Dukkah is your Party in a Dish

Pour a glass of wine. Chunk up some crusty, artisan bread. Glug some really fruity olive oil into a saucer. Sprinkle some dukkah into a dish.

Sprinkle some what??? Dukkah. A savory melange of roasted and finely chopped hazelnuts, sesame seeds and heavenly spices. When set out alongside that lovely olive oil and a platter of chunky, crusty bread, you've got about as instant an appetizer as you can hope for.

I call it Party in a Dish. But it's also a great instant seasoner of sauteed vegetables, roasted cauliflower, slices of heirloom tomatoes and grilled steaks.

It's very ancient — as in, the Egyptians were making it long, long ago. And the fact that folks still are making it means it's also very good. In North Africa, street vendors sell a flavorful sidewalk snack of dukkah spooned into small, paper cones, along with pita bread dipped in oil that you dip into the dukkah. Of course, all vendors tout their own special blends, but a classic mixture includes sesame seeds, hazelnuts, dried chickpeas, coriander and cumin seeds, black pepper and thyme.

I was introduced to dukkah a few years ago during the research phase of my latest cookbook, "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit." Happily, I discovered that this international treat was being made right here in Oregon by Donna Dockins, a Portland-area entrepreneur and private chef who's fond of working with seasonal, regional and flavorful dishes — particularly if they come with an ethnic twist.

She'd learned of dukkah through a friend who lives in New Zealand, where dukkah has been around so long it's practically old hat. It immediately struck a chord with Dockins. After all, the main ingredient was hazelnuts. And here she was living in the middle of hazelnut country. The idea of building a business around such a healthy and sustainable product made perfect sense.

Dockins started packaging her Oregon Dukkah blends in 2005. Initially, she developed four flavors: zesty, traditional, coconut and sweet. "Smoky Hot" was added a couple of years later.

Gearing up for such an endeavor was a challenge. No one else was producing dukkah in the United States, so she had to figure out all on her own how to do it on a commercial level. Hazelnuts, sesame seeds and spices all needed to be roasted in bulk quantities. There were places where she could take her hazelnuts for roasting, but those places didn't want to deal with the smaller seeds and spices.

So Dockins ended up roasting her own mixtures with a barrel roaster, similar to a coffee roaster. As her company has grown, she's evolved her production practices and now uses a completely different (read: top-secret) process. Her dukkah blends are available in specialty-food shops and online (www.vibrantflavors.com).

But because it's a straightforward process for the home cook — toast the hazelnuts, seeds and seasonings, chop them up, then combine and store — you should consider making it yourself. It's such a simple and delicious approach to entertaining.

Dukkah also is a great addition to breadcrumb-coating mixtures, stirred into couscous or poultry stuffing, as a coating for cheese balls or cream cheese or fish (before grilling). Mix with fresh herbs and lemon juice and oil to form a coating for meat or fish before cooking.

Here's a basic recipe with plenty of adaptations.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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