Pita Pockets. The nomad's staff of life has become a staple for today's `grazers'

PITA or Middle Eastern bread has overflowed the ovens of its origins into supermarkets everywhere. The flat, slightly puffy circle with a pocket in the middle goes way back to the earliest days of bread baking. In spite of the easy, fast-rising yeasts available for speedy breadmaking today, the fundamental way of making many unleavened breads has not changed.

Although its pocket shape is a big attraction, this bread, which has been widely available in the United States for 10 years or so, can also be split, wrapped, dipped, and topped - as well as stuffed with a limitless variety of food, even some with thick sauces or gravy. It has become the cornucopia for snackers and creative grazers.

Pita can be used to scoop up hot or cold foods such as chili con carne, chicken or tuna salad, sprouts, shrimp, scallops, vegetables, as well as barbecued chicken, curries, and other meats such as shish kebab. It's great for picnics and barbecues, and because it's thin, it can be buttered, cut into strips, baked in a slow oven to get quite crisp, then served like Melba toast with soups, salads, or other dishes.

``It was not always used this way,'' said Virginia Habeeb, author of ``Pita the Great'' (Workman, $6.95), in a recent interview. ``This is a very ancient food that goes way back in time when it was the basic food of a simple nomadic diet.

``This kind of bread originated with Bedouins in the desert who would mix powdered grain and water into a flat cake of pita and cook it at campfire at end of day. They would eat it with the milk in their goatskin bags that had turned into a thick curd, like yogurt.

``Yogurt and pita come to us from the very cradle of our civilization,'' Habeeb explained. ``This is real Bible food. Most Americans are first acquainted with the Middle Eastern bread that looks like a small flying saucer, when they use it as something in which to put shish kebab, the spicy lamb cooked on a skewer,'' she said.

But now, an egg or tuna salad sandwich to go, in pita bread, is common at shops all across the US. Although there are dozens of different filling combinations, Habeeb says there are other foods that have the same heritage and that are often eaten together today.

``Pita, yogurt, legumes such as chick peas - these are probably the original health foods.''

Found in supermarkets as well as delis and trendy take-out shops, these foods are also sold in dishes such as tabouleh, falafel, huumus, and baba ghanouge.

Habeeb says pita bread has hundreds of names, depending on the country, or the region of origin, or the recipe itself and the way it's handled and baked.

In Greece, it's called pita - but it doesn't usually have a pocket. It is pide in Turkey, kemaj in Lebanon, aysh in Egypt, khubiz in Syria and Morocco, and kesra in Algeria. But no matter what it's called, the bread is basically the same, although some varieties are flat, some puff or don't puff up, and there may or may not be a pocket.

In America we've adopted the name pita, and our bread is a lightly leavened round loaf, about five to nine inches across, with a soft crust and a hollow center. Usually made without shortening or milk, it is baked in a very hot oven for a few minutes. It's fun to make - especially if you have a glass door in your oven. It puffs up quickly like a white balloon as it bakes, then falls flat when it comes out of the oven. But that's what makes the famous pocket.

``When making pita bread at home, there are a few secrets to getting the dough to puff up. For some people, it takes a little practice to get the technique,'' says Habeeb. ``But supermarkets all over the country carry ready-made pita since it is really a convenience food.''

``There are some things to watch for when shopping for pita,'' she suggests. ``First, feel it. It should be soft, not hard. And it's very important to check the late sale date. Don't buy it if the date is running out. There are some wonderful bakeries making pita, but if they don't put a date on it, it goes stale, and even moldy, in the fridge.

``Buy it fresh. Keep it refrigerated and notice the [expiration] date,'' she advises.

The goal for all home cooks, when attempting to bake pita bread, is light, chewy pitas with drip-free pockets. Habeeb's book includes directions to help achieve this goal, along with familiar and exotic combinations of fillings. Basic Pita 2 cups warm water (90 to 110 degrees F.) 2 envelopes (1/4 oz. each) active dry yeast 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 teaspoons sugar 2 teaspoons salt 5 to 51/2 cups unbleached flour, plus extra flour

Pour water into large bowl; sprinkle with yeast. Stir to dissolve.

With wooden spoon, stir sugar and salt into yeast; mix thoroughly. Gradually add 5 cups flour, stirring constantly until smooth. Slowly work in remaining flour (up to 1/2 cup) with hands, kneading until dough is no longer sticky. Turn out onto well-floured board. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.

Shape dough into rectangle and cut in half lengthwise. Divide into 24 portions for small pitas; 12 for large. Shape each into smooth ball. Place on floured surface and cover with damp towels while rolling out 1 ball at a time.

Gently press each flat with fingers, keeping well rounded. With floured surface and rolling pin, roll out each round from center to outer edge, giving dough 1/4 turn after each roll, to form perfect circle not quite 1/4-inch thick (about 5- to 5-1/2-inch diameter for small; 8-1/2 for large). Carefully flip circles over to smooth out any creases that prevent pocket forming.

Fifteen minutes before rising is finished, preheat oven to 500 degrees F. and place ungreased baking sheet in oven.

Carefully place each loaf on floured surface and cover with clean, dry towel; do not let loaf surfaces dry out. Let rise in warm, draft-free area, 30 to 35 minutes.

To bake, place 4 small pitas or 1 large on hot baking sheet. Bake on bottom rack until puffed and lightly browned on top, about 4 minutes for small pitas and 3-1/2 minutes for large; pita will be soft and flexible.

If desired, flip loaves after they puff and bake up to 1 minute longer to brown tops. Don't let them get crisp and brittle. Remove from oven and wrap immediately in dry towels until cool enough to handle.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Repeat until all are baked. Makes 24 small or 12 large pitas.

Variation: Poppy-Seed or Sesame Pita: After rolling out each circle of dough, brush tops lightly with water and sprinkle with poppy seeds or toasted sesame seeds. Let loaves rise and bake as above.

The addition of tahini and yogurt give this chicken salad an added piquant flavor. Chicken Salad Sesame 3 cups cooked diced chicken 1 cup diced celery 1 cup seedless green grapes, halved 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts 1/3 cup mayonnaise 1/4 cup yogurt, preferably homemade 2 tablespoons Tahini (sesame seed paste) Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste Small sesame or plain pitas Romaine lettuce leaves Toasted sesame seeds, garnish Additional grape halves, garnish

Combine chicken, celery, grapes, and pine nuts in a large bowl.

Whisk together mayonnaise, yogurt, tahini, salt, and pepper in small bowl.

Fold dressing into chicken salad and toss gently to coat. Taste to correct seasonings. Refrigerate, covered, to chill.

Line pitas with lettuce leaves and fill with chicken salad. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and additional grape halves.

Makes about 51/2 cups.

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