JANUARY 17th 2018:
I often get asked the question, “What do you make during the week for your family for dinner?”. I usually respond, “Well, this time of year, we do a lot of soups and chilis, roast chicken, salads…blah, blah, blah.” My responses are always true, but I fear that they’re also not that helpful because they probably sound about as boring as whatever meal routine my listener is looking to shake-up. Here’s the kicker…I use a lot za’atar. “Za-what?!?” you might be thinking. Just stick with me.
Za’atar is a traditional seasoning blend of Middle Eastern cuisine—they’ve been putting it on everything for centuries. If you’ve been to a place that does shawarma, fattoush, or hummus as their specialty, then I guarantee you’ve had za’atar. Also, if you’ve dined-out at a semi-trendy restaurant in the past year, then you’ve likely had za’atar there as well—often the selling point for a side of roasted squash or carrots (my rendition of this recipe below). “Za’atar.” It sounds exotic, but its ingredients are actually quite common—barring one, sumac.
If you know sumac, then you probably know all about it’s hidden complexity. It’s typically found finely ground and is one of the few spices that originates as a berry vs. a seed, stem, bark, or root. Let this shape your impression of sumac—not it’s reddish-brown color which might cue spicy or hot. Sumac is actually not hot at all. It’s tart and a bit sweet, like a cranberry. Many compare its flavor to lemon or vinegar. I’ve tried a number of different options and find that the best comparison and dry substitute for sumac is lemon-pepper seasoning.
In my recipe for Homemade Za’atar, I offer two versions: one “Traditional” that uses ground sumac and the other “Easy” that substitutes a modified portion of lemon-pepper seasoning (a staple in most grocery stores). The other ingredients are simple—sesame seeds, thyme, oregano, and salt. I encourage you to make a batch today and keep it oven-side. Then, when a weeknight hits and you’re putting the same old sweet potatoes or chicken breasts in the oven, give them a generous sprinkle of za’atar (atop a drizzle of olive oil), and you’re all set! An extraordinary dinner awaits.
Click here for my Homemade Za’atar Seasoning Blend recipe.
And, here to see it in action atop my Maple Roasted Carrots.