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Ask a Foodie: How Do You Use Za’atar Seasoning

Ask a Foodie: How Do You Use Za’atar Seasoning

Q. I’ve encountered the term za’atar seasoning on menus and have also seen it in ethnic food markets. I know it’s a blend of some spices but don’t know how one would use it. Any suggestions?

A. We’ve seen this seasoning blend as well, and usually in a Middle Eastern Market. The blend has sesame seeds in it and also the brick-red sumac also used in cooking from these regions.  The third element to this mixture is what is interesting — it’s an aromatic variety of marjoram (M. syriaca) which is common in Jordon, Lebanon and Israel, says Aliza Green in her thorough “Field Guide to Herbs and Spices.” This marjoram is also called by the name “za’atar.”

Lemb Kebobs from Feast

Lamb Kebabs from Feast

In the countries mentioned above, the flavor is common in grilled lamb and flatbread and is often mixed with sumac, says Green, to spread on pita bread. We’ve also seen za’atar sprinkled on hummus or tossed into a salad of garbanzo beans, slivered green onion and tomato or sprinkled over feta cheese. You can also put it on a plate, pour over some olive oil and use it as a dipping sauce with pita bread.

Recently, we ordered a small plate at Feast Restaurant on Alamo Street in San Antonio’s King William area. Chef Stefan Bowers sprinkles the za’tar mixture on some tasty Ground Lamb Kebabs, then serves with a slightly spicy serrano feta dip, to good effect.

If you want to make your own blend, try Green’s blend, which she also suggests mixing with yogurt and using as a dip for raw vegetables: Combine 2 tablespoons dried crushed za’atar leaves (or crushed thyme, summer savory, oregano, marjoram or a mixture). Add 2 tablespoons roasted sesame seeds and 1 tablespoon ground sumac. Grind to a chunky paste and season wil a little salt, to taste. Store at room temperature. Za’atar’s flavor will begin to face after 2 months. Makes 1/3 cup. (From “Field Guide to Herbs and Spices.”)


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Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Bok Choy?

Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Bok Choy?

Q. Suggestions for what to do with bok choy? Do I eat the the stalk, leaf, or both?

— Valerie

Bok choy

Bok choy

A. Bok choy, occasionally spelled choi, is an Asian member of the cabbage family. According to, “Its white stalks resemble celery without the stringiness, while the dark green, crinkly leaves of the most common variety is similar to Romaine lettuce. The Chinese commonly refer to bok choy as pak choi or ‘white vegetable.’ Another common name is white cabbage.”

You can use it like cabbage in a stir-fry with water chestnuts, snow peas, carrots, celery and onions, not to mention your choice of meats or tofu. It would go well with pork, beef, chicken or shrimp. Add some basil and chile oil for a Thai-style dish that can be served over rice or with your choice of noodles added.

Even more simple would be to sauté it in your choice of butter, olive oil, coconut oil or bacon drippings. Treat it like brussels sprouts and toss in some bacon and a touch of orange zest for added flavor.

If you didn’t want to cook it, you could use it raw in a coleslaw. Bok choy is also good cut in half lengthwise, lightly oiled and seasoned and cooked, cut side down on the grill. And, you can juice it as well.

To get you started, here’s an easy recipe from “Joy of Cooking.” It calls for baby bok choy. If yours are a little larger, the cooking time will be longer.

Baby Bok Choy with Soy Ginger Sauce

4 baby bok choy
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon slivered peeled fresh ginger

Rinse the bok choy, then cut lengthwise in half.

Steam cut side down over boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a pair of tongs to a platter.

In a small bowl, mix soy sauce, vinegar, water and ginger. Spoon the sauce over the bok choy and serve. Allow 1 to 2 whole baby bok choy per person.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

From “Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker


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Ask a Foodie: Flavorful Soup Needs Substitute

Ask a Foodie: Flavorful Soup Needs Substitute

Dear Ask A Foodie:

I found a Lentil and Escarole Soup recipe that looks delicious, but I haven’t be able to find escarole. What might I be able to substitute? I haven’t found it in a farmers market either. — Marcia L.

