Sunday, February 14, 2010

Daring Cooks February: Mezze

When I heard that the Daring Cooks challenge for February would be mezze, I decided to do a little bit of research. After all, the tradition of the mezze table is a long and fascinating one -- and I wanted to be sure I approached the challenge in the proper spirit.  I was actually surprised to find that I didn't know as much about the tradition of mezze as I first anticipated.
I've owned Clifford A. Wright's book, Little Foods of the Mediterranean, for some time now, but have only dabbled with the recipes.  I was excited to think that this challenge would allow me to explore the concept of mezze a bit more deeply.  So, I started reading.  And the more I read, the more I realized how much more there really was to know. Clifford does a great job of explaining the differences between mezze, tapas, antipasti, and hors d'oeuvre. And, although the book is fairly academic in its approach to culture, it also does a great job of giving the reader an appreciation for the sensuality of the foods and flavors of the Mediterranean region.

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
  • Hummus
  • Baba Ghannouj
  • Green olives stuffed with ground beef in a piquant tomato ragu
  • Harissa
  • 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.

We prepped our eggplant for grilling by washing and drying it, and then pricking it all over with a fork.
Then, we took it outside to cook on the grill. We filled our smoker box with applewood chips to give everything a nice, smoky flavor, and we grilled the eggplant until it was browned on all sides, and very soft.
We peeled the eggplant, cooled down the flesh, and whirred it up in the food processor with garlic, lemon juice, tahini, and a bit of salt.  All at once, we had a delightfully smoky baba ghanouj. 
Meanwhile, we put some beets on the stovetop to boil.
Once they were tender, we peeled them, sliced them into rounds, and put them away to marinate in a mixture of orange flower water, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, lemon juice, and sugar.
By this point, the chickpeas were cooked. We drained them, rinsed them with cool water, and removed their skins. Then, we blended them up with some garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and salt to create some of the smoothest hummus we'd ever tasted.  We garnished it with za'atar and pinenuts, and set it aside.

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).
One of the tricks to pita bread is to bake it in a VERY hot oven -- so we preheated ours as high as it would go (550ºF).  After about 2 minutes on our baking stone, each pita puffed up into a lovely little balloon.  The pitas deflate rapidly after being removed from the oven, creating the bread some call "pocket bread". We put all of the pitas into a bowl covered with a towel and kept them warm.

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.
While the olives were cooking, we grilled up some halloumi, which we plated up with some sliced lemons and a liberal dose of capers.
We also arranged the beet salad.
By the time the olives were finished cooking, we were both ravenous. We put together our mezze table -- using colorful dishes and linens, we tried to make everything as visually appealing as possible (after all, the mezze table is meant to please the eye, as well as the palate).  We poured ourselves a nice big glass of wine, and started in on the eating.
One of the wonderful things about a successful mezze table is that there are so many different flavors to enjoy -- briny, smoky, tangy, spicy, and fresh. It seems there's a little bit of everything here. And even though the plates are "small," the meal itself is more than fulfilling. Since there is so much food offered on a typical mezze spread, it's not generally expected that every dish will be finished at the end of the meal. Diners are satiated -- but, not only by the food, but the company as well. It's such an appealing concept, it makes me wonder why we don't do it more often.

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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  1. Everything sounds great! I'm so curious about those beets. I haven't had anything like them.

  2. Yes, I'd LOVE to join you. Just send your address. That feast looks fantastic.

  3. WOW Lo what a beautiful display of color! Really enjoyed learning about the mezze table.

  4. I'm on my way... and it's only 8 am!

    I wouldn't know where to start in a critique of this post: the eggplants, I think. They look amazing, and I swear I can smell them from here. Smoking them is brilliant... Golden beets - beautiful, and I bet a good match for the orange flower water. And your breads look perfect! I'm jealous your oven gets to 550... I'm stuck at 500. It's such a miracle when the rounds pop up like that, isn't it?

    But what is really exciting to me are those olives - when I read about them, I kept pouncing forward with my eyes, which is what happens frequently when I'm excited about what I'm reading, I was so curious if you were going to fry them! They look great, and I can see them disappearing fast over at Casa Rcakewalk. They are going on the to-do list.

    You are lucky for those leftovers, I'm imagining they will taste even better today! Great work, great photos, and great post!

  5. Wow, that all looks fantastic. I can't wait until we have eggplant and beets in our garden this summer to try some of these recipes. Oh and stuffed grape leaves would be awesome too.

    We sometimes do a winter "midwestern mezze" at home, with a few decorative plates made up of cheeses, pickles, olives, a dip or two. The sentiment is there, ha!

  6. I just love that shot of the steaming eggplants and I never knew you could get yellow beetroot in Australia you can only get dark blood red beetroot so colourful . Your olive recipe was *mouth watering* I have never knew you could stuff them with meat well done. I agree with Clifford I alwasy thought that mezze was a meal and not just starters. Bravo and kudos to you for your wondrous effort and results. Cheers from Audax in Sydney Australia.

