3 Middle-Eastern Mezzes

Traditionally here in Israel these mezzes are normally served at the beginning of the meal in their dozens, just as you take your seat at the table. It’s a fantastic strategy to keep those that are starving sated and friendly. It is also a great way to create an instant warm and social vibe with everyone tucking in and sharing together. The mezzes will remain during the main course with an additional side dish of rice (usually mujadareh – rice with lentils) and a big Israeli salad served as well.

The first mezze is a Smoked Aubergine Salad. The aubergine is cooked whole over a grill (or a direct flame from the gas hob) until the skin chars creating the smokey flavour. The softened aubergine flesh is then scooped out and mixed together with diced tomatoes green pepper, fresh chopped parsley, some lemon juice and olive oil as well as a smidgen of cumin and all spice.

This is by far my favourite way to enjoy aubergines mezze style. I much prefer the play of deep smokey aubergines with light zesty tomatoes and parsley, compared to the heavy flavour of babaganoush (aubergines in tahini). And at the same time if you include a mezze of homemade tahini they can be equally be enjoyed together with the aubergines, scooped up in a torn piece of warm pitta bread perhaps.

The next mezze is one I have seen in several authentic restaurants here. It is a Rocket, Tomato, Zaatar & Sumac Salad mixed together with the ever essential lemon juice and olive oil. The nutty spiciness of the rocket works phenomenally with the earthy tones of zaatar and the citric highlights of the sumac. Little specks of crimson sumac, like glitter, sprinkled over the green leaves act as beautiful edible decoration.

Finally a mezze for fennel lovers; Lemony Fennel & Zaatar Salad. The power of lemons is clearly shown in all these mezzes but with this one in particular you can appreciate how just one ingredient can make a difference and turn a solitary vegetable into a salad. The fennel’s mild anise-like flavour carries a sweet undertone that combines wonderfully with the lemon juice and the hint of zaatar in each bite balances the salad to perfection.

Serve these three mezzes to a table of friends with warm pitta bread and some homemade tahini for a fun start to a summer meal.

Smoked Aubergine Salad
Yield: 6-8

• 2 large aubergines, whole
• 3 large tomatoes diced (seeds removed)
• 1 large green bell pepper, diced
• Lemon juice, from 1 large lemon
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 1 tsp cumin
• 1 tsp all-spice
• freshly ground salt
• 1 green chili sliced, seeds removed (optional)

1. If you are grilling out doors then simply throw the whole aubergine on the grill and cook on each side for about 5-10 minutes, (depends on size of aubergine), until the skin is charred and the flesh inside is soft. If you are not grilling outdoors but have a gas hob then apply the same technique as the grill and place the aubergine on an open flame from one of the gas rings – keep a constant eye on the aubergine and be careful when turning over. The final option (with less smokey results) is to grill the aubergine whole in the oven for around 20 minutes at 220C/425F/Gas 7
2. In a bowl mix together the lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, all-spice and salt. Set aside.
3. When the aubergnies have cooked take them off the heat and cut them in half. Leave to cool for 5 minutes, until you can handle them and using a spoon scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Add the diced tomatoes, chopped parsley and the lemon mixture. Mix together and serve.

Rocket, Tomato, Zaatar & Sumac Salad
Yield: 6-8

• I packet of rocket (roughly 3 handfuls)
• 3 tomatoes, halved, seeds removed and sliced into thin strips vertically
• Juice of 2 lemons
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 1 TBSP zaatar
• 1 TBSP sumac
• Freshly ground salt & pepper
• 1 thinly slice red onion (optional)

1. Mix the lemon juice, olive oil, zaatar, sumac, salt and pepper together. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
2. Throw the rocket and tomatoes (and red onion if using) in a serving bowl/dish and mix in the dressing.
3. Serve immediately

Lemony Fennel & Zaatar Salad

• 3 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced, heads removed
• Juice of 1 lemon
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 1 TBSP zaatar
• Freshly ground salt

1. Mix together the lemond juice, zaatar and salt
2. In a bowl/dish add the sliced fennel and pour over the dressing
3. Serve immediately