It is this time of the summer when I begin to feel ready for the winter. Last night, though not too hot, I still craved the breeze to cool, allowing my skin to roughen with goosebumps as the air washed over it like a wave. Only then can I slither into bed, blindly reach and grab all the layers below me, haul them up to my ear until all is quiet and I am a happy little bear in my den. Only then can I wake in the morning to the most marshmallow-y cloud above and below, squishing my skeleton just enough to make me feel as though I am being hugged.
These are the days of tea. These are the times for fires. These are the periods of dark where all must find their own, inner light.
In short, these are the true times for grilled cheese.
But, we can always make exceptions, and this Middle Eastern spin on an American classic calls for such an exception. The heat of summer can also benefit from a little reminder of its cold counterpart–at least for me, the reminder helps me appreciate the short sleeves, sweaty inner-elbows, and swift season a bit more.
«Molly Yeh» was the first to introduce me to za’atar and there is certainly no going back. After oogling at all her magical concoctions with this spice mix, I thought there could be no other way to use it.
Until. Until one week of pure za’atar obsession took hold and I put it on absolutely everything just to see. One of these days, I put a toast on a pan, sliced some cheese on top, then lifted the toast, sprinkled the za’atar under the bread, and lay it back down. The flavors sautéed together, the bread crisped up perfectly with the sesame seeds of the za’atar adding a perfect additional crunch, and the cheese melted into the bread as though it was Juliet reaching through the wall toward her Romeo of spices.
Za’atar Grilled Cheese
yield: one sandwich
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- 2 slices of bread
- several slices of cheddar cheese (enough to cover the bread well)
- 1 teaspoon za’atar
- 1 teaspoon coconut oil
- mix all together until evenly blended
- place oil in a pan and let sit for 30 seconds or a minute until it warms
- lay both slices of bread in pan
- put cheese on top of both slices evenly
- pick up one corner of each slice and sprinkle za’atar underneath (careful not to burn your fingers–you can also use a spatula to lift it)
- let cook for a little longer, until bread is nice and crispy (again, pick up a corner to check, or use a spatula)
- place one piece of bread on top of the other and transfer to a plate for your enjoyment
- consume immediately (or after allowing a few minutes to cool)
…for more about za’atar…
The name comes from both the mix of spices that make it up, as well as the main ingredient–thyme (although this has been disputed because some recipes are out there with marjoram or oregano, which is understandable because these herbs are easily confused due to their being in the same family–labiatae–of herbs.. in any case, i use thyme).
In Israel, some commercial packages refer to the spice mix as ‘hyssop’, which has a reference as early as the Bible. (this connection is also disputed because of the variety of names and overlapping terminology of herbs, but even so, it is likely that za’atar, or something very similar, is alluded to in the Bible under the name ‘hyssop’.) In the book of Exodus, an Easter sacrifice is made and the young people of Israel are told “And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood of the sacrifice… and strike the lintel of your homes and the two side posts”. Referenced again in the New Testament as Jesus is dying, the disciples gave him a “sponge of vinegar” to “put upon it hyssop”.
The greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval times, Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon or Rambam in Hebrew), is the first recorded person to recognize the health benefits of za’atar. Using it in the 12th century, he prescribed it as a treatment to many things, especially colds. Recent studies support Maimonides medical practices, for sumac contains flavanoids (antioxidants that also help fight viruses, cancer, inflammation, and allergies). Both thyme and oregano contain thymol, which is an essential oil that can also help sooth coughing fits, especially for people fighting bronchitis (maimonides was right to give this to those with colds!)Thyme and oregano also have carvacrol, which, when tested on mice, travelled impressively quickly from the blood to brain. More recent studies have found that , again in rats, carvacrol can help neurotransmitters and seratonin (which effects mood and learning)