Ah, zaatar; the workhorse of Israeli spices. You'd be hard-pressed to find an Israeli household without this quixotic spice blend in their pantry, and for good reason.
The word zaatar itself was originally used in reference to one single ancient plant variety (the biblical "eizov" plant, thought to be related to either wild oregano, or wild hyssop). In Middle Eastern kitchens, however, it is used to describe a spice blend. The spices included can vary, but commonly include toasted sesame seeds, sumac, marjoram or thyme, and sometimes salt.
The possibilities for zaatar-tinged goodness are endless. It adds a complex yet not overbearing flavor when sprinkled over vegetables, chicken, or fish, and mixed with olive oil for the perfect pita or laffa dip.
Zaatar also shines atop any number of pedestrian-on-their-own (and, not necessarily classically Levantine) mediums. Avocado Toast? Definitely. Pizza? You bet, Israeli salad? Yup. Apples? You know what...probably.
Zataar's flavor profile is chameleon, and thus easily incorporated into a wide variety of foods. While a last-step sprinkling of zaatar is always a good call, the depth of its personality comes out when cooked.
Below are two simple recipes that highlight zataar's adaptability. The first recipe is a truly Yerushalmi ("Jerusalamite") beet dip by Israel's venerable culinary ambassador, Yotam Ottelenghi. The second recipe is a classic zaatar chicken dish by renowned chef and food scientist J. Kenji Lopez Alt.
Za'atar-Spiced Beet Dip with Goat Cheese and Hazelnuts (Yotam Ottolenghi)
6 medium beets (1 1/2 pounds), trimmed
2 small garlic cloves, mince
1 small red chile, seeded and minced
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon za'atar
1/4 cup roasted skinned hazelnuts, chopped
2 tablespoons goat cheese, crumbled
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Warm bread, for serving
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the beets in a small roasting pan and add 1/4 cup of water. Cover with foil and bake for about 1 hour, until tender. Let cool slightly.
Peel the beets, cut into wedges and transfer to a food processor. Add the garlic, chile and yogurt and pulse until blended. Add the olive oil, maple syrup and za'atar and puree. Season with salt. Scrape into a wide, shallow bowl. Scatter the hazelnuts, goat cheese and scallions on top and serve with bread.
Grilled Chicken With Za'atar
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon minced fresh savory
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons ground sumac (see note above)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1 whole chicken, 3 1/2 to 4 pounds
Lemon wedges, for serving
For the Za'ater: combine oregano, thyme, savory, sesame seeds, sumac, and 1 tablespoon kosher salt in a small bowl and stir with fingers until homogenous. Set aside half of mixture. Combine remaining half with 2 tablespoons olive oil and minced garlic until it forms a paste.
Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and place breast-side-down on a large cutting board. Using sharp kitchen shears, remove the backbone by cutting along either side of it. Turn chicken over and lay out flat. Press firmly on breast to flatten the chicken. For added stability, run a metal or wooden skewer horizontally, entering through one thigh, going through both breast halves, and exiting through the other thigh. Tuck wing tips behind back. Season generously with sale and pepper.
Using your hands, rub herb and garlic paste evenly all over the surface of chicken, working it into every nook and cranny. Sprinkle reserved dry za'atar mixture evenly over all surfaces and gently pat down to adhere.
Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.
Place chicken skin-side up on cooler side of grill with legs facing towards hotter side. Cover grill with vents on lid open and aligned over the chicken. Open bottom vents of grill if using a charcoal grill. Cook until instant read thermometer inserted into deepest part of breast registers 120 degrees fahrenheit, about 30-45 minutes. Carefully flip chicken and place skin-side-down on hotter side of grill with breasts pointed towards cooler side. If using a gas grill, reduce heat to medium-low. Press down firmly with a wide, stiff spatula to ensure good contact between bird and grill grates. Cover and cook until skin is crisp and read thermometer inserted into deepest part of breast registers 145 to 150 degress fahrenheit, about 10 minutes longer. If chicken threatens to burn before temperature is achieved, carefully slide to cooler side of grill, cover, and continue to cook until done. Do not leave the lid off for longer than it takes to check temperature.
Transfer chicken to a cutting board and allow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Carve, drizzle with olive oil, and serve with lemon wedges and sumac-mint aioli.