Gentle reader, on sight of the word ‘mezze’ do not grit your teeth and turn the page, your heart in the freeze-dried grip of reactive boredom. On the broad conceptual sweep we all seem to love the idea of mezze, but when addressing the subject in detail we yawn and say, ‘Oh please, give me a break,’ and close our ears and look for another story, a subject more likely to tease our culinary imagination and stimulate the palate.
The problem is that we have been sold the whole mezze thing so hard by writers like Claudia Roden who use words like ‘ecstasy’, ‘sensual’ and ‘mystical’ to describe the pleasures of savouring the mezze experience, making it sound like a cross between a seriously hedonistic drug and a religious trip. Mezze can be marvellous, but let’s not over-sell with unnecessary hyperbole. As the woman watching Meg Ryan simulate orgasm over her food in the famous deli scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally tells the waitress, ‘I’ll have what she’s having.’
Setting exaggeration to one side, let us return to basics and the real world where sensual and mystical feelings are not so readily conjured up, drink notwithstanding. And the drink is important because mezze are what the Americans call appetizers, food to go with drinks. They can be dead basic — a couple of greasy potatoes roasted in dubious oil consumed with an ouzo at an Athens pavement café table in a swirl of exhaust fumes are mezze — or they can be a frighteningly sophisticated buffet washed down with champagne at a smart party. They can be a bowl of salted nuts or a saucer of olives. Salads, too, can be mezze. So can little savoury pastries, like deep-fried börek, squid in batter, sautéed spiced liver and meatballs. But they can be much simpler: hard-boiled eggs or radishes dressed with lemon and sea salt are honourable examples. Purées of chickpeas, beans or fish roe, served with pocket breads, are very definitely mezze material. You can dress them up or down. Indeed, just about anything can be mezze, with the proviso that this is essentially food to be eaten with the fingers. Soup is therefore out and lamb casserole is not a candidate, but skewered grilled lamb most definitely is. Make things bite-size and that won’t drip gunk all over people when they pick them up and you have functional mezze.
Of course one can err too far on the side of debunking the myth. Our aim is to emulate the best and eschew those greasy potatoes, though small crisp potatoes roasted in olive oil make a terrific mezze. What you have in the totality of the mezze experience is a great basis for party food or a summer lunch, a good way to create something refreshingly different for your guests without being too self-conscious about the exercise. The concept has a freshness to it and an excitement if you really embrace the spirit of the thing. A carefully planned mezze will always satisfy all your guests because they can pick and choose the things they like. This is a meal for the pickiest eater, for omnivore and vegetarian alike. There will be protein in meat and fish and cheese, but there will also be protein in pulses and egg dishes. There will be raw things and cooked things; hot food and cold. Every individual component is delicious, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A mouthful of sour here, of salt there... the ripe sweetness of a tomato can be followed by the richness of a spicy lamb tartlet. If there was ever food on which to graze then this is it. A spread of mezze also looks entrancing, full of colour and different tastes and textures. You don’t like octopus? Fine, you don’t have to eat it - try the coriander pesto chicken instead.
One word of warning, if you serve mezze then that is all you serve. Do not make the mistake of thinking they can be an amuse-gueule before dinner — if you do, people will burst somewhere around the main course. Do it right and your mezze are the main event.
Because some of the elements will be bought-in ready to eat or will only involve the simplest preparations, mezze offer great practical benefits to the cook who can spend as much or as little time and effort as expediency and love dictate. Your choice will also depend on whether you are serving food at a drinks party — where people will be standing up — or at a table, obviously an opportunity for food which demands plates and even knives and forks.
How many dishes you serve is up to you. It is not ultimately the range of choice which will make the meal memorable, but the balance you strike. You want to offer contrasting flavours and textures, and these days as many vegetarian dishes as meat and fish.
Simply by way of example, a big mezze could include, as hot dishes, skewers of grilled marinated chicken, deep-fried vegetables in a light batter with an anchovy and garlic dip, salt cod and moussaka tartlets, grilled cheese and pizzette. Hummus and taramasalata may be old-hat, but let us not forget how delicious they are when made properly, particularly when served with flat breads you have baked yourself. Then there should be dishes of salted nuts, olives, radishes, hard-boiled eggs and’ pickled cucumbers, and perhaps a salad like horiatiki.
You will find the recipes for almost all these things in this book. Otherwise, the idea of always offering a little something to eat when you offer a drink is plain civilized.