3 Mezze dishes full of color and rich flavours + the best pita bread ever
January is the month when most people make ambitious new year's resolutions and want to start better habits in (too) many areas: more sport, less alcohol, stop smoking, less stress and healthier eating. The problem is that by February, most of these resolutions seem to be thoughts from a distant past. Because what many people forget to add into the new year's resolution equation, is planning. Plus, some of us start too many new habits at the same time and the new reality becomes overwhelming very fast. Computer says no. One thing I learned last year was that if I want to start a new habit, I need to get to a routine and plan it in my daily schedule. Or it won't happen. That's exactly how meal planning works. Unless we are mindful of it and we think at least a couple of days ahead, we will end up stressing about what we're going to it tonight, making boring and repetitive dishes and sometimes, ending up eating ready meals or fast food. My guiding principle for this year is what Michael Pollan calls in his Food Rules, "the seven words of plain English, no biochemistry degree required":
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
To start the year with something healthy and colorful, I thought I'd share these mezze dishes and pita bread that I recently made. My resolution last year was to learn how to make sourdough bread and I did it. This year I want to learn how to make more delicious and healthy vegetarian dishes. We don't plan to become vegetarians, but rather try to have at least 2-3 meals on the weekly menu without meat. I fell in love with the Middle Eastern food and flavors since I discovered Ottolenghi, but last year, a new discovery added another layer to this passion. My dear friend Ruxi sent me as a gift Sarit Packer & Itamar Strulovich's book Honey & Co, Food From the Middle East. I found their story and the passion they put in running their restaurant so inspiring and motivating. It'a story about following one's dream, being true to oneself, working hard and of course, making other people happy with delicious food.
The Hummus, Baba ganoush and Pita bread recipes below are from Honey & Co, while the Muhammara is from Ottolenghi. The beauty of all these dishes is that you can prepare them upfront and also use them in sandwiches as spreads the day after. If you have friends or family over, the only thing you need to do on the spot is baking the breads and enjoy a nice time around the table.
(4-6 people to share as a starter, next to other mezze)
250 g dried chickpeas soaked overnight
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 garlic cloves peeled
250 g tahini paste
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp lemon juice
It's important to use dry chickpeas that were soaked over night. It's not as tasty if you use canned chickpeas.
Drain the soaked chickpeas, add them in a pot and cover them with cold water. Bring the water to boil. There will be foam forming, but just skim it regularly. Add the bicarbonate after 5 min then skim again. Let it boil for 40 minutes, until the chickpeas are soft, melting in your mouth.
Drain the chickpeas but keep the water in which they boiled as you will need some of it. Add the chickpeas in a separate bowl (you will get around 600 g) and then add 250 ml of the cooking liquid to it. Do this immediately, while everything is still hot. Add the garlic and start blending until smooth. Add the tahini paste, spices and lemon juice and continue mixing until everything is well combined. If it looks too soft, don't worry, it will get firmer as it cools down. Taste again for sald and lemon juice so you have a good balance. Your palate will tell you if it still need salt or acid. Add a film on top so it doesn't form a skin.
You can store it in the fridge up to 4-5 days. When serving, I like to add olive oil, sprinkle some parsley or coriander leaves, sumak and chili flakes. We also use it as a sandwich spread, with green salads, rucola, cucumber and feta cheese. The combination of flavor is amazing and the colors give me this comforting feeling that I eat something very healthy.
2. Baba Ganoush (Aubergine Spread)
(4-6 people to share as a starter, next to other mezze)
2 garlic cloves peeled
50 g tahini paste
2 tbsp lemon juice
Fresh herbs, sprng onion, cherry tomatoes or pomegranate seeds to serve (optional)
First things first, char the aubergines. I did it on the barbecue, but you can also do it in the oven, on grill function. If you do the latter, use aluminium foil and not baking paper as paper could get burnt. Keep turning them until they are burnt on all sides. Leave them until the interior is soft and the burnt peel comes off easily. They need to be juicy and completely cooked on the inside. Once they are done, transfer them on a cutting board and let them cool. Then scoop the flesh out and depending on your preference, you can let them drain of the liquid (my choice) or use the smoky liquid in the spread.
