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Few of the herbs that grow wild in Israel have caused as much confusion as hyssop (za'atar in Hebrew and Arabic). Mentioned in the Bible, this slightly bitter, somewhat mint-flavored plant, a member of the basil family, has been used for thousands of years in Middle Eastern and Arabic cookery. In addition to being particularly appropriate for use with oily types of fish, the dried leaves of hyssop go well with stews, salads and fruit pies, and the dried flowers of hyssop are valued for use in soups.

But now, the sad part of the story: Even though hyssop continues to grow in the wild, it is a protected plant and those caught picking it must pay a justifiably large fine. Thus, in almost all cases, the hyssop we buy locally is not hyssop at all, but a blend of six to nine different Mediterranean herbs including thyme, basil and sumac.

One can purchase good za'atar mixtures in the shuk, the delicatessen and even the supermarket. Nor is it difficult to make za'atar blend at home. Simply grind together with a mortar and pestle or in a coffee/spice grinder 2 tsp. oregano flakes, 2 tsp. basil, 2 tbsp. thyme, 1/2 tsp. savory, 2 tsp. marjoram, 1 tbsp. sumac (if available), 1/2 cup sesame seeds, 1 1/2 tsp. salt (can use more or less to taste), and the zest of 2 lemons. The mixture can be stored in well sealed sterile jars for up to six months.

Hyssop salad with potato cake & cheese

1/2 kilo potatoes, unpeeled

675 gr. chevre or other fresh goat's milk cheese

salt and white pepper to taste

about 3/4 cup olive oil

1 cup arugula, well cleaned and with thick stems discarded

2 cups mixed lettuces well cleaned and torn into convenient pieces

1/2 cup fresh hyssop (can substitute fresh basil leaves)

1 tbsp. dried za'atar mixture

1/2 cup black olives, pitted and halved

Cook the potatoes in an ample amount of salted water until tender. Drain, peel and thinly slice the potatoes.

Mash the goat's milk cheese and season with salt and pepper. Place 1 tbsp. of oil in each of six 10-cm. ramekins and spread half of the cheese on the bottom of the ramekins. On this lay the potato slices, topping them with the remaining cheese. Glaze each ramekin with oil. Place the ramekins in an oven that has been preheated to 175 degrees Celsius until the cheese is lightly golden (about 20 - 25 minutes). Let cool slightly.

To serve, toss the arugula, lettuce, hyssop, za'atar and olives together with olive oil and lemon juice to taste. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper if necessary.

Divide the greens among six flat salad plates and in the center of each, place one ramekin. (Serves 6).

Hyssop salad

1 small chicory (curly endive)

2 Belgian endives

1/2 cup fresh hyssop (can substitute 1 1/2 tsp. dried za'atar)

1 large apple, peeled and cut into 1-cm. slices

1 cup Emmenthal or Gruyere cheese, grated

1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

4 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. sweet cream

3 tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

2 tsp. parsley, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Wash the chicory and endives well, and then cut them into convenient pieces for the salad.

In a jar combine the oil, cream, lemon juice, mustard and chopped parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and shake thoroughly.

In a salad bowl, mix together the vegetables, apples and walnuts. Distribute the cheese over the top, pour over the sauce, toss well and serve. (Serves 4).