Seasonings, za'atar, and two extremely simple “recipes”

Spiced chickpeas, simple salt-and-pepper sweet potato, minimal effort

A question I get asked a lot is how I mix spices to make my own seasonings. The answer is that I don’t. My family’s spice businesses have pre-mixed seasonings so excellent that I’ve never felt the need to mix my own.

What I will tell you is how I use seasonings: I combine two or three, add salt and pepper, sometimes add MSG, and frequently add one or two additional spices. The seasonings in frequent rotation are curry blends, za’atar, lemon pepper, cajun, taco, Moroccan seasoning, Penzeys’ “frozen pizza seasoning,” sandwich sprinkle, and an old blend that’s no longer made, of which I have several pounds cooling their heels in my freezer. 

For example I’ll combine lemon pepper and Moroccan seasoning, a bit of MSG, and sweet paprika for roasting vegetables. Some seasonings are heavy in salt, some heavy in pepper, in which case I don’t add extra salt and pepper. Taco seasoning has a lot of salt in it. Moroccan does’t. MSG is almost always going to make whatever it is a little better.

This doesn’t achieve a single strong tone, but a mishmash of complementary flavors. Some people want one flavor to sing; I want a chorus of harmonizing spices that work well together. 

And I’m adding this chorus of seasonings to what I call “blank slate foods.” Like a canvas waiting for paint, these foods are filled in with what flavors you add to them. Think rice: plain on its own, owing its flavor to whatever it absorbs. 

Chickpeas are like that. Chickpeas are also cheap, convenient, and healthy. I roast canned chickpeas once or twice a week for lunches and dinners. It’s one of the easiest meals I know how to make. It’s also really affordable: cans are under $2 and I have olive oil and spices stocked.

Canned chickpeas should be rinsed to wash off the liquid, which is high in sodium. But the liquid itself, called aquafaba, can be used as an egg substitute and is popular in vegan baking recipes. 

Spiced chickpeas

Basically, this recipe is simply mixing a can of (rinsed and dried) chickpeas with olive oil and spices and baking them in the oven. I’ve included my current spice mixture measurements for this recipe, but I don’t actually measure anything out. Enough olive oil to coat the chickpeas, and whatever seasonings look good in the moment, added until the chickpeas look sufficiently spicy. Then I spread them out on a baking pan, pop them in a hot oven for 20 minutes, and remove. While they’re baking I make a vinaigrette—the chickpeas can be a little dry without it. The result is a bowl of crispy, tangy little pops of spice. 

I should add that this is the entire meal. I don’t do the whole “meat + starch + veg on the side” type of meals. This is it. It’s very easy to make, and very satisfying to eat.

I like this recipe because everything I need to make it is in my refrigerator and pantry, except for the lemon. If you don’t have a lemon, you can use a red wine vinegar instead; you’re really just replacing the acid component. Anyway, everything’s already stocked, so I don’t have to go shopping or think about much in the way of preparing this one.

The details

Yield: One can per person; a sufficient meal. (Double recipe for two.)

Time: 30 minutes

Labor rating: 3 (no chopping, almost no real prep work, minimal dishes to wash)

Ingredients

Chickpeas

1 can chickpeas

2 tsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. za’atar seasoning

1/2 tsp. black sesame seeds

1/4 tsp. sweet curry powder

1/4 tsp. sweet smoked paprika

1/8 tsp. sumac (I don’t think my za’atar seasoning has enough sumac so I add more)

1 pinch MSG

1 pinch salt

2 grinds pepper (1 pinch)

Vinaigrette

Juice from one half lemon (about 1 TB)

1 tsp. olive oil

1/2 tsp. tahini

1/4 tsp. mustard

1/2 tsp. Aleppo pepper

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

Rinse chickpeas in a strainer over the sink. Remove as much water as you can. (I move the strainer up and down, which dislodges a lot of water, then let it sit on the edge of the sink for a moment, which allows more draining.) Save the strainer for a future step. Place a paper towel on a plate. Deposit chickpeas on paper towel and dry completely.

Put dried chickpeas in medium bowl. Add olive oil and spices and mix well. Dump onto a baking sheet and shake so chickpeas aren’t touching each other. (Some chickpea skins will be stuck in the bowl; I add them to the baking sheet because they come out really crispy and add a nice texture.) Cook in the hot oven for 20 minutes, shaking once halfway through. Chickpeas should emerge browned. 

While chickpeas are in the oven, make your vinaigrette. In the same bowl you mixed up the chickpeas, add the juice of half a lemon, mustard, tahini, and Aleppo pepper. (Squeeze the lemon over the strainer to catch the seeds.) Mix well with fork or whisk. Add olive oil in a slow drizzle, whisking as you go to emulsify. 

When you move the chickpeas off the sheet pan and into your bowl, you’ll notice that many of the black sesame seeds are left behind. They don’t stick very well. Using a spatula, scrape them into the vinaigrette and stir them in. Drizzle vinaigrette over chickpeas. 

