Food is like life: it needs spice to make it exciting, otherwise it’s just…dull. It is a truth so simple that we often tend to take the incredible power of seasoning for granted and seem to forget the wide range of possibilities spices have to offer.
In my humble- but quite expertise- opinion, spices aren’t just a great way to unveil your inner culinary alchemist, it is also –and foremost!- a beautiful and delicious way to explore unfamiliar cultures that would normally be too expensive to travel to. (definitely if you’ve only got a student budget to fall back on, like myself.) I have never been to India but thanks to my fast expanding spice cupboard, I can now replicate (or at least try to replicate) the flavours, colours and incredibly tasty dishes this country has to offer in my own small kitchen.
Like an artist can’t paint without colours, I simply cannot cook without spices: they tantalize your taste-buds, they make everything look and taste mouth-wateringly delicious and they have the extraordinary quality of turning a snooze fest into a true Wake Up Call!
Two of my favourite spices at the moment (although one is technically a spice mix) are za’atar and sumac. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend which comes in many different varieties- every country has its own version, from Lebanon over Syria to Saudi Arabia – and its unique aroma embodies the multicultural soul of Jerusalem. Za’atar (Don’t you just love that name? I should probably google what it means!) is generally prepared using dried thyme, toasted sesame seeds, salt and other spices such as sumac. You can use it to season meat, fish, veg or sprinkle it on top of some pita bread or your favourite hummus. It is vibrant, it is fragrant and once you’ve tried it, you will never want to go without.
Another one of my favourite spices is one of the components of za’atar: sumac. This ruby red powder is made from berries of the sumac plant, which grows all over the Middle East and North Africa, and gives a very tart and fruity boost of flavour. I love it sprinkled on top of hummus, barbecued meats and fish or in a fresh yoghurt dip. It is the perfect substitute for lemon juice without being overpoweringly acidic and it just looks stunning in all its red glory as a garnish!
This dish was an homage to these spices. A fragrant maftoul couscous with za’atar carrots, Apricot and almond roasted red onion, topped with a zesty sumac Greek yoghurt. It may sound like an intricate dish, but it is super easy to make and the taste is simply sensational!
For the za’atar carrots:
• 1kg carrots, chopped into big chunks
• 3 tbsp z a’atar
• ½ tbsp sugar
1. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan and sautee the carrots with the sugar and some salt and pepper for a couple of minutes. Add a splash of water and cover with a lid. Let it simmer on a low heat for about 15-20 minutes, or until the carrots are soft but not mushy.
2. Stir through the za’atar
For the couscous
• 250gr maftoul
• 4 spring onions, finely chopped
• 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
• 2 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped
• Handful of dried apricots, finely chopped
• ½ tsp nigella seeds
• ½ tsp mustard seeds
• ½ tbsp cumin seeds
• ½ tsp chilli flakes
• ½ tsp ground cinnamon
• ½ tsp ground ginger
• 0,5l vegetable stock
1. Dry roast the spices in a non-stick frying pan until they begin to release their scent. Add the maftoul couscous and stir until all the grains are coated in the spices.
2. Add the vegetable stock and garlic and let it simmer on low heat until the couscous has absorbed all the liquid.
3. Stir through the apricots, spring onion and mint.
For the onions:
• 4 red onions, cut in half
• Handful of chopped dried apricots
• Handful of almond flakes
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• ½ tsp harissa
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Put the onions in an oven-proof dish and sprinkle some olive oil and salt and pepper over the top. Put in the oven for 10-15 minutes until the onions are soft.
2. Mix the other ingredients for the topping together in a bowl . Remove the onions from the oven and spoon a generous portion of the topping onto each onion half.
3. Put in the oven for a further 5 minutes until the crumble topping is golden brown.
For the sumac Greek yoghurt:
• 125ml Greek yoghurt
• 1 clove of garlic
• 2 tbsp sumac
1. Mix all the ingredients together.