Chat Leftovers: Making a Meze Party
Washington, D.C.: I'm having a Middle Eastern themed cocktail party and I need a few meze suggestions. I'm thinking hummus, pita chips, tabbouleh, couscous. What else do I need? I tried frying falafel last week, but they completely disintegrated. Can I bake falafel? Would I need a different recipe?
What a fun idea, particularly during the outdoor entertaining season! The idea behind meze is little bites on little plates, which collectively can make up a meal, a perfect equation for a summery informal gathering. I love making meze because the preparation is straightforward and requires relatively few ingredients, which translates into very fresh tasting, honest food. With an emphasis on whole grains and legumes, much of Middle Eastern cuisine offers plenty of choices for your meatless guests, and because it's so flavorful and satisfying, the omnivores won't feel cheated.
Hummus is one of the easiest dishes on earth to whip up, a quick zip in the food processor in about seven minutes. You can make this in advance, on the fly or in the middle of the party if you run out. You can never have enough hummus!
Five years ago, I learned how to make tabbouleh from a Lebanese home cook living in Chicago. I still remember Miss Nada explaining to me that contrary to popular belief, tabbouleh is a parsley salad seasoned with bulgur wheat, not the other way around. Her method of layering the ingredients ensures a full-flavored, decidedly unsoggy tabbouleh. It really hits the spot on a summer night.
If you can get your hands on some nice-looking eggplant, I highly recommend making a batch of baba ghanouj, a smoky eggplant puree that goes down the hatch like silk. I can't get enough of the stuff when I make it myself.
I've got some entertaining to do myself this weekend, and I think I'm finally going to embark on a muhammara adventure. A mÃ©lange of walnuts, roasted red peppers, pom molasses and ground red pepper, from Aleppo, Syria (known as Aleppo pepper), muhammara will blow your guests away as they try to figure out what they're eating - until they've licked the bowl clean. It's that good. P.S. you can find Aleppo pepper at Penzeys.
You know what's really fun? Making grape leaves. It's a time-consuming project, so I highly recommend enlisting at least two additional kitchen helpers for the assembly line production. The results are astonishingly good; these little bundles of seasoned rice, ground beef and lots of garlic are like biting into a surprise birthday present. Take a load off and make these one or two days in advance; they keep well when closely packed in an airtight container.
As for your disintegrating falafel, I want to know a few things: Did you use dried beans instead of canned? I've not had success with canned chickpeas. Did you chill your batter? This is key to getting the falafel balls to set up and hold together in hot oil . And speaking of hot oil, what was the temperature of that oil? It needs to heat up to 350 degrees and stay there throughout the frying process. Here's a link to a falafel recipe I tried out a few years ago. I may revisit this recipe in the coming days and report back in this space next week. Homemade falafel is a neat thing to experience and share with others. Stay tuned.
Last, but certainly not least, I urge you to try your hand at making Arab flatbread, which is a whole lot easier than it sounds. Think how impressed your guests will be when they tear a piece of your pillowy loaves and dip into one of those fab dips you've whipped up. Those just-okay pitas in a bag from the supermarket will never taste the same.
For more recipes and inspiration, check out "Little Foods of the Mediterranean" by culinary historian Clifford A. Wright. In addition to some 500 recipes, you get Wright's historical tidbits, which are equally delicious.
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