A Middle Eastern Spread

Next to the massive, leisurely breakfasts so famous in Israel, mezze is the next best part of any meal. This array of little dips and spreads often clutter the table at restaurants that specialize in meat skewers, but they also show up in any number of places and are favorites to make at home. The dishes are an illustration of the diversity of Israeli cuisine, with roots in Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and even Europe. Everyone has their own variations and ratio of spices. To read more about mezze check out my recent article on the subject for the Jewish Daily Forward’s food blog, The Jew and the Carrot.

One of my favorite things about mezze – besides the fun of variety and communal sharing – is that it relies on a few basic ingredients, but with vastly different flavors. Mashed, fire-roasted eggplant is a popular base that is mixed with tahina, mayonnaise, or yogurt or creamy cheese (if serving a dairy meal). Tomatoes are served raw in an Israeli salad, pureed in a cold sauce-like dip, or served warm like a sauce. Tahina (sesame paste) shows up everywhere, as a basic dip flavored only with lemon and parsley or mixed into eggplant for baba ghanouj or chickpeas to make hummus.

It’s a great way to start a meal, and often there’s so much and they keep refilling your bowls that it could be the entire meal. And for entertaining nothing could be easier. Most mezze components can be made ahead, and even improve after a day. They can make up the entire spread at a cocktail party, they can be starters to tide guests over while you put the finishing touches on dinner, or they can be served as sides to complement your main meal. Pita is the traditional accompaniment, but sliced raw vegetables or chips are also nice in many of the dips. And while they rely on ingredients that are abundant in the Middle East and North Africa, most of them are readily found Stateside. Here are three favorite mezze recipes that should be easy to make no matter where you are. For a variation on Baba Ganouj, try substituting the tahina for mayonnaise (preferably homemade). B’tayavon! (Bon appétit.)

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Yield: 4 to 6 side/appetizer/mezze servings

6 carrots, peeled
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder or cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon hot paprika
¼ cup chopped cilantro or parsley
½ to 1 teaspoon harissa or chopped chili pepper (optional)

Cook the carrots in boiling water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the carrots and rinse under cold water. Slice on a bias into thin coin-shaped slices (or slice first and then boil, either way). Mix together the garlic, chili powder, lemon juice, cumin, paprika, parsley, and harissa (if using) and toss with the sliced carrots. Season with salt. Let stand at room temperature or in the fridge at least 1 hour, or in the fridge up to 2 days (the carrots will only get more flavorful with time). Serve cold or at room temperature.

Baba Ghanouj

Yield: About 2½ cups

2 large eggplants (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil (if cooking eggplant in oven or broiler)
½ cup tahina
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 cup chopped parsley or cilantro
Dash chili powder or cayenne pepper

Prepare the eggplant: ideally the eggplant should be cooked directly over an open flame until charred. This can be done over an open flame on a gas stove or on a grill. For those of us who must rely on electric stoves or who don’t like open flames, the broiler is your next best option. To cook in the broiler, cut the eggplants in half lengthwise, brush with olive oil, and lay face down on a baking sheet. Broil until charred.

Remove the eggplant from the flame or broiler and allow to cool. Scoop out the pulp and blend in a food processor. Pulse or stir in the tehina, lemon juice, garlic and cilantro or parsley. Season with a dash of chili powder and salt. Serve warm or at room temperature. You can refrigerate overnight and bring to room temperature before serving.

Tahina Dip

Yield: About 3/4 cup dip

½ cup tahina
4 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons to ½ cup water
½ cup chopped parsley (optional)

Whisk together the tahina, lemon juice, and garlic (you can also do this in a food processor, but a whisk is preferable). You will probably find that at this stage the tehina will become quite thick and dry (I did). Stir in cold water a few drops at a time until the tahina dip is the consistency you want. Typically it is thin enough to drizzle but thick enough to dip. Pulse or stir in cilantro or parsley, if using. Season with salt to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Entered in: Get Grillin’ with Family Fresh Cooking and Cookin’ Canuck, sponsored by Ile de France Cheese, Rösle, Emile Henry, Rouxbe and ManPans.

17 thoughts on “A Middle Eastern Spread

  1. Mindy

    Thanks for the tahina dip recipe–I love it with my falafel (which is on my list of to-makes this year!). I’ll definitely try this when I get some time to make the falafel!

    • krm2112

      It is so good on falafel! In Israel they usually thin the tahina down a bit when drizzling it over falafel and serve it slightly thicker as a dip. Either way, it’s delicious!

  2. Joanna Swan

    Oh! Me! Oh ! My !
    So many delicious treats on one page. thought I live in Beijing, a handful of these recipes look completely do-able from a Chinese market-frequenter’s perspective. Thanks for this amazing resource.
    Joanna @ Stoveless

    • Katherine

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m sure you could make some amazing variations based on what you have available in Beijing.

  3. warda

    We try to have small plates of nibbles, spread and cooked and raw salads at least once a week. It’s my favorite kind of dinner ever and also very easy to put together. I’ll add tahina dip next time. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Katherine

      That sounds fabulous! Mezze is so often an appetizer but really is enough for a main meal. I’ll have to start doing that! Thanks!

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