I’ve been lucky enough to have friends from large Lebanese families. These families stick together, celebrate together, pretty much do everything as far as I can tell…and these families cook.
One friend of mine from central Maine, Janet Nichols, had a wonderful “sitto” or grandma that lived during the time she and I were in close proximity to each other, which was in the late 1970s and early 80s. I was honored to meet her before her passing and privileged to sample her recipes time and again. They live on through Janet and the many talented cooks in her family. This year I will be further honored to cater the wedding of Sito’s great-granddaughter, Saida.
I hung out with Saida’s mom, Janet, when her children were young. We worked together then, and we loved to cook and eat. At that time, I watched her make yogurt, stuffed squash, little Swiss chard hand pies, tabouleh salad, batlawa, hummus and the flat bread with za’atar that her sitto used to make. I used to love to visit her because I knew good food would abound and believe me, that has not changed.
Za’atar, now that was an epiphany! So savory, the flavor so inexplicable, so over the top good! I couldn’t guess then that I was tasting sesame, salt, sumac, oregano, savory, and thyme. And plenty of great Lebanese olive oil. It was really my first focaccia, just from a different part of the Mediterranean. Since then I have learned more about za’atar, its origins, and some new applications for contemporary dishes using this ancient mix of ingredients.
Basically a Middle Eastern phenomenon, za’atar is a condiment that can vary widely. It’s a regional thing and your za’atar mix can actually define where you may be from in some Arabic circles. I asked for it in Cairo and got oregano, and in fact wild oregano is sometimes called za’atar and is now a protected species. I’ve purchased it in red and green varieties. It is generally prepared by using ground thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. Often, the recipes are closely held by families, not even being passed to new wives or daughters.
Traditionally za’atar is prepared by drying wild herbs in the sun. It’s then blended with salt, sesame seeds, and sumac. It can further be blended with good oil to make a paste to dip pita bread in, or to stuff breads with, to spread on a flat bread before baking (something like a pizza) or as a seasoning for vegetables. Try it as a “rub” for meats and in the case of the following recipe, a savory coating for chicken cutlets. It is available already blended in specialty and ethnic food stores.
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