With exotic flavors, fresh ingredients and easy recipes that have thrived for centuries, meze dishes aren’t simply appetizers meant to whet appetites for main courses (although they are often served that way). Instead, a meze platter can be the party. Gather friends and family and offer your favorite mezethes over cool drinks, lively conversation and loads of laughter. Here are a few faves to get you started.
Olives are the mainstay of Greek cuisine and the ancient Greeks revered them: Athenians believed the olive was a gift from the gods and olive branches were depicted on their coins. The hills of Greece are covered with olive trees, their trunks tortuously twisted and their gray-green leaves looking like a mist over the dusty hills. Most of us think “Kalamata” when someone says “Greek olive,” and the big meaty purple olives are practically a signature of Greece. It used to be Americans favored two olives: the pepper-stuffed green ones you put in a martini and the black canned ones kids like to put on their fingers. Neither has the full acid-balanced fruitiness of Greek olives. Try koroneiki, the tiny, oily green ones from Crete; chalkidiki, or donkey olives, cured in brine; and kalamata “pink” olives. Most supermarkets have olive bars now, but for the best taste and learning experience, stop by Caputo’s downtown. On a meze platter, serve several kinds—it’s fun to taste, talk and compare.
It’s a sauce, a dip, a garnish—however you choose to use it, the tangy fresh yogurt dip is essentially Greek and typically easy to make. Strain your yogurt, letting extra liquid drain out through a cheesecloth-lined colander, for best results. Also seed your cucumbers to prevent the tzatziki from getting watery. Mix one cup strained Greek yogurt with 1-2 long English cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped in small dice. Leave it at that or add a bit of minced mint, dill or Italian parsley. Serve it as a dip for pita and crudites or dollop some over grilled chicken or lamb.
Feta is the most well-known Greek cheese, a required element of a Greek salad, along with cucumbers and tomatoes. White and crumbly, the curd from goats and sheep’s milk is brined and aged. Serve it sliced and drizzled with olive oil and fresh oregano, or crumble it over a salad or sliced tomatoes.
Easy and essential, this dip takes about five minutes to make if you use canned chickpeas. You may want to adjust the lemon and garlic. Meaning: add more garlic. Drain 1 can chickpeas/garbanzo beans and reserve liquid. Put the chickpeas, 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, 1-2 crushed and de-sprouted garlic cloves, 1/4 tsp. cumin and a pinch of salt in a food processor and pulse until blended. Blend in 2 Tbsps. Tahini (sesame paste) in the food processor. When it’s smooth, drizzle in the reserved bean liquid until it’s the consistency you like best.
One of the definitive Greek dishes and one of the easiest to prepare, Greek salad depends entirely on the quality of its ingredients. Don’t even think about making a Greek salad unless you have dead-ripe, never refrigerated tomatoes, new cucumbers, sweet onions and good feta. Some add torn romaine leaves, others add olives but the toss relies on the basics and excellent olive oil.
Expand the meze platter into a full meal by putting a few chicken breasts and some thin-cut lamb chops in a quick bath of olive oil, lemon, and your choice of either oregano or rosemary; grill quickly.