Friday, February 27, 2009

All About Za'atar with Recipe for Za'atar Herb Blend and 5 Recipes for Using Za'atar

Za'atar Bread and LabnehIf za’atar is within reach, anyone can make delicious food at the drop of a hat. The possibilities are endless: Za’atar Olives, Za’atar and Labneh, Za’atar Tomato Sauce with Grilled Meat, Za’atar Bread, and Za’atar Pizza are only a few ways to use this versatile ingredient. I almost have my Za'atar Chicken recipe ready to post.

Za’atar is
valued for more than great taste. “Who for forty days eats powdered dried leaves of za'tar fasting can be harmed by no serpent.” If the worst happens and you’re bitten by an asp or stung by a scorpion, za’atar cures “the bitings and the stings of venomous beasts." A Bethlehem proverb teaches, “Thyme and oil lead to the prosperity of the home.” Even more importantly, “eating za'atar improves your memory and makes you more intelligent.”

So what is za’atar?
A. An herb blend
B. Savory
C. Thyme
D. Oregano
E. Biblical hyssop
F. All of the above

The answer is “(F) All of the above.”

Za’atar (ZAHT-ar) is a class of herbs, and includes members of the thyme, oregano, and savory families. Za’atar is also a Middle Eastern herb blend, containing one or more of the za’atar herbs. As with many centuries-old dishes, za’atar blend has many regional and familial variations.

Disparity in za’atar’s spelling is pervasive; za’atar, za’tar, zatar, zahtar, satar, zahatar, and za’ater are all used. The spelling confusion is easy to explain. Za’atar is an Arabic word (الزعتر). Like Greek and other languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet, Arabic is inconsistently transliterated into English.

Some experts claim the herb za’atar is only one specific type of savory; others claim with equal vehemence it’s one specific type of oregano. Both may be right, but only for the region or family they’re writing about.

No matter its local or historical usage, “za’atar” has come to be a generic term used in the Middle East for a group of similarly-flavored members of the herb genus
Lamiaceae. Za’atar herbs grow in the same habitat and have similar appearances. These practical factors may have led Middle Easterners to use one word for all the plants.

Linguistic confusion over “za’atar” is not unique to Arabic.
In Turkish, the plant groups Origanum, Thymbra, Coridothymus, Satureja, and Thymus, generically called za’atar in Arabic, are all referred to as “kekik.”

Scientific analysis supports the pragmatic use of one word to refer to a plant group rather than a single plant. Gas chromatography and mass spectrometry show “the chemical profiles of the specific chemotypes of Satureja thymbra L. and Thymbra spicata L [a]re very similar. They are also very similar to those of the chemotypes of Coridothymus capitatus and Origanum syriacum.” [These four herb species are all called za’atar.]

Adding to the confusion, each za’atar herb is known by more than one name:

· Coridothymus capitatus aka Thymus capitatus aka Satureia/Satureja capitata (conehead thyme, headed savory, Persian hyssop, za’atar parsi, Spanish oregano)
· Origanum maru aka Origanum syriacum/cyriacum aka Marjorana syriaca (Biblical hyssop, Lebanese oregano, Syrian oregano, Egyptian marjoram)
· Satureja/Satureia thymbra (Roman za’atar, za’atar rumi, pink savory, barrel sweetener; in Greek, Θρούμπι, Τραγορίγανη)
· Thymbra spicata (spiked thyme, donkey hyssop, desert hyssop)

There are also several varieties of commercially available za’atar blends. For example,
according to Paula Wolfert, “The taste of a za’atar mixture can be herbal, nutty, or toasty. …’Israeli’ is a pale green blend of pungent herbs that includes the biblical hyssop, along with toasted sesame seeds and sumac. The ‘Syrian’ blend, the color of sand, has a decidedly toasty flavor. The ‘Jordanian’ blend is dark green and very herbal, with some turmeric.” These aren’t the only za’atar blends; each spice merchant and family has a unique formula.

Before creating my own za’atar blend, I bought and tasted several commercially available varieties. I experimented with diverse combinations of herbs trying to best approximate the flavor of my favorite commercial brand. I also read as many English-language za’atar recipes as I could find.

For the herbal flavor in za'atar blend, many North American recipes use only dried domestic thyme, or a mixture of domestic thyme and domestic marjoram. These recipes, when tasted side by side with imported za’atar blends, tasted bland to me. I discovered that Greek oregano (preferably, but not necessarily, wild-harvested and sold on the stem) is key to creating flavorful za’atar in Alaska. Greek oregano’s spicy flavor, when tempered by combining it with dried wild or domestic thyme, approximates the flavor of authentic za’atar blend.

