Staple Corner: How to Make Your Own Za'atar


My first taste of this popular Middle Eastern herb and sesame seed blend was an extraordinary burst of tangy, zesty and salty flavors. I make a lot of spice blends for my kitchen from scratch, but never one that tasted so good just on its own. In fact, it is eaten almost on its own, often served with just bread and olive oil. Highly aromatic as well as delicious, consider using za'atar to make simple oil or yogurt dressing or sprinkle it on fresh tomato slices or Middle Eastern vegetable dishes.

Although recipes for za'atar — also spelled as "zahtar", "zatar" or "zaatar" — vary from region to region and even from family to family within the Middle East and North Africa, each preparation features a combination of dried herbs such as thyme, oregano or marjoram mixed with ground toasted sesame seeds and salt. Other seeds or herbs are also sometimes added according to the local or family custom. This version includes black salt — also called rock salt — and dried fenugreek leaves to impart a smokier and tangier flavor. Dried sumac — the berry of a small temperature deciduous shrub — is also commonly added. Ground to a powder, sumac is easily found in any Middle Eastern grocer and in many Asian grocers.

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Baked Pumpkin Oatmeal Pudding Cake

savory oatmeal pumpkin bake

Oatmeal is pretty standard breakfast fare around my house, but it's usually simply cooked on a stove-top and served plain with a little milk, maple syrup and some berries. But I do enjoy going the extra step once in a while to make a baked oatmeal pudding, and with plenty of pumpkin purée in the freezer, it was an easy choice to go with a baked pumpkin oatmeal with all the pie spices that fill the kitchen with delicious aromas.

Soft, creamy and chewy, this oatmeal pudding comes out of the oven like a flour-less coffee cake, and is as nourishing as it is simple to put together. Soaking rolled oats in plain good quality whole fat yogurt overnight before baking breaks down the grain's complex proteins into easily digestible components and results in a delightful spongey and almost custardy texture in the finished cake. And, of course, there's pumpkin and some toasted pecans… It's not too sweet, either, sweetened with just a quarter cup of maple syrup, but you can make it a sweeter dessert pudding cake by increasing the maple syrup to a half cup. You can use canned pumpkin easily as long as it is not the already spiced and sweetened pumpkin pie filling.

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Vegan Black Bean Brownies

Vegan Black Bean Brownies

Considering how much I adore legumes and how important a role they play in my daily diet, I suppose it's no wonder they recently showed up in a dessert. Mind you, these earthy brownies are not too sweet and healthy enough to eat for breakfast in addition to a snack. The beans, combined with the dried cherries, cocoa and vanilla add an almost coffee-like taste and if you wish, to bring that out further, add a few teaspoons of brewed strong coffee to the mixture.

I could hardly wait for these to cool in the pan before eating a few. Because they have black beans in them, they are more substantial than most brownies I've encountered, and as a consequence, I put off eating dinner because I was rather stuffed!

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Vegetable Coconut Sambar

Visit the Indian Food Glossary for information on the ingredients in this recipe
red pepper and coconut sambar

Spicy sambars are generally the first course of traditional South Indian meals, followed up by brothy and lighter rasams and other vegetable dishes, such as poriyals. These thick soup-like creations can be made up of pretty much any vegetables you have on hand and are typically served with rice and other accompaniments. A typical base for sambars is tamarind, dal and yogurt. They are substantial enough to serve as the main course of the meal, as I did with this one with some rice on the side and some Indian flat breads.

Here, an easy paste is prepared for inclusion, and the base is one of toor dal and tamarind, with eggplant, pepper, potato and drumstick as the starring vegetables. I think this must be my first time cooking with drumstick. It is easily found at Asian and Indian grocery stores. Long and skinny, it is somewhat squash like and a popular addition to curries, dal dishes and soups. It comes from the Moringa tree. In addition to the immature seed pods, which are known as the drumsticks themselves, the leaves, mature seeds and even the roots are edible.

The texture of the drumstick adds a nice contrast to the softer eggplant and potato as the outside of the drumstick stays rather firm during the cooking process. This is fiery version of sambar with toor dal, coconut, slightly bitter fenugreek and sweet tamarind. I would suggest it is best served with a hot bed of fresh cooked white rice to cut some of the heat, pappadums as an appetizer, and some Indian flat bread if you are serving as a main meal.

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