As I read, I realized that I had been introduced to a very important aspect of mezze on my trip to Tunisia back in the early '90's -- the concept that the "small plates" of the mezze table are, in fact, meant to be a full meal -- not simply something to whet the appetite. In fact, the concept of an "appetizer" is all-but-absent from Mediterranean culture -- so it's generally inaccurate to consider mezze to be a precursor to something more substantial. Wright explains it best when he says:
To think of these small dishes as appetizers or tapas is to misunderstand the Arab or Near Eastern culinary sensibility. For the Arab, and this goes for the Turks and Greeks too, the notion of a food needed to “open the appetite” is completely foreign. The Arab simply starts eating; one is hungry and the stomach enzymes are ready to go to work [...] it is more appropriate to compare mazza to the Scandinavian smörgåsbord, to which it is more philosophically related, rather than hors d’oeuvre, antipasti, tapas, or appetizers.So, as we approached our mezze for the challenge, one of my goals was to create a collection of dishes that stayed true to the spirit of mezze -- a nourishing collection of small plates that would stand in for an ordinary meal. Our final menu included dishes from Cyprus, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and the Middle East -- a varied menu that included a bit of meat, but also lots of vegetables:
- Homemade pita bread
- Baba Ghannouj
- Green olives stuffed with ground beef in a piquant tomato ragu
- Grilled haloumi with lemon and capers
- Beet salad with orange flower water and Moroccan spices
The first thing we set to work on was the chickpeas for the hummus. After an overnight soak, we cooked put the chickpeas on to boil in plenty of cold water, seasoning them with a few dried chile peppers and a couple of bay leaves.
Next, we put together the dough for the pita bread. The dough was a pleasure to work with. It started off with a sponge made with yeast, water, and about 3 cups of flour. We allowed the sponge to rest for almost two hours before incorporating the salt, olive oil, and the remainder of the flour and giving it about an hour and a half to rise. Once the dough was risen, we punched it down and cut it into pieces, which we rolled out into flat pitas (less than 1/4 inch thick).
While the pita bread was cooking, I set Peef to work stuffing green olives with a mixture of grass-fed ground beef, parsley, eggs, cumin, cayenne pepper, garlic, and onions. Although we bought the largest green olives we could find, the task was still pretty challenging. Peef ended up using the pointy end of a teaspoon to scoop and stuff the filling right into the olive.
When the olives were stuffed, we cooked them in a mixture of tomato paste, harissa, red pepper flakes, and water until the filling was thoroughly cooked -- just under an hour.
Fortunately, it looks like we have enough leftovers from our Daring Cooks mezze table to feed a small crowd of hungry Mediterraneans. So, it's likely we'll be putting together another spread pretty soon.
Care to join us?
The 2010 February Daring COOKs challenge was hosted by Michele of Veggie Num Nums. Michele chose to challenge everyone to make mezze based on various recipes from Claudia Roden, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Dugid.
Recipes for Pita Bread and Hummus
Remainder of recipes taken from Little Foods of the Mediterranean (Wright)
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