Tuesday, March 2, 2010

0 Recipe #80: My Favorite Za'atar Spice Mix

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Za'atar (زعتر)‎, (also sometimes spelled zaatar, za'tar, zatar, zatr, zahatar, or satar), is both an herb and a Middle Eastern spice mixture used as a topping for unleavened bread, hummus, and labneh, or as a seasoning for vegetables and meats. In the latter instance, versions of this spice mix widely vary according to region and family tradition, but thyme is usually a common ingredient in most variations.

It has a clean, sharp flavor that lingers on the tongue, and its texture has a slight crunch to it. Za'atar is most commonly combined with olive oil, which helps to release the full flavor of this spice. It is incredibly delicious and easy to make.

Not only does za'atar taste good but it's also good for you as well; it contains high levels of anti-oxidants. Many Middle Easterners also believe that it increases alertness and bolsters the immunity system. In many of these countries, parents encourage their children to eat za'atar sandwiches before an exam; it's also a common breakfast in the region.

I first encountered za'atar on a childhood trip to the Middle East. I remember walking down a cobblestone street and passing through an open-air market, where vendors were selling it.  It smelled wonderful!  There were heaps of the stuff spread onto nothing more than blankets. Come to think of it, I can also remember some fellow travelers (from our tour bus!) commenting in hushed tones about the potentially unhygienic nature of spices being sold at ground level. ;)  Of course, teenagers aren't as easily fazed by such warnings.  I was still curious to try it, and so, asked a vendor, who gave me a sample. :)  It was delicious!  After that experience, I was hooked. :) During our trip, I just couldn't get enough of the stuff, and eagerly sought it out at practically every opportunity I got  -- at restaurants, cafés, etc.

For several years afterward, I searched everywhere for za'atar recipes and/or stores that sold the spice mixture, but none could be found.  Please note that this was way before the advent of the internet, and where I was living at the time wasn't exactly the hub of ethnic diversity. :) It's not like I could just ask a neighbor or buy a Middle Eastern cookbook at the local bookstore. ;)

At any rate, it wasn't until I moved to the DC area that I was able to find a store that sold the spice.  At first, I bought the stuff in boat loads, trying different varieties -- Lebanese green za'atar, Syrian za'atar, etc.  I finally hit the jackpot when one of the spice jars I bought actually listed the ingredients in its packaging.  Hallelujah! At long last! And that's how I was finally able to discover the specific ingredients. It felt like I'd won the lottery. :)

Over the years, I've tried experimenting with different combinations, with varying levels of success.  Below is my favorite of all of the spice combinations I've created.  Enjoy!

My Favorite Za'atar Spice Mix

1 part ground sumac (dried, ground sumac berries)
1 part thyme leaves, fresh or dried
1 part (Turkish or Greek) oregano leaves
1 part white sesame seeds
salt to taste

Directions: Mix together. That's it. :) If you're making a large amount, place mixture in an airtight glass jar & store in a darkened cupboard.  I've found this method to be the most effective for preserving the freshness & flavor of spices, especially if you're not going to be using them within the week.

Yield: Makes as much or as little as you want. ;)

Optional Ingredients: You can also try different versions, adding spices like basil, savory, marjoram, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, caraway seeds, &/or red chili flakes. I've also seen a version using ground pistachios.

Serving Suggestions: My favorite way to serve it, is to mix it with a small amount of olive oil, place it atop of pita bread, & bake until crispy. This is called manaeesh (مناقيش‎;) bi za'atar [maa-na-aysh bil zaa-ta]. After it's cooked, it's also referred to as fatayer (فطاير) bi za'atar [fat'-tay-yerr bil zaa-ta]. Manaeesh also tastes fabulous with a few cubes of feta cheese, which gives it a wonderful consistency.  Of course, it tastes best directly out of a piping hot oven.  The cheese just melts in one's mouth.  It's heavenly!

Chef's Notes: You can find ground sumac at Mediterranean & Middle Eastern stores. Don't have a local resource? Purchase it online.

Please note that some versions of ground sumac already contain salt; if you purchase this particular kind, then of course you can just omit the salt in the above recipe.

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