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?

Homemade Arab flat bread. (Kim O'Donnel)

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 mélange 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.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 19, 2008; 8:16 AM ET Entertaining
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the Arabic flatbread is REALLY good - I will be making this in the next few days, just when I get to the Halloumeh cheese that is in the fridge.

Kim, any ideas to make roasting peppers less intimidating? For some reason, I am nervous about doing this. Can do on a grill or in an oven, doesn't matter - I just need to be less intimidated. . .

Posted by: Anonymous | June 19, 2008 9:09 AM

Tear of a hunk of fresh pita and dip it into a bowl of tarmasalata. Really good.

Posted by: Dave | June 19, 2008 9:45 AM

What about fava beans? Maybe with some za'atar. And don't forget the olives.

Posted by: mollyjade | June 19, 2008 9:51 AM

I followed the link for the tabbouleh recipe. Bulgur is something I need to try to use again. I don't see it cooked in the recipe, is that correct?

A note on the flatbread. I've used variations (diffent flours, addition of cumin, etc) of the recipe in "Baking with Julie" for years, and if you don't want to turn your oven on, it can be made on the stove in a heavy skillet (I use cast iron) over medium heat (you may have to adjust to find the right temp for your stove). Using a dry skillet, the basic process is to cook the pita on one side until the side is sealed and you start seeing bubble on the top (20 to 30 seconds). You want to flip it quickly at this point. Try not to let it burn or holes may occur which will prevent the bread from ballooning. Flip and cook until bottom is sealed and pita balloons, about another 30-60 seconds. It's not hard and it's fun to watch the pita puff up.

Posted by: Arlington, VA S | June 19, 2008 10:34 AM

Hello Kim

I'm addicted to Turkish-style meze. At my favourite bar/restaurant (meyhane) in Beyoglu, the party area of Istanbul, my absolute favourite is octopus salad (really Greek, not Turkish, but addictive) while my friend Brenna dives into (metaphorically!) the beet salad (cooked, peeled, cut in 1/2" cubes, tossed with lemon juice or vinegar and olive oil). Tzatziki (yogurt, preferably Faje -- yes I know it's Greek not Turkish, but it's the best) and thinly sliced cucumber with garlic, mint, and so on) should be one of the offerings. The meyhane hope to get the cash customers well lubricated on raki (my favourite hard liquor, by far) to the point where they'll order a really expensive fish dish -- so one such would be appropriate. While kebabs aren't meze, I'd include them because they are so good, and can be eaten as finger food.

Posted by: David Lewiston | June 19, 2008 12:48 PM

PS: I realise that the dishes I like are North Mediterranean, not primarily Arab, but I think they're appropriate because Turkey was for hundreds of years the imperial power around the Mediterranean, so provenance isn't critical.

Posted by: David Lewiston | June 19, 2008 12:54 PM

We have "meze" meals frequently at our house, particularly during the summer (my husband is from Turkey and we visit family there often). Other ideas: feta and watermelon salad (great with the raki mentioned above), lentil kofte (served cold), purslane mixed with yogurt, spinach and feta pie (borek) I also love muhammara, but unfortunately, my daughter is allergic to walnuts/pecans so I haven't made it in a long time. Any ideas for other nuts I could use?

Posted by: Sara | June 19, 2008 1:21 PM

Hello Sara

How 'bout roasted pine nuts or hulled pistachios?

Posted by: David Lewiston | June 19, 2008 5:30 PM

Za'atar bread is great! Take pita breads, brush with olive oil, dust with za'atar, salt & pepper, broil a few minutes, cut in wedges and serve. The sumac-thyme blend is available at Penzeys in Falls Church and probably other specialty groceries.

Posted by: monticello | June 20, 2008 2:56 AM

Don't mean to be a pain, but there's one little thing that's been bugging me. People often misue the word "Arabic" (vs. "Arab") as in your 'Arabic flatbread'. Arabic is a language and cannot be used interchangedly as an adjective (not like "French" -- I speak French and eat French bread). So, an Arabic speaker could by an Arab and they might enjoy eating your Arab flatbread. Does that make sense?

Posted by: Hate to be picky | June 30, 2008 12:40 PM

Hate to be picky:
You're absolutely correct, and I appreciate your watchful eye. I am changing the spelling pronto.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 30, 2008 1:32 PM

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