A mother-in-law remembered, through za’atar

There’s a jar in my kitchen, a small Mason jar filled with a Middle Eastern spice mixture called za’atar. There’s a story behind that jar, and I cherish its contents. 

It was a gift from my mother-in-law, brought home from a trip to Israel. Joan was many things, among them world traveler, generous soul and lover of gatherings where people eat and drink. And though she’s been gone for nearly three years, her voice still rings in my head. I can hear her sing-song messages, the ones she left on my phone, just checking in. 

Before I go into detail about the za’atar Joan carried home for me, I’ll tell you a little more about the woman herself. She was wonderful. I always told Paul that I’d married him for his mother and she made me know that the feeling was mutual. Joan loved me — and all of us — unconditionally. 

My mother-in-law, Joan Barrett.

Her enthusiasm bubbled over, especially during the holidays. She showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with a case of wine and a cooler full of fancy cheeses, spreads and olives. Joan never came without rubber gloves, because while she didn’t like to cook, she loved to eat and tidy up. After dinner, she elbowed her way to the kitchen sink and insisted on doing dishes. We were a great pair. 

The za’atar was the last gift she brought me from her travels, before she got sick, before she died. 

There was za’atar, and over the years there were bags and bags of chiles from Mexico, tea from China, peppers from South America. I kept the za’atar after she died, knowing that as soon as the jar was empty, the last bit of her would be gone. And so it sat, unused. But then, I changed my mind. Joan would want me to enjoy every leaf and seed in that jar. I hated to think of the jar being empty, though, of no more gifts from faraway places, company at the kitchen sink, or sweet messages on my phone. So, I started using the za’atar again, liberally and whenever the mood struck. And when the jar got low, I filled it with toasted sesame seeds and ground sumac and dried herbs that make up the blend. I never let it empty and in that way, Joan is always in my kitchen, even just a little bit. 

Za’atar is at once nutty from the sesame, herby (thyme, oregano and marjoram) and has a punchy lemon kick from the sumac. You can buy it all mixed up, but I prefer to make my own. The prepared versions can taste stale, and often contain salt, which seems like a filler. Read on for ways to use up the beloved za’atar, and a spiced pumpkin pudding which has no za’atar of course, but which Joan would approve of. 

Za’atar, with all of its flavors, goes well on hummus, bread, salmon and chickpeas, but it’s especially nice on roasted chicken. In this recipe, I used a whole chicken, cut up by the butcher (though you could do it yourself) and placed snugly in a roasting dish. Atop the chicken I poured a generous glug of olive oil, tucked in whole garlic heads and scattered lemons, sliced thin. Lastly, I generously spread the za’atar over all. The good thing about roasting a chicken is that it’s like a blank canvas that you can color in many different ways. The lemons here come out of the oven soft and caramelized, and I like to eat the rounds, whole. We also like to squeeze out the cloves of roasted garlic and serve them alongside the chicken. They are sweet and flavorful. Make this dish on a chilly fall evening, serve it alongside potatoes and a green salad, and it’ll make people in your house happy. It’s good sliced up in sandwiches the next day, too. 

We all love hash in my house, and in an attempt to shake up a week of boring dinners, I planned a sweet potato hash. It has relatively few ingredients and is easy to make: only a bit of chopping and then frying it up in a pan. I bought the pastrami, thinking the salty, fatty meat would be a good partner to crispy-edged sweet potatoes. And it was. But even as we sat and tasted our servings with the required fried egg on top, it was agreed that the hash was a little bland. It was OK, but needed a little something to make it better than okay. My eye caught Joan’s jar from across the counter and so we reached in and generously garnished our plates with za’atar, and it was perfect. The bulk of this dish is the sweet potato, studded with bits of pastrami, and the herbs, seeds and sumac are at home with the cozy bites of potato and meat. 

Lastly, there’s a recipe for pudding that’s warm and rich and good for snacking. We all have a sweet tooth in our house, and having a bowl of pudding to dip into, be it late afternoon or late evening, is so nice. This recipe requires a bit of cornstarch (that’s what brings it all together and makes it pudding-y), some warm spices, a bit of pumpkin puree and milk of your choice. Whisk together the cornstarch and spices, then slowly add the milk. Pudding does require a little babysitting, so stay close and stir frequently, because no one likes lumpy pudding. It’s time well spent for a sweet reward. 

There are people who say they receive signs from dear people who have passed on. Maybe it’s a rainbow or a color that shows up unexpectedly and they know that someone is, in some way, close. I’ve looked, searched for a sign that my dear mother-in-law is near. It was when I started using her za’atar that it struck me: I didn’t have to wait for a sign that she was with us, because maybe, she’s been here, watching over and loving all of us, all along. 

To read my Times Union story, click here.

Learn how to make Za’atar, Za’atar Roasted Chicken, Sweet Potato and Pastrami Hash with Za’atar and Pumpkin Spice Pudding.

Leave a Reply