Thursday 21 November 2019

Mezze delight... a feast for the eyes and palate

Baked aubergine boats with mint yoghurt
Baked aubergine boats with mint yoghurt
Filo cigars filled with feta plus the pomegranate salad
Meeze: Small Plates to Share by Ghillie Basan
Mini meatballs

Ghillie Basan's new book aims to tantalise the palate, while not filling the belly, with dishes steeped in history from North Africa to the boundaries of ancient Persia

A feast for the eyes as well as for the palate, mezze is steeped in a fascinating history of ancient empires and dynasties. Enjoyed by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, the medieval Arabs and the Ottoman Turks, mezze is at the heart and sole of culinary life in Turkey, the Middle East and parts of North Africa.

The Arabic word 'mezze' is derived from the ancient Persian word 'maza', meaning 'taste' or 'relish', which is exactly what mezze is - something tasty to be savoured at leisure with the aim of delighting the palate, not to fill the belly.

One of the wonderful things to learn about mezze is that there are no rules. It can be enjoyed by anyone at any time of the day, presented as a snack, an appetiser to a meal, or as a buffet spread, with the unspoken understanding that the food is served in small quantities to be shared at a leisurely pace so that you feel invigorated, inspired and sublimely contented.

There are cold mezze dishes, hot ones, and there are even sweet ones, often served in sequence but, on occasion, they are laid out on the table together.

Mezze by Ghillie Basan published by Ryland Peters & Small. Photography: Jan Baldwin. Mezze will be available to Weekend readers for the special price of £11.99 including postage and packaging (rrp£16.99) by telephoning Macmillan Direct on 0044 1256 302 699 and quoting the reference GLR EB1

Baked aubergine boats with mint yoghurt

This is a traditional village method of cooking aubergines. When the communal oven was fired up for bread, villagers would often put in vegetables, a piece of meat, or a stew to profit from the heat.

Although many villagers now have simple gas or electric ovens, the tradition still carries on in some regions, and I have enjoyed these hot, freshly baked aubergines with a garlicky tomato sauce and with melted goat's cheese, but my favourite way is with cool, creamy garlic-flavoured yogurt spiked with fresh mint and eaten with a spoon like a melon. Serves 4.

You will need

6 baby or 2 long, slim aubergines

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

500ml thick, creamy yogurt

2 garlic cloves, crushed

A bunch of fresh mint leaves, finely chopped (reserve some for garnishing)

2 tablespoons fresh pomegranate seeds


Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) Gas 6.

Cut the aubergines in half, lengthways, right through the stalks and place them on a lightly oiled baking dish or sheet. Brush the tops with some olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place them in the preheated oven for 25 minutes.

Using your fingers, lightly press down the middles of the aubergines if the flesh is soft enough, brush with oil again, and return them to the oven for 15 minutes, until the flesh is soft and nicely browned.

Meanwhile, beat the yogurt with the garlic in a bowl and season well with salt and pepper. Beat in most of the mint.

Take the aubergines out of the oven and arrange them on a serving dish. Using a sharp knife, make two or three criss-cross incisions into the flesh and press down the middle to form a hollow for the yogurt. Spoon the yogurt into each one and garnish with the reserved mint and pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately, while the aubergines are still hot, and eat them with a spoon, scooping out the flesh with the yogurt, leaving the skin behind.

Mini meatballs stuffed with roasted pistachios

Meatballs are prepared daily in the Middle Eastern region as mezze, street food, as main courses - there are so many types, I lose count.

They are primarily prepared from minced lamb or beef and, on occasion, minced chicken or flaked fish.

These mini ones, called 'cizbiz', are ­perfect mezze balls containing a bite of roasted pistachio in the middle and served with wedges of lemon to squeeze over them. Serves 4-6

You will need

2-3 tablespoons pistachios, shelled

250g lean minced lamb

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

A small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sunflower oil

1-2 lemons, cut into wedges


In a small heavy-based pan, roast the pistachios for 1-2 minutes, until they emit a nutty aroma. Using a pestle and mortar, crush most of them lightly to break them into small pieces.

