Salma Abdelnour is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has been the travel editor of Food & Wine, the food editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, and the restaurant editor of Time Out New York. She is the author of Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut.
When I invite friends along for a Lebanese meal with my relatives, they always gawk at the amount of food on the table. At breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the Lebanese table is jammed to an inch of its life with plates of cooked dishes, cold spreads, condiments, pickles, fresh vegetables, pita bread, you name it. You can barely see the tablecloth.
Most eye-popping is the mezze, the assortment of side dishes usually served before or during a big lunch or dinner. It can include everything from hummus, babaghanoush, and tabbouleh, to kibbeh meatballs, and fried potatoes spiked with cilantro and hot pepper, and the strained yogurt spread called labneh, and often much more than that. I grew up in a family that loves its mezze, but I never stop being amazed that people are expected to also eat a main course—for instance grilled lamb, charbroiled chicken, or fried fish—right after the mezze extravaganza.
The best part about the mezze is how versatile the assortment of dishes can be. You can prepare as few or as many of your favorite classic mezze plates as you like or have time for, and set them out along with an array of small plates filled with zero-effort Lebanese accompaniments like radishes, olives, scallions served whole, and baskets of pita bread. Suddenly your table looks full. You can even get away with making just hummus or babaghanoush, along with some of the trimmings I mentioned, and the rest of the table sets itself.
Here’s a guide to a particularly simple and delicious mezze table:
Hummus: The recipe for my favorite version of hummus is in my book, but here’s the gist: Blend a cup of boiled (or canned) chickpeas in a food processor along with 3 crushed garlic cloves. In a bowl, mix the chickpea puree with the juice of 1 ½ lemons, and stir in 3 tablespoons of tahini until you get a smooth, creamy texture. Serve the hummus in a bowl, decorated with a spoonful of chickpeas in the middle, a swirl of olive oil around the edges, and a few dashes of paprika. I like to garnish with slivers of radish. Serve with a basket of pita bread.
Labneh: To make this addictive spread, ubiquitous in Lebanon, line a colander with a thick paper towel or cheesecloth, set the colander over a medium bowl, pour a quart of plain yogurt in (full-fat is best), and place the colander in the fridge, covered with another paper towel. Let the yogurt drain for a few hours or overnight. Put the resulting labneh in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and stir in a clove of minced garlic if you like.
Olives: Choose your favorite olives; arrange them in a bowl; done.
Fresh vegetables: Set out a few plates or bowls, each with a different vegetable: For example, sliced radishes; leaves of fresh green romaine lettuce, particularly handy for scooping up mouthfuls of tabbouleh; sliced bell peppers; tomatoes; and scallions, which the Lebanese like to munch on whole.
Carob molasses: This Lebanese staple often shows up on the table at breakfast or lunch. Find a jar of carob molasses at your local well-stocked ethnic market, and stir two parts of the molasses with one part tahini to make a thick, wonderfully sweet and nutty spread. Scoop up spoon-size portions with bits of pita bread, and enjoy. Sahtein! (“Bon appétit” in Arabic.)