Let me say that it all started with a cookbook I didn’t get for Christmas.
To be fair, I didn’t even know I wanted this cookbook myself until I stumbled upon it in a Barnes & Noble recently while killing time waiting for the next showing of Les Miserables.
But dang. Such a cookbook like I never knew existed. Such a cookbook, I will probably just have to pop for myself, and why not? This cookbook of my desire, Flavors of Jerusalem, is by an Israeli chef (Yotam Ottolenghi) and a Palestinian chef (Sami Tamimi) who both grew up in Jerusalem, eating the kinds of foods that make me sigh. It waxes passionate about pretty much all my most favorite flavors and recipes, including a salad that, in my mind, anyway, is the taste of the Levant.
The humble tomato and cucumber salad. You’ll find it from Iran to Israel to Cyprus. Tomato and cucumber salad, which is very straightforward and simple and involves chopping up a few vegetables, juicing half a lemon…and adding some sumac.
Now, for someone who professes utter lack of skill in the kitchen, I do have a pretty kickin’ assortment of spices. Some of that is from my love of Indian, Middle Eastern and Japanese cuisine, which means I have plenty of cumin, coriander, tumeric and bonito flakes and sesame seeds in my pantry. Part of it is because when Bab’s died unexpectedly, I took home half of her kitchen, including all of her spices.
But the years have clicked by. Babs has been gone almost 10 years already. I don’t have little kids anymore I have teenagers who are both taller than I am.
…And I don’t have any sumac.
The common wisdom is that ground spices have a shelf life of about 8 months (that’s if they’re kept optimally, in a cool pantry away from light or heat), while whole versions might last a bit longer. Longer than that, says the guy at Serious Eats, and what you’ve got is basically lightly flavored dust.
I realized this because I when I realized I didn’t actually have any sumac myself, I took to Facebook to find some. A neighbor generously offered her jar of sumac, but when I went to retrieve it today, I took one sniff and realized that it was way too past its use-by date to be of any use. I looked in vain for some at the Fresh & Easy, I briefly contemplated driving 20 miles to the Persian market in Torrance, (nah), looked feebly through my own spice bin for some Za’atar, another Middle Eastern spice I could use…
So yeah. I have a bin full of dust.
But I went ahead and made this salad anyway, and didn’t use any spice. Here’s the recipe, which I got off Smitten Kitchen (where else?), but is pretty universal, I’d imagine.
1 English cucumber, diced
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
half of one Spanish onion, diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 1/2 teaspoons sumac
salt and pepper to taste
I’m also going to go through the old spice bin tomorrow and toss most of it, and make a list of replacement spices (how uncharacteristically organized of me…). And I will include sumac on that list.
Here’s to a spicier new year for us all!