In a bowl, pound the minced lamb with the onion, garlic and cinnamon. Knead it with your hands and slap the mixture down into the base of the bowl to knock out the air. Add the parsley and seasoning and knead well to make sure it is thoroughly mixed.

Take cherry-size portions of the mixture in your hands and roll them into balls. Indent each ball with your finger, right into the middle, and fill the hollow with a few of the crushed pistachios, and seal it by squeezing the mixture over it and then rolling the ball once more.

Heat a thin layer of oil in a heavy-based frying pan. Place the meatballs in the pan and cook them on all sides, until nicely browned. Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with the remaining crushed pistachios, and serve with lemon wedges to squeeze over them.

Filo cigars  filled with  feta, parsley, mint and dill

Almost every restaurant and household prepares these classic cigar-shaped pastries on a regular basis, and they are devoured in quantity. Moroccans often add finely chopped preserved lemon to the filling and the Greeks tend to use mint on its own for flavouring and to drizzle the fried cigars with honey. The cigars can be prepared in advance and kept under a clean, damp tea towel in the refrigerator until you are ready to deep-fry them at the last minute. Serves 4

You will need

225g feta

1 large egg, lightly beaten

A small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

A small bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped

A small bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped

4-5 sheets of filo pastry

Sunflower oil, for deep frying

Dill fronds for garnishing (optional)


In a bowl, mash the feta with a fork. Beat in the egg and fold in the herbs.Place the sheets of filo under a damp tea towel to keep them moist and work with one at a time. Cut the sheets into strips, roughly 10-13 cm wide, and pile them on top of each other. Lay one strip on the surface in front of you. Place a heaped teaspoon of the cheese filling along one end.

Roll the end of the filo over the filling, quite tightly to keep it in place, then tuck in the edges to seal in the filling, and continue to roll the filo into a cigar until you get to the other end. Just as you reach the end, brush the tip with a little water to help seal the filo, so it doesn't unravel on cooking. Place the filled cigar on a plate under a damp tea towel to keep it moist and continue with the remaining sheets of filo.

In a deep-sided pan, heat enough oil for deep frying. Fry the filo cigars in batches until crisp and golden brown. Lift them out of the oil and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately, garnished with dill fronds, if you like.

Pomegranate salad with basil

From Iran to Morocco, variations of this refreshing, crunchy salad appear on the tables of the fertile fruit-growing regions. The ancient pomegranate is cherished for its medicinal properties, its jewel-like seeds symbolic of fertility and prosperity, and its role in many myths and legends. Serves 4-6

You will need

1 white onion

1 teaspoon sea salt

6 fresh pomegranates

3-4 tablespoons pomegranate syrup

A small bunch of fresh basil leaves, shredded


Slice the onion in half lengthways, then slice the two halves in half again crossways. Using the grain of the onion as a guide, finely slice the quarters into thin, bite-sized strips. Scatter the strips of onion on a plate, sprinkle with the salt, and put them aside to weep.

Cut the pomegranates into quarters, from the flower to the stalk end (do this on a board with a grooved perimeter if you can so that you catch the juice). Pick up one of the quarters in your hands and very carefully, using your thumbs and forefingers, flick the seeds into a bowl, leaving as much of the pith and membrane behind as you can.

Once you have flicked the seeds of all the quarters, pick out any bits of pith that have landed in the salad and any seeds that don't look fresh and juicy, so that you have a bowl of gleaming seeds that look like precious jewels. Tip the onions into a colander and rinse off all the salt. Drain them on several layers of thick paper towels and pat dry.

Add the onions to the pomegranate seeds and toss in the pomegranate syrup. Toss a few basil leaves through the salad, garnish with the rest, and serve with a selection of mezze dishes, particularly the spicier ones.

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