Pomegranate and Za’atar Tofu Kebabs
It could be that I have four varieties of za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend) in my cupboard right now. It could also be that when I thought about how quickly spice blends tend to deteriorate, I decided that an influx of recipes starring za’atar might be on the horizon.
Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend that normally contains dried herbs, toasted sesame seeds and salt. Za’atar (aka zataar, zat’r, zahtar, etc) is like Garam Masala in the way that the blend changes according to who mixed it and which area it is from. My favorite is Lebanese za’atar which normally contains marjoram, oregano, thyme, cumin, coriander, toasted sesame seeds, salt, and sumac. Sumac is a rich blackish maroon color and has a tangy, almost lemony taste. Sumac it is also what gives Lebanese za’atar the distinctive dark color, as opposed to other regional blends (such as Jordanian or Armenian) which range in color from a greenish ochre down to a fawn brown or russet brown . The spice blend can be sprinkled on flatbread before it gets baked , added to labneh (yoghurt cheese), used as a condiment to sprinkle on top of cooked food, or mixed with olive oil and used as a dip for breads or meat.
Although za’atar may be intimidatingly exotic to some, to your average Middle Easterner it is the equivalent of Spanish pimenton, Moroccan ras el hanout, Pakistani green chili, Slavic vegeta, or North American pre-packaged Mrs. Dash (don’t hate me, because you know it’s true). With it’s rich, earthy, herbal and slightly sour base, za’atar can be a bit of an acquired taste.
I suggest that you acquire it.
I got trained early on. When I was growing up, my breakfast often looked like this:
That is za’atar manakeesh, a flatbread which has been rubbed with oil and sprinkled with za’atar before it gets baked. My other breakfast favorite was thin Lebanese style pita bread slathered with homemade labneh, fresh cucumber slices, and a generous sprinkling of za’atar. It may be a bit of a stretch to ask you to try this for breakfast instead of your Raisin Bran, but it certainly does pique the taste buds and bring a new appetite to your day.
With a breakfast like that, it should not surprise you that for lunch I wouldn’t turn down a flatbread and chopped salad that looks like this:
…an afternoon snack of spinach dip and homemade spice crackers that look like this:
….nor that for dinner I salivate over the thought of succulent roast chicken that looks like this:
Sure, it might look ‘dirty’ to you, but luckily I know that ‘dirty’ translates in spice-speak into ‘DELICIOUS’!
If you happen to have a little baggie of za’atar in your spice rack that is just begging to be used, or if you’ve always wandered by the Middle Eastern grocery store and hankered to try some of the intoxicating spice blends that are sold in bulk, I can give you a hundred different ways to use this addictive and tasty spice blend. But for today, let’s make our vegan audience happy and share a recipe for Middle Eastern inspired (because dudes, Lebanon is NOT known for their tofu consumption) tofu, marinated in a mixture of sweet and tangy pomegranate molasses, za’atar and garlic.
Pomegranate and Za’atar Tofu Kebabs
Serves 4, with side dishes
- 1 package (12 oz, 350 g) extra firm tofu *
- 3 tbsp + 1 olive oil
- 2 tbsp za’atar spice blend *
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, optional
- salt to taste
- assorted vegetables, such as zucchini, cherry tomato, sweet onion, pepper, blanched eggplant, mushroom
* I feel an obligation to mention this in honor of Mike, who bravely faced down the Tofu Tribunal yet again and lived to eat another meal. I love tofu but I understand that not everyone does. If you were feeling flush and hungry for a bit of beast, this marinade is so delicious rubbed into lamb chops that I don’t even have words to describe it. Oh wait, maybe I do: I would live a much happier life if LAMB WASN’T SO BLOODY EXPENSIVE (I’m talking to YOU, New Zealand).
** I used peppery and pleasantly pungent Lebanese za’atar in my blend and I like the sour twang. If your za’atar is a paler brown or greenish hue, consider increasing the spice and pomegranate molasses by 1.5 teaspoonfuls each. Please be mindful of the fact that many za’atar blends already contain salt, and adjust your seasoning after it has been added to the mix.
Finely mince the garlic and place it in a smallish bowl. Add the za’atar, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, and red pepper flakes (if using). Add salt to taste (I used about 1/2 tsp).
Cut the firm tofu into fairly large cubes, each a minimum of 1 inch square.
Pour the thick za’atar marinade over the tofu and mix until each piece is coated. Set the tofu aside to marinate for a minimum of 4 hours but up to…well, tofu isn’t like steak or chicken. You can leave those blessed cubes in the fridge all week and they’ll just keep taking on flavor.
Chop your selected vegetables into pieces about the same diameter as the tofu cubes. Our combination includes zucchini, of course, because right now every meal includes zucchini. Toss the vegetables lightly in a wee splash of oil (about 1 tbsp) before threading them on skewers.
Grill the tofu over moderately high heat for 7-10 minutes, or until the vegetables are charred and softened and the tofu is firm and caramelized around the edges.
For a light lunch, these kebabs are perfect with nothing more than a fresh pita pocket and a cold beer on the side. For dinner you may want to dress up the plate with some buttery basmati rice pilaf, grilled tomatoes and a dollop of hummus for posterity.
The pomegranate molasses lends a sweet-tart element to the earthy spice blend that is more than welcome, and these vegan kebabs are satisfying and flavorful enough to belie the fact that they’re low fat and healthy.
Maybe you’re a long term za’atar afficionado looking for another way to use this delightful blend, or maybe you’re a za’atar virgin who has just been waiting for the right recipe to make the first time, you know, special. Either way, I think you should just shake up the spice rack and try something new. After all, if it can make TOFU taste good….?