Around the Middle East, people of all nationalities relax during the long, languorous summer afternoons.
Conversation slows and becomes softer, and attention turns to the mezze, or appetizer, plates. Like tapas, mezze offer little bites of something intriguing. The shared plates encourage conviviality around the table.
It’s a great tradition, and suited especially to summer, when humidity and high temperatures can drive appetite into hiding. A lunch or supper of small plates may be just the ticket on a torpid day. If that day includes the appearance of guests, all the better.
Hummus is the most famous mezze, of course, but it has become a sad cliché in this country. Chocolate hummus? Hummus made from white beans? Those aren’t hummus — they may be good, but they’re their own thing.
Baba ghanoush, the smoky, garlicky eggplant puree which Middle Eastern food writer Claudia Roden famously called “vulgarly seductive,” pleases even those who think they don’t like eggplant. But it, too, suffers from a little too much familiarity.
We have three alternative ideas for your summer mezze.
The lively Egyptian nut-seed-spice mixture called dukkah makes a refreshing change from more sedate offerings. If you ever needed an excuse to eat a lot of good bread with good olive oil, dukkah provides one. If you have leftover dukkah, use to it bread plain ol’ chicken breasts before sauteeing.
Eggplants, with their deep purple skin catching the light, look so appealing at the farmers market and supermarket. The Persian dip called kashk-e-bademjun gives you a reason to scoop up three of the prettiest ones you can find. It traditionally uses whey to provide a lactic acid zing, but you can substitute buttermilk for almost the same effect.
Lebanese muhammara gets sweetness from the roasted bell peppers, and walnuts lend texture and rich flavor. Although it’s not traditional, we’ve added a couple of chipotles to bump up the heat and complement the roasted peppers’ smoky flavor. Leftover muhammara makes a terrific sauce for grilled, baked or broiled poultry or fish.
Kashk is the Farsi word for whey, and bademjun is the Farsi word for eggplant. This Persian dish’s name translates to eggplant with whey, which is the clear liquid you see atop yogurt when it has stood for a while. That plain-Jane name doesn’t begin to describe how good this dish is, however.
Unless you have access to a Persian grocer, you’ll probably need to substitute something for the whey in the original form of this dish. Some sources suggest sour cream, but buttermilk more closely mimics whey’s tart, tangy flavor.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 60 minutes
- 3 medium eggplants
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
- 2 large onions, in 1/4-inch-thick half moon slices
- 3 tablespoons buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
- Pita wedges or toasted lavash pieces, for serving
Heat the oven to 450 degrees F or heat a grill. Pierce the eggplants in several places with a paring knife, then place them on a baking sheet (or directly onto the grill grate).
Roast until the eggplants collapse, 30 to 40 minutes. (For grilling, turn until all sides are blistered and eggplant has collapsed, 15 to 30 minutes.) It’s OK if they char a little.
Meanwhile, heat a large heavy skillet over medium-low heat; add 2 tablespoons olive oil and the onions. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Caramelize the onions by cooking them slowly, stirring frequently, until they are dark brown. This may take 20 to 40 minutes, or longer. Take care that the onions don’t burn. Set the onions aside off the heat.
Let the eggplants cool enough to handle, cut them in half and scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Stir in the buttermilk; set aside.
In a small skillet over medium, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and add the chopped mint. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes.
Remove from heat; stir into the eggplant mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To assemble the dish, transfer the eggplant mixture to a serving bowl. Place the caramelized onions atop the eggplant, drizzle remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the onions, and scatter the chopped cilantro over everything. Serve with pita or lavash for dipping.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Nutrition information per serving (for 10 servings): 97 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 1 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 2 g protein, 9 mg sodium, 4 g fiber
This dip’s name means “reddened” in Lebanese Arabic, and you can easily see why. Its flavor is sweet-smoky-garlicky, and the walnuts lend their richness to the thick paste. This version, while not strictly traditional, gets a bit of complexity from the chipotle chile.
Pomegranate molasses is pomegranate juice that has been reduced to a thick syrup. It’s worth the trip to pick up a small bottle at an Arab grocer, because once you taste the muhammara, you’ll want to make it again and again.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 6 to 8 minutes
- 2 red bell peppers
- 1 to 2 chipotles, rinsed of any sauce clinging, stemmed, seeded
- 1-1/3 cups walnuts
- 1/4 small onion
- 2/3 cup toasted breadcrumbs or toasted panko
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon each: paprika, cumin
- Coarse salt and pepper
- Pita wedges
Heat the broiler or a grill. Pierce the bell peppers in several places with a paring knife. Place the peppers on a rimmed baking sheet (or directly on grill grates); broil or grill, turning every couple of minutes, until the skin chars and blisters, 6 to 8 minutes total. Transfer the peppers to a paper bag to steam until they’re cool enough to handle.
Peel and deseed the broiled peppers; put them in a food processor with the chipotles, walnuts, onion, breadcrumbs and garlic. Process until the mixture is a thick, smooth paste. With the food processor still running, dribble in the olive oil.
Transfer the pepper mixture to a bowl. Stir in the pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, paprika and cumin. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with pita wedges.
Makes about 2 cups.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 58 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 1 g protein, 8 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
The Egyptians are great snackers and love dukkah, a blend of nuts, seeds and spices. Dip a bit of bread into good olive oil, then into the dukkah, and make your mouth happy.
Vary this by changing the nuts but try to keep the spice ratios the same. Dukkah should be lively with pepper, and mysterious with spices that don’t appear on the table often. This will keep a month or more in the refrigerator if stored in a sealed jar.
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 11 minutes
- 2/3 cup hazelnuts, unsalted cashews, almonds, pistachios, pecans, walnuts or peanuts, or a blend of several
- 1/2 cup sesame seeds
- 3 tablespoons coriander seeds
- 2 tablespoons each: fennel seeds, cumin seeds
- 2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- Bread and olive oil, for serving
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool.
In a dry heavy skillet over medium heat, toast the sesame seeds, stirring constantly, until light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour into a bowl.
In the same skillet, toast the coriander, fennel and cumin seeds, stirring constantly until they become fragrant and begin to pop, 3 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a spice mill or coffee grinder kept for spices; process until finely ground. Tip the mixture into the bowl with the sesame seeds.
Put the cooled nuts into a food processor, spice mill or coffee grinder; process until finely chopped but not so long that they form a paste. It’s easy to do this by hand if you prefer. It’s OK if some pieces are larger. Stir into the bowl with the sesame-spice mixture. Add black pepper, crushed red pepper and salt. Stir to blend well.
Serve with good bread torn into pieces and a dish of fruity olive oil or avocado oil for dipping. Dip the bread into the oil, then into the dukkah.
Makes about 1-3/4 cups, about 28 servings/
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 71 calories, 6 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 2 g protein, 131 mg sodium, 2 g fiber