This Middle Eastern herb is the smell of my childhood. It also has amazing powers of transformation, adding a pungent savouriness to everything from simple salads to grilled meat
Zaatar is a cornerstone of Levantine cooking. It is often paired with tahini (another Levantine essential, which I featured last week), and then spooned over vegetables, crushed pulses, grilled meat and all manner of stews. Zaatar is in many ways the smell of my childhood: the herb grows wild in the hills around Jerusalem, and has a distinctive, pungent, savoury aroma. Its scientific name, Origanum syriacum, hints at a connection to oregano, marjoram and the like, but, for me, its flavour evokes cumin, lemon, sage and mint.
Like any other plant, zaatar tastes of the soil in which it has grown, which is why Palestinian or Israeli zaatar is different from, say, Turkish or Lebanese. The first is my (ever-so-slightly biased) preference.
Zaatar leaves can be eaten fresh in salads with tomatoes, spring onions and lemon juice, or mixed through bread dough pre-baking. Outside the Middle East, though, zaatar is best known in its powdered form, for which its mixed with sesame seeds, sumac and salt. Confusingly, this powder is also known as zaatar. Good zaatar powder be warned, there are lots of inferior brands out there is made using zaatar leaves picked after theyve gone silvery-grey, once the flowers have blossomed, and then dried and ground. Nothing should be added to them apart from the trio listed above.
The resulting green powder has a quite extraordinary ability to transform all manner of dishes: try it in todays recipes, or keep things simple and sprinkle some on roast lamb or chicken, mix with olive oil to finish off any roast vegetable or a salad, or just scatter on hummus and fresh tomato in the simplest and most delicious sandwich I know.
These Levantine flatbreads work as a snack or part of a mezze spread. I spread the dough with labneh, which is, essentially, strained yoghurt; you can buy it in Middle Eastern grocery stores, to save yourself the straining part, which takes at least a day. Makes 12.
Flaked sea salt
400g natural yoghurt
2 tsp dried active yeast
¼ tsp caster sugar
300ml lukewarm water
500g strong white bread flour
110ml olive oil
1 tbsp sumac
Whisk half a teaspoon of salt into the yoghurt. Line a deep bowl with cheesecloth or muslin, spoon in the yoghurt, then draw together the edges into a tight bundle and tie firmly with string. Hang on a wooden spoon suspended over a jug or bowl, and leave in the fridge for 24-36 hours, by which time the yoghurt will be thick and quite dry; the centre may still be a bit creamy.
Whisk together the yeast, sugar and water until the yeast dissolves, then set aside for 15 minutes, until it starts to froth.
Put the flour and two teaspoons of salt in the bowl of a mixer with a dough hook. Pour in the yeast mix and two tablespoons of oil, and work on a low speed for two minutes, to bring the dough together. Increase the speed to medium-high and work the dough for 10 minutes more, until smooth and elastic. Transfer to a large bowl brushed with a teaspoon of oil, cover with clingfilm and set aside somewhere warm for an hour, until doubled in size.
Transfer the dough to a clean work surface, punch out some of the air, then roll into a 30cm-long sausage. Cut into 12 equal pieces, weighing about 70g each, and, taking one piece at a time, form first into a ball and then into a 15cm-wide and 3mm-thick circle. Place on a 30cm x 40cm sheet of baking parchment (you should be able to fit six on each sheet, so youll need two sheets), and repeat with the remaining dough.
Heat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7, and put into two large, 30cm x 30cm baking trays to heat up. Stir the zaatar, sumac and remaining 75ml oil to a thick paste.
The dough will have shrunk back slightly by now, so press and stretch the balls back into shape, then spread labneh all over them. Brush with the zaatar mix and sprinkle with half a teaspoon of salt in total. Remove the hot trays from the oven and carefully slide the baking sheets on to them. Turn the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6, and bake for 11-12 minutes, until golden-brown both on top and underneath. Set aside for five minutes before serving.
Black-eyed bean feteh
I love having this for a late weekend breakfast, but it works at any time of day. Serves four as a main course.
400g black-eyed beans soaked overnight in cold water
30g unsalted butter
75ml olive oil, plus extra to drizzle
2 small pittas, torn into 4cm pieces
80g almonds, skin on, roughly chopped
1 tbsp zaatar, plus 1 tsp extra to serve
¼ tsp chilli flakes
Salt and black pepper
50ml lemon juice
¾ tsp ground cumin
400g Greek yoghurt
3 tbsp tahini paste
1 small garlic clove, peeled and crushed
10g parsley, roughly chopped
1 lemon, cut into 6 wedges, to serve
Drain the beans and put them in a medium saucepan filled with plenty of cold water. Bring to a boil, then simmer, skimming the surface as needed, for 35 minutes, until soft but still holding their shape.
While the beans are cooking, melt the butter with two tablespoons of oil in a large frying pan on a medium heat. Fry the pitta for three minutes, stirring constantly, then add the almonds and cook for another three or four minutes, until both pitta and almonds are crunchy and golden-brown. Take off the heat, stir in the zaatar, chilli and a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and leave to cool.
Drain the beans over a bowl reserve 240ml of the cooking liquid then tip them into a medium saucepan. Add the reserved liquid, lemon juice, cumin, the rest of the oil, three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper, and on a medium-high heat warm through for six to seven minutes, crushing the beans slightly with a masher, until the mixture has the consistency of thick porridge.
Spoon the yoghurt, tahini, garlic and a quarter-teaspoon of salt into a medium saucepan, stir and warm through gently; dont overheat it, or it will split.
Divide the beans between six shallow bowls and top each with a dollop of warm yoghurt. Scatter on the pitta and almonds, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with parsley and zaatar, and serve with a lemon wedge.
Amaranth stuffed mushrooms with zaatar and pine nuts
Serves six as a first course.
6 large portobello mushrooms
70ml olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g cherry tomatoes
10g unsalted butter
30g pine nuts
2 tsp zaatar
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
500ml vegetable stock
Bouquet garni made with 10g tarragon sprigs, 4 strips lemon skin, 5g rosemary sprigs and 3 bay leaves
30g parmesan, finely grated
Heat the oven to its highest setting (around 240-250C). Cut off and finely chop the mushroom stems. Put the whole mushrooms flat side up on a medium baking tray and drizzle with two tablespoons of oil, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, until just cooked through, then remove from the oven.
Heat a griddle pan on a high flame. Drizzle the tomatoes with two teaspoons of oil, a pinch of salt and some pepper, then griddle for two to three minutes, turning them every minute, until they have black char marks all over and the skin is splitting. Take off the griddle and keep warm.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan on a medium-high heat. Once it starts to foam, add the pine nuts and stir for a minute, until starting to go golden-brown. Transfer to a small bowl, mix in the zaatar and keep warm.
Warm two tablespoons of oil in a large sauté pan on a medium-high heat. Fry the onion for 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until soft and caramelised, then stir in the garlic and chopped mushroom stems, and cook for a minute. Add the amaranth, stir for a minute, then add the stock, 200ml water, the bouquet garni, a third of a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium heat for 30-35 minutes, stirring a few times, until all the liquid is absorbed and the amaranth is cooked but has a bite.
Remove from the heat, discard the bouquet garni, then stir in the parmesan. Spoon into the warm mushrooms, top with the tomatoes, sprinkle with pine nuts and serve.
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