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Edible Silicon Valley Spring 2014 : Page 25

C all it serendipity. At a small Lebanese restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, I had a chance encounter with a flavor of another kind. My notes in my iPhone list it as “zater,” my best guess at the spelling after interrogating the waiter at length about the ingredient mixed in with the olive oil. Turns out it was za’atar —a tangy-nutty Middle Eastern spice blend and actual plant, some-times called hyssop, that is ubiquitous in the Middle East but not commonly known (or eaten) in Silicon Valley. From that point on, I was intrigued by Middle Eastern flavors, eager to explore the cuisine in more detail. Luckily, I had help in the form of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2012) and from a longtime friend, Sarene Wallace, a Sunnyvale native and experienced food writer. Together we launched a virtual cooking community called Tasting Jerusalem to explore Middle Eastern cuisine through the lens of the award-winning cookbook. Not surprisingly, our group’s guiding theme each month is ingredient-driven. When we introduce a new ingredient, we offer suggestions of where to purchase it, since oftentimes a trip to the local large chain grocer may not suffice. We also include online resources for those with no local access to ethnic grocery stores. But in Silicon Valley, specialty grocers abound (see sidebar). To get started with your own Middle Eastern ingredient discovery, here are a few specific suggestions to add to your pantry of staples. Sumac An integral ingredient to the za’atar spice blend, ground sumac’s dark red granules pack a mighty punch all on their own. Of no relation to the poison sumac we were warned about as children, this dried red berry has a surprising lemony zing and is a visually attractive and palate-pleasing addition to salads, dips, rice and many more dishes. Za’atar Depending on the region of origin, the basic ingredients of this spice blend may vary but will always include sumac, sesame seeds and dried thyme. If visiting the Middle East, the actual za’atar plant called hyssop might stand in for the thyme. Some blends include salt, oregano, marjoram or sage. This herby mixture marries beautifully with olive oil and flatbread, toma-toes, yogurt, and takes a simple roasted cauliflower from satisfying to sublime. Barberries A tiny red berry that looks like a cross between a dried cranberry and a currant. In fact, a recipe will often suggest using cranberries, currants or tart dried cherries combined with a bit of vin-egar as a substitute. Barberries are a key ingredient in the Persian dish zereshk polow (zereshk is the barberry, polow is chicken). Barberries add a colorful tangy punch to many savory dishes and are an especially zippy addition to rice and grain courses. Tasting Jerusalem is a virtual cooking community exploring the vibrant flavors and cuisine of the Middle East through the lens of Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Ottolenghi and Tamimi published by Ten Speed Press. You can follow along and cook with us by subscribing to, following the hashtag #TastingJrslm on Twitter and Instagram, liking our Facebook page, joining our Google+ Community and following our Pinterest group board. Rose Water A fragrant clear liquid made from distilling strongly scented rose petals, rose water adds a floral undertone when just a smidgen is used. (Too much, it comes off like dish soap.) It is most of-ten used for baked goods and puddings but can be a surprising addition to many savory dishes. Pomegranate Molasses Another ingredient that Middle Eastern cuisine employs to add tang and tartness to dishes, this time in a thick liquid form, is pomegranate molasses. Think balsamic vinegar Middle East-ern style. Perfect for salad dressings, braising liquids, stews, even desserts and drinks. Home cooks can make their own by reducing pomegranate juice, but it is readily available bottled— just look for pure pomegranate in the ingredients, with no or minimal added sugar. Beth Lee is a San Jose–based food writer, marketing consultant, co-founder of the virtual cooking community Tasting Jerusalem and writes the food blog OMG! Yummy ( spring 2014 25

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