Fresh and Local : Our Spice Experiment Made SIMPLE

By Penny & Ed Cherubino

When you love as many world cuisines as we do, you find yourself with a lot of herbs, spices and blends in your cupboards. Recently Penny cleaned out our supplies and picked two flavorful selections to leave on the counter and use as often as possible for a time. Her choices were za’atar and sumac.

The word za’atar stands for two different ingredients. The first is a species of the herb savory that traditionally grows as a wild shrub in the Middle East. The second is a blended condiment that is made with this herb plus other seasonings – often sumac, sesame seeds, and salt. It’s the blend that’s on our counter.

We started our challenge by purchasing some excellent manakish (a flatbread topped with za’atar) from a vendor at the farmers market. We then dressed a market salad with a vinaigrette seasoned with za’atar and served it with feta marinated in olive oil and sumac. (Sumac is the lemony, red fruit of a shrub that can be substituted for citrus should you ever find yourself short of lemon.)

Along Came SIMPLE

Serendipitously, a library notice arrived announcing it was our turn to borrow a cookbook that puts these two ingredients front and center. “Ottolenghi SIMPLE: A Cookbook” is the latest offering from Yotam Ottolenghi and his team of recipe developers.

The word SIMPLE is capitalized because each letter stands for one of the characteristics of the recipes. The LA Times explained it well, “The six letters of the word ‘simple’ stand for, in order: ‘short on time,’ ‘10 ingredients or less,’ ‘make ahead,’ ‘pantry,’ ‘lazy’ and ‘easier than you think.’”  This is everything most Ottolenghi recipes are not. But it is also what makes this book perfect for the busy home cook.

Za’atar and sumac are two of the ten ingredients (beyond normal pantry staples) that are used in the book to add that famous element of surprise to Ottolenghi dishes. We had most of the list on hand, so our exploration began by selecting the recipes that highlight our spice challenge duet.

Two to Try

Our first choice was oven roasted sweet potatoes that are tossed with smoked paprika, cayenne, garlic, a bit of uncooked polenta, olive oil, and flaked salt before roasting and then sprinkled with sumac and a bit more salt before serving.

Next was a pasta dish that starts with chickpeas crisped in a mixture of olive oil, softened onion, garlic, cumin, thyme, anchovies, and lemon peel. This is then simmered with chicken stock and lemon juice and reduced before adding cooked pasta, spinach, and parsley. Za’atar and a drizzle of fresh olive oil are added to each serving the way you might add cheese to a more traditional pasta. We like this preparation for anyone new to this flavor because each person can add their own level of za’atar.

Your Assignment!

Clean out your own spice selection. In the process, you may discover a spice or spice blend that you love and don’t use often enough. Put it front and center in your cooking area. Make whatever family favorite you always make with it. Go online and research other recipes using that ingredient. Pull out favorite cookbooks from a cuisine that makes the most of it and find a few more uses. Make a point of enjoying the flavors you love in your food.

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