Note: You should experiment with what spice combination you like. You can also experiment with the vinaigrette. My husband likes a more tahini-forward version, so he adds more tahini when he makes it. He also does away with my multi-seasoning/spice approach and uses only a Moroccan blend, salt, and pepper on the chickpeas. That’s good too! Sometimes I’m in the mood for chickpeas that are predominantly za’atar, so I’ll increase the za’atar (and sumac) and decrease the others or eliminate some altogether.

Another note: I use one baking sheet per can of chickpeas. So if I’m making just one can for myself, one sheet is sufficient. But if I’m making dinner for myself and my husband, I’m using two cans and two baking sheets for the chickpeas. This is because if they’re crowded and touching on the pan, they’ll steam instead of crisp up. If you’re doing three cans you can split them between two baking pans. 

A final note: I wait a minute or two after I remove the chickpeas from the oven before I add the vinaigrette. This allows the outsides of the chickpeas to firm up a little and retain their crispness when the liquid is added. I’m not sure, but I think if they’re piping hot they absorb the liquid and become a little more soggy. Occasionally I really want the chickpeas to remain as crisp as possible, and on those days I dip the chickpeas into the vinaigrette (moved to a small bowl) with each forkful. Such decisions are yours to make. 

Salt-and-pepper sweet potato

On the other hand, sometimes salt and pepper are all the spice you need. This “recipe” relies on ample butter to roast the sweet potato, salt (and more butter) to bring out a good texture in the potato skin, and pepper added at the end to bring it together. Again, this acts as a whole meal for me. It’s a very lazy way to turn single large root a meal.

This “recipe” requires a single slice down the sweet potato, “hotdog” way, which can actually be a little tricky. You want a good clean cut because you want the cut sides to be flat enough to rest firmly against the bottom of a sheet pan. I like the long, thin sweet potatoes because it gives more surface area for the good stuff; the bottom resting on the pan caramelizes beautifully, while the skin gets—for want of a better word—leathery. (In a good way.) I break out my fancy butter for this, because it plays a central role in the meal. Freshly ground pepper straight from the grinder is a must. 

The details

Yield: One large, thin sweet potato per person; a decent lunch (obviously, cook an additional potato for each person)

Time: 30 - 40 minutes

Labor rating: 2 (1 chop, no prep work, minimal dishes to wash)

Ingredients

One sweet potato

~2 TB high-quality salted butter

~¼ tsp Kosher salt

Pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wash and dry sweet potato. Trim off any weird ends and bristles. Slice down the center. Smear butter on the skins until thickly coated (I used about 1 tablespoon). It’s easier if the butter is room temperature. Then sprinkle liberally with kosher salt. For the salt, I used a tad less than ¼ teaspoon—you really don’t have to measure.

Put ½ tablespoon butter on sheet pan and place in oven. After about three minutes, when butter is melted, remove from oven and place cut-side of sweet potato on melted butter. (Shake the pan to spread out the butter if you need to.)

Cooking time depends on the size of the potato in question. It also depends on whether the two halves are the same size. It’s easier if you find a symmetrical potato you can easily cut into two identical pieces, but the elongated sweet potatoes I prefer are trickier. No matter; just cook each half until it’s done. How do you know when it’s done? Stick a fork in it. If it’s tender—the consistency that you want to eat it at—it’s done. 

But in general these will cook for 20 to 30 minutes. My long seal-shaped sweet potato cut into uneven halves, so one side cooked for 24 minutes and the other needed three additional minutes. A smaller sweet potato I made last week came out after 20 minutes. 

Cool it for three to five minutes. It’s a hot potato. I grind fresh pepper directly onto my plate, add a little more kosher salt, then dip each bite in. A sharp knife is good for slicing through the potato skin. 

If someone can come up with a better name than “salt-and-pepper sweet potato,” I’d be grateful.

Za’atar

I noted in the chickpea recipe that I added additional sumac because my za’atar seasoning was lacking. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern blend of spices that typically comprises an herb, white sesame seeds, and sumac. But nailing down exactly what za’atar is made of is like trying to standardize barbecue sauce: There is no standard recipe or ratio, what’s accepted in one place as standard won’t be accepted as standard elsewhere, and recipes vary not just by location but by family and person. So “za’atar” can look very different depending on who’s making it and where you’re eating it. Sometimes, “za’atar” only means the herb. Sometimes the blended kind comes with salt, or cumin, or really any additional spice the blender wants to throw in. But in the States, za’atar usually refers to thyme, sesame, and sumac, though sometimes the thyme is marjoram, or a combination.

Because it varies so much, za’atar is a fun seasoning to pick up whenever you see it on your travels. I’m currently using a tin I found at a spice stall in Montreal. It’s good, but it doesn’t have very much sumac at all—so I add a bit more to get sumac’s distinctly sour flavor. I think my increased use of za’atar led me to realize I really like sesame seeds, which led to me add black sesame seed to the chickpea recipe, and scrape them into the vinaigrette. They’re nice and toasted at that point, and they add a nice crunchy texture to the dish.

Cheers,

Caity