For anyone interested in growing their own, the various plants referred to as za’atar can be purchased from
Well Sweep Herb Farm or Mountain Valley Growers. Although they’re tasty, keep in mind that most domestically grown herbs don’t have the flavor of their wild progenitors. There’s nothing like scarce water, poor soil, and hot sun for developing flavor.

For those who live where there are Middle Eastern markets or specialty stores, by all means buy ready-made, preferably imported, za’atar. You can also
order za’atar blends online.

In Anchorage, you can buy sumac, a key ingredient in my za’atar blend, at
Sagaya, City Market, and Summit Spice. Summit Spice sells its own Anchorage-made za’atar blend in tiny packets using marjoram, thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. Summit also has a product labeled “Greek oregano,” which they tell me may be grown on farms in Greece or Turkey, depending on the shipment.

Za'atarZa’atar Herb Blend
Because za’atar has so many uses, I make a lot at one time: 1/2 cup oregano, thyme, and sumac, 1/4 cup sesame seeds, and 1 Tbsp. salt. The sumac, which has a sour taste akin to lemon, is what gives za'atar its red color.

1 part dried Greek oregano, preferably wild-harvested
1 part dried thyme
1 part ground sumac
1/2 part white sesame seeds
Salt to taste

Grind the oregano and thyme in a spice grinder or blender, making sure it’s free of sticks and stems. Put the herbs in a glass jar with a tight sealing lid. Add the sumac, sesame seeds, and salt and shake well to thoroughly combine. Put on the lid and close it tightly. Store away from heat and light.

Za'atar OlivesZa’atar Olives
Made entirely with pantry staples, Za’atar Olives are easy to prepare and make a great last-minute appetizer. Especially when warm, Za’atar Olives are an addictive treat.

2 cups Kalamata olives
1/2 cup olive oil
3 Tbsp. Za’atar Herb Blend (see recipe above)

Rinse the olives and dry them well. Put the olives and olive oil in a small saucepan, bring the olive oil to a simmer, and simmer the olives for 15 minutes. Stir in the Za’atar Herb Blend and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Za'atar Bread - Mana'eeshZa’atar Flatbread (Mana’eesh bi Za’atar)
Makes 12 6” flatbreads
When I have breakfast with Marie, an Armenian friend who was born and raised in Beirut, she always serves Mana’eesh, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese. Breakfast at Marie’s was my first introduction to za’atar; it's been a part of my repertoire. To make it from scratch, I use my Palestinian friend Salwa’s recipe for pita bread, and top it with Za’atar Herb Blend and olive oil. Although Marie serves this for breakfast, we eat it for a snack, for lunch, or as part of an appetizer spread. If you’re cooking for a small family, like I do, use half the dough for Mana’eesh and the second half for Za’atar pizza (see recipe below).

2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 Tbsp. yeast (1 packet)
1 tsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt
6 – 7 cups all-purpose or bread flour

1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup Za’atar Herb Blend (see recipe above)

Make the Dough: Place the water in a large bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the water, sprinkle the sugar on top and let sit for 10 minutes, or until the yeast begins to foam. Mix in the salt and half the flour. Add the rest of the flour one cup at a time, just until the dough holds together. Knead the dough well (either by hand or in a standing mixer), adding flour as necessary until the dough is smooth and shiny. You may need more or less flour than called for in the recipe.

Put the kneaded dough in an oiled bowl to rise, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a dish towel, and put it in a warm spot. Let the dough rise for 1 hour, or until it has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 500°F.

Divide the dough into 12 pieces and pat each piece into a 6” round flatbread. Place the flatbreads on baking sheets with rims; 6 dough rounds fit on a half-sheet pan. Use your fingers to dimple the tops of each flatbread. Let the flatbreads rest for 20 minutes.

Make the Topping: Mix together the olive oil and Za’atar Herb Blend.

Assemble and Bake the Flatbreads: Dimple the flatbreads one more time. Divide the topping between the flatbreads, about 1 Tbsp. each, and spread it evenly over the flatbreads’ tops. Bake the flatbreads, one baking sheet at a time, for 8-10 minutes, or until the flatbreads are golden. Serve immediately.

Note: Mana’eesh can be made ahead and rewarmed just before serving. To rewarm, stack the Mana’eesh, topping side to topping side, and wrap in aluminum foil. Put in a 300°F oven for 5-10 minutes, or until they are warmed through.

