Around the Middle East, people of all nationalities relax during the long, languorous summer afternoons. Conversation slows and becomes softer, and attention turns to the mezze, or appetizer, plates. Like tapas, mezze offer little bites of something intriguing. The shared plates encourage conviviality around the table.
It’s a great tradition, and suited especially to summer, when humidity and high temperatures can drive appetite into hiding. A lunch or supper of small plates may be just the ticket on a torpid day. If that day includes the appearance of guests, all the better.
Hummus is the most famous mezze, of course, but it has become a sad cliché in this country. Chocolate hummus? Hummus made from white beans? Those aren’t hummus — they may be good, but they’re their own thing.
Baba ghanoush, the smoky, garlicky eggplant puree that Middle Eastern food writer Claudia Roden famously called “vulgarly seductive,” pleases even those who think they don’t like eggplant. But it, too, suffers from a little too much familiarity.
We have two alternatives for your summer mezze.
Eggplants, with their deep purple skin catching the light, look so appealing at the farmers market and supermarket. The Persian dip called kashk-e-bademjan gives you a reason to scoop up three of the prettiest ones you can find.
Kashk is the Farsi word for whey, and bademjan is the Farsi word for eggplant. This Persian dish’s name translates to eggplant with whey, which is the clear liquid you see atop yogurt when it has stood for a while.
That plain-Jane name doesn’t begin to describe how good this dish is, however. Unless you have access to a Persian grocer, you’ll probably need to substitute something for the whey in the original form of this dish. Some sources suggest sour cream, but buttermilk more closely mimics whey’s tart, tangy flavor.
Lebanese muhammara gets sweetness from the roasted bell peppers, and walnuts lend texture and rich flavor. Although it’s not traditional, we’ve added a couple of chipotles to bump up the heat and complement the roasted peppers’ smoky flavor.
This dip’s name means “reddened” in Lebanese Arabic, and you can easily see why. The recipe calls for pomegranate molasses, which is pomegranate juice that has been reduced to a thick syrup. It’s worth the trip to pick up a small bottle at an Arabic grocer, because once you taste the muhammara, you’ll want to make it again and again.
Leftover muhammara makes a terrific sauce for grilled, baked or broiled poultry or fish.
Start to finish: 90 minutes
3 medium eggplants
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 large onions, in 1/4-inch-thick half-moon slices
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons buttermilk
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
Pita wedges or toasted lavash pieces, for serving
Heat the oven to 450 degrees, or heat a grill.
Pierce the eggplants in several places with a paring knife, then place them on a baking sheet or directly onto the grill grate. For the oven, toast until the eggplants collapse, 30-40 minutes. For grilling, turn until all sides are blistered and eggplant has collapsed, 15-30 minutes. It’s OK if they char a little.
Meanwhile, heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat; add 2 tablespoons olive oil and the onions. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Caramelize the onions by cooking them slowly, stirring frequently, until they are dark brown. This may take 20-40 minutes, or longer. Take care that the onions don’t burn. Set the onions aside off the heat.
Let the eggplants cool enough to handle, then cut them in half and scoop out the flesh into a bowl. Stir in the buttermilk; set aside.
In a small skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and add the chopped mint. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat; stir into the eggplant mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To assemble the dish, transfer the eggplant mixture to a serving bowl. Place the caramelized onions atop the eggplant, drizzle remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over the onions and scatter the chopped cilantro over everything. Serve with pita or lavash for dipping.
Nutrition information per serving: 97 calories, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 1 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 2 g protein, 9 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.
Start to finish: 38 minutes
Makes: About 2 cups
2 red bell peppers
1-2 chipotles, rinsed of any sauce clinging, stemmed, seeded
11/3 cups walnuts
1/4 small onion
2/3 cup toasted breadcrumbs or toasted panko
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
Coarse salt and pepper
Heat the broiler or a grill. Pierce the bell peppers in several places with a paring knife. Place the peppers on a rimmed baking sheet or directly on grill grates. Broil or grill, turning every couple of minutes, until the skin chars and blisters, 6-8 minutes total. Transfer the peppers to a paper bag to steam until they’re cool enough to handle.
Peel and deseed the broiled peppers; put them in a food processor with the chipotles, walnuts, onion, breadcrumbs and garlic. Process until the mixture is a thick, smooth paste. With the food processor still running, dribble in the olive oil.
Transfer the pepper mixture to a bowl. Stir in the pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, paprika and cumin. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with pita wedges.
Nutrition information per tablespoon: 58 calories, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 1 g protein, 8 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.