Mezze has a long history as part of Jewish cuisine. The exact origins of mezze are not clear, but by the Middle Ages, there are records of a variety of small plates served to guests before a bigger meal around the Mid East, Mediterranean and among the Sephardim and Muslim of Iberia.
As with so much of the food of the original Sephardim, we know about mezze because of Inquisition testimony, including one woman whose maid reported to the authorities that her mistress served small dishes of cold foods to her women friends who came to visit on Saturday afternoons. This was damning proof that the hostess was keeping Shabbat.
Tapas grew out of the small plate tradition of the Jews and Muslims in Spain. They were named for the lids that would cover the dishes as they were carried from the kitchen to be served. Tapas were originally presented at pubs, especially to men gathered on Sunday afternoons after church while the women were home taking care of the children. The tradition of many tapas using pork developed as a way to ensure everyone’s Christian faith.
Today, the pleasure of eating mezze has spread to many countries and even to some of the finest restaurants. Wherever they are served, mezze bring people together to take their time enjoying good food, company and conversation.
Being able to talk about and cook mezze as part of The Great Big Jewish Food Fest, in a session hosted by Lilith, was a delight! Several hundred people from around the world participated via Zoom and Facebook. If you want to see the action, the video is up on Lilith’s Facebook page.
TURKISH TOMATO AND WALNUT SALAD
Although tomatoes weren’t part of Ottoman cuisine until the mid-1800s, the fruit quickly made its way into dishes like this. It might sound like a bit of an unusual combination, but this salad brings together the gentle sweetness of ripe tomatoes with the slightly smokey, crunchy toasted of walnuts and the tart, unique flavor of pomegranate molasses. If you don’t have pomegranate molasses, try using a balsamic vinegar reduction. It won’t taste the same, but it will still be good.
- 1/2 cup walnut pieces or halves roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper or to taste
- 2 cups chopped tomatoes (about 4 medium tomatoes), seeded and drained
- ¼ cup chopped parsley, preferably flat leaf
Toast the walnuts in a dry sauté pan for 10-12 minutes, shaking the pan often, until fragrant and just starting to darken slightly. Put into a bowl or dish to cool and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the oil, pomegranate molasses, sumac, salt and pepper.
Put the walnuts, tomatoes and parsley into a mixing bowl. Pour on the dressing and toss together well. Serve immediately for the crispest nuts, although it’s still good the next day.
SQUASH RIBBON SALAD
A beautifully simple dish, this shines with the flavors of garden-fresh vegetables, good olive oil, fragrant lemon and basil. I first ate it one summer several years ago in the Jewish quarter of Rome, and it wasn’t just the setting that made it taste so good. Once back home in DC, I quickly realized it wasn’t hard to re-create, and I’ve been serving it ever since for brunch, lunch, dinner, parties…and chopping up the rare leftovers into omelets and frittatas as well. There are no measurements here. This dish is best when made by instinct, taste and what you have available. No zucchini? Use all yellow squash and visa versa. Use the rest of the ingredients to your liking, which is the best way to cook anyway.
- Yellow summer squash
- Good quality extra virgin olive oil
- Fresh lemon juice
- Lemon zest
- Basil leaves, cut into thin strips (chiffonade)
- Salt and pepper
- Shaved parmesan
Using even pressure, run a vegetable peeler down the length of each squash, creating long ribbons. Continue all around the sides of the squash, stopping at the center seeds. (Save that for making soup stock.)
Pile the squash on a pretty serving plate, mixing colors and, if desired, curling a few ribbons more tightly for presentation. Drizzle with olive oil and some fresh lemon juice. Sprinkle with lemon zest, basil pieces, salt and pepper. Top with few pieces of shaved parmesan. Serve soon after making either cold or at room temperature.
Every spice vendor in Israel and throughout the Middle East has their own particular za’atar mix that they become known for. You should do the same and make this mix totally to your taste. Find a blend you like and then use it on pita with olive oil, hummus, baba ganoush, labneh, feta, fish, chicken, in salad dressings…you get the idea! I add only a little sale and not cumin or coriander to the mix, preferring to control those ingredients for each recipe using za’atar. This recipe is for the mix I usually, although not always, use.
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 2 tablespoons marjoram
- 2 tablespoon dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons sumac
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted if preferred
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper, more or less depending on the heat desired
Mix together well. Adjust for personal taste. Store in a jar or glass container tightly covered. When you use the za’atar, you can crumble it a bit by hand to release more flavor and aroma.
LABNE WITH OLIVES AND ZA’ATAR
Labne is so easy to make from plain yogurt that you’ll want to do it often to enjoy the resulting creamy, spreadable, dip-able deliciousness. Try spreading it on bagels, using it for your favorite dip or try something new like this recipe. You can use any good plain yogurt from full- to non-fat with satisfying results.
