke with a knife to make sure each beet is tender.

Cool the beets until you can handle them, then trim away the tops and pull away the thin skins, using a paring knife or vegetable peeler to help it along. Cut into chunks.

Place the beet chunks and the remaining ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth. (You may need to stop the motor and push some of the beet chunks toward the blade with a rubber spatula.)

Note: Accad includes a tablespoon of pomegranate molasses, found in Middle Eastern markets, as an option, but I found it sweet enough without it. While the recipe doesn’t include olive oil, you could add a little if you want it moister.

Yield: About 2 cups.

ROASTED CARROT HUMMUS

From Weelicious Lunches by Catherine McCord.

3 large carrots, peeled and cut in 1-inch pieces

1 clove garlic

2 teaspoons olive oil

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons tahini (or almond or peanut butter)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the carrots and the whole garlic clove on a baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with salt and toss to coat.

Roast for 45 minutes, or until the carrots are fork-tender and starting to caramelize.

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth.

Note: Thin the hummus with olive oil or hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.

Yield: 2 cups.

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