In a bowl, add the aubergine flesh, the garlic, the tahini paste, salt and lemon juice and blend until smooth. Serve on a plate dressed with a drizzle of olive oil, cherry tomatoes or spring onions (Romanian style) or pomegranate seeds and pomegranate molasses (Middle east style).
3. Ottolenghi's Muhammara
3 red bell peppers
2 large tomatoes
1 large white onion
1 red chilli pepper
5 tbsp olive oil
salt & pepper
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
8 garlic cloves peeled
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses (optional)
100 g walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
100 g pomegranate seeds, plus 1 tbsp for serving
1 tbsp parsley leaves, roughly chopped, for serving
Preheat the oven at 225° and prepare a large oven tray with baking paper. Core the bell peppers and cut in four. Cut also the tomatoes and onion and add all vegetables on the baking tray. Drizzle olive oil on top, add salt and pepper and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, you will add the garlic, mix everything well and let them all bake for another 20 minutes. By now, the flavor of roasting vegetables will have already filled your house and you might get an unexpected visit from a curious neighbour who pops in just to ask what's up?
While the vegetables are roasting add the tomato paste with a bit of olive oil to a small pan and let it cook until nicely caramelized and dark red. In another small pan, add the cumin and coriander seeds and toast them for a few minutes, until you can smell the nice flavor. Freshly toasted spices have ten times more flavor than powder ones, so always do this when you can. Remove the spices and grind them in a mortar and pestle until you obtained a smooth powder.
When the vegetables are roasted, let them cool for a couple of minutes and peel the peppers and tomatoes. Add the vegetables, tomato paste and spices in a kitchen robot and mix them on pulse mode a few times to combine, but leave some chunkier pieces for a nicer texture. Add the toasted nuts and pomegranate seeds and serve with a topping of olive oil, pomegranate molasses and fresh parsley.
4. The best pita bread I ever made
(makes around 10 pitta breads)
500 g strong white flour (11-12% protein)
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
300 ml warm water
2 tbsp olive oil
Accessory: a baking stone for bread or pizza is ideal, as it gets very hot and you can bake more breads at the same time.
In a large bowl mix the flour, sugar and salt. Crumble the yeast over the dogh and mix well. Start adding the warm water, little by little and mix by hand, until the dough starts coming together. It's OK if it's crumbly at the point, it will get smooth once you start kneading.
Once the dough is combined, sprinkle some flour on the counter and start kneading until you get a smooth ball. If you are not sure how to knead the dough properly, you can check this tutorial. Add the oil and continue to kead until combined. At first, the dough will separate a bit but have trust, it will come bavck together and form a nice smooth ball.
Place the dough in a large enough bowl, as it will triple in volume when it proofs. Cover with a film so it doesn't form a skin and let proof for about 1.5 to 2 hours. If you want to bake the breads the next days, place the bowl immediately in the fridge.
Place baking stone or a heavy baking tray in the middle of the oven and preaheat at 250°. Take the dough out of the bowl (it should have by now three times more volume) and cut it in ten even pieces. Roll each bread between your palm and the table until you get the shape of a small orange. Let them rest for another 15 minutes.
Dust some flour on your workbench and roll out each bread with a rolling pin until it's thin. I usually add 3 breads at a time in the hot oven, and I use a wide bread spatula. Watch them as they rise and puff up like pillows. It's really fun to do this with kids, you will hear a lot of Woooow and Aaaaw. I don't leave them longer than 2 minutes, otherwise I find them too dry. If you prefer them with darker patches, you can leave them for 3 minutes. They don't need turning. After you take them out of the oven, you can let them cool for a minute and then cover them with film or place them in a plastic bag to stay moist. Pitta breads are also great with falafel, chicken sandwiches or just any type of sandwich combinations you feel like eating.
I hope you save this post and try at least one of these wonderful mezze spreads. There is no greater joy than sharing food around the table with dear family and friends and mezze is all about sharing. Have an amazing year, full of flavor and color, new discoveries and experiments and most of all, maximum health!