Mezze is food for sultans and for you Mideast Morsels

January 31, 1993|By Anne Marie Weiss | Anne Marie Weiss,Dallas Morning News Universal Press Syndicate

Mezze" -- an array of small appetizers served on miniature oval trays -- is the most famous feature of the lavish Middle Eastern kitchen.

Today, mezze is so popular that even mainstream restaurants in New York and Los Angeles list it among their regular hors d'oeuvres.

In Baltimore, mezze is found mainly in Middle Eastern restaurants. But elements of mezze -- stuffed grape leaves, hummus and other specialties -- are easy to find at gourmet takeout counters and in Middle Eastern specialty shops.

A mezze buffet could include homemade foods mixed with takeout. Only the availability of ingredients and the ability of the cook limit the number of dishes.

The word "mezze" most likely originated in Italy, and was carried home from the Genoese spice warehouses by Arab traders. "Mezza," the Italian word for half, re-emerges as "mezedes" in Greece, "meze" in Turkey and "mezze" in the Arabic-speaking countries.

Although the name suggests "half a dinner," mezze can be savored as a meal in itself. Preparation of a stunning mezze for a dinner party requires careful planning rather than long hours spent over the stove.

Probably the most familiar mezze dish in this country is hummus, a creamy dip made from chickpeas. Like baba ghannouj, a puree made from roasted eggplant, and Greek taramasalata, a smoked cods' roe dip, it is scooped up with torn pieces of pita bread. Hummus can be quickly prepared in the blender or food processor from canned chickpeas, tahini (Middle Eastern sesame seed paste), fresh lemon juice and garlic. It's also available ready-made at many stores.

Other mezze possibilities include falafel, an Egyptian croquette made of dried beans; flat meat pies similar to pizza; marinated shrimp; and small portions of every sort of salad.

Avoid time-consuming dishes such as grape leaves or tabbouleh, a tempting salad of minced fresh parsley with fine-grained crushed wheat. Instead, buy these ready-made.

Select four or five authentic dishes that can be prepared several hours in advance. An ideal assortment would include one or two dips, little savory pastries filled with cheese or meat, stuffed potato croquettes and a vegetable or bean salad.

An assortment of fresh seasonal vegetables and greens can fill in the mezze table. Overlapping slices of red ripe tomato, garnished with mint and crumbled feta or other white cheese, add dramatic color. Small dishes of green onions, boiled egg, tiny baby cucumbers, radishes, fresh herbs and carrot sticks are popular.

The remaining 10 or more dishes can be nibbles that you pick up at one of the many Middle Eastern, Iranian or Italian import food stores that dot the area.

Bring home at least one type of seed -- salted chickpeas, pistachios or pumpkin seeds. Tiny pickled eggplants and Arabian cucumber pickles are traditional favorites. From among the olives, select, perhaps, a fat violet variety and shiny black kalamatas from Greece.

Pick up cubes or wedges of creamy Bulgarian or Turkish feta from the import food store. Slices of a zesty Cheddar-type Kashkaval cheese and firm Halloumi from Cyprus are also ideal for the mezze table. Or choose a jar of rich yogurt cheese balls preserved in green olive oil.

Mezze sampler

hummus

pita bread

falafel

meat pies

marinated shrimp

bean salad

stuffed grape leaves

tabbouleh

potato croquettes

vegetables: green onions, baby cucumbers, radishes, carrots, tomatoes with feta and mint

boiled egg

chickpeas, pistachios or pumpkin seeds

olives -- two or more kinds

feta or other cheeses

yogurt balls

$ White bean salad

Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings.

1 can (14 to 16 ounces) small white beans

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

1 green onion, chopped

1 hard-boiled egg, sliced

10 black Greek olives

1/2 small ripe tomato, minced

1 tablespoon parsley, minced

Place undrained beans in a small saucepan; bring to a boil, drain and rinse. (Hot beans absorb the dressing better.) Dress with the oil and lemon juice, then season with salt and pepper while they are still warm. Leave to cool.

Just before serving, arrange the beans and their dressing on two small flat dishes, and garnish with the remaining ingredients.

Per serving: calories: 122; fat: 8 grams; cholesterol: 30 milligrams; sodium: 402 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 56 percent.

$

Chickpea dip Makes 6 to 8 appetizer servings.

1 (16-ounce) can chickpeas, drained

1/4 cup yogurt

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup tahini

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

olive oil and red pepper for garnish

Puree all ingredients except olive oil and red pepper in a food processor or blender, reserving a few whole chickpeas for garnish.

The dip should be the consistency of guacamole. Additional lemon juice or yogurt can be added if desired to thin the mixture.

Spread in a flat serving dish, using a spoon to smooth the dip and to carve out a border. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with red pepper. Arrange the reserved chickpeas in the center of the dish. Serve with triangles of pita bread.

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