Going mad for mezze


Traveling abroad may be on hold right now, but there’s no reason why we can’t bring the taste and ambience of travel home to our kitchens and gardens with mezze. Mezze is an appetizer tradition essential to the cuisines of the Middle East, Turkey and Greece.

The word “mezze” derives from the Arabic term t’mazza, which translates as “savor in little bites.” The tradition consists of just that — a sampling of simple and fresh bites enjoyed with a refreshing drink, meant to whet the appetite before a meal. It’s a daily ritual and social tradition enjoyed with family and friends, centered around the table, often al fresco in the warm weather season.

This is a tradition we can all get behind. What could be a more convivial and pleasurable way to begin a meal than with a sampling of mezze accompanied by a glass of something cool and sparkling on a warm summer evening? Mezze can vary from a simple bite or two to a substantial spread. It almost always includes a sampling of dips, such as hummus, tzatziki or baba ghanoush, along with fresh crudites, pickles and olives. For a more substantial selection, the samplings are endless, including brochettes of meat and keftas (ground meat patties and meatballs), grilled calamari or octopus, simple salads and dolmas (stuffed vegetables and filled grape leaves.) The portions should be small and served in stages, encouraging mingling and lingering at the table.

Here are two basic mezze recipes you can make in advance and stash in the refrigerator, ready for serving or last-minute guests. Get started with these, then pour yourself a glass and enjoy a moment in the sunshine.

Smoky Eggplant and Chickpea Dip

This recipe is inspired by baba ghanoush, which is a traditional Middle Eastern dip made with roasted eggplant, tahini and lemon. In this version, extra flavor-boosting spices are added, as well as chickpeas for more structure. Select an eggplant that is firm, shiny and smooth and has a nice heft to its weight.

Active time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes, plus draining and cooling time

Yield: Makes about 2 cups

1 medium globe eggplant, 1 to 1 1/4 pounds

1 cup cooked chickpeas or canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/4 cup tahini

3 Tbsp. lemon juice

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

2 large garlic cloves

1 tsp. ground cumin

3/4 tsp. salt, or more to taste

1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1/2 tsp. ground coriander

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

Chopped Italian parsley leaves for garnish

Pita bread or crudites for serving

If grilling, prepare the grill for direct and indirect cooking over medium-high heat. Pierce the eggplant all over with a fork. Grill the eggplant over direct medium-high heat first, until charred on all sides. Move to indirect heat and continue to grill until the eggplant is slightly collapsed and very soft when pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes, depending on the size of the eggplant. Remove and cool to the touch, then slice in half.

If using an oven, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Slice the eggplant in half lengthwise. Brush with olive oil and arrange cut-side-down on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Roast in the oven until collapsed and very tender, 35 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the eggplant. Remove and cool to the touch.

Scoop the eggplant flesh into a strainer over a bowl and let drain for 30 minutes. Discard the skins.

Combine the eggplant and all of the remaining ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to blend to your desired consistency. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour to let the flavors develop. Serve at room temperature with pita bread and crudites for dipping, garnished with chopped fresh parsley. The dip may be prepared up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated. The flavors will diminish slightly with time.

Marinated Feta With Lemon

This appetizer is impossibly easy to make and best made ahead of serving. The longer the feta can marinate, the better the flavor.

Active time: 10 minutes

Total time: 10 minutes, plus marinating time

Yield: Makes about 2 cups

8 ounces feta cheese, rinsed and patted dry, cut in 3/4-inch cubes

Zest of one lemon, peeled with a vegetable peeler

2 to 3 thyme sprigs

2 to 3 oregano sprigs

1 tsp. cracked black peppercorns

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil, about 1 cup

Thoroughly clean a 16-ounce glass jar with a lid. Layer all of the ingredients except the olive oil in the jar. Pour in the olive oil to cover. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour for immediate serving, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week. Bring to room temperature before serving. Serve with crostini, fresh bread or pita bread.


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