Za’atar is the granola of the spice family. (Photo: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight)
Try defining the word “tasty.” Can you do it objectively? Even word arbiters have trouble being impartial — one of the Merriam-Webster entries defines tasty as “having a good flavor.”
Good according to whom?
When it comes to matters of the palate, there is no boss of you. There’s no right or wrong answer, and my “tasty” may be worlds apart from yours (especially if it involves a half-inch of jarred mayonnaise in between two pieces of white toast). Who am I to judge if white goop makes your world spin? As my father — who passed more than 30 years ago — used to say, “That’s why there’s vanilla and chocolate, Kimberly.”
Tasty is the truth — as you know it — Ruth, and no matter how much our respective versions of the truth may vary, we all are in its pursuit. A life without tasty seems like a life half-baked, after all.
To that end, and because I spend most of my waking hours in the pursuit of flavor, I will be sharing some of my favorite tasty bits in this space on a regular basis. It might be a full recipe, or recipe-lette, as well as random thoughts on spending more time in the kitchen, which I think would make the world a better — and so much tastier — place.
So you want TASTY?
You gotta meet my girl, za’atar.
Hailing from the Middle East centuries ago, za’atar (say ZAH-TAR) is a spice and seed blend that is both citrusy and earthy. Although it varies by country and cuisine, za’atar (which has many spellings including zatar) traditionally includes sesame seeds, salt and sumac, along with any number of herbs. Sumac is a plant in the cashew family which produces a gorgeous, deep red berry, that when dried and ground transforms into a magic-carpet shade of cabernet (or maybe claret). The flavor by itself is tangy in a lemony sort of way, but fruity, too — like an early strawberry. As intriguing as it is as a stand-alone main attraction, sumac is tastiest when mixed with other seasonings, playing off the richness of the sesame seeds and mellowing out the intensity of dried thyme or oregano.
You don’t have to book a cross-continental flight to get your hands on za’atar, or sumac for that matter. Check mainstream spice sources such as Penzeys, the bulk section of your supermarket or Middle Eastern (or Mediterranean) markets. You can buy packaged za’atar, but the tasty option is to make some of your own. You’ll need a whopping eight minutes to make a batch. I really like the version from cookbook author Joe Yonan, who goes heavy on the sumac and throws cumin into the mix.
(from Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook by Joe Yonan)
Makes about 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/4 cup sumac
2 tablespoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
1. Toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat, until lightly browned, just a few minutes.
2. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool (otherwise they’ll burn in the pan, even off heat).
3. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine. Store in a small jar or airtight container in a cool dark place for up to six months.
So you’ve got the za’atar … NOW WHAT?
This is when it gets fun! Check out some yummy foods that are perfect for this delicious add-on.
Drizzle olive oil, followed by a teaspoon of za’atar. Toss, taste and add more as you see fit.
Take 2 cups flat-leaf parsley, 1 cup mint leaves, 1/2 cup cilantro leaves — all washed and dried — and place in a bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of za’atar, and stir to mix. Taste. Eat by its lonesome, with a handful of cherry tomatoes, chopped cucumber or a cup of cooked brown lentils.
Start with a little olive oil in the pot and add a teaspoon of za’atar to toast up. Then add rice, liquid and cook as you might otherwise. Before serving, add an additional teaspoon of za’atar (and maybe some chopped parsley) for extra TASTY-ness.
Roasted veggies love a finishing coat of za’atar, particularly potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, carrots and winter squash. Roast as you like until vegetables are fork tender, then transfer to a serving dish and season with za’atar. Start with one teaspoon, adding more as you see fit.
Manakeesh Bi Za’atar (a.k.a. Flatbread)
This is a Middle Eastern staple, which is often rolled up and served for breakfast. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to make the dough (we can do that another time); instead, use your favorite store-bought pita bread, lather it up with olive oil and a thick, icing-like layer of za’atar, then toast. Heaven on earth.
Instead of the same ole seasonings, za’atar-ify your next roast chicken or salmon filets. (And if roast chicken is on your wish list, we can cover that in a future column.)
Keep the spirit of TASTY alive!