London-based Mediterranean food expert Anissa Helou is sharing several recipes for mezze dishes: Syrian or Lebanese muhammarah (pepper spread), Persian Borani-e Bâdenjân (onion and eggplant dip), and wholewheat crackers with mastic. Normally we would only do one recipe, but given the nature of how mezze is served, I thought it only made sense to offer a couple options. Mezze are several small dishes served at a meal throughout the Middle East. For me, the easiest comparisons are tapas and dim sum. My official taste-tester here at home demolished the first recipe and has steadily made his way through almost the second. The crackers were gone on the first afternoon. All the same, I always try to keep small dishes like this in our refrigerator for snacking and meals. — Kristina
About Anissa: Anissa is a writer, journalist, broadcaster and blogger. Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, she knows the Mediterranean as only a well-traveled native can. She is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks including The Fifth Quarter: An Offal Cookbook, Modern Mezze, Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, Mediterranean Street Food, Café Morocco and Lebanese Cuisine. Her latest book, Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, was chosen by NPR, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and Food & Wine as one of the best cookbooks for 2007. An accomplished photographer and intrepid traveler who owns a cooking school in London and runs culinary tours to Syria and other Mediterranean countries, her latest travel/cooking show, Al Chef Yaktachef, was shown on Abu Dhabi TV. She also runs Arab supper clubs in her loft and was the first ever chef-in-residence in Leighton House during their Nour Festival in November 2011.
A quick note before we begin: You may visit Anissa’s blog for the red pepper-based version of muhammarah, which will undoubtedly be easier for most of you to whip up than what had to be done to get my pepper paste! (Thanks BFF!) Also, Anissa rolls her crackers waaaay thinner than I rolled mine. And I forgot the saffron water. With that, lets begin after the jump!
Muhammarah is a specialty of Aleppo, although you find it all over Syria and in Lebanon, too. The classic recipe is made with a very mild pepper paste called dibss el-fleifleh. It is not so easy to find in the West except for the tinned commercial Turkish brands, which are mild but less dense than the paste you buy in the souks of Aleppo or in the bazaars of Gaziantep. This leaves you with two choices: one, to use the tinned Turkish paste but reduce the amount of water stated in the recipe, and the other, to skip the pepper paste altogether and make the muhammarah with grilled red peppers instead, adding Aleppo pepper flakes to get the mild heat of the paste and lemon juice for acidity. If you go for the second option, you will not need to add any water.
- 200 g (1 cup) pepper paste
- 100 g (1 cup) breadcrumbs
- 100 g walnuts, coarsely ground (about 3/4 cup), plus extra for garnish
- 1/2 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 to 1 cup water (depending on how thick the pepper paste is)
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate syrup
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 tablespoon tahini
- sea salt
Quickly mix the pepper paste, breadcrumbs, walnuts and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add 1/2 cup water and mix until you have quite a thick dip. Season with the cumin, lemon juice, pomegranate syrup, olive oil and tahini. Salt to taste and mix well. Add more water if the dip is too thick. Then taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve drizzled with olive oil and garnished with a few chopped walnuts.
- 2 large aubergines (each about 300 g)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 1 large garlic clove, crushed
- sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 125 g strained yogurt
- pinch saffron threads, soaked in 1 tablespoon water
- 50 g walnuts, coarsely chopped
1. Prick the eggplants in several places and place under a hot grill. Grill for about 30–40 minutes, turning them halfway through, until the skin is charred and the flesh is very soft. Cut the grilled eggplant in half. Scoop out the flesh and place in a colander for about 20 minutes to let the excess liquid drain. With a fork or potato masher, mash the eggplant.
2. Put the olive oil and onion in a frying pan and place over medium-high heat. Cook until the onion is lightly golden (a little darker than in the image above). Add the garlic and fry for another minute or so. Add the mashed eggplant to the pan and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and let cool.
3. Add the strained yogurt and mix well. Transfer to a serving dish. Drizzle with the saffron water and sprinkle the chopped walnuts all over. Serve with Persian bread.
Wholewheat Crackers with Mastic
Makes 12 medium disks or 48 triangles
The taste of the mastic in these crackers is subtle but it comes through, nevertheless. It adds an exotic note and is a good combination with the muhammarah. If you can’t find mastic, replace it with cumin or anise seeds or whatever flavor takes your fancy and goes with the dip.
- 150 g (1 cup) wholewheat flour
- 300 g (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for shaping and kneading
- 2 1/4 teaspoon (1 package) easy bake yeast
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground mastic
- extra virgin olive oil to grease a bowl and to brush crackers
1. Mix the flours, yeast, salt and mastic in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Gradually add 1 cup and 2 tablespoons (280 ml) warm water, bringing in the flour as you go along. Knead until you have a rough ball of dough.
2. Move the dough onto your lightly floured work surface. Sprinkle with a little flour and knead for 2–3 minutes. Invert the bowl over the dough. Let sit for 15 minutes — this is my version of the professional autolyse where bakers let dough rest to hydrate properly before kneading it with the leavening. Knead for 3 more minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.
3. Grease a large bowl with a little olive oil. Shape the dough into a ball and place in the bowl, turning it to coat all over. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm, draft-free place for 2 hours. Fold after the first hour. The best way to do this is to invert the bowl gently to receive the ball of dough onto the palm of your hand. Slide it onto your lightly floured work surface and after flouring your hands, gently pat it into a circle. Fold one third over from the top, brushing off any excess flour, then the other third from the bottom. Then do the same from the sides to make a square. Replace the dough in the bowl with the folded side down and return to rise for another hour. By the end, the dough should have doubled in volume.
4. Preheat the oven to 240º C.
5. Move the dough onto your work surface. Divide in two equal pieces, and divide each half into six equal pieces. Roll each into a ball. Cover the balls loosely with cling film. Then take one ball, starting with the first you have shaped, and roll it out into a thin circle. With a dough cutter, divide the circle into four triangles. Transfer onto a large non-stick baking sheet and prick all over with a fork — this is done so that the crackers don’t puff up. You can also leave the circles as they are or divide them into long flat strips, whichever shape you like.
6. Bake the crackers for 6 to 12 minutes, depending on how thin they are. Remove from the oven. Let cool on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature or store in a hermetically sealed container to serve later. They will keep for a few weeks.
Muhammarah is one of my favorite mezze dishes, but it took me quite some time before I could find a good recipe. And finally, I found two great recipes: Mohamed’s, where he uses fresh peppers and Maria’s, who makes it the classic Aleppine way. I love both even if they are very different. One (the Aleppine version) is intense, and the other is lighter and fresher. As for the Persian recipe, it’s a very interesting take on our baba ghannuge with an added sweetness because of the caramelized onion and a lighter touch because of the yogurt, and I love the added crunch of the walnuts and the luxurious touch of the saffron water.