With its colorful array of brightly colored salads, savory dips, exotic finger foods and freshly baked breads, the mezze (or maza) is a feast for the senses. While this selection of small dishes serves as the appetizer course of the Sephardic Shabbat meal, the mezze is common to all the lands of the former Ottoman Empire.
Although some say that the name derives from “mezzo,” the Italian word for half, referring to the small size of the dishes, and others say it is from the Arabic “t’mazza,” meaning to eat in small bites, it more likely comes from the Persian word “maze,” which means taste or snack. The small dishes are perfect for sharing and are meant to encourage slow eating and warm conversation.
The sheer brilliance of this cuisine is the emphasis on taking common ingredients and enabling them to shine. The flavors of beets, carrots and eggplant are enhanced through cooking with the judicious use of garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika or turmeric. Bright red peppers and tomatoes show up in Moroccan matboucha and Turkish salad. Potato salad takes on a unique twist when seasoned with lemon, cumin and Aleppo pepper. Tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and parsley glisten with a refreshing dressing of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
Some of the dips, such as hummus, tahini and smoky eggplant baba ghanoush, are now common on the American table. Turshi, preserved lemons, pickled turnips and olives lend extra flavor and crunch.
The menu might feature stuffed grape leaves, served hot or cold; as well as bourekas, delicious puff pastry filled with potato, spinach, mushrooms or meat. The stars of the Levantine maza are kibbe and lach’majin, the great classics of Syrian cuisine.
The incredibly delicious kibbeh nabelsieh is a crispy deep-fried, torpedo-shaped bulgur shell with a delicately spiced onion-and-meat filling. It is a time-consuming dish that requires great talent. Like all who master the complex art of making kibbeh, our good friend Jazmin Daian Duek learned to make them from her mother, renowned Argentinean Chef Eva Helueni. Luckily for us, Duek runs a catering business and delivers a mouthwatering repertoire of exotic dishes.
Fortunately, lach’majin is much easier to master. These little ground beef pizzas get their unique flavor from the use of tamarind. An ingredient featured in the cuisines of Persia, India, Southeast Asia and Mexico, tamarind makes the mouth pucker with its sweet, sour and tangy notes. In our recipe, we take a shortcut and buy frozen mini pizza rounds to make lach’majin at home.
Break out a bottle of Arak and share these gastronomic pleasures with friends and family.
ROASTED EGGPLANT WITH POMEGRANATE SEEDS
2 medium eggplants, washed
2 tablespoons avocado or canola oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons tahini
4 tablespoons sunflower seeds
1 pomegranate, seeded
Cut eggplants in half vertically and place on baking sheet face up.
Drizzle with oil and salt.
Broil in middle of oven for 8 to 10 minutes, making sure not to burn. Cool slightly and drizzle center of eggplant with tahini. Sprinkle with sunflower seeds and pomegranate seeds.
2 dozen store-bought small pizza dough rounds
1/2 cup avocado or canola oil
1 pound ground beef
2 onions, finely chopped
3 ounces tomato paste
Juice of one lemon
1 cup tamarind concentrate
1 tablespoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Pine nuts for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine beef, onion, tomato paste, lemon juice and tamarind concentrate with all the spices.
Grease baking sheets with oil, then place pizza rounds on sheets. Place heaping tablespoon of meat onto each round, spread and press firmly. Bake pies for 15 to 20 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Garnish with pine nuts.
Makes two dozen pies.
Rachel Sheff’s family roots are Spanish Moroccan. Sharon Gomperts’ family hails from Baghdad and El Azair in Iraq. Known as the Sephardic Spice Girls, they have collaborated on the Sephardic Educational Center’s projects, SEC Food Group and community cooking classes. Join them on Facebook at SEC FOOD.