Flatbreads are a mainstay of Levantine tables. These thin breads stale quickly, so leftovers—and dishes designed to use them up—abound. Such recipes are called fatteh, derived from the Arabic word "fatta," meaning “to crumble.” Pita bread salad, or fattoush, is a prime example. The vibrant mix traditionally combines toasted, fried, or day-old bread with ripe tomatoes, cucumber, romaine lettuce, parsley, mint, scallions, and a potent green such as watercress, all simply dressed with fresh lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil.
Some cooks don’t mind (or even prefer) if the pita softens in the vegetable juices and vinaigrette, but I like the bread to have some crunch. My goal: a refreshing, easy-to-make salad boasting plenty of textural contrast.
I jumped right into my salad-making adventure by selecting the vegetables and herbs. Farm-fresh tomatoes and a crisp English cucumber, which we have found to have fewer seeds than the American kind, were mandatory. A handful of chopped scallions was also a given. Although parsley and romaine are traditional, I preferred mint, cilantro, and peppery arugula for their fresh, summery flavors.
For the vinaigrette, I looked to a similar recipe, our Italian Bread Salad (July/August 2011), which is also based on bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Hoping that a similar dressing would work here, I whisked together 3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil, one small clove of minced garlic, and salt and pepper.
On to the pita. Untreated stale bread wasn’t an option since it wasn’t crisp enough to start. Could it be as convenient as tearing open a bag of store-bought pita chips? No. Though they were supercrunchy straight from the bag, commercially made chips are low in fat and so became mushy within minutes of mixing the salad. I would have to make my own.
Forging ahead and following the test kitchen’s recipe for pita chips, I divided two rounds into wedges, lightly spritzed them with vegetable oil spray, and toasted them in a moderate oven. Once the brittle triangles cooled, I broke them into bite-size pieces and tossed them with my vegetables and vinaigrette. This try was a success in that it had the right combination and ratios of ingredients. However, the garlic flavor in the dressing was overwhelming even though I had used only a small clove. What’s more, the pita failed to stay crunchy.
To tame the garlic, I used a tried-and-true test kitchen trick and let it soak in the lemon juice for 10 minutes. The citric acid chemically changed the harsh-tasting allicin in the raw garlic into more mellow flavor compounds.
Perfecting the Pita
As for the pita, one way to keep it crunchy would be to remove moisture from the vegetables. This meant seeding the tomatoes and cucumbers, salting them, and then letting their liquid drain away. But aside from being time-consuming, the trouble with this approach was that as the salt pulled moisture out, it also caused the vegetables’ cell walls to collapse slightly, softening their textures. What’s more, the jelly that surrounds a tomato’s seeds is its tastiest part—it contains three times more flavorful glutamates than the flesh. I was loath to toss it in the garbage.
Perhaps I needed an altogether different approach. Instead of removing moisture from the salad, what if I waterproofed the pita itself? Since oil repels water, my immediate thought was to deep-fry the pita, which would coat it in more oil than simply spritzing it. Sure enough, a batch of deep-fried pita chips retained its crunch even after being tossed with the vegetables and vinaigrette. What little liquid was absorbed flavored the chips and softened them enough to make them pleasantly chewy in spots and more fork-friendly. The drawbacks: The chips had to be fried in batches and in lots of oil—about 2 cups.
I was fairly certain that I could achieve this same effect in the oven if I could determine how much oil the pita absorbed during frying. To find out, I made a couple more batches, carefully measuring the amount of oil I began with and the amount that remained after frying. With a little math, I determined that two pita breads were soaking up about 1/4 cup of oil. I set a rack in a rimmed baking sheet and arranged my pitas (first splitting them into two thin rounds and halving them) on the rack, brushing them with half the oil destined for the dressing. Then I baked the pitas in a 375-degree oven until crisp. Once they were cool, I broke the pitas into rough pieces and added the herbs, vegetables, garlic–lemon juice mixture, and remaining oil. It was a good start: The oil prevented most of the chips from absorbing so much moisture that they turned to mush while still allowing them to pick up flavor from the lemony dressing. But frustratingly, some of the chips were still soggy or oily.
I realized that I’d haphazardly arranged the pitas on the rack, with some smooth side up and others rough side up. The oil was sliding right off the smooth sides of the bread, whereas the craggy rough-side-up chips remained crisp because they had gripped the oil. I prepared another batch, this time making sure to arrange all my pita chips rough side up. I also reduced the oil to 3 tablespoons to eliminate any greasiness. These chips hit the mark: During baking, the oil spread and soaked all the way through the bread, giving the same effect as deep frying. When a colleague raved about the bright flavors and quipped that every last pita piece was “crunchewy,” I knew I had a winner.