Food

Why the Middle Eastern Mezze Is a Fast Food Model for the U.S.

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Muhammara
In the Middle East, everything you eat on the streets, in restaurants or at home comes with a dizzying array of salads. Cafés compete to offer not only traditional favorites but unique options. Fast food or limited-service eateries are not so much different in kind from full-service restaurants as they are different in service, that is, they are cafeteria-style. Middle Easterners love their veggies, seeds, nuts, grains and beans, no matter how they get them!

So what is a Mezze? It is a spread of hors d’oeuvres and “salads,” in the language of the Middle East, some traditional, some creative. On most Mezze tables or at self-service bars, you’re likely to find some version of Falafel, Hummus, Ful (an Egyptian stewed Fava bean dish), a variety of eggplant dishes, Matboukha (a cooked tomato salad), the ubiquitous Jerusalem or Israeli salad (a mixture of petite-diced tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, onions and cilantro dressed with olive oil and lemon), Morrocan-style carrots, wonderfully-seasoned green veggies like Brussels sprouts or spinach and pine nuts, peppers, olive salads, Tabbouleh (a parsley and cracked wheat salad), Muhammara (a pomegranate, bell pepper and walnut salad)… the list could go on and on, limited only by imagination.

While these foods are not all quick to prepare, they keep well so you can make them ahead. They are easy to serve, beautiful and appetizing, and most importantly, they are real food, healthy, delicious and satisfying. On any Mezze table, there will be something for everyone, probably many things for everyone.

Mezze tables are also fun to try at home. A few of these delectable salads make a great family dinner or a first course for a company meal. A larger assortment is all you need for a unique party. Start collecting recipes, adding your own creations if you like to experiment, and you’ll soon be a Mezze Maven (Pro)! Make it vegetarian or vegan — or add some meat and fish options (Shishkebab with meat or chicken or Haraimé, a traditional Moroccan fish dish). Here are three favorite items to get you started:

MUHAMMARA (makes about 2 cups)

Ingredients

  • Walnuts, 2 cups
  • Pomegranate molasses, 4 TB
  • Red Bell Peppers, 4 large, roasted
  • Garlic, 2 cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup
  • Pita crumbs, dried/toasted, 1/2 cup
  • Cumin, 2 tsp.
  • Crushed red pepper, 2 tsp.
  • Tomato paste, 2 TB
  • Salt, 1 tsp.

Procedure

  1. Roast the peppers under a broiler until the skin is dark brown/blackish all the way around. Set aside to cool.
  2. Bread crumbs will work for this. Whole wheat Lebanese pita, toasted and ground with the rest of the mixture, works very well. One whole piece of Lebanese pita should make about a cup. Put the pita into a low oven until it is thoroughly dry, then break into manageable pieces.
  3. Add all ingredients except the peppers to a food processor.
  4. When the peppers are sufficiently cooled, peel and remove the stems. The skins should slip off easily if they are well-roasted.
  5. Grind until smooth, or at least just slightly grainy from the walnuts.
  6. Garnish with additional pomegranate molasses/syrup and walnuts.

HUMMUS (makes about 2 quarts)

Ingredients

  • Dried chickpeas, 1 lb.
  • Garlic, 2 tsp. or 2 lg. cloves
  • Tahina, 1 cup
  • Lemons, 1/2 cup juice, about 2 lg. lemons
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup
  • Bean liquid, 1/2 – 2 cups, depending on how much water beans absorbed during cooking (dilute bean liquid with water if too strong)
  • Sea salt, 2 scant tsp.
  • Cumin, 2 tsp.
  • Szeged hot paprika, 1 tsp.

Directions

  1. Cook the chickpeas, which usually takes at least a couple of hours, and pour them into a strainer over a bowl so the bean liquid drains into the bowl. Reserve the liquid.
  2. Place the drained chickpeas into a food processor.
  3. Add all other ingredients except reserved bean liquid to the food processor bowl (garlic, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, Tahina, seasonings).
  4. Have the reserved bean liquid ready in a cup with a pour spout. If it is too dense, dilute it with water.
  5. Run the food processor briefly, and then add bean liquid, no more than 1/2 cup at a time, through the feed tube.
  6. Let processor run for a minute, scrape down the sides and let run for another minute, adding liquid as needed.
  7. When mixture reaches desired consistency, let processor run for 2-5 minutes more to make the Hummus as smooth as possible.
  8. Remove Hummus processor, put on a plate, garnish with olive oil, parsley, paprika, sumac, Za’atar or additional chickpeas as desired.

SWEET RED PEPPERS (makes about 1 quart)

Ingredients

  • Red, yellow or orange bell peppers, 6-8
  • Garlic, hand minced, 3 cloves
  • White vinegar, 1/4 cup
  • Extra virgin olive oil, 2 TB
  • Salt, 1 tsp.
  • Cumin, 2 tsp.
  • Hot paprika, 1 tsp. (Szeged is a good brand)
  • Cilantro, chopped, 1/3 bunch

Procedure

  1. Wash peppers.
  2. Smoke or brown peppers under the broiler. Use a broiler for this, and turn the peppers several times so they are evenly “burned” and the skin starts to wrinkle.
  3. Remove the skins. Cut away the white pulpy material that attaches to the core but leave most of the seeds.
  4. Slice peppers into strips. Cut across the strips into shorter pieces.
  5. Place pepper strips into a mixing bowl with their juices and some seeds.
  6. Add remaining ingredients to taste.

Now imagine all the other colorful, delicious salads you can make, and start building your file. In the meantime, enjoy these three classics.

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