Simple pleasures

Za’atar day night fever

Za’atar, a wonderful Middle Eastern spice blend

With this incessant sunshine the pace of life changes. I feel all we are good for is to flop down somewhere warm, the only occasional movement being the lifting of a cold glass of lime, mint and ginger soda to our lips, and the only words spoken are the ones to our punkah wallah to increase the fanning speed.

And with that in mind, our meals have been made with the minimum of time and effort this week. But they have by no means suffered in flavour. We’ve had chicken thighs, poached and shredded and tossed in a peanut butter, sesame oil and soy sauce along the lines of bang bang chicken. The cucumber and spring onion a refreshing breeze through the richness as we suffered the tension of a penalty shootout.

One evening I slowly roasted tomatoes with garlic and harissa in the cocotte in plenty of olive oil then stirred in cooked chickpeas and spinach and served that with some five minute lamb kebabs laced with cardamom and cumin. This cocotte method is fantastic, something you can do in the background and once cooled you stuff the tomatoes and their juices into kilner jars and keep them in the fridge to use during the week. There is no need to buy tinned tomatoes if you do this and the flavour and intensity is out of this world.

And last night we had kasha, (toasted buckwheat) simmered in double the amount of water and mixed through with sautéed onions, chestnut mushrooms a good lump of butter and a healthy squeeze of lemon juice. On top of this I added salmon fillets I’d seasoned and then rolled around in za’tar. A quick flash in the frying pan and supper was ready.

So today’s recipe is for this versatile spice mix. You can, of course, buy it ready made, but if this way, being homemade, it’s in your hands how it tastes. You can take charge of your own flavours as you see fit.

Trying to give a definitive ingredient list for a spice blend is the culinary equivalent of describing music. Just as there is not one dahl recipe, when you are mixing, blending and tweaking spices around a theme — in this case a Middle Eastern sesame seeds one — the variations are infinite and based on personal preference. Just bear in mind that the sesame seeds should take up roughly half of the total mixture. Whether or not you toast them is up to you. I don’t because I find the flavour becomes too strongly nutty, and there is enough going on already. You can replace the marjoram with dried winter savoury if you like and add a pinch of black sesame seeds as I do.

Give it a little bash in the pestle and mortar to release some of the cumin oil and store in a jar to use on grilled lemon chicken breasts or to add to lamb cutlets before chargrilling and serving with aubergine and chick peas. You could also sprinkle it over grilled courgettes or roast strips of red pepper too. It can go on flatbreads before grilled or be mixed with olive oil and used as a dip for after.

Sesame seeds
Ground sumac
Dried oregano
Dried marjoram
Cumin seeds

Half fill a bowl with sesame seeds then divide the remaining space with a pinch of black sesame seeds if you have any, sumac, dried oregano, dried marjoram, cumin seeds (you can toast these first if you like, try it and see which you prefer) and a pinch of salt.
Bash it about a little with a pestle and it’s ready.

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