I remember the first time I ever tried a chickpea. It was at a steakhouse in Laurel, Mississippi, called Bonanza. The year was 19-something-or-other, you know the one, when DIY salad bars began their meteoric rise in popularity. Of course this first scoop of chickpeas came from a plastic ladle with the words “garbanzo beans” engraved in the handle. They were somewhere in the neighborhood of grated carrots and cottage cheese, right next to the Boulevard of Thousand Island and Hidden Valley Ranch.

I recall being intrigued by the little round peas my mom had never prepared at home, and thought how exotic they must be. Round, firm and in need of salt, the chickpea, no matter what you called it, became a thing I embraced whenever I got the chance.

Cut to the ‘90s. This is the point when this micro-obsession had fuel added to its fire, when hummus became the hip thing to serve in restaurants. America went through a bit of a pita explosion as the chickpea found its way into a creamy dip at every corner. Yes, I jumped on that bandwagon, but the good news is I never got off it.

I began making my own after a couple brought their impressive version to a party. I had hits and misses in the beginning as I am often prone to experimenting with recipes, but I got better after ruining a few plastic spatulas in my countertop device while the puree setting was fully engaged (Pro tip: Always wait until the blade ceases to spin before inserting any utensils. Watching guests dig plastic bits out of your dip is embarrassing.)

A recent trip to the Jewish restaurant Shaya in New Orleans rekindled my love for hummus and the incredible chickpea, as they dish out the best I’ve ever tasted. The menu is full of Israeli fare, some recognizable and some new to me, but the waitress kept pushing the hummus.

Out of five choices we settled on a lamb ragú that blew us away. The lamb had a bit of a chili flavor above the creamy hummus, but what put it over the top was a handful of crispy deep-fried chickpeas. The combination was incredible.

So that got me thinking about hummus and its simplicity, which lends itself to diverse additions for anything from chic restaurant menus to backyard barbecue sessions. We see roasted red pepper, garlic or olive tapenade at our average grocery stores but if we start with a good base, the sky is the limit for variations on a theme.

The base model for hummus includes chickpeas, olive oil, tahini and most commonly, lemon juice. The peas, of course, should be cooked and cooled or straight out of a can. The question is whether or not you should pinch the skins off of each individual pea. I normally don’t have the patience for such things but have found the pesky skins too coarse for my taste. On the other hand, I have made hummus that was great with the skins. I guess it’s all in the execution.

Tahini is what gives hummus the creamy texture in addition to high-quality oil. If you aren’t sure what tahini is, the short answer is paste made from sesame seeds, usually roasted. Think of it as peanut butter but from sesame seeds as opposed to peanuts. I’ve heard of others using random nut butters but cannot vouch for them myself. I’m not afraid of tossing in a little Jif if there is no tahini to be found, I just haven’t done it yet. Usually a can of peas would warrant a tablespoon or two of tahini.

Aside from a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, just as much lemon juice and perhaps a clove of garlic, your standard hummus is only a food processor or blender away from completion. Now is your chance to spice it up.

Cool snacks on warm summer days are a delight. Some additions to hummus, such as butternut squash, should be cooked and cooled before hitting the blender. Roasted beets will change the color of your hummus to a deep red while imparting a smart flavor. Adding black beans in a straight-up one-to-one ratio to the chickpeas yields a Mexican flavor, especially with a little chili powder and a healthy dose of cumin.

Don’t think of it as blasphemy but I’ve heard of replacing the chickpea altogether for an Asian-style hummus made from edamame and miso.  

When I think of hummus I think of it as a dish best served cold (or at least lukewarm), but I’m no purist. Hot hummus can be a replacement for spinach and artichoke dip, with the spinach thinly sliced and the hummus baked with white cheddar. Roasted tomatoes and feta go great in these casserole versions of hummus, but don’t forget the garlic.

Pita triangles usually are the preferred means of delivery. There are several brands of pita chips on the market. I personally prefer a good, sturdy vegetable as a dipping device, such as carrot sticks and celery. Plain old potato chips and kettle-cooked Zapp’s are also fantastic.

I’d love to hear your hummus stories. Email them to me. I’d love to hear variations. I wish someone would come up with a great dessert hummus! Peanut butter, chocolate and the almighty chickpea!