I had the best time playing around with the Middle Eastern spices zahtar and sumac for a story in the February 2016 issue of 225 Magazine. We happen to have tons of Middle Eastern eateries in Baton Rouge – close to 30 or so, and they’re a big part of our regular culinary experience. It’s why I wanted to write a story on these familiar yet exotic spices.
Zahtar is a savory-floral spice blend traditionally made in Middle Eastern homes that features sumac, sesame seeds, thyme and other spices. Its flavor stems largely from the presence of sumac, sort of a dark purple dust with lemony notes.
Here are some of the ways I’ve been using these two lovely spices lately. You can pick them up or mail order them in one-ounce quantities from Red Stick Spice Company, our phenomenal local spice store, or order them from national vendors, Penzeys, which carries zatar (spelled this way) and sumac in berry form.
Make a mild protein snazzy.
Zahtar’s assertive but floral flavor makes it perfect for proteins like chicken and shrimp. Here, I’ve tossed half a pound of peeled and deveined shrimp with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 teaspoons zahtar. Then, I seared the shrimp in a hot cast iron skillet for 2-3 minutes and served them as an appetizer.
Purple up an onion.
Cut a yellow or white onion into slivers. Toss in a bowl with just enough olive oil to coat and a quick dusting of sumac. Refrigerate overnight to help mellow the onion. Serve with grilled burgers, in pita pockets or atop salads.
Highlight your hummus.
At its core, hummus is a template for embellishment. The menu of the wildly popular modern Israeli New Orleans restaurant Shaya dedicates a whole section of its menu to hummus dishes in which all sorts of ingredients are centered in a pool of homemade hummus. We had scallops and hummus recently and it was phenomenal. At home, sprinkle some hummus with sumac and load it with other ingredients, including the aforementioned shrimp, a nest of cooked chickpeas, olives, shreds of tender lamb stew or other yummy stuff.
Transform bland pita.
One of classic uses of zahtar is to sprinkle it onto a puddle of oil and vinegar through which you drag your pita. Bland pita gets a sweet-savory lift with serious umami. I also like to cut a big disc of pita into wedges, and then toss the slices with oil and a little zahtar. That way, both sides get coated. Bake at 350 degrees for about 5-7 minutes for a crispy snack. My kids love this.
Eggs, God bless ’em, are soooo cooperative! They’re one of my absolute favorite recipients of spices and flavor enhancers of all kinds. They love everything from turmeric to flavored salts, truffle oil, intense heat, lowly ketchup and more. Sprinkle a fried egg with sumac and sop up the runny yolk with pita. It’s equally delicious on scrambled or poached eggs, providing a pleasant lemony kick.