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8/07/2008

Za'atar, Both a Spice Blend and a Plant

One of the important seasonings of the world, and one which is almost unknown in the West, is za’atar. Za’atar is both a plant, (Origanum maru), and a spice blend known by the same name and used in Middle Eastern foods. It’s used as both a condiment and a cooking ingredient in Armenia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. It is often eaten for breakfast with a yogurt cheese and bread in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria and is used in hummus, dips, soups and mixed with olive oil for dipping flatbread. The Lebanese believe za’atar gives strength and clears the mind, therefore before leaving home on testing days, school children are encouraged to eat a piece of flatbread spread with a mixture of za'atar and olive oil.

The recipe for za’atar spice blend varies with the region you’re visiting and is usually prepared using ground dried thyme, the za’atar oregano and marjoram then mixed with toasted sesame seeds and salt. Recipes from some areas include the addition of winter savory, cumin and coriander and sometimes fennel seed. A Lebanese version of Za'atar contains sumac berries, and has a distinctive dark red color and this one is my favorite.

The plant za’atar is a pungent tasting oregano with gray-green leaves and native to the Middle East. It grows to about 24 inches tall, although mine after two years of growing barely reached 12 inches. It’s easily winter hardy as far north as Zone 6, and probably hardy beyond that. It spreads from the roots although slower than many of the other Origanum varieties. Grow it just as you would any other oregano or marjoram, in full sun, with well drained soil and lightly mulched to keep out weeds. I grow mine in a raised bed between the rosemary and the Mexican oregano.

Sumac, virtually the same one we find growing wild in the Ozarks is a common ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes. Ours, Rhus glabra, grows from southern Canada all the way southward into Texas and across much of the middle part of the U.S. The red berries are easy to identify and can be gathered from late summer to frost, dried and stored for use later. (This is not poison sumac, which is Rhus vernix and found growing in swamps and has white berries. They are different plants. The culinary sumac has red berries and grows along roadsides, fence rows and the edges of well drained fields).


Sumac berries, besides being used in cooking Middle Eastern dishes, make an excellent “lemonade” by boiling the berries after removing them from the stems, straining then sweetening with honey or sugar. I add cracked coriander and apple juice to the sumac berry tea and use it as a refreshing beverage for party get togethers in the fall.
Sumac, by the way, is correctly pronounced, “shu-mack.” A member in the audience once when Mark Twain was lecturing and had mentioned sumac berries, asked Twain, knowing he was a careful wordsmith, if it was proper to pronounce the word, “shu-mack” since it was spelled with an “s-u,” and were there other words in the English language where that rule applied.
“I’m not sure” he replied, and the audience laughed at his quick wit.
To make your own za’atar mixture for winter use, here’s a simple recipe, similar to the one used in Lebanon and Syria. Store it in a jar in the refrigerator, or freeze it. Then to use, mix a tablespoon of za’atar with 2 tablespoons of good olive oil in a dish and serve with warm flat bread, dipping pieces of the bread into the mixture.

You can also make za’atar chicken in the oven if you would like to taste a dish cooked with the spice.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Spread cut up chicken pieces in a baking dish. Add the freshly squeezed juice of a lemon over the chicken, then pour 3 tablespoons of olive oil over and 1 tablespoon, or more, za’atar, mixing the chicken pieces in the pan to coat all sides with the ingredients. Add 2 or 3 whole garlic cloves and bake the chicken until done, about 40 minutes.

Za’atar Mixture #1

2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, freshly toasted*
2 teaspoons ground sumac**
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

**It’s important to make sure the sumac seeds are dried first as it will make the grinding easier. Grind the seeds completely to a powder in a blender. Then add the minced thyme leaves and toasted sesame seeds and salt. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator. (If using dried thyme leaves you won’t need to store the mixture in the refrigerator, just use 1 tablespoon dried as a substitute for the 2 tablespoons of fresh. However fresh tastes better).

*About using sesame seeds: you can buy toasted sesame seeds in many international markets but you will have a better tasting spice blend if you toast the sesame seeds yourself. Generally the already toasted ones taste a bit rancid, having been on the shelf for awhile.
To toast sesame seeds, start with a small skillet and heat it, without oil. Add the seeds and shake or stir the seeds so they don’t burn, but moving them around until they are toasted well. Cool completely before adding to the remaining ingredients.

Since we grow our own za’atar we use that, but you can substitute any favorite dried oregano in the following recipe.

Za’atar Mixture #2

4 tablespoons dried za’atar or oregano leaves
4 tablespoons sesame seeds, freshly toasted
2 tablespoons ground sumac
1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
2 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt

Combine ingredients in a blender and pulse blend until everything is a coarse powder (be sure to grind the sumac berries completely to a powder first). Mix well and store in airtight container in the pantry.