Vibrant, striking and somewhat unexpected, this festive mezze favorite of raw pumpkins, sweet pomegranates, sharp shanklish and creamy labaneh is a show stopper on any table.
There is something particularly captivating about this dish, even though it consists of three simple components laid out on a white plate. Glossy, orange and purple pumpkin and pomegranate dagga. A speckled ball of shanklish and labaneh. Slices of sourdough bread, beautifully browned and wafting with the sweet aroma of garlic.
Eating this dish at the restaurant is a sensual and interactive experience.The ribbon tying all of the parts together is the spoon. Pressed into the shanklish ball right before serving and filled up with olive oil. The spoon is an invitation and a bridge, connecting our cooks with our diners. The last thing we lay down on the plate and the first thing you touch at your table. A baton as we pass along the unvarnished pleasure of these local ingredients, the results of countless hours of labor from our dedicated producers.
I remember walking through the restaurant the first week this went on our menu and seeing it on every table. Pretty soon, there was seldom an order printed in our kitchen that didn’t say pumpkin shanklish.
We started tinkering with this concept because we needed something that worked well for happy hour. Sort of like a cheese platter, but not, and with more focused intention. We mixed shanklish with hard labaneh to mellow out some of its assertive flavor and to make it more spreadable. We served a cousin of this dish a few months earlier with a variety of local cherry tomatoes, capers and fresh dill. But cherry tomatoes were no longer in season and we found ourselves stuck. Nothing we had tried so far really hit the mark.
We were experimenting with pumpkin for another dish, a sort of layered pumpkin kubbeh where every component including the kubbeh dough, stuffing and sauce would highlight the taste of this seldom used ingredient in a different way. In a flash of inspiration, Sara, our sous chef, quickly prepared a simple dagga using raw pumpkin to top the kubbeh off.
During our tasting, this preparation stole the show. Fresh and bright, the mellow nutty taste of raw pumpkin works surprisingly well with the aroma of coriander, acidity of lemon, spice of chili and sharp sweetness of onion. Amidst all the excitement, Gabi, our head chef at the time, suggested we try the raw pumpkin mixture with the shanklish. At some point, we threw in a handful of pomegranate seeds into the dagga and the rest is history. The kubbeh never made it on the menu and this version of the shanklish quickly became one of our best sellers.
In fact, this dish is a much clearer reflection of the ethos behind our cooking than the kubbeh ever was. Use well sourced, quality ingredients and show them off proudly with as little intervention as possible. Don’t over indulge in techniques that don’t serve a purpose you can identify. Strip things down and remember that less is always more and simpler is always better. Presentation is paramount but the dish should always taste better than it looks.
If you’re not too confident with a knife, the idea of breaking down a pumpkin into ½ cm cubes may seem intimidating at first. Don’t fret. Use a sharp knife and a large chopping board. Get a good comfortable grip on your knife and stand far enough from the counter so that you have ample space to manoeuvre. Always make sure that whatever you're cutting is stable on your board. Keep your thumbs tucked away on both hands to avoid any accidents. Arrange the fingers of your helping hand in a claw, with your fingertips tucked away from the blade and guide your knife with the knuckles of your helping hand.
Depending on the size of your pumpkin, you’ll need anywhere from half to an eighth of a pumpkin to prepare this recipe. Start by carefully cutting the whole pumpkin in half, set one half aside to use later. With the cut side down, chop the half into quarters. Use a spoon to scoop out all the seeds and clean out any fibrous lining in the core of the piece you’re using. Now cut the quarters into eighths. Use a peeler to peel off the skin. Cut the pumpkin wedges into planks about ½ a cm thick. Stack about 3 planks at a time and cut into matchsticks. Arrange the matchsticks into small bunches and chop into cubes. Go slowly, play some music and enjoy the process. It’s quite fulfilling once you embrace the challenge.
That’s the bulk of the work in this recipe, the rest is dead simple. The ratio of shanklish to labaneh should be adjusted to your liking. If you’re fond of shanklish add more, or up the labaneh to tone it down. If you’re sensitive to raw garlic and onion, you can omit the garlic completely and cut the amount of onion in half. You can also soak the chopped onion in ice water for a few minutes to mellow it down, just make sure to dry it thoroughly with a paper towel before using. Focus on nailing the seasoning in every layer of this dish. Taste repeatedly and don’t be shy to adjust as you see fit.
We’ve simplified the plating in this recipe to better suit the home cook. If you’d like to replicate the plating at our restaurant, form the shanklish mixture into a ball and instead of spreading it out, place it on one side of your serving plate. Fan out the toasted bread alongside and spoon the pumpkin dagga into the vacant space on the plate. Gently press a spoon into the ball of shanklish and fill it with olive oil.
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