Chef Moshe Basson, a quiet-spoken middle-aged man with skinny braid falling over his shoulder, took up a bunch of silver-grey leaves leaves and put them in a food processor. I was watching, along with about thirty others, at a Biblical cooking class in Eucalyptus, Basson’s Jerusalem restaurant.
Za’atar pesto. Why not?
Dried za’atar as the main ingredient in an oily dip, yes. Crumbled and sprinkled over pizza or roast chicken – all the time. But now I know I can make pesto from the fresh leaves with the juice still in them.
This is really a seasonal pesto, because fresh za’atar is available only for a few weeks. That’s now, towards the end of winter in the Middle East.
The next time I was in the shuk, I went from stand to stand looking for za’atar. No vendor had the familiar small round, light-green herb, but one picked a bunch of dark, spiky leaves out of a heap and bruised a few to release the odor. It smelled strongly of za’atar.
Consulting with chef Basson by phone, I learned that it’s winter savory – in Hebrew, tsatrah. He says that it’s part of the thyme family, as is za’atar. I decided to make the pesto as I’d seen him make it. I didn’t know what else to do with the leaves except hang them up to dry.
My notes from the cooking event weren’t exact, so I improvised the recipe out of the basic procedure I’d scribbled down. It took about 5 minutes to make, including toasting almonds, washing and drying the za’atar leaves, and peeling garlic. This pesto has the unmistakable taste of the Middle East in it.
1 cup blanched almonds
2 cups fresh za’atar or winter savory leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sumac powder
3 garlic cloves
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1. Quickly toast the almonds in a dry frying pan. This should take only two minutes. Shake the pan a few times to distribute the almonds. Take it off the flame when they release a nutty, toasted aroma.
2. Rinse the za’atar leaves. Path them dry.
3. Into the food processor, put the almonds. Whizz them for half a minute.
4. Add the za’atar leaves. Process again for a minute.
5. Add the remaining ingredients and process till you have a rough sauce.
Recommended: spread some of this chunky, pungent pesto on slices of toasted baguette; top with feta cheese and put the slices into the oven so that the cheese melts.