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

strained yogurt | labneh

Labneh

Labneh is a delicious Middle Eastern soft, fresh cheese that can be eaten for breakfast, a snack, or as part of a meze spread. It has a smooth consistency and a slightly sour, subtly sweet flavor. In Lebanon and Syria, my grandmother's family would make their own labneh at home with mesta, (that is, homemade yogurt). In Beirut, they would buy milk in bottles at the market, but when they moved back to Syria, they bought a cow and used her milk. My grandmother's mother, Yemmah Sourma, and her older sister, Masy, would milk the cow, then Yemmah Sourma would make mesta, put the fermented mesta in a cloth, tie the cloth together, and let all of the whey drain away until it reached the perfect consistency. They would save the whey to make booshala, a yogurt and swiss chard soup.

IMG_1264 copy.jpg
Labneh

These days, we most often buy labneh at Middle Eastern markets, since there are lots of perfectly good brands available. Look for one with fewer additives—the best labneh is just dairy (some combination of milk, cream, whey) and salt (sometimes with a little pectin). Labneh is great spread thinly on a plate and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. You can top it with whatever herbs and spices you'd like—mint, za'atar, sumac, or paprika each works great. We usually serve it as a dip with lawasha or pita bread, but it also makes a great cheese sandwich (and a great cheesecake too!)

While making labneh at home is a really fun project, I've never really found it totally worthwhile to make labneh from store-bought yogurt, since commercial labneh is already so tasty and convenient. But all that recently changed when my friend, Mary, told me how phenomenal it is when it's made from homemade yogurt. And it's true—when it comes to labneh made from homemade yogurt, it's hard to find anything better. So now I've become the kind of person who either buys ready-made labneh or goes all-in and makes it all the way from the beginning of the process, with whole milk, which I turn into yogurt overnight and then strain the next night until it is so perfect, you can't help but eat the whole thing with a spoon straight from the refrigerator (no olive oil, spices, or pita bread required).

Homemade Yogurt
Cheesecloth
Labneh

If you want to make labneh from store-bought yogurt, maybe because you can't find labneh near you, or maybe because you want a more low-key cooking adventure, some yogurts work better than others.

I used to think Greek yogurt was best, since it's already halfway there. But there's something about the way it's been processed that just doesn't work out quite right (maybe since it's strained by big mechanical centrifuges). After having my friends do a blind-tasting of a few different homemade labnehs, everyone determined that the one made from Greek yogurt was the least favorite of the group.

I've found that starting with plain-old unstrained yogurt works better than starting with Greek yogurt. The most important thing is to find one that's been made from whole milk. I've made labneh with fat-free yogurt, but it's definitely not the same (gritty, sour, and pasty) and I wouldn't recommend it unless you're already accustomed to the tastes and textures unique to a totally fat-free diet.

Labneh

Homemade Labneh

also known as labne, labni, lebni
yield: 1 1/2 cups
active time: 15 minutes
total time: 12 hours
download a
PDF to print

  • 4 cups plain unstrained yogurt, either homemade or store-bought

  • 1 wooden spoon

  • 1 pitcher or other tall container to catch the whey

  • A long sheet of cheesecloth

  • For serving (optional): salt, za'atar (or another spice blend), and extra virgin olive oil

  1. Line a medium-sized bowl (approximately 1 quart) with several layers of cheesecloth. Make sure that the cheesecloth square is large enough to tie the corners around 1 quart of yogurt.

  2. Spoon the yogurt into the center of the cheesecloth-covered bowl, place the wooden spoon over the top then wrap the cheesecloth edges over the top, tying them around the wooden spoon.

  3. Place the ball inside the pitcher, with the wooden spoon allowing it to hang from the top. This will keep it away from the pooling whey, so that it can strain as it hangs.

  4. Cover with plastic wrap, give the fridge a sniff check to make sure there are no funky smells, and strain the labneh in the fridge for about 6-12 hours, depending on the consistency you want. It will be more like Greek yogurt after 6 hours and much firmer after 12. *

  5. To serve, spread thinly on a plate, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and spices.

* Don't be surprised if the labneh loses a couple cups of whey during the straining process. You might need to empty the pitcher if the whey-line starts to get too close to the ball. Also don't be surprised if the trickle of whey slows down dramatically after the first couple hours. It will lose most of its whey in the first 6 hours.

Labneh