Dear Marcia L.
This recipe looks wonderful, and there are some other greens you can use for escarole. Escarole is a type of chicory, related to curly endive. It is sometimes referred to as broad-leaved endive. This vegetable can be used as a salad green or, as your recipe indicates, cut up and used in a soup dish or with other cooked vegetables.



Other greens that could substitute for this recipe could be beet greens or Swiss chard. You could also try romaine lettuce. Or, if you like kale or other types of greens give them a try, too. I find the flavor of escarole to be mild with a touch of bitterness.

The photo on the right is of a green we picked up in Whole Foods on Sunday that was labeled as organic escarole.

Quarry Farmers and Ranchers Market’s vendor at 9-1 Farm, Fernando Vasquez, said he might be selling a little escarole in the next week or two before the weather warms up.

For a recipe for Lentils and Escarole Soup with Lamb Meatballs, click here.

Photographs by Bonnie Walker

Lentil and Escarole Soup with Lamb Meatballs cropped





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Ask a Foodie: What Can I Substitute for Corn Syrup?

Ask a Foodie: What Can I Substitute for Corn Syrup?

You can make a pecan pie without corn syrup.

You can make a pecan pie without corn syrup.

Q. I’m allergic to corn. What can I use as a substitute for corn syrup in a pecan pie?


A. A lot of people are avoiding corn these days for a number of reasons, including allergies. It’s worse than sugar when it comes to diabetes because of how unpredictable it can act in the blood stream. Plus, a great deal of corn these days is genetically modified, which a growing number of people refuse to eat.

A few more questionable characteristics are raised on FitDay. But so are some solutions.

“Corn syrup can be replaced by a sugar syrup,” the site says. “Combine one cup of pure cane sugar with 1/4 cup of water and heat over a low flame. Cool and use directly in a recipe. If preferred, cover the pan for three minutes to help remove sugar crystals, then add 1/4 teaspoon of lemon juice or cream of tartar to the pan and stir frequently until it reaches the soft ball stage (a drop of the syrup will form a ball when immersed in cold water). Cool and store in a sealed container at room temperature. It should keep for up to two months.

“Alternatively, add granulated or brown sugar to a recipe that calls for corn syrup, cup for cup, then increase the amount of liquids used in the recipe by 1/4 of the amount of sugar added.”

Of course, there will be a difference in flavor. Think about the differences between American Coca-Cola, made with corn syrup, and the version of Mexican Coke that is made with sugar.

But think about being able to have pecan pie this Thanksgiving with no allergic reaction. That’s the best response of all.

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Ask a Foodie: Can I Use a Bouillon Cube Instead of Court-Bouillon?

Ask a Foodie: Can I Use a Bouillon Cube Instead of Court-Bouillon?

Q: Can I use a bouillon cube in a recipe that calls for something called court-bouillon?

— A.B.

Bouillon cubes

Bouillon cubes

A: Court-bouillon is “a flavorful, aromatic liquid used for poaching fish and shellfish,” according to “The simplest court bouillon consists of nothing but salted water, and some traditional recipes call for a mixture of half salted water, half milk.”

Does that sound like a bouillon cube? Yes and no.

A bouillon cube, of course, is salty. If you read the ingredients, salt is generally the most common ingredient in the cubes. But there’s also a lot of bold flavor to most, which means they could swamp the flavors of your seafood.

Sure, you could water down that cube, but what are you left with? Not much.

So, do yourself and your family a favor and make your own court-bouillon. Most recipes are simple in the extreme, such as the following for Poached Salmon in Court-Bouillon, which comes from “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $22) by Michele Scicolone. That’s right, it cooks itself in your crock pot.

“Poached salmon steaks have many uses,” Scicolone writes. “Serve them plain with some of the cooking broth, or chill them for seafood salad. My favorite way to serve this salmon, either hot or chilled, is with tzatziki, citronette (recipe follows) or pesto.”

