Pantry Fave #2: Za’atar

When I moved to New York City in the late seventies, the culture shock coupled with the civil war in Lebanon left me yearning for a world that would eventually disappear from my life. During my first decade on American soil, I inevitably gravitated towards a handful of Middle-Eastern grocery stores, scouring the shelves for recognizable Lebanese brands of staple ingredients. We did not yet have the Internet and Google with resources and recipes at the click of a mouse. Hummus and falafel had not yet invaded the coolers and shelves of every supermarket. Choices of Middle-Eastern restaurants and foodstuffs were limited. But I managed to get by with what ingredients I found locally and quickly became a good cook, duplicating my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes and dishes.

Za’atar was the ingredient that I missed terribly and sought persistently. More than a staple ingredient in Levantine households, it is a flavor that embodies the essence of “home”.  And so, despite the difficulty of communicating with my family back in Lebanon during a violent and brutal civil war, I shamelessly asked friends and travelers to bring me back bagfuls of that queen of all herbs and spices, stowed in their luggage.

Today, articles about za’atar and mana’eesh fill the Internet. Supermarkets carry tiny jars of it and za’atar flavored pita crisps share the shelves with corn and potato chips. You can buy it on line and Middle-Eastern grocers are now importing excellent blends. I sprinkle za’atar on my avocado toast in the morning. I have a jar of it at my desk at work to brighten my day when I feel like escaping the drudgery. My freezer is packed with five different blends that my family still sends me either from Lebanon or Jordan by way of Boston and Atlanta. Za’atar is my genie in a jar, the link to my heritage and to numerous memories.

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Roasted Beets and Carrots with Za’atar and Tahini Sauce

As I mentioned, za’atar is used in marinades and works particularly well with chicken. Mix the spice with olive oil, crushed garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Let the chicken marinate for several hours and then bake or grill. Recently, I have been using za’atar with roasted vegetables, served with tahini sauce.

Ingredients
1 bunch beets
1 bunch carrots
1 Tblsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp garlic powder
¼ cup honey or maple syrup
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup za’atar

Instructions
Preheat oven 400˚ F.
Clean and peel vegetables and cut into 1 ½ – 2 inch cubes. Mix oil, salt, garlic powder, lemon juice and honey. Pour over the vegetables and toss until well coated. Spread vegetables on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil.

Roast for 20-40 minutes or until desired tenderness, stirring once or twice. Remove from the oven, transfer to a bowl and toss with the za’atar. You may also remove vegetables halfway through the cooking process and toss with the spice mix to further deepen the flavor. Return the baking sheet to the oven and roast until the vegetables are fork tender.
While vegetables are roasting, prepare tahini sauce (see previous post Pantry Favorites: Tahini). Serve the vegetables drizzled with the sauce and garnished with sprigs of parsley.

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote last summer for The Cook’s Gazette, a quarterly on-line journal that is a beautiful resource for any foodie, filled with gorgeous photographs, incredible recipes, in-depth profiles of markets, chefs, cooks and personalities.

Here’s the link to my article (Memories of Lebanon).

Pantry Favorites: Tahini

 

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If I were to choose some items from my pantry that I couldn’t live without, Tahini would be one of them. I’m in love with sesame. “Open Sesame!” was the password to the sealed treasure cave in the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It’s what I think of when opening a jar of Tahini, expecting glittering gems. Instead, a golden layer of oil floats atop! A-nno-ying! I take a long spoon, forced to stir the oil into the paste below.

Used all over the Middle-East, Egypt and Turkey, it has also become popular in Europe and the U.S.  Sesame is an ancient seed used by the civilizations of Egypt, China and India. Probably originally grown in India, it is widely grown in Africa and Asia. Gardeners use sesame as a companion plant because it inhibits root knot nematodes. And in the U.S. a certain non scattering variety of the plant has been developed to allow mechanized harvesting. The sesame plant is used to alternate with cotton to improve soil quality. To read more about the agricultural background in the U.S. visit the site of the American Sesame Growers Association.

In India the oil is revered for the beautification of the skin. Sesame contains natural oil-soluble and water-soluble antioxidants. It is used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries as well. The oil and paste are so stable they can go months without refrigeration and resist going rancid.

So why is it a pantry fave?

Tahini is very nutritious. Although high in fat, it has no cholesterol. It is considered an energy food, rich in calcium and iron, copper, magnesium and protein. It has an impressive nutritional profile which you can see on this website. As a child I found it bitter, but now I could spoon it straight into my mouth if it weren’t for minding my manners—but I confess that I will lick the spoon when I’m done! I can’t help it.
#1. Taratoor or Tahini Sauce is my number one “go-to” sauce: Mostly used in pita sandwiches with falafel and shawarma, it’s fantastic with fish, roasted cauliflower and mixed in with roasted beets or carrots!
There are a couple of things you need to remember when making taratoor. The amount of garlic, lemon, salt is totally up to you. It’s a question of taste. Adding water changes it’s consistency and therefore whether you need it to be creamy or runny will depend on the quantity of water you add to the mix. Add a little at a time and stir as you go.

Tahini Sauce Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup tahini
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 Tblsp lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • Optional: ¼ cup chopped parsley

Instructions:

Place the tahini in a small bowl and pour in water a little at a time, while stirring. The mixture will “seize” at first but will eventually loosen as you keep adding the water. Stir and add water until you reach the desired consistency. Add the lemon juice, the crushed garlic and salt to taste. Add the parsley if desired. If you want to double the quantities and throw it all in a blender, you can do that too. Tasting as you go.

Although I often make this sauce, I no longer make my own hummus. I find that some store-bought brands are so good and so cheap, I don’t bother making my own anymore. But I have yet to find an excellent store- bought Baba Ghannouj. This, I will gladly make at home, but only if requested by a family member or a friend: Here again the roasting of the eggplants, peeling the charred skin etc.. is such a mess that I would rather live without it.  Of course when I was cooking for a family I would inevitably make it, but for now… I remind you that I am all about efficiency and speed in the kitchen—My mother used to roast and peel the eggplant and freeze it whole until needed. A practice I would encourage.

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#2. The next best thing about tahini, is that you can mix it with date or carob syrup or honey. It’s a delicious spread to satisfy your sweet craving and you can control the sweetness yourself. The honey/tahini combo on toast is a soothing relief for a soar throat. Trust me.

#3. For an Asian variation, I use a tahini-miso sauce over Soba noodles mixed with chopped cool cucumbers, or steamed asparagus, fresh snow peas, cilantro, scallions and sesame seeds. You can use it as a salad dressing over some baby kale or spinach, sliced pear or orange with a sprinkle of sunflower seeds.

Tahini-Miso Sauce Recipe

  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
  • 1 clove garlic crushed
  • 1½ teaspoons sesame oil
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • 1 tablespoon white or yellow miso
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon tamari sauce
  • ¼ cup warm water (more if needed)
  • Optional: 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Mix all together until smooth. This recipe makes about 3/4 cup. Use as much or as little as you’d like.

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