4 mins

Recipe of the week: Middle Eastern & Mediterranean mezze

Small but perfectly formed, these mezze dishes are perfect for a light supper or as part of a dinner party spread

Mezze (Photo: Jan Baldwin)

Smoked aubergine dip with tahini and parsley

This classic smoked aubergine/eggplant dish is commonly known as baba ghanoush or moutabal in the eastern Mediterranean region.

There are endless variations involving yogurt, different herbs, chopped nuts, feta and crushed chickpeas, but my favourite version, which I would just like to squeeze in here as an alternative, is the Turkish combination of smoked aubergine/eggplant flesh mixed with 2 tablespoons olive oil, the juice of 1 lemon, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 4–5 tablespoons or more of thick, creamy yogurt, and seasoned well with salt.

The aubergines/eggplants can be smoked directly on the gas flame or over a charcoal grill – the latter is less messy as the skin of the aubergine/eggplant toughens so you just slit it open to scoop out the warm flesh. The strong smoky flavour is essential to this dish, so you can’t cheat by baking the aubergines/eggplants.

Serves 4-6

2–3 medium-sized aubergines/eggplants
2–3 tablespoons tahini
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
2–3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses/syrup
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped (reserve a little for the garnish)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil, for drizzling
1 tablespoon fresh pomegranate seeds
Warm crusty bread or toasted flatbread, to serve

1. Place the aubergines/eggplants directly over a gas flame, or over a charcoal grill. Use tongs to turn them from time to time, until they are soft to touch and the skin is charred and flaky.

2. Place them in a clean resealable plastic bag for a minute to sweat and, when cool enough to handle, hold them by the stems under cold running water and peel off the skin. Squeeze out the excess water and place the flesh on a chopping board. (If using a charcoal grill, the skin toughens instead of charring, so it is easier to slit the aubergine/eggplant open like a canoe and scoop out the softened flesh).

3. Chop the flesh to a pulp. In a bowl, beat the aubergine/eggplant pulp with the tahini, lemon juice, and pomegranate molasses to a creamy paste. Add the garlic and parsley and season well with salt and pepper – adjust the flavour according to taste by adding more lemon juice, pomegranate molasses/syrup or salt.

4. Beat the mixture thoroughly and tip it into a serving bowl. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top to keep it moist and garnish with the reserved parsley and pomegranate seeds. Serve with chunks of warm, crusty bread.

Vine leaves stuffed with aromatic rice

My favourite version of this popular mezze dish is one that I enjoyed at the home of an Iranian friend who rolled the stuffed leaves into long, thin fingers and served them at room temperature with hot melted butter. The dish works well with both fresh and preserved vine leaves.

Serves 4

12–16 fresh or preserved vine leaves, plus a few extra to line the pot
1–2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 tablespoon tiny currants, soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes and drained
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
150 g/3 ⁄4 cup short-grain or risotto rice, well rinsed and drained
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 small bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped
1 small bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped

For the cooking liquid:
100 ml/2⁄3 cup olive oil
100 ml/7 tablespoons water
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon granulated sugar

For serving:
2 lemons, cut into wedges

Preparing the vine leaves
1. To prepare fresh vine leaves, bring a large pot of water to the boil and plunge the leaves into it for 1–2 minutes so that they soften. Drain and refresh them under running cold water, making sure they are thoroughly drained before using. Trim off the stems and keep them covered in the refrigerator for 2–3 days.

2. To prepare preserved vine leaves, place them in a deep bowl and pour boiling water over them. Leave them to soak for 15–20 minutes, using a fork to gently separate the leaves. Drain the leaves and put them back in the bowl with cold water. Leave them to soak for 2–3 minutes to get rid of any salty residue, then drain them thoroughly.

Preparing the filling
1. Prepare the vine leaves and drain thoroughly. Stack them on a plate, cover with a clean, damp tea/dish towel to keep them moist, and put aside. Heat the oil in a heavy-based pot and stir in the onion and garlic, until they begin to colour.

