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I’ve always loved the Middle Eastern tradition of mezze—lots of little bites to start the party or feast. And while I have experienced some insanely elaborate mezze (nine cold dishes followed by nine hot dishes), I often start my holiday parties with a truncated version of just a couple of dips, crudites, and mixed olives—all easy to pull off yet still taste and look good.
Start with Surprise
Whenever I put a mezze together, I like to make sure there is something unusual and surprising in the mix, something like beet moutabel, a dish that is very much a part of the mezze tradition but slightly less common than the delicious hummus and baba ganoush so frequently used.
I love the Middle Eastern use of yogurt in savory applications and find the combination of thick yogurt, olive oil, and za'atar a refreshing element in any mezze spread. I swirl a pint of labneh—or thick Greek yogurt—into a bowl, making a depression in the center. Then, I sprinkle 2 tablespoons za'atar all over the yogurt and pour 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil into the depression in the center. This can be made and left to sit out for an hour or two. I wouldn’t refrigerate it, though, as the olive oil will congeal in the cold and it won’t look good at all.
Mixed olives are something I like to always have in my fridge. When covered in extra virgin olive oil, they keep for months. I like to make my own mix, picky as I am about the selection of olives, the quality of the oil, and the spice mix, but if you don’t have the inclination or time to make your own, most high-end grocery stores or Italian delis will have a pre-made mix you can buy. If using a store-bought, pre-seasoned mix, consider jazzing them up with a tablespoon or so of chopped fresh herbs: parsley or thyme or even dill and the zest of one lemon. It will brighten the flavor a lot.
Mixed Marinated Olives
- 4 cups mixed olives (see note above)
- 2 sprigs thyme
- Peel of 1 orange
- 1 tablespoon toasted coriander seeds
- 1/2 tablespoon toasted cumin seeds
- 1 small dried chili, crumbled (such as arbol)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Having been raised in the Mediterranean, bread is essential for my mezze. At minimum, heat and quarter a store-bought pita, but a lavash could work well for this—or even slices of a great, long-fermented sourdough. If you are lucky enough to have an Arab bakery in your neighborhood, seek out the Lebanese flat mountain bread, which is my preferred choice for a mezze.
Finally because man cannot live by bread alone, I like to have a selection of raw vegetables suitable for dipping as an alternative to the bread or with the bread. Choose firm seasonal vegetables. In winter, for me that means carrots, celery, radishes, fennel, or even cauliflower. I like to have a few scallions for the sharp bite and a robust green like Romaine hearts or endive. As always, creating a mezze is all about showing off what’s fresh, local, and in season, so play around and adapt as much as you want.