One of the gifts I received this holiday season was a snack-sized zip-top bag containing za’atar spice mix.
Za’atar is both the name of an herb related to marjoram and oregano, as well as a spice mix made up of herbs, sesame seeds, and sumac.
Sumac’s berry-like fruits are ground to produce a tangy, purplish spice. In this case, it was almost a fuchsia color. My friend said in Iran, where he used to live, there were bowls of the ground sumac powder on the table. People sprinkled it on their food as desired.
This particular blend was sumac, salt, sesame seeds, and thyme. I wasn’t sure how to eat it, and my friend suggested I think of it as a Middle Eastern version of furikake.
(Furikake is a Japanese mixture made from seaweed, sesame seeds, salt, and usually a fish product, although there are vegetarian versions without them. It is usually sprinkled on rice, sort of like a seasoned salt mixture.)
So I tried a bit on rice, but it had very little flavor. I could detect a subtle tang from the pretty purply sumac, and the sesame seeds, but it needed more kick to it.
Since I had to make something to take to a New Year’s Eve potluck party, I decided to use the za’atar with potatoes, sauteeing it in oil, to try to coax out more flavor.
After a bit of doctoring, I had a decent dish, and it was well enough received at the party that I thought I’d post about it here, trying to recreate the recipe. (Besides, a bunch of us received the spice, and I doubt anyone knew what to do with it. Here’s one possibility!)
Vegan Za’atar-Roasted Potatoes
2 TBS toasted sesame oil
4 TBS canola oil
1/4 cup za’atar spice mix (I used the whole baggie full, which was about that much)
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp garlic powder
Juice from 3/4 lemon (about 1-1/2 TBS lemon juice )
3 pounds russet potatoes, washed and cubed
extra virgin olive oil (optional), salt and lemon juice to taste
In a small frying pan on medium-high heat, saute za’atar spices, garlic powder and salt in sesame and canola oils until sizzling and fragrant. Stir constantly and watch carefully, because sesame seeds burn quickly. This took about 1-2 minutes once the mixture got hot enough, but might take a lot less time if you have a gas stove.
Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice.
Mix together with the potato cubes; stir well to distribute evenly and turn everything a rosy pink.
Place into two 9×13 cake pans in a single layer.
Bake at 350 degrees F until the potatoes are fork tender, stirring every 20 minutes or so. This took about 50 minutes, but it will vary, depending on how large you cut your potato pieces.
After they are finished, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil (optional) and add salt and/or lemon juice as needed, to taste.
Try to cut your potatoes in even-sized pieces. Mine weren’t, so the smaller ones got tough by the time the bigger ones were tender.
This is a bit oily by the time you are done, but I like the flavor the extra virgin olive oil added. You can omit it if you like. Much of the oil and spice mixture ended up stuck to the sides of the pan.
If you didn’t receive a bag of this particular za’atar spice blend, use what you have, but start with 1 TBS za’atar. I would taste some of the spice mix first to get an idea of how much you want to use.
This was an exceptionally bland spice mixture, so I threw it all in. My guess is, if you have a mixture with the oregano-related herb, you would only need a small amount.
Also, this did not taste like it had any salt in it, so if your spice mixture tastes salty, omit the salt until the end, and only add enough to taste, so you don’t end up with a too-salty finished dish.
The flavor and color was unusual enough that it piqued my interest and taste buds. I’ll be looking into trying different variations of za’atar spice blends.