Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Back in January I wrote this post about Sumac, which I bought on one of my trips to The Spice House here in Chicago. I was looking through Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference and ran into a recipe for something called za'atar. According to Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages, the name za'atar, or savory (Satureja hortensis), is used interchangeably among a variety of native Middle Eastern mint-related herbs including oregano, marjoram, and thyme, as well as to describe the spice mixture made from any combination of these spices mixed with sesame seeds and sumac.

And as often happens, I started seeing references to za'atar all over the place, most notably when Clotilde wrote about it on Chocolate & Zucchini back in February. So the sumac sat in my cupboard for a while, biding its time until I decided to toast up some sesame seeds and put together a batch.

I've already confessed to being something of a spice geek, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that I have an inordinate fondness for toasting nuts and seeds on the stovetop. I even have a little non-stick skillet made in Italy that I bought just for this purpose. I love how you can start to smell the nuts/seeds as the heat starts to release their oils, and I love watching them turn golden brown. I must confess to burning my share as they turn from golden brown to charcoal black fairly quickly, but overall I think I have mastered the art of toasting them to just the right point. And for my money, it's much better to toast your own than to buy pre-toasted. Pre-toasted nuts and seeds have a short shelf life and the rich warm flavor just doesn't hold up as well as what you get when you toast them right before you're going to use them. Just my two cents.

I found several recipes in some of my cookbooks and online, and they were all different. Some versions have you crush the sesame seeds and some leave them whole. The proportions of the ingredients also varies depending on the recipe you use. Some call for sesame seeds, sumac and oregano; some also include marjoram and/or thyme. The bottom line is to find the blend that works best for you.

I love sesame seeds, so I decided to use a 2 to 1 ratio for them and each of the other ingredients. I crushed them because I thought it would help their subtle flavor permeate through the mix. As you can see below, it made a wonderful rub for roast chicken. I also used it on lamb chops for a refreshing change from my usual salt, pepper, garlic and mint combination.

Za'atar is an excellent addition to my growing repertoire of spice blends. It's wonderful for seasoning meat and vegetables, and tastes delicious spread on pita bread, or baked into the dough.

But the best use I've found for it so far was not mentioned in any of the recipes I found. It's simply fabulous sprinkled over popcorn.

Note: This receipe is my adaptation from several I found; the main two being and Herbs & Spices: The Cook's Reference , by Jill Norman.

2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbsp sumac
1 Tbsp oregano
1 Tbsp marjoram
Coarse (kosher) salt to taste

Crush sesame seeds in a mortar and pestle if desired, or they can be left whole. Combine all other ingredients and mix well.
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