Poached Salmon in Court-Bouillon

1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, thinly sliced
1 celery rib, thinly sliced
6 whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 large fresh flat-leaf parsley sprig
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 cups water
6 salmon steaks, at least 1-inch thick
Freshly ground pepper

mediterranean slow cookerIn a large slow cooker, combine the onion, carrot, celery, peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley, a pinch of salt, the vinegar and the water. Cover and cook on high for 2 hours.

Sprinkle the salmon steaks with salt and pepper to taste and place then in the cooker.

Spoon some of the liquid over the top. Cover and cook on high for 30 minutes, or until done to taste. (To test for doneness, make a small cut in the thickest part. The fish should appear slightly translucent.)

Remove the salmon steaks with a slotted spatula. Serve them hot or slightly chilled.

Makes 6 servings.

From “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” by Michele Scicolone

Herb and Tomato Citronette

Citronette is the French word for a dressing or sauce made with lemon,” Scicolone writes in “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker.” “This version has chopped parsley and tomato, too. You can also use it to dress salad or steamed vegetables.”

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Freshly ground pepper
1 small tomato, seeded and chopped (about 1/2 cup)

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lemon juice, shallot, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Let stand at room temperature for up to 30 minutes. Just before serving, whisk again and add the chopped tomato. Correct the seasonings and serve.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.

From “The Mediterranean Slow Cooker” by Michele Scicolone

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Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Swiss Chard?

Ask a Foodie: What Do You Do with Swiss Chard?

Q: Help! I’ve got Swiss chard and I don’t know what to do with it.


Swiss chard

Swiss chard

A. Swiss chard is a green that belongs the same family (chenopod) as beets, spinach and quinoa, according to The World’s Healthiest Foods: “Swiss chard is not only one of the most popular vegetables along the Mediterranean, but it is one of the most nutritious vegetables around and ranks second only to spinach following our analysis of the total nutrient-richness of the world’s healthiest vegetables.”

That’s means it’s great to eat — and a wonderful source of vitamins A, C and K — but it doesn’t tell you exactly what to do with it. The site recommends boiling it because of the high oxalic acid content, something to remember if kidney stones are as much of a problem in your family as they are in mine.

You could get similar results by blanching the leaves in boiling water for a couple of minutes and then finishing them off with a sauté, such as the recipe below, or in a casserole used as a substitute for spinach.

But you don’t have to cook the Swiss chard at all. You could eat it raw in a salad or a smoothie. You can even use it with or instead of basil in your favorite pesto recipe.

Here’s a recipe from that matches the pleasant bitterness of the greens with sweet onions. But you could vary the recipe by substituting a half-dozen anchovy fillets for the onions.

Swiss chard generally comes with a single colored rib, such as red, but there is a rainbow variety. No matter the type you grow or buy, remove the rib and use just the leaves.

Sautéed Swiss Chard with Onions

3 pounds green Swiss chard (about 2 large bunches)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Black pepper

Rainbow chard

Rainbow chard

Cut stems and center ribs from chard, discarding any tough portions, then cut stems and ribs crosswise into 2-inch pieces. Stack chard leaves and roll up lengthwise into cylinders. Cut cylinders crosswise to make 1-inch-wide strips.

Heat oil and butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat until foam subsides, then cook onions and garlic with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, covered, stirring occasionally, until onions begin to soften, about 8 minutes. Add chard stems and ribs, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until stems are just tender, about 10 minutes. Add chard leaves in batches, stirring until wilted before adding next batch, and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until tender, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl.

Note: Swiss chard has a fairly high sodium level, so you may want to taste before adding salt.

Cook’s notes:

  • Chard can be washed, dried, and cut 2 days ahead and chilled in sealed bags lined with dampened paper towels.
  • Chard can be cooked 4 hours ahead and reheated over low heat on stove or in a microwave oven.

Makes 8 side dish servings.





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Ask a Foodie: Is Turmeric a Super Spice? How Do I Use It?

