Za’atar tofu bowl with mint-pomegranate pesto.

The sight or thought of pomegranates always catapults me straight back to the summer of 1999, the year when Prince’s major hit from 1982 again hit the charts after its re-release. The song, in a way, exuded that time’s atmosphere of anxious anticipation of the new millenium to come, which was generally left unspoken, except for the loud buzz around the supposedly looming Y2K bug, predicting inevitable chaos.

We could all die any day/ But before I’ll let that happen, I’ll dance my life away.

The song never failed to be played at parties in those days, at which my friends and me danced away, nearly imperceptibly already shedding the thinnest outer layers of our carefree student selves, gradually exposing our eagerness to embark on the terrifyingly exciting adult life ahead of us, not knowing where it would take us, as any direction still seemed possible. Which in a way was true.

In that summer of 1999, before embarking on our final year of study (or at least before obtaining our master’s degree, as in 2000 we all decided to extend our period of study to varying degrees) my friends and I decided to enjoy some of the final weeks of our 3-month summer break in Crete. Of course we had a wonderful time, for Crete was

  • abundant sun, every single day (as opposed to our habitual capricious climate back home) – and sunburns
  • sea and beaches
  • swimming pools (including the pool from the next-door hotel – fancier than ours – which we once sneaked into)
  • impressive historical sites
  • magnificent landscapes
  • walks in the rough countryside nearby (an activity regarded by Cretans as utterly outlandish, as we were offered rides several times, obviously assuming we were in need of transport)
  • both lousy Dutch beer in more touristy stretches and excellent Greek wine elsewhere
  • great Greek food (although quite monotonous after ten days, since the range for vegetarians – which I still was back then – was restricted)
  • dancing hassapikos with locals during wedding parties taking place at our hotel (as the management preferred inviting its hotel guests to join these parties and offering them free grapes and wine to receiving complaints about excessive noise and sleepless nights)
  • taking roadtrips, sitting in the back of a 4×4, the wind blowing through our long hair (yes, mine was pretty long back then too)
  • and just great fun

It was on such a roadtrip, taking us to Sitia, Vai and Agios Nikolaios, that I saw and tasted pomegranate for the first time. One has to remember that this was 1999. As odd as this may seem now, pomegranates had not made it to the average Belgian kitchen back then. Our car had just conquered a scarily steep slope in Vai (which I felt compelled to photograph – see below), when we decided to take a break and have something to drink. There was a café around the corner, where our youthful entrance – and of course the fact that we were tourists -apparently disrupted the clientele’s usual composition. Only old male Greeks of a very respectful age where having their coffee there. So the five of us (4 women and 1 man in their twenties) got some particular attention and were lavished with hospitality, which showed itself for instance in the fact that we were instantly offered some pomegranate kernels, from a freshly cut fruit, which I found quite intriguing. Today, meticulously picking out the pitch-red arils from a pomegranate fruit, some part of me always floats back to those early September days under the Cretan sun.

In this za’atar tofu bowl, pomegrate features in two ways: the arils in the salad on the one hand, pomegranate molessas in the pesto on the other. In this version, I prepared some couscous and incorporated this in the salad, but you might just as well have this salad, topped with za’atar tofu and mint-walnut pesto, with some pita bread or flatbread instead. Either way it will be lovely.

Crete & a perfectly azure sea, 1999

Crete & me, 1999

Steep street in Sitia, Crete, 1999

Za'atar tofu bowl with mint-pomegranate pesto

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

Ingredients

    For the za’atar tofu

    • 400 g tofu, pressed, drained and cubed
    • 2 TB za’atar spice mix (*see recipe below if you can’t find it at your grocer’s)
    • 1,5 TB harissa
    • 1,5 tsp agave syrup (or another sweetener)
    • 1 garlic clove
    • 3 TB olive oil
    • 1/2 tsp salt
    • 1 TB lemon juice
    • For the finishing touch after frying: 1 TB cornstarch or arrowroot, 1 tsp harissa, 1 tsp agave syrup

    For the mint-pomegranate pesto

    • 1 cup loosely packed mint
    • 1 cup loosely packes flatleaf parsley
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 1/2 to 3/4 cup walnuts
    • 1 garlic clove
    • 1 TB pomegranate molasses
    • 2 TB water
    • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • za’atar spice mix
    • 3 TB sumak
    • 1,5 TB toasted sesame seeds
    • 1 TB oregano
    • 1 TB thyme
    • 1 TB marjoram
    • 1/2 tsp salt

    For the salad

    • 2-3 tomatoes, cubed
    • 2 cups flatleaf parsley, finely chopped
    • 1 garlic clove, pressed
    • 1 (roasted) bell pepper, cubed
    • 1/2 cucumber, sliced and chopped
    • Handful of toasted almond slivers
    • Pomegranate kernels of 1/2 pomegranate (or an entire one, if you wish and feel up to pinching all the kernels out of the fruit at once!)
    • A decent splash of both olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice
    • Salt to taste
    • Some mint leaves and olives if desired
    • Optional: couscous or flatbread

Directions

For the tofu: mix all ingredients and pour over the tofu cubes in a container (with lid). Shake the container and let marinate at least overnight. When frying the tofu, sprinkle some TB of cornstarch over the cubes, and make sure all cubes are evenly coated. Fry until nicely browned. For a final touch, add a tsp of agave syrup and harissa, and add a final coating layer.

For the salad: mix all ingredients

For the pesto: mix all ingredients in a food processor

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