- 16 ounces plain yogurt,
- 1/3 cup good quality olive oil
- 2-3 tablespoons small diced pitted Kalamata olives
- 2-3 tablespoons small diced green olives
- 2 tablespoons chopped pistachios, toasted preferred
- 1/4 cup za’atar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup of pomegranate arils or a few extra chopped pistachios, optional
To make the labne, line a fine mesh strainer with handles with double or triple cheese cloth. Make sure 5 or 6 inches of extra cheesecloth hangs over the strainer edges. Set the strainer in a larger bowl that holds it up a few inches from the bottom. Spoon the yogurt into the center of the cheesecloth, letting it sink to the bottom of the strainer. Pull up the corners and edges of the cheesecloth and twist together over the yogurt. Lay the twisted strand to the side and put the whole thing in the refrigerator, overnight or 10-12 hours.
When ready to make the dish, mix together in a small mixing bowl the olive oil, olives, pistachios and zaatar until well blended.
Use a large spoon to scoop the labne onto a round or oval platter with a lip. Use the back of the spoon to spread out the labneh evenly, leaving a little space between the edge of the platter and the edge of the labne. Spoon the topping over the labneh and spread it evenly, letting the oil drip over the sides. Sprinkle the pomegranate arils or chopped pistachios on top if using. Serve with warm pita bread, pita chips or cut up fresh vegetables. Try lining your serving platter with endive leaves for a beautiful and tasty presentation.
EGGPLANT CAVIAR / Ensalada de Berenjena (Ladino) / Patlican Salatasi (Turkish)
My little (under 5 feet tall) Russian grandmother ate this eggplant salad thickly shmeared on dark rye bread. Under her supervision, I made this dip as a child using our large wooden chopping bowl with the very sharp red-handled chopper, the same tools we used to make haroset at Passover. I have since discovered that her Eastern European recipe is surprisingly similar to various Sephardic versions with the only difference being the use of vinegar in the Ashkenazic version or either lemon or vinegar in the Sephardic. These days, I usually serve it as a dip with cut up bell peppers, cucumber slices, endive and pita or pita chips, although it’s surprisingly delicious as a sandwich spread. A warning, though, that this is a dish for garlic lovers.
- 2 large purple eggplants (will yield about 2 ½-3 cups cooked)
- Sea salt
- 5-6 cloves garlic
- 2-3 teaspoons good olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice or wine vinegar or to taste
- Freshly ground pepper
- Chopped parsley, Aleppo pepper, paprika or crumbled feta for garnish (optional)
To cook the eggplant:
Method 1: Roasting the eggplant over an open flame the traditional way gives the dish the special unique smoky flavor. Use a fork to poke a few very small holes in the neck and large end of the eggplant. (This keeps it from just steaming inside and also from exploding as it cooks.) Coat each eggplant lightly with oil and cook them on the hot grill outside, turning them carefully and often with tongs until completely blackened and very soft.
Method 2: To cook inside over the flame on the stove, follow the same directions in Method 1, but instead of the grill, set the eggplants on top of the stovetop grate over a medium to medium high gas flame, still turning carefully and often.
Method 3: To cook in the oven, preheat to 400 degrees. Cut the eggplants in half the long way, then cut 3 or 4 diagonal incisions, about 2 inches deep, in the flesh of each half. Turn and cut diagonal incisions the opposite direction, creating a crosshatch design. Coat the cut sides lightly with olive oil, then turn cut side down on a parchment-covered rimmed baking sheet. If you want, slice a few cloves of garlic and place under the eggplant. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the halves are very soft and collapsing.
To make the caviar:
When cool enough to handle, separate the eggplants and garlic. Slice open each eggplant if still whole, being careful as some liquid will come out. Scoop out the very soft pulp, scraping it away from the skin. As an optional step, you can set the pulp in a colander or strainer, discarding any large clumps of seeds without losing any pulp. Sprinkle the pulp with a few pinches of salt and let the liquid drain off into a bowl or the sink for 15-20 minutes. This will make for a little thicker mixture and reduce any lingering bitterness in the eggplant.
To make by hand, mash 1 or 2 cloves of fresh garlic in a press or grate on a microplane. Put the fresh garlic, eggplant pulp and cooked garlic slices on a large flat plate or shallow bowl. Mash with a fork to desired con consistency. Add oil, lemon juice or vinegar, salt and pepper to taste and mix until very well blended.
To use a food processor, press or grate the fresh garlic as above. Add it to the bowl of the processor with the eggplant pulp and cooked garlic. Pulse using a short spurts to chop the pulp and garlic nearly to desired consistency. Add the oil, lemon juice or vinegar, salt and pepper and pulse just enough to blend. Be careful not to over-process to a totally smooth consistency.
Serve the “caviar” as a dip for veggies or pita, spread on crostini or small rounds of bread, as stuffing for cucumber cups or cherry tomatoes with their insides scooped out. Nice topped with a sprinkle of optional spices or crumbled feta.
We’re excited to share with you a special offer for people following Susan Barocas’s mezze-making event! Subscribe to Lilith magazine now using this link and you’ll receive one year– 4 issues–of Lilith for just $18 ($35 value)! This is a limited-time offer, so subscribe right now!
Susan Barocas is a writer, chef, cooking instructor and speaker who served as guest chef for three Obama White House Seders. All recipes are the property of Susan Barocas and may not be reprinted or shared without her permission.