As a whole, the Mediterranean is my favorite part of the world for food. It’s simple, made with fresh ingredients and is very “user-friendly.” From Greece to Israel, the regional cuisines from the eastern part of the Mediterranean area have a lot in common.
Globe eggplant is a popular and common ingredient. It may have a slightly different flavor per country, but that’s because, like wine, many vegetables are affected by the soil and climate differences. In the region, they also use a lot of olive oil, beans, nuts, olives, pomegranates, cucumbers, dried fruit and sesame seeds. Spices include coriander, sumac, anise and saffron, along with herbs like mint, parsley, thyme and oregano.
Our instructor, Carol, then explained the way of eating as very different than what we’re used to. There are no appetizers, mains and desserts. Instead, the food goes on the table all at once, family style. This is called Mezze.
Here in America, when hearing the word “mezze,” we tend to think small plates or appetizers. WRONG! (I didn’t know this either.) Carol told us that the true definition is to eat with pleasure.
"The pleasure of savoring little bites of food is accompanied by feelings of peace and serenity,” she said.
I don’t know about you, but I usually feel pretty darn good when tasting fabulous culinary creations!
Cathy told me that “The Oxnard Companion of Food” traces the roots of "Mezze" back to Persia, where wine was the center of an emotional and aesthetic experience that also included other forms of entertainment, such as food and music.
When you eat mezze-style, there’s a communal table with a lot of sharing. The starting dishes are lighter, as you don’t want what you just ate to have stronger flavorings than what you will eat next. Salads use lemon juice with olive oil instead of vinegar. Vinegar is saved for pickling. You might find pickled okra or pickled olives on the table, along with fresh cheeses. Different forms of hummus, a chickpea dip, or baba ghanoush, an eggplant dip, will be eaten. There’s even a sweet eggplant dip that can be made with raisins, figs and nuts.
When you see pastries, they’re usually savory, like Greek Spanakopita, which has cheese and spinach, or Egyptian Sambusak, which can be filled with meats or cheeses. As a matter of fact, dessert isn’t a big deal here. Sweet pastries, like baklava, are eaten during the afternoon meals.
After these wonderful, nibble foods are consumed and you think you’re finished, the NEXT course of dishes is brought out. These consists of a grain, perhaps seasoned rice, with some kind of grilled or roasted meat, like Kebabs or Souvlaki. There’s usually a sauce on the side that’s made with yogurt or olive oil. Notice something? No vegetables here. You eat these first, as they’re lighter.
In my opinion, this is a much healthier and tastier way to eat. There are a ton of taste sensations and it’s hard to eat quickly. I think it’s more civilized, actually. Communing with friends and family over good food, good wine and good conversation is truly “mezze.”
Cathy and I were assigned a few different dishes, so we decided to split them up. She was in charge of the hummus and baba ghanoush and I got to make Kibbeh Kebabs with Yogurt Sauce. Kibbeh is a Middle Eastern meatball made with grain and lamb or beef and put on skewers. It’s served over rice pilaf.
I made a rookie mistake when making this. You’ll read in the instructions to use a food processor. For some reason, my eyes read “Kitchen Aid Mixer.” I know, there are almost no letters in common here. I don’t know what to tell you, I had a brain burp. Consequently, they didn’t stick together as well as they could have, but they still tasted pretty darn good. Just goes to show you, read recipes carefully and if they don’t make sense while you’re making the dish, read the recipe again. Lesson learned!
Kibbeh Kebabs with Yogurt Sauce
For the Kibbeh:
1C fine grain bulgar
1lb lean beef or lamb (I used lamb and had to grind it myself)
1 small onion, chopped
2 t salt
½ t cumin
½ t black pepper
½ t allspice
¼ t Aleppo pepper or cayenne (Aleppo pepper is found in Mediterranean markets)
1 ½ T. all-purpose flour
2 tbTsp olive oil
Wash the bulgar in a sieve under cool running water. Squeeze out excess water. In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the meat, bulgar, onion, salt, spices, flour and 1 T of the olive oil. Process for about 45 seconds and finish blending by hand.
Divide and mold the kibbeh into football shapes and thread onto skewers (Hint: Carol told me to coat my hands with olive oil. It stopped the meat mixture from sticking to my hands. Worked great!). Brush or spray with olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Cook in a 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 20 minutes until well browned and cooked all the way through. Serve with sauce on the side.
1 long English cucumber, peeled
2C plain Greek yogurt
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a pinch of salt (Here, you want to use a mortar and pestle. Put the salt in first and then crush the garlic. The salt helps break down the garlic)
2 t dried mint, crumbled and pressed through a fine sieve (This is so you don’t get a mouthful of large pieces)
1 t olive oil
Sprigs of fresh mint for garnish
Finely dice the cucumber. In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic and ¾ t salt. Add the cucumber and the dried mint and blend well. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, about an hour. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and sprigs of fresh mint.