Za’atar is a dry blend of herbs and sesame seeds. It is popular in the Middle East and is an easy way to add unusual flavor to meals.

The best simple cooking, for me, uses basic techniques and few ingredients. It takes minimal time or demands little attention while a dish bakes, simmers or sits. The ingredients called for are always available where I normally shop and are reasonably priced. So, I can rely on them any time, no matter what the season.

Finally, at table these ideal dishes deliver more than crowd-pleasing flavor. Using ordinary ingredients and with easy assembly, they are exceptionally enjoyable, too.

Good simple cooking becomes brilliant when you get all this from an easy embellishment or, better yet, a single ingredient used unexpectedly. Think of how a quickly-assembled fresh pineapple salsa elevates plain grilled chicken or how adding a little coconut milk gives a quickly tossed stir-fry a delightful twist.

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Both of these examples illustrate how ethnic flavors can enhance simple cooking. Ingredients such as ginger, cilantro and sesame seeds, once exotic and esoteric choices, have become accessible supermarket staples.

Za'atar is a favorite example of how an easy embellishment can turn ordinary to extraordinary in multiple dishes. As common in parts of the Middle East as jarred salsa is in the United States, this dry blend of herbs and sesame seeds works magic in seconds.

For example, coating chicken breasts with this combo of thyme, oregano, sesame seeds and lemon juice, then baking them on a bed of sliced onions makes a dish equally good served hot or at room temperature. Leftover pan juices can be added to soups or used to cook sliced zucchini or saut� spinach, transforming them, too.

Sprinkle za'atar on pita bread, yogurt (turning it into a dip) or hummus. Use it to coat kebabs, toss it with shrimp, or on any white fish, from catfish or tilapia to halibut. Even try it sprinkled on pineapple!

- The American Institute for Cancer Research

Za'atar Chicken


•2 tablespoons sesame seeds (use unhulled, if available)

•1 tablespoon dried oregano

•1 tablespoon dried thyme

•1/2 teaspoon sea salt

•2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

•2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, mild and fruity

•1 large onion, thinly sliced

•4 chicken breast halves (1.5 pounds total), with the rib, skinned


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

For za'atar, set cast iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add sesame seeds to dry, hot pan. Lift pan and hold it just above burner, moving it to swirl seeds until they start popping and color lightly, two to three minutes. Immediately spread toasted seeds on a plate to cool.

Place cooled sesame seeds in a mortar and pestle and crush lightly. Add oregano, thyme and salt, and work mixture just to blend. Mix in lemon juice, then oil. Or, seal sesame seeds in plastic sandwich bag and crush using rolling pin, then place in small mixing bowl. Adding herbs, rub them between your fingers, one teaspoon at a time, and crumble them into a bowl. Add salt, lemon juice and oil.

In a baking dish just large enough to hold chicken pieces, spread onion slices over bottom. Make two diagonal slits in each chicken breast, cutting almost to the bone. Arrange chicken in baking dish. Using your fingers, coat chicken with za'atar, pushing some into slits. Cover baking dish with foil, sealing edges.

Bake chicken for 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 160 degrees. Let baked chicken sit for 10 minutes, or cool until warm or room temperature before serving.

To serve, place a chicken breast on each of four dinner plates, accompanied by onions. Pass pan juices separately, in a pitcher. Or, cool chicken and serve it in slices, with cooled onions and reserve liquid for cooking vegetables or for a flavorful addition to soups and sauces. Or tear it into pieces for chicken salad.

Servings: 4

Nutrition information per serving: 258 calories, 12 g total fat (2 g saturated fat), 6 g carbohydrate, 30 g protein, 2 g dietary fiber, 304 mg sodium.


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