Zesty Za’atar

I first discovered za’atar on a trip to Southern France, visiting a spice market with my dear friend Joan Nathan. Every spice merchant has their own version of this Israeli blend: Ours is made with dried thyme and sumac—both of which are easy to grow on the Vineyard—and white sesame seeds. We began packaging it for our booth at the West Tisbury Farmers Market several years ago. 

The most traditional use of this mild, yet flavorful blend is to mix it with oil and serve as a dipper with bread, but there are so many other options! You can sprinkle za’atar on just about everything: flatbread, eggs, hummus, potato salad, yogurt. As a topper on salads or any roasted vegetable, it is a lovely surprise.

Israeli-born London chef Yotam Ottolenghi abundantly uses sumac and za’atar throughout his many cookbooks. This week’s recipe, using seasonal Martha’s Vineyard produce, is adapted from one of his dishes—I added the parsnips and beets. 

Parsnips need the cold weather to convert their starches into sugar and develop their appealingly sweet flavor. Harvested after the frost sets in, they keep well and are available throughout the winter and spring. They’re perfect vegetables to have on hand. Choose small, firm parsnips that are not limp or shriveled. Keep them loosely wrapped in a damp towel or a plastic bag in the produce drawer of the refrigerator, so they don’t dry out.

Roasted Butternut Squash, Parsnips, Beets and Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar
Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi

1 large butternut squash (3 lbs.), cut into 2 1/2-inch wedges
4-5 parsnips, peeled and cut into  2 1/2-inch wedges
2 beets, cut into 2 1/2-inch wedges
3 red onions, cut into 2 1/2-inch wedges
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon raz el hanout (a mixture of cumin, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice)
5 Tbsp. light tahini paste
Juice of one lemon
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/8 cup pine nuts
2 Tbsp. za’atar
2 Tbsp. coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley (arugula is a great substitute)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350˚.

Put the squash, parsnips and onion in a large mixing bowl, add 6-8 Tbsp. of the oil, 1 tsp. salt, black pepper and raz el hanout and toss well. Spread on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked through. Remove from the oven and cool.

Roast the beets separately to ensure that the other vegetables do not get pink. Add 2-3 tablespoons oil and salt and pepper, toss and spread on a baking sheet and roast for 20-30 minutes until the beets are just cooked. Remove from the oven and cool.

Place pine nuts on sheet pan and roast in oven until LIGHTLY browned. VERY carefully, as these do burn quickly!

Sauce: Put tahini in a  bowl with the lemon juice, 4 Tbsp. water, garlic, and 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk until smooth and add more water or tahini to your taste.

I often make this 4-5 hours ahead of time. Just before serving: Place the vegetables on a serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts, followed by the za’atar and parsley and or arugula.

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