    Excellent posting you really got me in the mood to do another mezze tomorrow. Aud

  7. Your mezze table looks STUNNING! I was drooling by the first pic when I saw the stunning grill marks on your halloumi. What is the red sauce/spread in that lovely little blue bowl? It looks delicious....

    So poor Peef had to stuff the olives, huh? Man, I don't envy him. I felt ambitious last week and decided to make breaded baked olives with two stuffings (cheese and chorizo). I spent TWO HOURS prepping, stuffing and breading those little bastards. Two hours that I will never get back. The cheese completely leaked out of the one variety, and the chorizo stuffed were surprisingly bland and disappointing. They just tasted like...olive, with a dense nugget of chewy meat. I'm still intrigued by the idea though, and know that it has the potential to be so delicious (as I'm sure yours were!!) so maybe stewing them is the way to go....I just have to muster up the enthusiasm and supreme patience to give them another shot!!!

  8. Hey Tina - The red sauce/spread you're seeing is a nice fresh batch of harissa. Most people use it as a condiment (well, so do we), but we also like to spread it right on our pita bread and eat it like a dip. It's also great mixed into hummus.

    As far as the olives -- they were pretty good. Maybe a bit on the salty side, but otherwise pretty tasty. TWO WHOLE CUPS of chopped fresh parsley in that recipe, though (more parsley than meat, to be honest)! Pretty crazy.

  9. I love seeing all of these collections of mezzes. I love the idea of this because you get little bites of lots of different food all at the same meal - which is how I would ideally eat if I could.

    The food looks beautiful.

  10. I love your mezze table!! Looks gorgeous and I should have thought to add haloumi too, especially since I have some waiting to be used in the fridge... :)

  11. Thanks for this post! I am Armenian and mezze is a staple in all our gatherings - the mezze time lasts longer than dinner sometimes. :)

  12. wow, that looks so impressive! i want to try some of those recipes really soon. I have one of Claudia Roden's books and her recipes are always so successful.

  13. What a lovely feast! I have never heard of mezze but it sounds great. All of the items you made sound soo good!

  14. Beeeeeets! Pass those beets! The spices are nice, nice, nice.

  15. All those dishes look so healthy and yummy!

  16. yuuuuuuuuuuuuuum. bryan and i love to make meals from mezze or antipasta. a big spread, nibbled on for hours, preferably while watching a food movie. heaven! how did you do the beets? they look boiled in oil almost? i've only ever boiled in water, or roasted in oil (in the oven). and grilled cheese - i've always said the only way to make cheese better is to fry it! ;)

  17. Jen - Actually, the beets were simply boiled/steamed in an inch or so of water -- and then dressed with the orange flower water, lemon, and spices. The color of the water in the photo above was simply from the color of the beets themselves. Gorgeous stuff... I actually drank anything that was left-over. Beet tea!!

  18. ahhh, that makes sense. i love golden beets - one of my favorite vegetables. we used to grow them in our garden when i was a kid. very few things taste so clean and sweet as a fresh golden beet.

  19. I am literally drooling all over my keyboard! Thanks a lot guys!!!! I am also very jealous of your trip to Tunisia! I have always wanted to go there!

  20. Oh, yum! Mezze are always so much work, but so worth it. Lunch for days.

    I, too, am jealous of your Tunisian adventure.

  21. YUMMERS! Wish I was there - you went all out on this one!

  22. Your mezze is amazing! Love that you grilled... btw where do you buy halloumi? Thanks for the Wright quote & title, always like checking out unfamiliar cookbooks. Really enjoyed your harissa post and pix from Tunisia. So impressed with those olives. My olive stuffing is limited to getting as much blue-cheese as possible into a very large olive for a martini garnish.

  23. This is too good to be true! The photo of the eggplant enchants me to make those dishes. I just wish I was there!

  24. I have to give you a A++ for this extensive effort of carrying out this Mezze challenge! I am totally amazed at your research and the extent of your meticulous detailing into each and everyone of the dishes. Excellent!

    Sawadee from bangkok,

  25. You certainly set a beautiful table. You really went the extra mile on the hummus too. You didn't just grind up a can of chick peas the way most people do. And that pita! Fantastic job.

  26. Mmmmmmmm, I would be over the moon is presented a platter of these dishes Luverly jubbley!

  27. Wow what a spread, thanks for sharing all the great info and pics

  28. we love mezze platters for lunch or a light supper. this one has all the good stuff!



  29. The Beets recipe sounds wonderful. I'm always on the look out for beets recipes and will definitely give this a try.

  30. Wow! I'm just so impressed with everything you made! Your food looks delicious and your pitas are perfect. I love the yellow beets!

    Thanks for cooking along with me this month.

  31. Simply put, this is one of the most absurdly appetizing food blog posts I've ever seen, ever, anywhere. This part-time Wisconsinite, part-time Minnesotan, full-time appreciater of beautiful, tasty food salutes you.


  32. Wow, thanks Brett! That's a high compliment :) The food was tasty... and it makes us want to do mezze more often.


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