Dukkah And Spice Blend Friends
Dukkah's components, pre-blending. Ronnie Fein/JW
The author never forgot her mother's words: 'Good cooks know how to season properly.'
My mother always told me that good cooks know how to season food properly. She was right about that -- using herbs and spices is one the most effective ways to make food tastier, more appealing and exciting. It also helps cut calories and sodium, because the additional flavors mean you need less salt and fat in your cooking.
Spice blends are mixtures that combine herbs, spices and sometimes other ingredients, and these can really make food go from humdrum to everyone-humming. Recently, the ones with a distinctive Middle Eastern/North African flavor have been trending among home cooks everywhere. Here are the favorites:
Za'atar: has been well known throughout the Middle East for centuries. In fact, there’s mention of it in the Bible, where it is known as hyssop (although a different variety than modern day hyssop) and was used for, among other things, cleansing lepers (Leviticus 14:4-6). Apparently, in addition to its culinary virtues, za’atar has some health benefits (historians note that Maimonides advised his patients to it for colds and other ailments).
What is za’atar, exactly? In the Middle East it is actually a fresh herb that tastes similar to thyme, but for most of the rest of us it refers to a dried blend comprised of varying proportions of sumac, sesame seeds, thyme and salt. Some recipes include oregano or marjoram, and still others add ground pistachio nuts, orange peel or dill. Sumac makes the blend pleasantly tart, toasted sesame provides a nutty undertone and thyme, za’atar’s characteristic woodsy taste.
Za’atar is so incredibly useful that I have several versions in my spice cabinet. Here are just a few of the ways you can use it: brush pita rounds with olive oil, add a few sprinkles of za’atar and bake in a 400 degree oven until the bread is crisp. Add it to marinades for grilled chicken, sprinkle it on top of fish for broiling or over roasted winter squash or beets. If you make homemade challah, scatter a bit over the top in place of the usual poppy or sesame seeds. Of course it is a fabulous addition, sprinkled over hummus, to yogurt, scrambled eggs or shakshuka.
How to make it? If you aren’t up to scouting out the fresh herb and drying it before you mix it with the other ingredients, several kosher blends are available or you can make your own by mixing dried sumac, toasted sesame seeds, dried thyme and kosher salt, tasting as you go.
Dukkah: a blend of spices, nuts and seeds, is ubiquitous across North Africa, particularly in Egypt and, as of last year, a must-try item in the States.
Like za’atar, there are multiple versions, depending upon who is making it, but generally blends contain cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, salt and nuts (any kind including peanuts or tree nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios and macadamias). For variety, some people mix in fennel seeds, chili pepper, paprika and even sumac. There is no one recipe, the mixture is as adaptable as your own particular palate will allow.
The name dukkah comes from the Egyptian “to crush” and traditionally this blend was prepared using a mortar and pestle – a kind of dry pesto. A food processor will do though. Or you can leave the mixture as is, for a bulkier blend. Although there are kosher commercial brands available, dukkah isn’t long-lasting and it’s best to make it homemade, when you need it. In addition, because nuts become rancid easily, I’ve found it is better to store dukkah in the refrigerator, where it will last for a couple of weeks.
I’ve used dukkah on so many foods it is impossible to list them all, but here are a few suggestions: eat it as is, as a kind of “trail mix.” Mix it with olive oil as a seasoning for chicken, lamb and salmon. Add it to marinades and vinaigrettes, sprinkle it over hummus or yogurt, grilled vegetables, thick vegetable soup. Have it as a condiment for olive-oil dipped pita bread. Add some to perk up a plain breadcrumb mixture for frying.
Baharat: is a pan-Middle Eastern/North African spice blend, with a lovely sounding name that translates simply as “spices.” That means the recipe is amazingly flexible, although most baharat includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, cloves and coriander. Spicy versions may also have cayenne or some other pepper variety; in certain regions baharat contains crushed rose petals or sweet, dried mint. Aficionados create various blends in a special spice grinder, but you can make delicious, creative varieties by mixing pre-ground spices, as I have done on many occasions. There are a few commercial kosher brands available.
Because the recipe is so adaptable, so are the ways you can use baharat. Sprinkle it on chicken, fish and lamb before roasting or grilling, or onto vegetables such as eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes and beets. Add it to marinades. Mix it into cooked rice, couscous, vegetable soup, meatloaf and gravy.
Ras al Hanout: is a mixture that we’ve covered in The Jewish Week before. It’s another North African spice blend with an intriguing name (it means “top of the shelf,” or “the best”) and each version is a cook’s own vision of what the flavors are supposed to be. Invariably ras al hanout contains cumin, turmeric, cayenne, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. It has a captivating, complex aroma of both sweet and savory, and complex flavors that mix warmth and heat. There are some kosher commercial brands, but this blend, like the others, is easy to put together at home using pre-ground spices.
One of my go-to recipes is roasted chicken breast brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with ras al hanout. It takes less than 5 minutes to prepare.
Among the many other virtuous ways to use this blend include these: as a spice rub for roasted or grilled fish and lamb; sprinkled on olive oil-brushed carrots, beets, broccoli and cauliflower before roasting. Or use it in marinades and salad dressings, combine it with olive oil or butter for topping baked potatoes or over fresh, hot popcorn. Use it to flavor vegetable soup, hummus, couscous or rice. Believe it or not, even grandma’s classic brisket recipe could benefit from a sprinkle or two of ras al hanout.
Here’s another bonus for you. Make several spice blends, place them in pretty, small bottles or jars and use them for Purim mishloach manot.
Ronnie Fein is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher in Stamford, CT. She is the author of Hip Kosher and The Modern Kosher Kitchen. Visit her food blog, Kitchen Vignettes, at www.ronniefein.com, friend on Facebook, Twitter at @RonnieVFein.
Ronnie Fein's Dukkah: