When a dish needs that “little something,” I reach for a jar of za’atar. Aromatic, pungent, tangy za’atar (ZAH-tar) is the cornerstone of Levantine (eastern Mediterranean) cuisine. It’s both an herb and a spice blend that gives the humblest ingredients a lift.

The fresh herb, a relative of hyssop, grows wild throughout the hills of the Levant and is known as the “king of herbs,” treasured for its complex thyme-oregano-savory flavor. Every family has its own special version, which is often a closely held secret.

The spice blend combines dried za’atar, sesame seeds and ground sumac, but because the fresh wild herb is rarely exported, the spice blends we can find here are made of dried thyme, oregano, cumin, coriander, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and coarse salt. It’s easy enough to make your own version, but it’s also available in specialty shops (i.e. Penzeys and the Golden Fig) and in the spice aisles of co-ops and groceries.

This year, I’m making za’atar blends for holiday gifts, along with ideas and recipes for its many uses:

• Sprinkle za’atar over root vegetables before roasting; whisk it into tahini, hummus, baba ghanouj and tzatziki for vibrant spreads, sauces and dips.

• Toss za’atar into pilafs of brown rice, barley or farro.

• Use on roast chicken, fish and lamb.

• For a quick appetizer, drizzle a little olive oil over pita or flat bread, sprinkle generously with za’atar, toast until golden, then cut and serve with chèvre, or pair these toasts with soups, salads and stews.

Today’s recipe for roast chicken with za’atar and lemon is a simplified take on a traditional Palestinian dish, m’sakhan. It’s a no-fuss dinner that practically cooks itself. The gentle flavor of Meyer lemons gives the chicken zip and the lemon slices roast to turn slightly sweet and crunchy. Serve this chicken hot from the oven or at room temperature; it’s just right for a buffet dinner or holiday potluck.

Leftovers are great stuffed into a pita or tossed into a salad or simmered into soup. It’s great paired with a pilaf of barley, farro or brown rice. Be sure to include pita bread or flat bread to wipe up all those wonderful juices. (After all, the best part of roast chicken is the sticky residue left in the pan.)


Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.