It’s that time of year again. Wherever I turn, I see beautiful and seductive images of food. When I’m tempted — and fortunate enough — to eat too much, I needn’t worry, for there’s plenty of dietary advice waiting for me. Somehow, though, in these short, dark days of our winter, the recipe suggestions accompanying that advice never seem quite so tantalizing as those lovely dishes I’d been tempted by. So what can I do? I can turn for help to those wise thinkers of Greek antiquity.
Mezes are often described as small plates of food made for sharing, and they are. But it’s not the whole picture. The origins of mezes can be traced to travelers in the ancient world, who relied for sustenance on the goodwill of the people they met on their journeys. Refreshments offered were simple — from the garden or hillsides, store-cupboard or pot — and no one was turned away from the table.
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As these ancient societies developed political and social systems, and became wealthier, intellectual and cultural life developed, too. Since the days of classical Greece (5th century BC to 3rd century AD), the Western tradition has had the words to describe and give shape to many of the sciences – zoology, archaeology, anthropology, biology — including the art and science of good eating and drinking, or gastronomy.
What’s in a word?
Today, the word gastronomy can sometimes have disagreeable associations — of gluttony, waste and ostentatious wealth. But in its original meaning, it described a way of eating and drinking that led to health and enjoyment, a balance of science and art. For the ancients, this meant not only feeding our five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, touch — but also the sense they considered most important of all, the spirit of connectedness with the food on the table and with each other. It was this feeling, they believed, that led to good digestion and thus to good health.
Those ancient thinkers had another word, too, whose meaning has changed over the centuries — diaita, or diet. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that diet means “a prescribed course of food” or to “restrict oneself to special food, especially to control weight.” But to the ancient Greeks, diaita meant “way of life.” And the meze table was right at the center of their way of life.
The meze table
Mezes, when enjoyed as a diaita, provide fulfillment in a whole, human, sense — they feed our senses as well as our stomachs. The meze table is a colorful place, full of enticing aromas and often surrounded by loud chatter. With bowls of olives, salates (dips), piles of small pies, stuffed leaves, crunchy nuts, bright vegetables, tangy cheeses and yogurt, meat tidbits or well-flavored fish, the six senses are well looked-after. Dishes are put together with thought and to complement each other: Little salt is needed when there are olives on the table; chewy currants add sweetness to stuffings; capers “lift” pulse dishes; crunchy, fresh cucumber and radishes lighten preserved foods; octopus, razor shells and sea urchins intrigue; herbs and olive oil aromatize and dazzle.
A meze table can be very simple — a few olives, fresh vegetables, cheese, something “left over” — or can comprise more complex dishes. It can be for one or two, or for many, and its few gastronomic principles make pleasurable work for the cook: Flavorings are used to supplement and enhance, not to overwhelm; fresh ingredients are seasonal, garnishes edible; and fine local foods are the most preferred. The meze table is a place where our modern understanding of the word diet is turned upside down. Instead of restricting ourselves to what we think we shouldn’t eat — full-fat, calorie-laden olive oil, cheese, nuts — we free ourselves to enjoy the beauty of good food, to wasting nothing and to experimenting with the wild (greens, game), fermented (homemade yogurt, pickles) and often-ignored foods we have nearby.
Preparing attractive mezes doesn’t mean hours in the kitchen working on fussy preparations and mastering complicated cooking techniques. Just find the best suppliers you can, choose food in prime condition, and have a few staples at hand — good-quality olive oil and wine vinegar, olives, almonds, honey, rigani (dried Greek oregano), capers, sea salt, preserved fish, spices, dried fruits.
Now, you’re ready to compose many quick and simple dishes to serve as part of a meze table, such as these small plates of preserved fish:
- Drain canned sardines and sprinkle with coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper, a few drops of red wine vinegar, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and extra virgin olive oil.
- Drain canned tuna, separate into chunks and cover with thinly sliced red onion; sprinkle with sumac, extra virgin olive oil and coarse sea salt.
- Sprinkle sun-dried mackerel with red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and rigani, and serve with kalamata olives and slices of pickled or fresh cucumber.
White Fish With Vinegar and Herbs
Any fresh fish can be cooked this way — small sea bass fillets are a favorite, but the preparation suits more coarsely fleshed, and cheaper, whole white fish or fillets, too. A light dusting of flour keeps the fish from splitting and flaking during cooking and cuts down fish odors in the kitchen.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes fillets, 20 minutes whole fish
Total time: 15 to 25 minutes
Yield: 6 meze servings
1 pound fish fillets or 6 small white fish, heads discarded, gutted and scaled
1 teaspoon coarse-grain sea salt, or to taste
1/2 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper, or to taste
3 tablespoons garbanzo bean flour and 1 tablespoon plain flour or 4 tablespoons plain flour
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, or to taste
3 tablespoons good-quality wine vinegar
2 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons rigani (dried Greek oregano) or fresh rosemary
3 bay leaves
Small sprigs of rigani or fresh rosemary
Small black olives such as Greek Elitses or Niçoise
1. Wipe both sides of the fillets with a damp cloth or rinse whole fish and pat dry. Dust with half the salt and pepper and 2 tablespoons of the flour, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.
2. Place a large heavy sauté pan over medium-low heat and add half the olive oil. Dust the fish again with half the remaining flour and shake off any excess. When the olive oil is hot but not smoking, gently fry the fish on both sides until pale golden, about 10 minutes for fillets, 15 to 20 minutes for whole fish. The fish is cooked if it flakes easily when you insert a thin knife blade into the thickest part of it; it should be an even white all the way through. Drain between layers of kitchen paper. Strain the frying oil through 2 layers of muslin to remove any residue and set aside.
3. Wipe the pan with kitchen paper and return to low heat. Sprinkle the remaining flour over the bottom of the pan and stir a minute or two with a wooden spoon, until deep golden brown. Stir in the reserved frying oil and the remaining olive oil. The flour and oil will not blend together, but the flour will flavor and color the oil. Add the vinegar, water, rigani, bay leaves and remaining salt and pepper. Stir to mix, and simmer for 2 minutes.
4. Return the fish to the sauté pan, cover and heat through. Transfer to a warm dish, pour over the pan juices and surround with the rigani sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature, with olives.
Note: To serve later, transfer the fish and sauce to a shallow glass or china dish, add olive oil, tightly cover the dish and refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 days. Turn the fish in the marinade once or twice. Bring to room temperature for serving.
Main photo: Aromatic fish meze. Credit: Cordell Barron