Za'atar with LabnehZa’atar with Labneh (Yogurt Cheese)
Makes 3/4 cup

Plain Labneh goes really well with Za’atar Flatbreads. For garlic fans, mix 1-2 cloves puréed garlic into the cheese (an easy way to purée the garlic is with a
standard Microplane rasp grater). Usually, I let the yogurt drain into the sink. If I’m feeling ambitious, I let it drain into a bowl and use the liquid to replace some of the water when I’m making bread dough.

2 cups plain yogurt, preferably whole milk
Pinch of salt
Za’atar Herb Blend (see recipe above)
Olive oil (optional)

Line a strainer with a paper towel. Mix a little salt into the yogurt and dump the salted yogurt into the paper-towel-lined strainer. Let the yogurt drain for 4 hours or overnight.

Spread the yogurt on a plate, sprinkle with Za’atar Herb Blend to taste, and drizzle with olive oil (if using). Serve with crackers, pita chips, or triangles of pita bread.

Za'atar PizzaZa’atar Pizza
Makes 12”-15” pizza
Extra Za’atar Tomato Sauce is a great way to dress up grilled chicken, lamb, or pork (see recipe below); it also may be frozen for future pizzas. The amount of Aleppo or red pepper depends on how spicy you like your food. Pick either Topping#1 or Topping #2 or, if you want to try them both, make the full amount of Za’atar Flatbread dough.

1/2 recipe Za’atar Flatbread dough (see recipe above)

Za’atar Onion Topping (Topping #1):
1/2 cup thinly sliced onions
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. Za’atar Herb Blend (see recipe above)
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/4 – 1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/8 – 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper (optional)
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Za’atar Tomato Sauce (Topping #2) (makes enough sauce for 2 pizzas):
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
2 tsp. finely minced or puréed garlic
2 Tbsp. Za’atar Herb Blend (see recipe above)
1/2 – 1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/4 – 1/2 crushed red pepper (optional)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup water or white wine
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup thinly sliced onions
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

Shape the Pizzas: Shape the dough into a 12-15” round; the exact size depends on how thick you like your pizza crust. Place the dough on a pizza pan or baking sheet with rims. Use your fingers to dimple the top of the pizza, and let it rest for 20-30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 500°F.

To Make Topping #1: Mix together all the topping ingredients except the crumbled feta.

To Assemble Pizza with Topping #1: Spread the topping mix over the pizza. Sprinkle the crumbled feta over the topping.

To Make Topping #2: In a saucepan, mix together the tomatoes, garlic, Za’atar Herb Blend, Aleppo pepper, olive oil, and water or wine. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes, or until the sauce is very thick. Taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper, as needed.

To Assemble Pizza with Topping #2: Spread half the tomato sauce over the pizza to cover it (use more if you like saucy pizzas). Save any extra tomato sauce for another purpose. Evenly distribute the onions over the tomato sauce and sprinkle with crumbled feta.

Bake the Pizza: Turn the oven down to 450°F. Bake the pizza for 25-30 minutes or until the crust is nicely golden. Serve immediately.

Za'atar Tomato Sauce and Grilled PorkGrilled Pork Steak with Za’atar Tomato Sauce
Serves 4

Za’atar Tomato Sauce goes equally well with grilled lamb or chicken. The sauce is identical to the one used for Za’atar Pizza (see recipe above). For the same reason that brining improves the flavor of pork chops, salting meats well in advance of grilling makes them taste much better. If you can only find large pork steaks, buy 2 and cut them in half.

4 pork steaks
Freshly ground black pepper

Za’atar Tomato Sauce:
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
2 tsp. finely minced or puréed garlic
2 Tbsp. Za’atar Herb Blend (see recipe above)
1/2 – 1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/4 – 1/2 crushed red pepper (optional)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup water or white wine
Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the Meat: Rinse the steaks and dry well. Season both sides with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Let sit at room temperature while you make the sauce.

Make the Tomato Sauce: In a saucepan, mix together the tomatoes, garlic, Za’atar Herb Blend, Aleppo pepper, olive oil, and water or wine. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes or until the sauce is the thickness you prefer. Taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper, as needed.

Cook the Meat: Grill the pork steak over a medium hot fire or in a grill pan on top of the stove. Turn the meat regularly until it is just done; be careful not to overcook it. Serve immediately with Za’atar Tomato Sauce spooned over.
This is my entry for
Weekend Herb Blogging, which I am hosting this week at Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska.