Ask a Foodie: Is Turmeric a Super Spice? How Do I Use It?

turmeric spoon 1I recently read an article about turmeric that said it can help you not get Alzheimer’s disease. I looked for recipes using turmeric but didn’t find any. Do you have recipes or some suggestions as for good ways to use it?  – M.M.

Dear M.M. Thanks for including the link to the article in your question. Turmeric contains a  substance called curcumin, which is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. As this article from the Mother Nature Network states, “Preliminary clinical studies are showing that curcumin helps reduce beta amyloid plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s (and prevent plaque buildup in people who don’t have the disease).”

Turmeric is widely used in India as a spice in curry blends, and is also used in other South Asian cuisines. You could get turmeric in capsules from a health food store, or buy the spice in bulk, buy the gel caps and put together your own dietary supplement of turmeric.

Or, as scientists in the study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience did, find extracts of curcumin in pill form. (We can’t tell you now much to use — check out the research, consult with your doctor or a registered dietician or other nutrition expert for suggested amounts.)

To get some of the spice into everyday food, though, the obvious suggestion would be to eat some Indian curry each day! But, that is pretty powerful stuff and generally not a daily occurrence in the American menu.

Make this recipe, Indian New Potatoes with Turmeric for a spicy, healthy way to dress up potatoes.

Consider stirring stirring a half-teaspoon or so into a juice, especially vegetable juice or juice blends such as V-8 or tomato juice. Or, put some into a breakfast smoothie, add it to a spicy sauce or add it to condiments such as mustard or ketchup. Put it into rice or couscous, which will add flavor and add its golden color. It’s also good with beef, chicken and scallops.

Field Guide to Herbs & Spices

Turmeric is not spicy hot, and has an earthy taste with a slightly bitter aftertaste, says Aliza Green in her book “A Field Guide to Herbs & Spices, (Quirk Books, $15.95). It also can sometimes be found in fresh form in markets. It is a rhizome, and the individual pieces are called “fingers.”

“Turmeric has been valued for almost four thousand years in India, where it’s essential for curry dishes, but is also used as a cosmetic, as a dye, in traditional recipes and in religious ceremonies,” writes Green.

To read about using a certain type of turmeric (non-edible) in skin/beauty treatments, check out this article in, The Super Skincare Spice.


Photograph by Bonnie Walker/SavorSA



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Ask a Foodie: What Is the ‘Secret’ Ingredient in Turkish Delight?

Ask a Foodie: What Is the ‘Secret’ Ingredient in Turkish Delight?

Q. I read that something called mastic is used in the candy, Turkish Delight. What is mastic exactly? And is it used as anything other than a food product?  – D.M.

Check out recipe here for Turkish Delight. It uses gelatin and cornstarch rather than the more exotic mastic.

Turkish Delight 2 cropped better

Turkish Delight is a candy that uses mastic as a binding ingredient.

A. You possibly came across Turkish Delight in an import store and gave it a try, or if you are lucky, a friend brought some to you from a trip to Greece or Turkey.

Mastic, one of the candy’s ingredients,  is a powerful binder that holds together foods such as pomegranate seeds and pistachios and gives the treat its very chewy texture. Turkish Delight not only tastes good, its texture, almost like chewing gum, is a nice contrast to the freshness and crunchiness of the nuts and fruit. In Greek, the candy’s name ‘loukoumi.’

Mastic is an interesting ingredient. It is a natural gum that comes from a tree related to the pistachio that grows only on the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, says Aliza Green in her compact but precise “Field Guide to Herbs & Spices,” (Quirk Publications, $15.95). The following information is also taken from Green’s guide.

This ancient tree yields clear resin that hardens into brittle, crystalline pieces referred to as “tears.” In fact, the German word for the substance translates as “tears of God.” The mastic is processed so that it becomes a food item that contributes a little to flavor, but is important for its smooth texture and use as a binding agent.

Wikipedia mentions that gum arabic, another binder-type product with many uses, should not be confused with mastic — they are two different substances — although to make things just a little more confusing, mastic from the Greek evergreen tree is sometimes called arabic gum.

Turkish Delight is a chewy candy that contains fruit, nuts and a sweet binder made of mastic.