2. Stir in the pine nuts for 1–2 minutes, until they turn golden. Add the currants and when they plump up, stir in the spices. Toss in the rice, making sure it is coated in the spices, and pour in enough water to just cover the rice. Season with salt and pepper and bring the water to the boil. Reduce the heat and cook for about 10 minutes until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is still firm. Toss in the fresh herbs and leave the rice to cool.

3. Place a vine leaf on a plate or board and put a heaped teaspoon of rice at the bottom of the leaf, where the stem would have been. Fold the stem edge over the filling, then fold both of the side edges in towards the middle of the leaf, so that the filling is sealed in. Now roll the leaf up like a small fat cigar. If you prefer, place the rice in a thin line along the stem edge, and you’ll then be able to roll the leaf into long, thin finger.

4. Place the stuffed vine leaf in the palm of your hand and squeeze it lightly to fix the shape. Put aside and repeat with the remaining leaves. In a small bowl, mix together the cooking liquid ingredients.

5. Line the bottom of a shallow pan with the extra vine leaves, then place the stuffed vine leaves on top, tightly packed side by side. Pour the olive oil mixture over the stuffed vine leaves and place a plate on top of them to prevent them from unravelling during cooking. Cover the pan and simmer gently for about 1 hour, topping up the cooking liquid if necessary.

6. Leave the stuffed vine leaves to cool in the pan, then lift them out, arrange on a plate and serve with lemon wedges.

Ladies’ navels

This is one of a series of classic deep-fried pastries bathed in syrup. A creation of the Ottoman Palace kitchens, the dough is shaped like a ring, similar to a small, modern doughnut, hence the pastry’s name.

The same dough can be shaped into other treats with wonderfully evocative names, like Vezir’s Fingers, Beauty’s Lips, and Tulumba, which are little twists piped through a fluted nozzle.

Ladies’ Navels are often served with clotted buffalo cream and chopped pistachios but, because they are so sweet, I think the tartness of Labna or crème fraîche or the saltiness of crumbled feta complement them better. Serve these at the end of a mezze spread, or alongside light savoury dishes.

Serves 4-6

250 ml/1 cup water
50 g/3 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon salt
175 g/1 cup plus 3 tablespoons plain/all-purpose flour
50 g/3 tablespoons semolina
2 eggs
Sunflower oil

For the syrup:
450 g/2¼ cups granulated sugar
225 ml/1 cup minus 1 tablespoon water
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon

1. First prepare the syrup. Put the sugar and water in a heavy-based pan and bring to the boil, stirring all the time. Stir in the lemon juice and reduce the heat. Simmer for 10–15 minutes, until it has thickened a little, then leave it to cool. Put the water, butter and salt into a heavy-based pan and bring it to the boil.

2. Remove from the heat and add the flour and semolina, beating all the time, until the mixture becomes smooth and leaves the side of the pan. Leave the mixture to cool, then beat in the eggs so that it gleams. Add 1 tablespoon of the cooled syrup and beat well.

3. Heat up enough oil for deep frying in a heavy-based frying pan/skillet, or a curved pan like a wok, until it is just warm. Remove the pan from the heat. Wet your fingers, as the dough is sticky, and pick up an apricot-sized piece of dough, roll it into a ball, flatten it in the palm of your hand, and use your finger to make an indentation in the middle to resemble a lady’s navel.

4. Drop the dough into the pan of warmed oil. Repeat with the rest of the mixture. Place the pan over the heat. As the oil heats up, the pastries will swell with the dip in the middle. Swirl the oil, so that the Ladies’ Navels turn golden all over.

5. Drain the navels through a wire sieve/strainer, or on paper towels, before tossing them into the cooled syrup. Leave them in the syrup for a few minutes. Arrange the Ladies’ Navels on a serving dish, spoon some of the syrup over and around them, and serve with a dollop of labna, crème fraîche or crumbled feta.

These recipes were taken from Mezze by Ghillie Basan. Photography by Jan Baldwin, published by Ryland Peters & Small. Get your copy here.

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