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.