a vegetarian meze dinner party

vegetarian meze dinner party

A few months ago, my friend Amadi suggested putting some of the recipes I've already posted together in a meal plan post. I immediately latched onto this idea, and have been daydreaming about it at least every day since then, but it sat at the bottom of my list for a long time because the idea of photographing and developing an entire dinner was totally daunting. I cook meals like this for friends and family all the time, and I post two new recipes here every week, but it would take so much more work to write and photograph an entire post about an elaborate dinner.

But it was during one of these moments of anxious daydreaming when I realized that, actually, most people are probably like me. While it can be fun to occasionally spend the whole day cooking, life is usually pretty hectic, and it would be so much more lovely to spend all the time you would have spent cooking just enjoying the company of friends and family, savoring a beautiful meal together. So for my first meal plan post, I've put together a classic dinner party that you can easily accomplish with just a little daily effort. Hopefully there will be more of these posts in the future (Sunday night meal prep, summer grilling, make-ahead brunches, and holiday planning are all on the horizon), but for now, I thought it would be nice to keep things simple with an easy vegetarian meze.

hummus
labneh

A meze (also known as mezze, mazze, or mazzeh) is a meal or appetizer course consisting of a bunch of small dishes. A meze will often include lots of finger foods, so it's a really great tool for entertaining, especially if you don't have enough room for a big seated dinner. And while this vegetarian meze looks elaborate, it actually only takes about 4 days of cooking for 35 minutes/day, to pull it off (not counting the optional tasks, like blending your own spices). It's absolutely not aspirational, even though it looks it.

The first trick to planning an easy dinner menu is knowing what to make when; for instance, the amba should be made earlier in the week because it needs a few days to pickle in the fridge, while the feta should be plated about an hour before guests arrive, and somewhere in the middle, the spreads won't suffer from sitting in the fridge for 1 or 2 days. By spacing things out, you'll only have to put in a little effort at a time.

amba
olives

But even more than scheduling, I'm a fan of relying on cleverness instead of hard work whenever possible. So the second trick is including a few things that you can buy, but which still seem really special and lovely. While making everything from scratch can be fun when you're looking for a big project, sometimes it's nice to simply place ingredients together in an appealing and surprising way. Everyone will be delighted with the feta, radishes, and herbs, which will take you literally 5 minutes to put together. Don't be surprised if this even outshines the homemade double-roast baba ganoush, which takes 45 minutes to make (although it's a tough call).

To make this meal plan super straightforward, I've put together a grocery list and schedule. If you follow my plan below, you'll totally pull it off with just a little effort every day. I've timed the schedule so that you will have everything ready for a Saturday dinner party, but you can obviously change the days if you'd prefer to throw a party on another day.

feta, basil, and radishes

The Menu: A Vegetarian Meze Dinner Party

Labneh dressed with extra virgin olive oil and za'atar or your favorite dried herb *
Hummus dressed with extra virgin olive oil and baharat or paprika
Baba ganoush dressed with olive oil and parsley
Tabbouleh (I added pomegranates to this one, which is optional)
Feta cheese with olive oil, basil (or mint), and radishes
Olives
Amba
Pita bread *

* For this easy menu, the labneh and pita bread are store-bought, but feel free to make your own if you're feeling ambitious.

Dietary restrictions

Edit the grocery list and schedule if you plan to add any of this to your menu:

To make this vegan, you could replace the labneh with muhammara or banadurah harrah, which would take more time to prepare, but can be made ahead of time on Thursday when you make the hummus (or you could just leave out the labneh). The feta can be replaced with your favorite vegan cheese.

Cooked quinoa can be used instead of bulgur in the tabbouleh, and you can use carrot and cucumber slices instead of pita bread, which makes the original menu gluten free.

The Grocery List

Pantry

2 15.5-ounce cans chickpeas
Tahini
Pita bread
Apple cider vinegar
Salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Bulgur (preferably burghul number 1, but couscous, quinoa, or another bulgur will work)

Spices

Za'atar or your favorite dried herb (optional: make your own za'atar)
Baharat or paprika (optional, make your own baharat)
Yellow curry powder
Ground fenugreek seeds (optional)
Turmeric powder
Red pepper flakes

Produce

7 lemons (if they don't seem very heavy, buy more to be safe)
3 pounds baby Italian eggplants (about 7 baby Italian eggplants)
1 small head garlic
3 big bunches parsley
4 plum tomatoes
1 bunch mint
1 bunch green onions
1 bunch basil (or skip it if your mint bunch is really big and you want to find a way to use it up)
1 bunch radishes
Assorted olives
3 green, unripe mangoes
Pomegranate seeds (optional, for the tabbouleh)

Dairy

Feta cheese
Labneh (if you can't find labneh, you can buy whole milk Greek yogurt and just use it as is. Greek yogurt is not exactly the same thing as labneh, but it's still very tasty, and great if you add a lot of extra toppings)

tabbouleh
baba ganoush

The Schedule

Wednesday

Go grocery shopping.
Pickle the amba. (25 minutes)

Thursday

Make the hummus and plate it, but don't dress it. (15 minutes)
Cut the pita bread into wedges and put it in a ovenproof serving dish. Cover it to keep it from drying out. (5 minutes)
Plate the olives. (1 minute)

Friday

Make the baba ganoush and plate it with the olive oil and parsley on top. (40 minutes)

Saturday morning

Make the tabbouleh and plate it (add pomegranate seeds if you bought them, and and use a food processor to chop the herbs by just pulsing them a few times, if you want to speed things up). (30 minutes)
Wash/dry the basil and slice the radishes. (10 minutes)
Set the table (either for a sit-down meal or hors d'oeuvres around a coffee table)

