Middle Eastern food has become very popular in the past couple of years, and that can largely be attributed to the success of restaurants and cookbooks featuring this vibrant cuisine. From colorful salads to creamy spreads to rosewater-accented sweets, it’s no wonder that this delicious cuisine is getting the spotlight.
An intriguing spice blend, za’atar (pronounced ZAH-tahr), can be used in many Middle Eastern recipes in unusual and tasty ways — sprinkled on flatbreads, eggs and cheese; in vinaigrettes; rubbed on chicken, lamb, and seafood before roasting or grilling; added to dips and hearty soups. There are very few savory dishes that could not be improved with a dash of this useful mixture.
This centuries-old spice blend is a mixture of dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac (a reddish sour seasoning made from ground dried sumac berries) and often salt. Sumac can be found at Whole Foods, Middle Eastern markets and online.
The combination and proportion of those herbs can vary from nation to nation and family to family. In Jordan, the za’atar is made with a lot of sumac, so it looks red. Lebanese za’atar often has dried orange zest added; Israeli za’atar frequently includes dried dill.
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There is always some confusion surrounding za’atar because it is the name of the spice blend and also the name of a class of herbs found in Morocco. Pre-made za’atar is easy to purchase online or in Middle Eastern markets (Daily Bread in Miami sells a blend that is heavy on thyme). But, I’ve found it’s worth making yourself because it will have more flavor, especially if your ingredients are fresh.
The base recipe for the blend I make is: 2 tablespoons toasted white sesame seeds, 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme or oregano, 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and 2 tablespoons sumac mixed in a bowl. Then you can tweak it to your liking. Za’atar keeps, stored in a cool, dark place in a plastic zip bag or in an airtight container, for one month. This recipe makes 1/4 cup, but I double it to have some on hand for snacks. Just dunk some bread (such as pita) in extra-virgin olive oil and then in the za’atar, or sprinkle za’atar over Greek yogurt and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, and you’ve got a terrific dip.
Za’atar Roasted Tomato Crostini with Labneh
This recipe is adapted from “Rose Water & Orange Blossoms, Fresh & Classic Recipes from my Lebanese Kitchen” by Maureen Abood, Running Press ($30)
An herbaceous Californian sauvignon blanc from northern Sonoma like 2014 Rodney Strong’s Charlotte’s Home ($17) is perfect to balance the intense flavors of the za’atar and the mouth-watering acidity of the tomatoes.
1 long, narrow baguette
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons za’atar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Few grinds of black pepper
1 cup labneh (available in Middle Eastern markets), or substitute Greek yogurt
1 recipe Za’atar Roasted Tomatoes (see below)
To make the crostini, heat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit / 175 degrees Celsius. Thinly slice the baguette into 1/2-inch slices. Brush both sides of the bread slices with olive oil, and season them lightly with za’atar, salt and pepper.
Arrange the slices on a sheet pan and bake for about 10 minutes, turning them over when the tops are light golden brown and continuing to bake until the reverse sides are also golden. Place a dollop of well-stirred labneh on each crostini. Top the labneh with two or three roasted tomato halves, then dust everything with more of the za’atar. Serve them immediately.
Yield: 16 crostini
Za’atar Roasted Tomatoes
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste (about 5 grinds)
2 to 3 tablespoons za’atar, to taste
Line a heavy sheet pan with parchment paper. Slice the tomatoes in half. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes with the olive oil, salt and pepper, and stir until they are well-coated.
Place the tomatoes on the sheet pan cut-side up, and top each with a pinch of za’atar. Arrange a rack in the center of the oven.
Turn the oven on to 275 degrees Fahrenheit (no need to preheat when roasting like this), and roast the tomatoes for about 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the tomatoes.
The tomatoes are done when they are meltingly soft and slightly shriveled. They can be used warm or cooled to room temperature. Store roasted tomatoes drizzled with olive oil in an airtight container in the refrigerator for about a week.
Yield: 1 cup