Savoring, sharing in the middle of day


Book celebrates pleasure of having food and company

December 17, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Careful. Diane Kochilas' cookbook, Meze: Small Plates to Savor and Share From the Mediterranean Table (William Morrow, 2003, $24.95), could be the most subversive stuff published since student radical Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.

Don't be fooled by the inviting prose or the many colorful photographs of little dishes set on white tablecloths, the close-ups of olive-oil cans and bottles of ouzo. It all looks innocent enough. Look again.

The Greek meze or the plural, mezethes, springs from the words mezze, maza, meza, meaning middle - as in middle of the day (the time between lunch and dinner) - and that can only spell trouble.

Imagine stopping in the middle of the day to do ... nothing, at least as we would understand nothing here in the United States. Nothing, that is, but having a glass of wine or ouzo and conversing. Conversing, that is, with a person who is physically present, not at the other end of a cell phone who might also be on hold with two other people and conducting a simultaneous conference call with investors in Singapore.

Think sitting in the utter absence of a hand-held electronic schedule organizer sipping, chatting and nibbling from a succession of little plates: Smoked Trout Whipped With Potatoes and Olive Oil, or Batter-Fried Zucchini Flowers Stuffed With Cheese. Maybe some Beef Braised With Onions, Honey and Bay Leaf or Pan-Fried Wrinkled Black Olives With Onion, Oregano and Garlic.

Think lingering. Because meze is not a tapas meal, not an appetizer, hors d'oeuvre or antipasto. This is something else. As presented in these 94 quite manageable recipes involving an array of likely and unlikely Mediterranean combinations - imagine Grilled Ouzo-Nutmeg Marinated Back Ribs - this is a pleasure to enjoy for its own sake, not a preamble to something bigger.

The food is meant to play second fiddle to the drink and the company: "The main reason for being around the meze table is to talk, to share thoughts with a few friends over a glass or two of wine or liqueur and something to eat," Kochilas writes.

Right in the middle of the day. When there's work to do. When the gross domestic product needs minding. When American productivity hangs in the balance. This is just asking for trouble.

Roasted Eggplant Dip With Walnuts, Coriander Seeds and Scallions

Makes about 2 cups or 6 servings

1 pound eggplant

2/3 cup shelled walnuts

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 scallions, roots and tough upper greens removed, sliced into thin rings

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably Greek

salt to taste

1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar, to taste (optional)

Roast the eggplant over a low flame on top of the stove or under a broiler, about 6 inches from the heat source. Turn to roast on all sides. The eggplant is done when the skin is charred all around and the eggplant is tender to the touch. Remove to a cutting board.

While the eggplant is roasting, pulverize the walnuts and coriander seeds together in a food processor to a coarse, mealy consistency. Remove the eggplant skin with a sharp paring knife, scraping the inside of the skin to get as much pulp as possible. Remove as much of the seeds mass as possible.

Place in the bowl of the food processor and pour the lemon juice over it. Consider the option of sauteing the scallions in a little olive oil first for a milder flavor. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the scallions for garnish and add the rest to the food processor bowl. Pulse on and off once or twice to combine.

Add the oil in 1/3 -cup increments, and pulse to combine well. Taste the eggplant as you go. Season with salt. If the eggplant is bitter, add a little sugar. Remove to a serving dish.

Garnish with the remaining scallions and serve, preferably with pita bread.

Note: The dip may be made several hours ahead and kept, covered, in the refrigerator. Garnish just before serving.

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