Saturday evening, the hour before serving

Plate the feta with olive oil, basil, and radishes. (2 minutes)
Plate the labneh with olive oil and za'atar/herbs. (5 minutes)
Dress the hummus with olive oil and paprika or baharat. (2 minutes)
Plate the amba or just open one of the jars. (1 minute)
Put the pita bread in the oven at 200° F for about 15 minutes until you're ready to serve. (1 minute active time)
Check the photo below to make sure you didn't leave something in the fridge, and enjoy!

vegetarian meze

pickled mango | amba

Amba

People who are used to eating a lot of Middle Eastern food are generally not afraid of sourness. There should be some element in a Middle Eastern dinner that, if eaten on its own, would make your eyes squint shut, your nose fill with vinegar, and your mouth pucker to a point.

Not all of us eat these things on their own or have an obsession with sour foods, but eating entire lemons whole is not unheard of. We sometimes dust on so much sumac that you can't see the food underneath. After doling out pomegranate molasses, we lick the spoon, and make the face. It's almost unbearable—it brings tears to our eyes. And if you're always trying to find something that's another level of sour, amba, or pickled mango, is a really good one.

Mangoes
Mango

According to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, amba (also known as torshi anbeh) is originally from India, but it has become a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine. The key to amba's distinct flavor is fenugreek seeds, which taste a little like celery, but with a nice umami flavor and fragrance. Many good yellow curry powders include fenugreek seeds, so if you can't find them, substituting more yellow curry powder in its place will approximate the flavor. I've included instructions in the recipe for anyone who needs to make this substitution. Middle Eastern amba doesn't always include mango, but fenugreek seems to be the uniting factor in just about all recipes. For instance, cabbage amba is another popular amba pickle. Sham of Vegan Iraqi Food has a wonderful recipe for cabbage amba, with plenty of fenugreek flavor. But in any event, amba is incredibly tart and delicious.

Spices
Amba / Pickled Mangoes
Amba / Pickled Mangoes

One of the things that makes mango amba so tangy is the fact that you're starting out with an ingredient that's already sour before it even hits the vinegar brine. Instead of standing in the produce aisle gently pressing on every mango to try to find the one that yields to slight pressure, you'll weed through a million ripe, perfect mangoes to find the tough green ones that everyone else rejects. These mangoes are crunchy, tart, and ideal for pickling, since they will soften slightly instead of entirely melting into the vinegar.

While ripe mangoes are a cinch to slice into pieces, unripe mangoes are just a little different, since you have to use a lot more pressure to slice through it, and the peel won't release from the meat very easily. Feel free to use the gifs above as a guide.

Prepping the mangoes is the most time-consuming part of this recipe, but it only takes about ten minutes. Everything else is as simple as boiling the water, vinegar, and seasoning, pouring it over the mango slices, and letting it sit in the fridge for at least a day or two. Like any pickle, amba will keep for a long time. Discard it after a while if it seems off (but, as they say, it probably won't last that long).

Amba / Pickled Mangoes

Pickled mango | amba

yields: 2 pints
active time: 15 minutes
total time: at least 3 hours 15 minutes
also check out my
amba slaw and amba fish tacos
download a
PDF to print

  • 3 green, unripened mangoes *

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 3/4 cups water

  • 3/4 cups apple cider vinegar

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons curry powder

  • 3/4 teaspoons ground turmeric

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons ground fenugreek seeds **

  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 1 3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt

  1. Pit and peel the mangoes and then slice them into thin strips. Coat them in lemon juice. ***

  2. Pack the mangoes into two pint-sized canning jars.

  3. In a small saucepan, combine water, cider vinegar, curry powder, turmeric, fenugreek, red pepper flakes, and sea salt. Bring to a boil and then immediately remove from heat. Pour over the mangoes.

  4. This recipe is designed for 2 pints, but if you need to, feel free to top them off with a tablespoon or two of lemon juice. If the tops are poking out, give them a shake every day for the first few days.

  5. Store the amba in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours before serving. It is pretty good as a quickle after 3 hours, but it's even better after a few days.

Serving suggestions: This is a very flavorful pickle and should be served with food that doesn't have a lot of flavor and piquancy of its own; use this anywhere you want to add acidity and brightness, like you would with a chutney, relish, or salsa. Serve alongside grilled meats and veggies, burgers, hot dogs, riza sh'ariyeh, and/or a simple salad with a very light dressing. Leave the amount of amba up to your guests instead of plating it for them. Everyone has a different preference for tartness, and while some guests will polish off a whole pint, others will only have one or two pieces (but rest assured, just about everyone will love it).

* The mangoes should be very firm and should not yield to pressure. It's ok if they are a little red, but they should be mostly green (judge by squeezing more than color).
** You can easily find ground fenugreek seeds online or in almost any Indian market. Although they're from the same plant, they taste very different from fenugreek leaves (just like cilantro doesn't taste like coriander seeds). You can sometimes find fenugreek seeds in Middle Eastern markets and health foods stores, but I find that Indian markets are the only really reliable source. If you can't find ground fenugreek seeds, feel free to leave it out and use a total of 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon curry powder for the recipe.
*** See above gifs for instructions on pitting and peeling unripe mangoes. It's a little different than pitting and peeling a ripe mango, since you can't easily separate the flesh from the peel and you have to use a bit more pressure to slice through, and must therefore stabilize it.

Amba / Pickled Mangoes