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A little za’atar spice blend perks up mealtime

December 5, 2018

When a dish needs that little something, I reach for a jar of zaatar. Aromatic, pungent, tangy zaatar (ZAH-tar) is the cornerstone of Levantine (eastern Mediterranean) cuisine. Its both an herb and a spice blend that gives the humblest ingredients a lift.

The fresh herb, a relative of hyssop, grows wild throughout the hills of the Levant and is known as the king of herbs, treasured for its complex thyme-oregano-savory flavor. Every family has its own special version, which is often a closely held secret.

The spice blend combines dried zaatar, sesame seeds and ground sumac, but because the fresh wild herb is rarely exported, the spice blends we can find here are made of dried thyme, oregano, cumin, coriander, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and coarse salt. Its easy enough to make your own version, but its also available in specialty shops (i.e. Penzeys and the Golden Fig) and in the spice aisles of co-ops and groceries.

This year, Im making zaatar blends for holiday gifts, along with ideas and recipes for its many uses:

Sprinkle zaatar over root vegetables before roasting; whisk it into tahini, hummus, baba ghanouj and tzatziki for vibrant spreads, sauces and dips.

Toss zaatar into pilafs of brown rice, barley or farro.

Use on roast chicken, fish and lamb.

For a quick appetizer, drizzle a little olive oil over pita or flat bread, sprinkle generously with zaatar, toast until golden, then cut and serve with chvre, or pair these toasts with soups, salads and stews.

Todays recipe for roast chicken with zaatar and lemon is a simplified take on a traditional Palestinian dish, msakhan. Its a no-fuss dinner that practically cooks itself. The gentle flavor of Meyer lemons gives the chicken zip and the lemon slices roast to turn slightly sweet and crunchy. Serve this chicken hot from the oven or at room temperature; its just right for a buffet dinner or holiday potluck.

Leftovers are great stuffed into a pita or tossed into a salad or simmered into soup. Its great paired with a pilaf of barley, farro or brown rice. Be sure to include pita bread or flat bread to wipe up all those wonderful juices. (After all, the best part of roast chicken is the sticky residue left in the pan.)

Beth Dooley is the author of In Winters Kitchen. Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.

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