Turkish Delight is a chewy candy that contains fruit, nuts and a sweet binder made of mastic.

As for the non-food uses of mastic, Wikipedia offers these: Mastic is used in some varnishes. Mastic varnish was used to protect and preserve photographic negatives. Mastic is also used in perfumes, cosmetics, soap, body oils, and body lotion. In ancient Egypt, mastic was used in embalming. In its hardened form, mastic can be used, like frankincense, or Boswellia resin, to produce incense.

Another bit of interest, from Wiki for word people: The word mastic is derived from the Greek verb, μαστιχειν “to gnash the teeth,” which is the source of the English word masticate.

We were also interested to find that Turkish Delight is the name of an X-rated movie. And, it makes an appearance in “Narnia – the Musical’ which is based on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” In this song, called “Turkish Delight,” the White Witch tempts Edmund with the candy’s tasty charms.

“There’s a tantalizing candy no one can resist!
All it takes is just a single bite!
When you try this choice confection
Suddenly your tongue will do a genuflection!
Turkish, Turkish Delight!”


Photographs by Bonnie Walker


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Ask a Foodie: What Are the Perils of ‘Boba’ or Bubble Tea?

Ask a Foodie: What Are the Perils of ‘Boba’ or Bubble Tea?

Mango Bubble Tea Smoothie -Photographed on Hasselblad H3D2-39mb CameraQ. While eating at an Asian restaurant recently, I watched a dad helping his son choose from the menu of “boba” or bubble teas. Are these dangerous? I read that the tapioca bubbles have PCBs and that you can choke on the large “bubbles.” Also, why are the bubbles dark-colored? –KM

A. We’ve been drinking bubble tea occasionally for the past 15 years or so with no unfortunate events.  However, the last time I had a (delicious, strawberry-banana) bubble tea, with the black tapioca pearls at the bottom, I thought about the second part of your question.

Just as one could drown in a soup bowl full of water, I imagine one also could choke on the springy tapioca pearls that form the bubbles in the tea. Very simply, don’t inhale them!  Pull the bubbles only so far as your teeth, so you can chew them, which is simply the best part of bubble tea! If you are giving the tea — which is more often a creamy, smoothy type drink –  to a child, instruct them carefully on the procedure, then keep an eye on them.

A little research into the PCB factor: While one European lab found PCPs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in pearls served by an unnamed bubble tea house in Northern Germany, the German consumer protection agency, Nordrhein-Westfalen, sampled 84 different bubble teas and found no PCBs. PCBs have been linked not only to cancer, but other undesirable health conditions.

Bubble tea also can be very sugary, and one might raise various other health alarms about sugar. If you’re watching your sugar intake,  just order a bubble tea now and then. Remember not to inhale the bubbles; forget about PCBs.

As for the dark color — on ingredient lists for black, uncooked tapioca pearls for bubble tea, I have seen the word “caramel coloring.”



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Ask a Foodie: Why Do We Put Eggs in Cookies?

Ask a Foodie: Why Do We Put Eggs in Cookies?

Grandmas Molasses CookiesQ. Why do we put eggs in cookies? -- J.B.

A friend of ours, who loves to bake — and especially with her grandchildren — forwarded this question to SavorSA after making cookies with the kids one day.

A. The art and science of cooking with eggs has filled many paragraphs in many chapters of books. We won’t go into the intricacies of the egg, or the chemistry of baking here. For the kids, the question has an easy, general answer: We add eggs to cookies for richness and moisture.

For an expert’s concise take on this question, we turn to Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen”:

“Eggs generally provide most of the water in a cookie mix, as well as proteins that help bind the flour particles together and coagulate during baking to add solidarity. The fat and emulsifiers in the yolk enrich and moisten. The higher the proportion of whole eggs or yolks in a recipe, the more cakelike the texture.”

My paternal grandmother was an accomplished cookie baker and the recipe in the link below was our favorite. A plateful, with a plastic boxful standing by, was always awaiting us when we visited.

Grandma’s Molasses Cookies



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