Tomatoes are full of lycopene, the cancer-busting carotenoid responsible for the reddish colorations in vegetables and fruits. Red peppers are packed with phytochemicals and beta-carotene, which flood your system with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Meet a delicious concoction that combines both in an ancient Middle Eastern recipe with decidedly modern health benefits.
Science says the sense of smell is the most potent conjurer of long-ago memories. I say that taste runs a close second. A recent dinner with a great friend in Jaffa hurled me back to a Manhattan apartment circa 1982 and a dish whipped up by the exotic Moroccan boyfriend of my then-best pal. It sent me on a week-long hunt to replicate it.
I recall how Laurent speared plump red peppers on a tin fork and roasted them above the flame on my ancient gas stovetop. He chucked them into a brown paper bag (plastic had yet to infect 1980’s NYC) and the peppers steamed inside, loosening their charred skins. He chopped the peppers, adding tomatoes, onions, and garlic, explaining in swoonable French-accented English that this was exactly how his ancient grandma did it.
(I now live in Amman, Jordan where our only bags are plastic, so I recruited some manila envelopes to stand in for brown paper bags.)
That ’80s meal consisted of his deep red relish, smeared on Italian bread, washed down with many bottles of wine. Undoubtedly, a Rolling Stones record spun in the background. I suspect Goat’s Head Soup.
Back to the future in 2016 Jaffa, Karin laid out an incredible spread of Levantine dishes, including one standout that she called a Turkish Salad. A mushy confit of tomatoes, onions, and red peppers served up cool on a warm summer night. The vibrant tastes triggered a taste bud explosion. She waved off our raves saying she picked it up at a local shop. A week on, I am still jonesing for that flavor. So the internet hunt began.
Google’s result for “Turkish Salad” brought up the how-to’s for what looked like a basic chopped salad. I love me a vinegary medley of minced cukes, onions, and tomatoes, but this was not the Turkish Salad I was searching for. Sweet tomato Turkish Jam (recipe here) was also off the mark.
Digging deeper, I hit the jackpot, finding two different recipes for the ruby red dish. Seems the term “Turkish Salad” is specific to a condiment (סלט טורקי) commonly served up in Israeli restaurants. It’s typically presented as part of a trio, served side by side with humus and tahini. Like Italian marinara, and Indian curry, there seem as many versions of Israeli Turkish Salad as there are people who make it.
So I set out to experiment on my own, using slight variations on two different recipes, just to see which would send my taste buds into delicious reverie. Here are two ways (of many) to make Matbucha, or Turkish Salad, a Sephardic savory jam.
Version #1 – Deep red tomatoes are kicked up by piquant spices and a hit of harissa (hot chili pepper paste). Pulse the mixture in a blender if you prefer a less chunky sauce.
- 3 small onions, roughly chopped
- 8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 4 large tomatoes chopped into 1/2″ pieces
- 1/2 red bell pepper finely chopped
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
- 1 tbsp harissa
Heat oil on medium flame. Add onion, garlic, and red bell pepper. Sauté about 5 minutes or until onion becomes translucent. Add tomatoes, harissa, and all spices. Sauté about 5 minutes, stir occasionally. Turn off the flame, add parsley and cilantro, mix well and allow it to cool down. Serve at room temperature, or cold.
Version #2 – Much more work, but a fantastic result. Smear it on bread or pita, eat it plain, or accompanying omelets, chicken, grilled meat, or fish.
- 6 red bell peppers
- 6 large ripe tomatoes
- 6 cloves of garlic
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- ½ teaspoon coriander
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Char the peppers over a grill, or spear them on a fork and carefully roast over a stove top flame. Place blackened peppers in a paper bag, close the bag to allow them to steam. Boil water in a large saucepan (sized to fit 6 tomatoes). Cut a small X in the bottom of each tomato. When the water boils, place tomatoes in the pot for 2 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the boiling water and set aside.
Once cooled, remove the peppers from the paper bag and discard all stems. Peel off the charred pepper skins. (Skip the temptation to scrub them under water, as washed peppers will lose a lot of their flavor.) Slice them open, and remove white membranes and seeds. Dice the peppers with a sharp knife.
Peel the blanched tomatoes, starting at the bottom X cuts. Cut the tomatoes in half and scrape out the seeds. Remove the green stems too. Dice the remaining tomato pulp to a similar size as the peppers.
Mince the garlic. Add olive oil to a large non-stick sauté pan. Cook the garlic, peppers, and tomatoes – stirring constantly – on high heat. When the mix begins to bubble, turn the heat down to medium. Season with salt and all spices. Let the tomatoes and peppers cook down to the consistency of a spread, stirring occasionally to avoid burning as the liquid evaporates. As with Version #1, allow the matbucha cool.
End note: Serve it up as a sandwich spread, a dip for bread or veggies, or as a brilliant topping for pasta, fish, or chicken. Store leftovers in the refrigerator in a non-reactive glass jar. It also freezes with good results.
Which version do you prefer? And – as importantly – what music do you like to eat it to?