There is nothing like fresh, fragrant herbs to invigorate the senses. Their scent requires a closed eyed, deep inhale which invokes a sort of calm, even for just a moment. I have a tendency to maniacally thrust a handful of fresh basil under Brandon’s nose and demand he tell me anything that smells better. He usually sniffs obediently and obliges, with some deserved eye rolling.
Each herb has a distinct personality, and I enjoy finding ways to use them to enliven otherwise boring, normal meals. Whether it’s the fresh crunch of parsley, the posh spiciness of tarragon or a crisp mint sprig, all can bring your meal to the next level. To an 11. I’m also a sucker for pairing herbs and fruit, like those scrumptious French Toasts from last summer with strawberries and basil or rhubarb and mint. Just gives it that extra flavor layer for punch.
A few years ago, Chicago had it’s first Diner en Blanc and I scooped up two tickets just as they went on sale. Basically 1000 people dress up all in white, prepare a 3 course picnic dinner and are told where to meet the day of the event to sit down for a sort of gastronomic flash mob. You are supposed to bring your own small table and chairs , that must be white of course. Which meant we were frantically gluing white fabric on our black table and chairs that afternoon, because we are classy like that. Though our accessories weren’t elegant, I was determined that our food should be. But it also had to be transportable. We made a funky pasta dish for our main course and I wanted some sort of simple yet scrumptious spread with a crusty baguette for our appetizer. Smitten Kitchen’s Feta Salsa was just the ticket.
The Diner en Blanc was enormous fun. People, clad in white from all over the city, assembled under the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza and set up their meals for two. Some tables were quite plain while some had elaborate place settings with chandeliers and candlesticks. But I was quite happy with our table with a white sheet tablecloth and felt covered seats since we had this feta salsa. An entire bowl of this stuff was not nearly enough for the two of us. We devoured it, moaning our appreciations. Then, after the dinner I promptly forgot all about it.
It popped into my head the other day when I was at a loss for what to make for dinner. I wanted something simple yet flavorful that would leave me enough for lunch the next day. Greedily snatching up 8 different kinds of herbs, I wracked my brain for something to make that would use as many as possible. Somehow the dormant memory of creamy, spicy Mediterranean tasting goodness worked it’s way to the front of my mind and I was off to find the creamiest feta in all the grocery store.
To give this meal some crunch, I fried some za’tar spiced chickpeas while mixing up my feta salsa. Add them all to a warmed pita with some arugula and cucumber and that is dinner my friends! I do believe the flavors highlighted and melded and all the other requisite actions we require of food to give our taste buds pleasure. For my #notsaddesklunch the next day, I brought along an avocado to spread in the sandwich and ate the whole thing again.
Combine a healthy amount of creamy feta with about 2-3 tablespoons of chopped flat leaf parsley and dill and 1-2 tablespoons of chopped mint and tarragon. Chop a couple scallions and throw those in. Taste as you go. You can always add more herbs so start with less. Rough chop anywhere between 1/4 – 1 cup of sun-dried tomatoes (depending on your preference) and add to mixture. I splurged a bit and got some packed in olive oil so they wouldn’t be dry. Toss in some capers in. I’m not a fan of olives, but if you are, by all means use some kalamatas here. Add sea salt and cracked black pepper and a couple tablespoons of nice olive oil. Stir it up and taste. I chopped up 2 garlic cloves and just toasted them to add in as an experiment. You may want to drizzle some of the sun-dried tomato oil into the mixture as well. This is a very malleable concoction so make it your own!
Fried Za’atar Chickpeas
Heat up some oil (vegetable, grapeseed, olive etc) in a saute pan. Drain and rinse a can of chickpeas. Once the oil is hot, throw in the chickpeas and sprinkle with about a tablespoon of za’atar and some salt and pepper. Fry for about 8-10 minutes, stirring every so often. Keep an eye on them. You want them crispy and browned, but not burned. Take off heat to cool for a couple minutes, then consume!