I interned at a refugee resettlement agency in Nashville during my college years, and my assignments often took me to the outskirts of the city to visit family’s from all over the world. Nashville is one of the top resettlement cities in the country, and although the exploding development is jeopardizing communities just outside of the city, there are still pockets where communities have formed, and taken on some of the sounds, and flavors of distant countries. One day, I visited a Kurdish family, and they offered me tea and snacks while I helped them sign up for health insurance. I ate bread that had been brushed with olive oil and Za’atar–a blend of sesame seeds, herbs, and sumac, and I had never tasted anything like it before. I asked them a few questions, and learned that sumac, the totally unfamiliar sour flavor I tasted, was a red berry that is dried, and crushed into powder. It gets mixed with sesame seeds, herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and oregano, and spices to make Za’atar. Here’s a batch I made in advance:
This blend is popular all over the Middle East, and I have probably tasted only 2 or 3 percent of all the variations out there. While some only use herbs, sesame, and salt, I love the addition of sumac, and cumin. It’s good on almost anything–flatbread, yoghurt, chicken, and of course, fish. I prefer to use this on thicker pieces of fish like salmon, or steelhead trout, or other varieties that have a have a good amount of fat. Since I can’t sear the Za’atar without burning it, I prefer to roast, or grill the meat, allowing the excess fat to drip away. I applied the Za’atar as a dry rub on the fish since I knew the meat wouldn’t need any extra oil. When the meat cooks, it will help the spices adhere to the meat, and draw some of the flavor inside. If you use it on chicken, I’d suggest leaving the skin on for the same effect.
Regardless of meat choice, I really don’t like flabby skin. I was in college when I first made this; I didn’t have access to any special equipment to help the skin crisp up, so I decided to remove it, and cook it like a piece of bacon until it was crispy like a chip. Believe me…it works.
I made some red lentil hummus, and sautéed kale, but I still felt like it was missing something–so I made a chimichurri sauce (from Latin American cuisine), but added a few spices to help it pair with the rest of the dish. The sauce adds a kick of acid, fresh herbs, and really helps ties everything together. It’s un-orthodox, but delicious!
2 lb Skin-on Steelhead Trout Filets
3 Cups Red Lentils, Rinsed
3 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1/2 Cup Dried Arbol Chilis, Soaked
1 Lemon, Juiced and Zested
1 Cup Olive Oil
3 Cups Kale, Rinsed and Chopped
1 Cup Olive Oil
1 Cup Tahini Paste
1/2 Cup Cumin
1/2 Cup Paprika
1/4 Cup Coriander
1.4 Cup Dried Mint
1/2 Cup Sesame Seeds
1/2 Cup Sumac
1/2 Cup Dried Rosemary
1/4 Cup Dried Thyme
1/4 Cup Chili Flakes
Salt and Pepper to Taste
- Combine Dried herbs, sumac in a mortar, or spice mill, grind until a coarse powder forms. Stir in the sesame seeds, and transfer the Za’atar to a clean bowl.
- While the fish is still cold, separate the skin from the meat with a sharp knife. Cover the meat and allow it to come to room temperature. Season the skin on both sides with salt, and place it on parchment paper–this will help draw out excess water so that the skin will crisp up faster. Let the skin rest for at least ten minutes while you season the fish. Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Season the trout with salt and pepper on all sides, then coat with Za’atar. Place the fish on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, and bake until firm–about 15-18 minutes.
- Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a medium sauce pan. Sautée sliced garlic, and soaked dried chillies, then stir in washed red lentils with a big pinch of salt. Continue to stir until fragrant, then cover with water, and allow the lentils to come to a boil. Stir occasionally, and add water as needed to keep the lentils covered until soft–about 15 minutes. Season with cumin, coriander, paprika, and dried mint–stir and remove from the heat. Allow the lentils to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a blender, and add your tahini, and lemon juice. Pulse until a smooth paste forms. Taste for seasoning. Transfer to a heat-safe container, and store in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to cool.
- In a separate pan, sautée 1 clove of minced garlic in olive oil, and sautée kale until it begins to wilt. Remove from the heat, transfer the kale to a separate bowl, then wipe out the pan with a paper towel, and place it on medium heat. Once the pan is hot, place the strips of fish skin in the pan, and allow them to fry until crispy. Remove from the heat.
- Remove your fish from the oven, and allow it to rest for at least 10 minutes.
- Plate, and serve.
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