How to spice up your pantry the Mediterranean way

How to spice up your pantry the Mediterranean way

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Suzy Karadsheh is a popular Egyptian blogger. I didn't realize I needed sumac or Aleppo in my life, until I met her. She invited me and my husband to her Atlanta suburbs home for a Mediterranean feast that made her famous on social media.

It was the platter of drumsticks that I had never tasted before, with their rosy hues and bold seasoning. They were unlike anything else I'd tried. She explained that the dish musakhan, which her Palestinian friends make during olive oil season, is a slow-roasted chicken with caramelized onion on flatbread drenched in olive oil. In her chargrilled version, she substituted quick-pickled onion for the caramelized onions. The bread was served separately.

The marinade that these conveniently packaged chicken parts were bathed with was what connected her modern recipe to the traditional one: pureed onion and garlic, oranges, olive oil, and myriad spices. I was able to detect the warm spices of cinnamon, coriander and allspice that are so prevalent in Middle Eastern food. The sumac and Aleppo Pepper provided a tart, earthy taste with a tingly sweetness.

New cravings for old cuisines

In recent years, the Mediterranean diet has received a lot of praise from around the world for its wide appeal as well as its flexibility.

Olive oil extra-virgin, yogurt, and feta are staples in the diet, as well as seasonal fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains, and lean protein. Spices, condiments, and pantry staples are what give these simple foods a taste that is unique to this vast and diverse region, which stretches from Southern Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.

I gained a deeper appreciation for these nuances when working with Karadsheh during the pandemic, and then as her collaborator in writing 'The Mediterranean Dish:120 Bold and Healthful Recipes You Will Make Again' her best-selling book based on her blog.

Early on, I realized that I would not have to search far and wide for the unique seasoning blends which characterize her cooking. The majority of the blends are made with spices that I use regularly in a variety cuisines. These include cumin, turmeric, paprika and cinnamon.

She told me, 'There's a few that are harder to find but I can't do without them.' She sells some on her website and others are becoming more widely available as the demand for Mediterranean flavors grows.

Aleppo and sumac, both widely used in the Mediterranean, are often combined together into the same recipe. Both have a huge potential that goes beyond their boundaries, as evidenced by the many recipes they appear in in mainstream cookbooks and magazines.

Aleppo Pepper is made from the deep red Halaby chili peppers. It was named after the Syrian city in which it used to be abundant. A lot of the Aleppo pepper is now available from Turkey or elsewhere due to the conflict in Syria.

Karadsheh describes Aleppo Pepper as a'magical chile flake that has mild heat and a fruity taste similar to sun-dried tomato. You can sprinkle it on anything from popcorn, to salads, to steaks and even watermelon.

It is about half as hot as generic red chili flakes, but it delivers a flavorful, slow-building heat that will elevate any pizza, avocado toast or grilled meat.

Sumac is a coarse spice that comes from the berries of a shrub. It has a flavor which is simultaneously sour and earthy with floral notes. Karadsheh explained that in the Middle East it is often substituted for citrus when lemons are not available. It acts as a "dry acid" and can enhance the flavors of foods, much like salt. It is a good component for a dry rub on meat, fish, or chicken.

She suggests adding a dash of it to a simple salad dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, and sugar, mixing a pinch in brownie batter, cookie dough, or sprinkled on hummus. Be sure to check the label for an all-natural seasoning. Some mass-market brands are mixed with food coloring and citric acid.

The multilayered history of a bottle

In recent years, a number of pre-mixed seasoning mixes with a long history in the Middle East have found their way into Western kitchens.

Karadsheh uses za'atar regularly in her pantry. It is a blend of sumac and toasted sesame seed, along with wild thyme, among other spices. She sprinkles the spice on toast, tomatoes, avocados and homemade bread. She says that the quality varies between brands, so she recommends reading labels and making sure it's all-natural and free of additives like citric acid.

Karadsheh recommends adding a small amount to something easy to adjust. For example, a simple green salad with light vinaigrette or a yogurt dip for pita and raw vegetables. You can also use olive oil to soak bread.

Dukkah is a delicious, crunchy blend of seeds, nuts and spices that was a staple in Karadsheh’s Egyptian childhood. It remains a constant in her kitchen to this day. She said that although it is sometimes sold in jars it's very easy to make and tastes better when it's fresh. She sprinkles the seasoned salt on salads, soups, roasted veggies, and other dishes that need a crunchy, savory top. It makes a great snack or appetizer when served with pita bread and olive oil.

All of these spices are made up of a variety warm spices. They can be used to spice up a quick stew, dry rub or pilaf.

You can make it yourself!

You probably already have a lot of alchemy in your cabinets if you don't wish to source them.

Karadsheh stated that it is important to remember that the number ingredients in a dish does not always equal its difficulty.

We like to use lots of spices but it is not always complicated. Just throw everything in a big pot or pan, stir it, and you are good to go. Cooking the Mediterranean way is not hard.