Let’s face it. Vegetarians eat a lot of hummus.

It’s the plant-based option of choice at sandwich shops and house parties. Hummus pops up at supermarkets, farmers markets and sports stadiums. Convenience stores even sell it in single-serve packages.

Yet, too often this traditional Middle Eastern chickpea spread is unremarkable and forgettable.

As far as I can tell, much of the blame for ho-hum hummus comes from the fact that too little of it is made from scratch and too much of it is trucked in from out-of-state food processing plants.

At its most basic, hummus is a blend of cooked chickpeas, tahini (sesame seed paste), lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and spices. But hummus makers have long tinkered with the ingredient list. Recently U.S. hummus giant Sabra filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration asking it to define hummus as spread made with chickpeas and tahini. It’s a move intended to force competitors to switch to something other than the hummus moniker for dips made with such non-traditional legumes as black beans, edamame or lentils.

Lawsuit aside, I’ve discovered Maine chefs experimenting with this versatile dish and achieving surprising results.

“Hummus is ubiquitous. You find it everywhere,” said chef and baker Stephen Lanzalotta. “But it’s almost always the same everywhere.”

But not at Slab, the restaurant Lanzalotta and a group of partners opened in June in the former Portland Public Market building in downtown Portland. There, hummus tops the menu and is carefully crafted in a multi-step process that involves making both a more traditional, smooth, lemony hummus and a chunky, spicy, chickpea hummus and then combining the two.

Like all the dishes on Slab’s vegetarian- and vegan-friendly menu, the hummus (or rather the ceci alla sicilia) is inspired by Sicilian street food.

Lanzalotta said his goal is to take familiar foods and deepen and enhance their flavors.

“I want to expand people’s mind about what Italian cuisine can be,” said Lanzalotta.

At the long-running Camden Bagel Cafe in its namesake village, new chef/owner Mark Senders is also upgrading the hummus. The process began when he discovered he’d have to reinvent the establishment’s hummus recipe after he bought the business this past spring.

“I couldn’t find a recipe for the hummus anywhere,” said Senders, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute and most recently worked at Shepherd’s Pie in Rockport.

The birth of his first child a year and a half ago prompted him to move from fine dining – where late nights and long hours make parenting difficult– into the more relaxed world of breakfast and lunch.

His only clue to the cafe’s previous hummus recipe came from the canned chickpeas he found on the shelf. He donated the beans to a local food pantry and got to work creating a recipe.

These days, Senders soaks dry chickpeas with garlic and spices before cooking the beans in the soaking water. He sweats a classic French mirepoix of onions, carrots and celery and mixes it with the beans and tahini.

Senders further seasons his hummus with herbs de Provence and orange juice.

“I try to make our hummus kind of thick,” Senders said. “Because we’re putting it on bagels.”

The hummus at Slab is also thick (billed as “rustic” on the menu) and flavored with an unusual seasoning combination, featuring whole smashed oranges (including the rinds) and sage fried with cinnamon and turmeric.

Lanzalotta roasts sesame seeds so he can make his own tahini.

“We try to do everything the old way,” Lanzalotta said.

Senders said it’s worth the extra effort to make hummus from scratch because “it’s a popular item” and pairs well with the cafe’s bagels.

At Slab, Lanzalotta said featuring chickpeas on the menu was a must, since the beans are “an essential Sicilian food.”

Whatever their reasons, when chefs take the simple chickpea seriously, their efforts can yield unforgettable results. We vegetarians thank you from the bottom of our hummus-soaked hearts – and bellies.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer, who lives in Portland. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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