Spice blends can be magical. With just the right amount of this and that, a well-crafted blend is greater than the sum of its parts. However, with up to 20 spices working in tandem, the individual pieces inevitably get lost and are impossible to distinguish. A blend definitely has its time and place -- curries, rubs, soups, and seasonings -- but the way a spice shines all on its own can be equally beautiful.
The easiest way to get a feel for a single spice is to use it alone on a simple ingredient that can hold its own: vegetables, quality cuts of meat, or breads. With that in mind, I set my sights on sumac, a popular spice in Middle Eastern, Persian, and some Mediterranean cuisine that's little-known in the US. It's a star ingredient in the spice and herb blend za'atar, which is widely used as a condiment as well as a seasoning for dough, meat, vegetables, and hummus.
This spice starts as reddish-purple berries from sumac plants. The small berries, which grow in big clusters, are dried and ground into a bright red spice. In fact, the word "sumac" traces its etymology way back to the word for "red" in Syriac, a language that was first prominent in the second century BCE. Since sumac can't be found in run-of-the-mill grocery stores, and of course it's best to get the freshest, highest quality spices to ensure optimal flavor, I headed to Penzey's at Tempe Marketplace to pick up a jar. At $3.75 for a small jar (1.2 oz.), you'll get enough to experiment with quite a few dishes. Once you get a taste, you'll be putting it on everything, maybe even mixing up an original blend of za'atar to keep handy on the kitchen table.
sour, tart aroma fills the air. The spice is often compared to lemon, but its scent and flavor are much more complex and just a little musky. It's easy to see that it can blend with oregano and sesame to make za'atar, but it clearly doesn't need any counterparts to add a special touch to most dishes. French fries, with their ability to act as a base for any other flavor (even a chocolate Wendy's Frosty), provide the perfect test for sumac's flavor profile. While it might be similar to lemons in its sourness, if you squeeze lemon juice on French fries, they will not turn out like this. Sumac is a pretty safe spice for most palates as it has zero heat and lends a complimentary acidic spark to other foods; plus, it adds a subtle sweetness akin to paprika.
Sumac-Dusted Oven Baked French Fries Adapted from theKitchn.com
3 Yukon gold potatoes 1 tablespoon of olive oil (More or less depending on size of potatoes) Salt 2 tablespoons sumac
Preheat oven to 400°. Cut potatoes into 1/2-inch strips. Toss with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Bake for 30-30 minutes, shuffling them around every 8 to 10 minutes. When they start to brown, remove from the oven and toss with sumac. It may seem like a lot of spice, but it won't be overpowering.
Note: I baked mine at 350°, and it wasn't hot enough. The fries were tasty and cooked through, but even the skins weren't crispy. When I reheated the leftovers in the toaster oven at 400°, they were nice and crisp.
Simple Roasted Garlic Dip
1 head garlic 4 tablespoons low-fat sour cream 1 tablespoon butter Salt Pepper
Peel almost all of the papery skin off of the garlic, leaving just enough to hold the cloves together. Slice off the top of the head, exposing the cloves. Rub the top with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap the head of garlic in foil or parchment paper and roast in a 400° oven for 30-45 minutes, until the garlic is soft.
Use a fork to coax the roasted garlic out of the skin, then mash. Mix the garlic, sour cream, and butter. It won't look that pretty, but it's super easy and beats ketchup any day.