Maria Verivaki said...

wow, a post with so many punches, i'm knocked out.
we have a great selection of spices, both local and foreign ones available in various places in hania, so i dont think it will be difficult to replicate this in hania - probably the local arab population have already done that, and i thinking that this is probably one of the smells that emanates from their kitchen as i walk through the economic migrants' rental suburbs in hania

the transliterations were interesting - there is no one agreed on english spelling for anything in greek, from my research

the pinkish bits make this spice mixture a must have for decorating all this yummy food you've prepared with it - i could survive on flatbreads and olives, supplememnted with a bit of cheese...

FOODalogue said...

What a great post -- with so many interesting and delicious looking possibilities from the spice blend. I, particularly, like the addition of sesame seeds.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post! I remember the first time I tasted za'atar. It was at a Lebanese festival, and some men were making za'atar pizza on top of an old metal drum sitting in a wood fire. They would slather the dough with oil, and then spread the za'atar with their hands on one side. Slap it onto the hot drum, wait a minute or two, and it was done. I had cravings for weeks afterward.

Mediterranean Turkish Cook said...

Za'atar has so many uses as you have shown in your post. I used to think za'atar only meant "thyme" or "kekik", but a while back, a friend mentioned that za'taar is a combination of herbs which is sold in one of the stores around here. So I realized it can mean different things. When mixed with olive oil the taste is heavenly I was told. I like the za'tar in the olives. In Turkey, we prepare olives with thyme and olive oil for breakfast instead of appetizer. Great post, as always.

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

I have a recipe all plannned out for some time this week to make a flatbread with my z'ataar or dukka. Great minds think alike:D

Anonymous said...

I LOVE zaatar. My favorite application is probably something like your delicious looking flatbread, but I also just love it rubbed on chicken with a little olive oil & lemon juice before it's cooked. Everything here looks so great, I really want to make the olives!

Kalyn Denny said...

Fabulous post! I love Za'atar however you spell it, but I didn't know half this stuff about it.

(And I do hope that when I'm not teaching school all day I can write things half as good as this!)

Anonymous said...

Wow! What an educational post! I've never met za'atar but your recipes sound so good I want to! I love it that you give a recipe for the za'atar itself, rather than just how to use it.

Cora said...

What a fascinating post! I was not sure what za'atar was when I would read it - but now I know. I will be investigating what is available at our international market, and then attempting my own blend. We make pizza in a brick oven and I'm sure za'atar pizza will be a big hit. Thanks!

Joanne said...

I am completely smitten by this post Laurie! I have a special place in my stomach for savoury breads like naan, chapati, roti, focaccia breads and other savoury flat breads. Funny how bread always manages to leave my stomach and end up on my hips :D The za'tar pizzas and flatbread look incredible! I recently made a purchase from the World Spice Merchants on-line and I'm eagerly awaiting my dukka mix among others! Thanks for introducing me to this spice site. It's very inspiring!

Peter M said...

Your posts are never stingy...most would stretch out these recipes.

Zaatar sounds like a wonderful flavouring for Lagana.

Laurie Constantino said...

Maria, if you can make this with both wild thyme and oregano it's even better. The pinkish bits are the sumac.

Joan, I like the toasty flavor of the sesame seeds.

Oh my, Lydia, does that ever sound good. Wow, I want some of that.

Val, it must be the season!

Elly, yes, it's wonderful with chicken. I'll have my version of that as soon as I get around to typing it.

Kalyn, thanks!!

Lulu, I'm glad you like it!

Cora, wow - pizza in a brick oven?? You are very lucky!

Bijoux, why is it that bread likes to land on hips?? It's so wrong. I'm glad you found World Spice - they are very helpful people (and sell such good quality products).

Peter, stingy?? Never! (I hope.)

Jeff said...

Yeah finally a use for that giant bag of sumac I bought because going through the grocery store hungry tends to lead to so many odd purchases.

Mike of Mike's Table said...

I've wondered what zatar is but had never done the research. This answers a lot of questions and it definitely sounds like something fun to play with. All those applications (the flatbread and pizza are my fave) look delicious!

manju said...

Oh, I do miss finding Greek oregano on the stem...I'll have to see if I can find that here. I can't wait to try this at home, esp. the olives and the flatbread. BTW, were those GREEN olives with your pork cutlet?!! Have you come around to the Dark Side of Green Olive Lovers? ;D

tasteofbeirut said...

I am so impressed by your post on zaatar! I am doing a giveaway on my blog that includes zaatar and if you don't mind I will link to this article, as I promised to include a booklet of recipes with the goodies to the winner.
I love zaatar, eat it every day!