Many moons ago, I came across a recipe for a middle-eastern spice blend known as za'atar. Comprised mainly of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and salt, I didn't think it would be that difficult to make into a tasty blend, but our experience with the za'atar pizza proved otherwise.
More details about the San Francisco trip are forthcoming (probably over the weekend), but let me give you a sneak preview. On our second night in San Fran, we dined at an arabic fusion restaurant (thanks for the tip, Susan!) and I would by lying if I said I didn't feel a little pang of terror when the server put down a basket of delicious looking bread to be dipped in a delicious looking oil. Why the terror? As he put down the black-flecked oil, he explained that there was a mixture of spices in the oil which I immediately recognized as za'atar.
I decided I was curious enough to try it again, so I pulled off a piece of Moroccan flatbread and dipped it carefully in the sooty mixture. Then I did it again, and a few more times, and with my sister's help as well as her friend's, we polished off half the oil mixture with the first basket of bread, prompting a server to bring out a second basket (sorry, Atkins fanatics...). It was utterly delightful and I decided that the only thing wrong with my za'atar was that I made it.
Imagine my delight when I was strolling through a farmers' market and found a spice shop with preblended za'atar?
This little bag of magical dirt became the "secret" to a very successful remake of a previously revolting dinner. If that didn't give it away, tonight I made Saffron-Spiked Moroccan Stew from The Vegan Table.
I accidentally left out the minced ginger, but I felt like the brown sugar + cinnamon probably contributed enough of that flavor profile and was afraid of anything upsetting the delicate balance between that generous sprinkling and the slightly less generous amount of coriander, cumin, and salt. The stew came out pretty well - not too much to report now that I've given up on saffron (at least for now - as the za'atar story shows, I never really give up).
What made this dinner special was actually the couscous base. I wanted to do something a little special, because plain couscous is super boring and I didn't have faith that the "sauce" in which I was cooking the vegetables would provide sufficient flavor to overcome the blandness inherent in this north African pastina. To combat that effect, I heated about a tablespoon of olive oil in the pot I intended to use to boil the couscous, then I sprinkled on about 2 tsp of my new za'atar and a generous pinch (or five) of kosher salt and let it heat up slowly. When the time was right, I added the couscous and stirred it up while raising the heat to allow the spice-infused oil to soak into the pastina. Finally, I added the water, brought it to a rapid boil and then turned off the heat and let it work its magic.
It most certainly was magical - I can't believe I got it right on the first try! Next, I hope to replicate the dipping sauce for some focaccia I have not yet purchased. It smelled divine - enough so that my little buddy felt like he might want some, too!