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

za'atar flatbread | manakish za'atar | lakhm'it za'atar

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

If you know me through my blog, you might not know that I'm also a full-time PhD student and teacher. Though I teach and write about fourteenth century English poetry, I don't like to get too academic when I write about food on my blog. But this week, I had a few quick thoughts on language that I wanted to share.

When you're running an English language Middle Eastern food blog, transliterating words (or translating them from one alphabet into another) into English is a challenge. There's technically no single right way to transliterate words from Arabic or Assyrian, which is frustrating since one of my goals is to make my website searchable and standardized.

So when I was working on the post on lahm bi ajeen (Middle Eastern meat flatbread), I was trying to figure out how to spell the name, so I asked my mom. She immigrated to the United States when she was a kid, so while she used to speak Arabic when she was little, she mostly grew up speaking English and Assyrian, a vernacular Aramaic language, and no longer speaks Arabic.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

She suggested spelling it "lakhma bi ajeen," because we assumed that the word lakhma must mean bread in Arabic, as it does in Assyrian. But when I did a quick search, I learned that, while lakhma means bread in Assyrian, lahm actually means meat in Arabic. So lakhma bi ajeen is like one of those funny portmanteaus that doesn't translate well from one language to another; in Assyrian, it essentially means "bread of the dough" instead of "meat of the dough."

But it turns out we weren't so far off base after all, since the two words are etymologically related. According to Stephan Guth, the word was originally used to generally refer to whatever food was the main substance of the meal, but the meaning of the word changed over time through semantic narrowing.

Narrowing is a linguistic phenomenon where words take on more specific meanings as time goes on. So in this case, the original word came to refer to two totally different foods in each language (meat in Arabic and bread in Assyrian). And so now whenever we Assyrians eat meat pies, we call them bread of the dough. Language is such a funny thing.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

But since it's lahm-less flatbread, lakhm'it za'atar in Assyrian, or manakish za'atar in Arabic (also known as manaeesh), doesn't get into quite as much linguistic trouble as lahm bi ajeen. This flatbread is a really lovely meatless alternative, and it's especially good if you make your own za'atar, which is a lot easier than it sounds. Adding cheese is totally optional, but it makes this more of a main-course, instead of a mezze or a snack. There are a lot of wonderful variations—my cousin, Sourma, recently posted some beautiful photos of a trip she took to Furn Saj Bakery in LA. Feel free to check out their menu for some man'oushpiration. If you're looking for a menu featuring this recipe, check out my Cook for Syria supper club menu.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar
manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar

manakish za’atar

Yield: 4 small flatbreads
for more variations, check out my
manakish variations with Seven Spice Life

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sumac-heavy za'atar *
Salt, to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 pound pizza dough **
Semolina or cornmeal, for sprinkling
optional: 1 cup loosely packed crumbled feta (for all 4 pizzas)
optional, for serving: 1 1/2 cup combination of olives, diced tomatoes, and diced cucumbers, plus minced mint or parsley

  • Place a pizza stone (or sheet pan) on the oven floor, move the oven racks up and out of the way, so you can easily access the pizza stone, and pre-heat the oven to 500° F.

  • Combine the olive oil and za'atar. Salt it to taste if you're using unseasoned za'atar.

  • Lightly flour a clean, food-safe work surface, use a knife or bench scraper to divide the dough into 4 equal pieces, and shape each chunk into a round ball.

  • Roll each dough ball into a circle, about 1/8 inch thick. To keep the round shape, rotate the disc about 90 degrees after each time you roll it out, and be sure to re-flour the surface every so often.

  • Sprinkle semolina or cornmeal on a pizza peel or thin cutting board. Place one dough disc on the cutting board. Top with about 1/4 of the za'atar mixture (about a heaping tablespoon) and spread it out using your fingers or the back of a spoon. Top with 1/4 cup of feta cheese, if using. Let it rest for about 5 to 10 minutes before it goes in the oven.

  • Once the oven has preheated, use a quick motion to move the pie from the pizza peel onto the pizza stone. Cook for about 5-8 minutes, until the edges start to brown and the bread is cooked through. The dough should be crispy and chewy, like really good brick oven pizza.

  • Repeat with the remaining 3 pies.

* If you didn't blend it yourself, taste it. If it's on the tangy side, it's sumac-heavy. If it's on the bitter side, it's thyme-heavy. If it's thyme-heavy, simply blend a tablespoon or two of sumac, or just cut back on the amount of za'atar you use if you don't have sumac around.
** If you're making your own dough, simply make this recipe for pizza dough. Divide it into 6 pieces, and you'll have 2 left over after using 4 for this recipe. Feel free to turn them into pita bread, or freeze them to make pizza another time.

manakish za'atar / lakhm'it za'atar