A summer caprese with a Middle Eastern twist

When it's too hot to cook, let za'atar do the heavy lifting

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published July 7, 2021 12:33PM (EDT)
Summer Salad (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
Summer Salad (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

You win, summer. I fold. In the same week we have had the hottest days of the year so far, the ceiling fan in my bedroom has abruptly died and I have a final paper due for a class. In related news, I have been staggering around of late in a fog of exhaustion and heat, indifferent to everything that isn't a popsicle.

These are the days when dinner is salad, and salad is cheese. I am always ride or die for a caprese, but after talking to Leetal Arazi of the spice company NY Shuk, I'm inspired to make with a fresh twist.

Israeli-born Arazi and her husband Ron cofounded the company — a meticulously curated line featuring beloved staples like harissa, za'atar and hawaij — after leaving the chef world in search of something more intimate. "Home cooking is our passion, that's embedded in us, coming from a Middle Eastern culture," she says. "We came to the States, and there were all these cookbooks and restaurants showcasing sumac and za'atar, but at the end of the day, the supermarket shelves were not accommodating the shift happening out there. There are all these cookbooks, but then you get some crappy product and you don't even know how this dish is supposed to taste."


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The other downside of less than stellar spices is that you wind up using a shake for that one recipe that sounded interesting two years ago, and then you're stuck with another fading condiment languishing on the rack. Arazi's hope is to showcase the versatility of these flavors, so home cooks enjoy them more ways. If you need inspiration, the NY Shuk site has a collection of low-stress recipes to get your started.

After I did a pandemic konmari of my own spice rack, I realized that my list of all-star ingredients for baking and cooking is actually pretty short, and that high-impact blends can do more heavy lifting than a row of dusty single ingredients. I also see now how working with a more restrained palette of my favorite flavors gives the dishes I make their unique distinct identity. It's what I hope my family will always associate with the taste of home — even if home cooking on the hottest day of the year is no cooking at all.

"Roasted pepper salad is a very traditional salad that we would make from fresh bell peppers with simple ingredients," says Arazi. "Then I started buying readymade bell peppers. And then, making pita chips is something we do a lot when we have leftover bread, with olive oil and zaatar." Arazi puts her salad together with burrata or labneh, but I make mine with marinated mozzarella bocconcini straight from the deli counter. This is the easiest and, in my opinion, best kind of meal — spicy, salty, cheesy, crunchy and fast, fast, fast. It's so good, though, you could make it even if you had more time.

Yes, I am asking you to turn on the oven here, but it's for just five minutes. But if even that's too much, feel free to just buy some pita chips. As Arazi says, "It's about making it work with whatever we've got, right?"

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Recipe: Mozzarella Salad with Za'atar Pita Chips

 

Inspired by NY Shuk

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces of mozzarella bocconcini 
  • 1 jar or deli container of roasted peppers
  • 1 bag of prewashed arugula (or salad greens of your choice)
  • 2 large pita bread pockets (white or whole wheat)
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons of za'atar
  • Flaky salt
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Optional: 1 teaspoon of harissa paste
  • Optional: Mixed olives, anchovies

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
  2. Cut the pitas lengthwise, then cut each circle into eighths. Put the pieces in a large bowl, then add a few tablespoons of olive oil, the za'atar and a few pinches of salt. Stir so everything is well coated. 
  3. Place the pieces on the baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for 5 - 8 minutes, until golden and crisp.
  4. While the chips are baking, whisk together a big glug of olive oil and the juice of half a lemon in a large bowl with a pinch of salt. If you feel like it, add a teaspoon of harissa paste and whisk.
  5. Add your greens to the bowl, and toss until every leaf is coated.
  6. Drain your roasted peppers and slice into long thin strips.
  7. Plate your salad: Put a pile of dressed greens on a large plate, topped with the bocconcini and roasted peppers. Add olives and anchovies if like them. Top with a little more olive oil, another squeeze of lemon and a shake of za'atar.

Serve with your warm pita chips, and cold beer.

Pro tip: Too hot to even turn on the oven? Just tear up your pita into rough pieces in a bowl with olive oil and za'atar, and stir well together. Add to your greens, and boom, bread salad. 

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Easy Cooking Middle Eastern Ottolenghi Quick & Dirty Salad Summer Cooking Zaatar