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

zesty lemon hummus

Zesty Lemon Hummus

Hummus is sometimes dense, cakey, clumpy, heavy, gritty, and bland—a dreadful combination. You can hold a drab bowl of hummus upside down, like a Dairy Queen blizzard, and the kneaded brick of ground-up chickpeas will stay in the bowl, slowly growing cracks across the dry surface as it hovers, completely forgotten, over the party appetizer table. My family makes hummus for just about every party we go to or host, and there's never any left at the end of the night. There are a few easy tricks to making really good hummus.

lemons
garlic

I use a lot more lemon juice than you might think necessary. Most recipes call for just a couple tablespoons, which leads to a thick, bland, gritty paste instead of a zesty, tangy, smooth spread. Since it's served with pita bread or lawasha, hummus has got to be super flavorful to stand out.

I also use a bit more tahini than you might think. The tahini balances the tartness of the lemons and gives the chickpeas a lot more earthiness. A good amount of tahini and lemon juice make this hummus very dynamic and balanced.

I don't use a ton of garlic, just a medium clove, maybe two if you really love garlic. Extra garlic is not the way to make your hummus more flavorful. You don't want it to actually taste garlicky, but to have a subtle note of garlic.

I particularly love the way my mother and grandmother taught me to present hummus, which is both beautiful and functional. Hummus is often served in a bowl with some oil drizzled over it and some spices, but that's not the most efficient way to get a good amount of spices and olive oil with every bite. Instead, we spread it somewhat thinly over a plate or shallow bowl (about 1/2 to 1 inch thick), then dip the spoon over the surface to create indentations, which we fill with extra virgin olive oil and a dusting of spices. That way every bite is covered with the toppings. (See the above video for step-by-step instructions).

And speaking of toppings, there are so many tasty spices you can top your hummus with. There's za'atar for herby earthiness, paprika for piquancy, and sumac for extra tartness. If you don't have za'atar around, you can simply add a mixture of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. You can also sprinkle it with cayenne pepper, you can fill the center with red peppers, olives, capers, or preserved lemons—there are endless possibilities.

paprika

paprika

Zesty Lemon Hummus

yield: 2 large plates of hummus
total time: 15 minutes
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PDF to print

  • 1 or 2 medium cloves of garlic (go easy on the garlic!)

  • 2 15.5 ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained *

  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 2 to 3 lemons) **

  • 1/2 cup tahini

  • Salt to taste ***

  • Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

  • Spices or herbs for topping (for instance, sumac, za'atar, paprika, cayenne pepper)

  • For serving: pita bread (either store-bought or homemade), or whatever else you'd like to use for dipping (carrots, cucumbers, etc.)

  1. Chop or mash the garlic clove in a food processor or mortar and pestle.

  2. Add the chickpeas and grind them until they look like a gritty paste.

  3. Add the lemon juice and continue to process for a minute or two, until the hummus becomes smooth.

  4. Add the tahini and process until combined.

  5. Add a little salt, to taste, depending on how well the chickpeas have already been seasoned.

  6. Spread half of the hummus in a thin, even layer on a plate (about 1/2 - 3/4 inch thick). Drag the back of a spoon across the surface, dipping the spoon into the hummus to create little pockets as you go. Moving in a spiral over the surface works well (see the above video, or watch it here).

  7. Use the rest of the hummus for another plate, or keep it in the refrigerator or freezer for another time.

  8. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and dust with herbs or spices.

* If you'd prefer to use dried chickpeas, check out my other hummus recipe for instructions.
** This hummus recipe is very lemony and vibrant. If you like less lemon, feel free to replace some amount of the lemon juice with an equal amount of water. For instance, replacing 2 tablespoons of lemon juice with an equal amount of water results in a less zesty, but still very tasty, hummus. Dusting it with something less sour than za'atar or sumac, like paprika, also keeps it on the mellow side.
*** Check the sodium content of the chickpeas you're using and taste before seasoning.

zesty lemon hummus trio