Little Plates: Community Mezze Meal

A Gathering of Friends

Sharing a meal with friends is always a treat, and cooking the meal together is even better. “Let’s make flatbreads and have a Mezze party,” was my idea for a meal for a gathering of friends. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid wrote about the Eastern Mediterranean mezze table in one of my favorite cookbooks, Flatbreads and Flavors, “Mezze is a way of eating; as with tapas and antipasti, almost anything that is small and tasty qualifies as a mezze dish, even main dishes if they can be served in small portions.” But the mezze table is not just about the small plates. It could be called the welcome table, as we learned on our travels in Turkey many years ago. Wherever we went, a table was set…a cloth spread, utensils laid out, bowls of food placed in the center, flatbreads stacked for all to take… and all were welcomed–family, travelers, relatives, neighbors.

A mezze table can be very simple. One of our first meals in Turkey was a pile of very thin flatbreads, coarse salt, green onions, and a bowl of yogurt soup. We rolled the green onions in a piece of bread, dipped them in salt, and scooped up some yogurt to eat with each bite. The meal is a good memory… the end-of-winter generosity of this family sharing the first green onions of spring, their fresh homemade bread, and milk from their cows. Simple gifts from the earth made a feast.

The feast can be large or small. Start with a basket of fresh pita or lavash breads, some crumbled cheese or thick yogurt, hummus and olives, and a salad of spicy greens and fresh herbs. Add some grilled or roasted vegetables, kebab or meatballs for a more substantial meal. Keep going with pickled and marinated vegetables, lentils or pilaf, salsa and dips. I call this the add-a salad menu…soon you have a feast.

A mezze meal has no order or rules. Everything can be set out together, and the diners are free to pick and choose. I love it that every bite can be different–do I want a marinated mushroom with my green onion, or perhaps preserved lemon and harissa? Our mezze party guests brought gifts from their kitchens…marinated mushrooms, pickled grapes and onions, eggplant caponata, and cornbread from homegrown Hopi blue corn. We made meatballs and pilaf with wild rice from Minnesota. Our conversations were as eclectic as the dishes…logging and beekeeping, gardening and tree grafting, global warming and drought in Colorado, painting and woodcarving…a mezze table encourages discussion and discovery.

Pita Bread

Pita Bread

Ingredients: 2 cups warm water, 1 tsp yeast, 3 cups unbleached all purpose flour, 2 cups hard whole wheat flour, 2 tsp salt, a couple of friends

In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the white flour, stirring around in one direction for about 1 minute. Cover with plastic bag or tight lid and let ferment at room temperature 4 to 6 hours. Add the salt and 1 cup whole wheat flour to the sponge, stirring to incorporate. Gradually add the rest of the whole wheat flour until the dough can be gathered into a ball. Stretch and fold the dough for 3 to 5 minutes, until it is smooth and cohesive. Fold the dough into a ball and place it in a clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover tightly with a plastic bag and refrigerate 12 hours, or up to a week.

Take the dough out of the refrigerator at least 2 hours before baking and allow to warm to room temperature. Divide the dough into 16 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Cover with a towel and let rest 5 minutes.

Heat a large griddle over medium-high heat. On a floured surface, press a ball of dough with your hand to flatten it into a circle. Roll or stretch the dough to make a disk less than 1/4-inch thick. Ask your friends to keep rolling out the pita while you start to cook them.

Lay one or two breads onto the hot griddle. You should see bubbles forming in the dough almost immediately. Flip the breads over after 15 to 20 seconds. Cook about one minute, until you see large bubbles pushing up the surface. Flip again and cook another 40 to 60 seconds. Push gently on the edges of the bubbles to help them expand. Ideally, the breads will fill with air, but un-inflated ones are still delicious. Wrap cooked breads in a thick towel to keep them warm and soft until ready to eat.

Lavash: Roll the dough out as for pita, let it rest for a minute, and continue to roll it thinner. Alternate rolling and resting until the dough is about 1/16th-inch thick or less. Heat a large wok upside down over a gas flame. Transfer the dough onto the surface of the wok. Cook 20 to 30 seconds, flip and cook the second side another 20 to 30 seconds.

*Kuku/Koukouye

This is a recipe from a special Turkish meal we ate in a village named Opium, where we also were served poppy seeds ground up like peanut butter. The kuku was full of herbs, wild greens and dried cherries. We tore off pieces of flatbread, wrapped up slices of kuku, and dipped them in yogurt. Like frittata, kuku can be made with a wide variety of vegetables and herb combinations, such as lightly steamed cauliflower or broccoli or sautéed mushrooms, leeks, or summer squash. The inclusion of barberries or sour cherries is a typical Persian touch.

