I find eating plants to be tremendously flavorful. Particularly if you've retrained your tastebuds to enjoy real flavors over hyperpalatable overly sweet/salty foods, a vegan diet is one of the most delicious things you can treat your body to (on so many levels).
Even with all of that gorgeous, from-the-earth flavor, it can be fun to mix things up a bit and use other plant-tastic spices to enhance or change the taste. I find this especially true during busy weeks where I seem to eat the same six or seven veggies over several days -- veggie boredom is no good, so it's nice to have a few things handy to mix it up a little.
Today, we're looking at a unique blend of spice, herbs and oil called za'atar. If you've found yourself in a Mediterranean restaurant, or perhaps you've tried fancier-than-streetcart-style falafel, you may have encountered it. Although it shares some of its ingredients with tahini, its grainy texture and the freshness of the herbs makes it an entirely different addition to a meal. Read on for some ideas on how to incorporate it after you've mixed up a batch at home...
Good to know: Za'atar is not only the name of this specific blend of ingredients, but also the name of a group of spices often used in Middle Eastern cooking. (I believe it directly translates to 'thyme', but my Arabic isn't up to snuff.) When combined, the herbs, salt, sesame and oil make one of the most versatile and all-season-useable spice blends. You can find this premade in many specialty or health food stores, but like most things, it's better homemade.
There are several variations on za'atar, depending on which part of the world you base yours on. This one, which I was lucky enough to learn from the charismatic Chef Elliott Prag from Natural Gourmet Institute, is most comparable to the blend used in Lebanon (a country I've never visited but would love to. My affinity for their food is quite boundless. ;) )
Za'atar is a valuable addition to meals, nutritionally, too: it contains beneficial monounsaturated fat, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, and powerful antioxidants. E and K are essential to healthy tissue growth, including hair, skin, teeth, bone and nails, while monounsaturated fat helps keep us full and regulates blood sugar.
A note on olive oil: it's important to know your brand and what's (potentially) hiding in that bottle. Look for extra virgin (read: unrefined, unaltered, unmixed) olive oil, as many brands actually 'cut' their oils with soybean or canola. These are highly refined oils with unbalanced amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, which can be harmful if we're not also getting enough omega-3s and -9s. These refined oils also tend to be chemically separated, which means we're ingesting the chemicals, too. (Many of these have been shown to be endocrine disruptors, throwing everything from sex hormones to thyroid hormones into chaos. Avoid when possible.)
Other fun fact: the antioxidant properties of [real, organic, unrefined, high-quality] olive oil have been shown to be as anti-inflammatory as ibuprofen. #FoodIsMedicine. :) Maybe pop a teaspoon of za'atar next time you have a headache? ;)
Preparing this little batch of deliciousness is super simple.
Heat a small frying pan over medium heat. Toss in your sesame seeds and toast for 2-3 minutes until they start to crackle. Shake the skillet a few times every 30 seconds or so to prevent the seeds from burning. You'll see them turn from light brown to toasted brown and they'll become a little more fragrant as their oils are released. Once toasted, remove from heat and transfer to a food processor. (If they continue to sit in the pan, they'll continue to cook and you'll end up with burnt-tasting sesame.)
Portion out your other ingredients and combine in the food processor. Blend for 15-20 seconds until evenly combined, scraping down the sides as needed. You're aiming for half-blended half-whole sesame seeds: you should see a fair number of whole seeds remaining in your mixture.
Transfer to a dish for serving, or a glass jar/ bottle for storage. The great thing about za'atar is that you can keep it at room temperature. If kept in the fridge, the olive oil solidifies and it's a little more work to deal with. Because the seeds are toasted, they will stand up better to room temperature and are less likely to go rancid as quickly as raw ones. Keep on the counter for up to 2 weeks, and store in the fridge if you're keeping it longer. Just bring it back to room temperature before using.
That being said, good luck keeping a batch of this on hand. It's so good and goes well on EVERYTHING - we find it disappears in our home pretty quickly. ;)
Some fun ways to use this vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, real food condiment:
- On raw veggies: I love it on non-starchy veggies like cucumber, tomatoes and peppers
- On cooked veggies: everything from summer squash to winter squash, sweet potato fries, roasted onions or garlic, mushrooms, etc...
- As a dip: for gluten-free crackers, or these homemade seed crackers
- Mixed into a whole grain or bean dish, like brown rice + white beans or lentils + buckwheat
- On gluten-free toast
- Stirred into hummus
So, there you have it! Za'atar! Good on everything. Good for you. Happy vegan-ing this week!
- 1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted
- 2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped and stems removed
- 2 tbsp sumac
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1. Heat a small frying pan over medium heat. Toss in your sesame seeds and toast for 2-3 minutes until they start to crackle. Shake the skillet a few times every 30 seconds or so to prevent the seeds from burning. You'll see them turn from light brown to toasted brown and they'll become a little more fragrant as their oils are released.
- 2. Once toasted, remove from heat and transfer to a food processor. (If they continue to sit in the pan, they'll continue to cook and you'll end up with burnt-tasting sesame.)
- 3. Portion out your other ingredients and combine in the food processor. Blend for 15-20 seconds until evenly combined, scraping down the sides as needed. You're aiming for half-blended half-whole sesame seeds: you should see a fair number of whole seeds remaining in your mixture.
- Transfer to a dish for serving, or a glass jar/ bottle for storage.