Creative Sustenance

Culinary and other adventures in foraging, gardening, urban farming and more, in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Sumac, another use: za'atar spice mix

Every Cub Scout or Boy Scout knows that a sweet/tart Kool-Aid-like tea can be made from fresh staghorn sumac berry clusters. You can also make sumac wine, jellies and other foodstuffs from sumac. Two or three weeks ago I harvested a small late season basket of semi-dry sumac berries for one specific purpose: I wanted to make a batch of za'atar, a spice blend popular in Middle Eastern cooking. 

Staghorn sumac berry clusters. These berries have started to dry and are mostly past their prime for making fresh tea, but they're still good as a spice.

I had read that za'atar is put to good use when combined with olive oil as a seasoned dipping oil for bread - we love bread and oil as an appetizer or snack - as well as a seasoning for meat such as lamb or goat. 

Za'atar is a spice blend that can be purchased through just about any spice company, as is sumac alone. You certainly could make your own za'atar blend by combining purchased herbs and spices. It's such a simple and easy blend to make, usually combining less than a half-dozen ingredients. But we're all about using as many ingredients as we can from non-commercial sources, such as from a garden, foraging, bartering and so on.

Note: We're not opposed to purchasing food items from the grocery store or from any commercial source, not at all - we strongly support buying quality food from quality sources - but rather because we're also in favor of saving a buck here and there, of doing things that you can do via your own effort and creativity, and of simply having fun while pursuing a more self-sufficient lifestyle. 

Anyway, making a spice blend with herbs from the garden and foraged sumac is one of those small activities that yields both home-grown flavor and a good dose of fun in the making. 
While there are variations to the recipe, basic za'atar ingredients include:

  • sumac
  • thyme
  • sesame seeds
  • sea salt
  • oregano

Oregano, thyme, sumac, sesame seeds.

Oregano is actually one of those ingredients that is not considered essential, but is occasionally added to some blends. I had dried oregano from this year's garden and thought it would be a nice addition, so added it to the mix.

The processing of the sumac berries is the only real time consuming part of the recipe, and it's about as easy as falling off a log:

Strip the sumac berries from the clusters and toss them in a food processor. Pulse repeatedly until all of the fuzzy stuff is nicely pulverized and almost powdery. Pour the processed sumac into a sieve with holes of a size that will allow the fluffy stuff to sift through but that will retain the small, BB-like sumac seeds. I found that a standard hand sieve or strainer worked just fine. You want the seeds out, because they're as hard as rocks. Then toss the good stuff back into the food processor and run it again to grind it down even more finely. Sift it again. And then sift it again. And again. No don't want someone cracking a tooth on one of the little beasties.

I processed enough sumac to yield about a ½ cup of dried, processed sumac berry. I think it required around 8 or 10 berry clusters.

Next, I added 3 or 4 tablespoons of dried thyme, 1 heaping tablespoon dried oregano, about 3 tablespoons of lightly toasted sesame seeds, and 1½ teaspoons sea salt. I toasted the sesame seeds in a hot cast-iron skillet for a few minutes, shaking it constantly until they became fragrant and lightly browned. Then I quickly and not too rigorously pulverized most of them with mortar and pestle. Stir everything together or put it in a tupperware container and shake it until it's mixed. That's it.

Taste it and make adjustments where you think it needs it. I ended up adding a bit more sumac because I like the tartness. I immediately made some dipping oil by adding some olive oil and grated parmesan, and soaked it up with chunks of italian bread while watching an old episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern (love that show). I'm also anxious to use the blend as a rub for a bit of goat I've got in the freezer; I think it would do well with that meat.

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