Ingredients: 6 large eggs, 3 Tbs yogurt, 1 Tbs flour, 1/4 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, 1/4 tsp nutmeg, 2 Tbs olive oil or butter, 1 finely chopped onion, 2 crushed garlic cloves, one or two bunches wild or cultivated greens (spinach, kale, chard, chicory, borage, mustard…), 1/2 cup chopped scallions, 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh herbs (parsley, coriander, dill, garlic chives, fennel, mint…), 3 Tbs chopped dried cranberries or sour cherries, salt and freshly ground black pepper

Kuku may be cooked in a large skillet on top of the stove and finished under a preheated broiler, or baked in an oven preheated to 350 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the eggs, yogurt, baking powder, and spices. Whisk together lightly and set aside. Warm the oil in a large, ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Wash and chop the greens into narrow strips. Put the still-wet leaves into the pan. Cover and steam to wilt, 1 or 2 minutes. Stir in the scallions, herbs, and dried fruit. Season with salt and pepper. Combine the greens with the eggs in the mixing bowl. Lightly oil the skillet and pour the kuku back into the hot pan. Cook the kuku over low heat 6 to 10 minutes and finish under the broiler to brown the top, or bake in the oven 15 to 20 minutes, until the eggs are set.

Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into narrow wedges

*Marinated feta (or fresh mozzarella)

8 oz crumbled feta cheese, 1 tsp each cumin, caraway, and fennel seed (toasted and lightly crushed), 1 Tbs chopped fresh oregano, thyme, or mint leaves, 1/4 tsp red chile flakes, 2 or 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on top

*Pickled Habanero-Ginger Grapes a la Joe

Marinated Tomatoes

These were a huge hit. I found they make a wonderful salsa combined with cucumber or mango, chiles, and red onion. Joe adapted this recipe from the book Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys and Chowchows, by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.

In a large saucepan, combine 1 1/2 cups white vinegar, 1/2 brown sugar, 1 cup white sugar, 2 Tbs crushed coriander seeds, 1 Tbs ground cinnamon, 7 whole cloves, and 1 tsp salt. Bring to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and add about 1-inch piece thinly sliced ginger, 1 thinly sliced habanero or 3 jalapeno chiles. Pour the mixture over 3 cups green and red seedless grapes (Joe cut them in half), and let stand 1 hour before serving. The pickled grapes keep beautifully in the refrigerator.

*Tunisian Caponata

Tapenade

Suzy based her caponata on a recipe found in Mollie Katzen’s Still Life With Menu, a book of meatless menus and original art. It is equally delicious on pita, bruschetta, or cornbread.

Ingredients: 1 large sweet onion (chopped), 1 1/2 lbs eggplant (unpeeled 1-inch cubes), 2 diced celery stalks, 3 or 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves, 3 or 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt, 2 to 4 Tbs red or white wine vinegar, one 14-oz can crushed plum tomatoes (or 2 to 3 Tbs tomato paste), one 6-oz. jar marinated artichoke hearts, 2 Tbs capers, 1/2 cup cut up black and green olives, 2 Tbs fresh mint or parsley.

Warm 2 Tbs olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion and sauté 5 to 8 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Add 1 more Tbs oil, eggplant cubes, celery, and salt. Cover and cook 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender. Stir in the tomatoes or tomato paste and vinegar to your taste. Heat to a simmer and stir in the olives. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the capers and artichoke hearts (drained and chopped). Sprinkle the herbs on top. Serve at room temperature.

I like to make this by grilling or roasting the vegetables separately before combining them with olives, vinegar, capers, and herbs to make the caponata. Sweet red peppers are a welcome addition. Arthur Schwartz describes an easy-to-use baked version in his book, The Southern Italian Table: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut onion, sweet red peppers, and celery into 1/2-inch dice. Cut the unpeeled eggplant into 1-inch cubes. Toss the vegetables with 4 Tbs olive oil, 2 Tbs vinegar, and 1 tsp salt. Mix in the garlic and tomatoes. Scoop the mixture into a roasting pan and bake 60 to 90 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and the pan juices are thick. Stir in the remaining ingredients (artichokes optional), except the herbs, and let cool. Sprinkle on the herbs before serving.

*Spiced Chickpea Salad

Ingredients: 2 cups cooked chickpeas, spice mix (1/2 tsp ground cumin, 1/2 tsp ground allspice, 1/2 tsp ground coriander), 1/4 tsp kosher or sea salt, 2 Tbs olive oil, 2 tsp whole cumin seed, 1 finely chopped medium red onion, 1 Tbs chopped garlic, 1 Tbs minced fresh ginger, 1 minced jalapeno or serrano chile, 1 diced red or yellow bell pepper, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley, 2 cups chopped curly endive (optional)

Vinaigrette: 2 or 3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, zest of 1 lemon, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Drain the chickpeas, put in a shallow bowl and toss to coat with the spice mix and salt. Set aside. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin seed and cook about 20 seconds. Add the onion, stir to coat with oil, and cook 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, and chile and stir 30 seconds. Add the chickpeas and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl, toss with the diced pepper, herbs, and endive. Drizzle with vinaigrette

*Yogurt Soup

Ingredients: 2 cups plain whole milk or reduced-fat yogurt, 2 garlic cloves, 1 cup finely chopped fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, dill, mint, chives), 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions, 1/2 tsp sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, 1 minced jalapeno (optional), 1 large cucumber, milk or water to thin

Crush, peel, and chop or pound the garlic into a paste with a pinch of coarse salt. Mix the garlic paste and all the other ingredients into the yogurt. Add the peeled, seeded, and diced cucumber. Season with salt and black pepper and thin with milk or water, if you like.

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