Small Bites, Big Flavors: Middle Eastern meze offer lively, low-stress dishes
By Lisa Barnett de Froberville / Photography By D. Lucas Landis | Last Updated December 02, 2016
It is the art of living we aspire to: friends gathered for drinks and conversation around a generous table, fresh ingredients coaxed into a seductive array of color and texture.
Meze (aka mezze or mezedhes) are the small plates common throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East and all the way into the Balkans. From the Persian maza, “to relish,” they include salads, dips and hors d’oeuvres for sharing as an aperitif or light meal. Born of the region’s legendary hospitality, meze are as much a philosophy of life as a specific set of recipes. They are a backdrop to social interaction, meant to delight and sustain.
This informal cuisine, often eaten with the hands and scooped up with flatbread, makes for lively, low-stress entertaining. Many of the dishes can be prepared ahead of time and served at room temperature. Healthy plates of vegetables, seeds and nuts offer delicious vegetarian and vegan combinations. Simple or elaborate, the spread is limited only by the imagination, from savory pastries and meatballs to pickled vegetables and a rainbow of chopped salads.
The meze tradition developed as a way to soak up strong anise-flavored liquors—arak in Lebanon, raki in Turkey, ouzo in Greece—but a good rosé or a bone-dry white wine also make great pairings.
The charm of the meze table is in its diversity, and the delicate balance of flavors. In The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden writes, “The cooks at the Sultan’s palace in Istanbul reputedly produced more than two hundred different types of mezze.” Each region has its specialties, but they share common elements. Honey, date syrup and dried fruits add sweetness; lemon, pomegranate molasses and yogurt offer tartness and acidity; fresh herbs add brightness to balance the smokiness of roasted vegetables and warm spices. Briny, salty olives and cheese bring a pungent assertiveness.
The simplicity of many of the dishes calls for careful selection of ingredients. Olive oil, especially, is a key element. It’s worth using a Middle Eastern variety for its unique flavor and fragrance. Hummus, the best known of the meze dishes, is spread, not heaped, across the plate to hold a slick of fruity olive oil and all sorts of savory additions: pine nuts, whole chickpeas, fresh herbs, and spices like sumac, za’atar and pepper flakes. Eggplant, a meze staple, is often blackened before being pulped and enriched with olive oil and herbs or with tahini to make baba ghanoush.
Other dishes include stuffed grape leaves, fruit tarts, filo cheese cigars, roasted red peppers, sausages, falafel, tabbouleh and labneh (see recipe below)—a spreadable fresh cheese made by straining Greek yogurt overnight, used in both sweet and savory preparations. Taramosalata (a cod roe salad), calamari and fish balls are popular seafood options. While many ingredients are available in large grocery stores, shopping at a specialty store is more economical and vastly more inspirational.
Almadina, a Middle Eastern grocery in Mishawaka, reflects the breadth of this cuisine with its inclusion of Eastern European products. A huge Bosnian burek meat pastry was right at home in the freezer next to a selection of Middle Eastern pita and other flatbreads. Here you will find dates, olives and olive oil, tahini and every spice, grain and bean, as well as more exotic items like orange blossom water, pomegranate molasses and tamarind sauce. Halal meats and fresh breads and cheeses (hunks of Bulgarian feta floating in brine) are brought in on Wednesdays, which is when to go to snatch up the delicate sheets of tannour bread imported from a Chicago bakery.
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