COOKING IN THE CAVE: Mezze—the scrumptious Mediterranean appetizers you won’t want to miss

Mezze—that thing people often overlook in the appetizer section of Mediterranean restaurant menus—is among the best foods ever to grace the culinary world.

The concept is simple: mezze is just the Turkish/Greek/Persian word for a selection of small dishes eaten before the main meal—so essentially an appetizer assortment.

There are probably 50 or so mezze dishes, but the more common ones on American menus are hummus, babaghanouj, falafel and tabouleh.

One of my favorite restaurants, a Palo Alto staple called Dish Dash, is what turned me on to mezze.

They just do it right.

For example their babaghanouj (say it five times fast) is packed with rich, homey flavor.

Babaghanouj is often confused with hummus. Instead of mashed chickpeas, it’s mashed eggplant with tahini (sesame seed paste), garlic and olive oil. It’s normally eaten with pita bread.

Dish Dash’s version uses wood-grilled eggplant, which adds serious flavor. And it’s served with heated pita.

One would think heated pita would be standard since it’s far superior to its cold and lifeless homologue, but at some of Sac’s Mediterranean restaurants, it isn’t.

Pita temperature aside, experiencing Dish Dash’s mezze platter inspired me to try my own. The platters are great as a crowd pleaser, or even as a whole meal.

I chose to make my favorites: grilled octopus, tabouleh, and babaghanouj.

The octopus was the most labor-intensive of the three.

Even though Sac isn’t exactly the culinary capital of America, fortunately we do have a great seafood market: Sunh Fish (1900 V St.).

Octopus needs to be cooked slowly, unless you like fish-flavored rubber. I boiled my eight-pound octopus for about an hour and a half, then threw it on the grill to give it a good char.

And the tradition is to add in some wine corks into the pot. Apparently there’s a chemical in the cork that helps tenderize octopus. Or so the story goes.

Properly cooked octopus, one of my favorite proteins, has an enigmatic texture because it’s tender and chewy at the same time. I like it best when it’s cooked with red wine and then tossed with olive oil, lemon, and oregano.

But octopus tossed in olive oil can become a bit heavy. That’s where tabouleh comes in.

Most tabouleh in America is couscous with chopped parsley, tomato and cucumber.

But in more traditional preparations, parsley is the dominant ingredient. I prefer it this way because it’s refreshing.

Although I roasted the eggplant in the oven this time for the babaghanouj, I think next time I’ll put it on the grill to give it more flavor.

Just to warn you, mezze (along with babaghanouj and tabouleh) has almost as many spelling variations as “Qaddafi.” So don’t be shocked if you can find only maza, meze, or mɛzeɪ.

And another caveat: don’t order the mezze platter on a first date. Parsley gets stuck in your teeth. And most mezze dishes are rife with garlic—especially babaghanouj.

But if you and your dinner partner are old friends, I urge you to try a mezze platter the next time you visit a Mediterranean restaurant.

With a name like babaghanouj, it has to be good.


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