I shared recently about a truly wonderful cookbook that my mom gave me as a gift for Christmas: Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts by Aglaia Kremezi. It is the kind of cookbook I enjoy curling up with and just reading for awhile, shaking my head in wonder at the food on the pages. How exciting to learn about cooking the cuisine of my heritage! You can read more about the cookbook here.
When an opportunity came up to host a few friends for dinner recently, I knew immediately that I wanted to cook a meal inspired by Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. I went all out with an appetizer, Greek wine pairings, five dishes to eat “mezze” style, and finally, a dessert served with ouzo — the famous Greek digestif liqueur that tastes like licorice.
We went skiing in West Virginia with three other couples over the long weekend and all signed up to cook meals for each other. After delicious Italian and Tex-Mex dinners the first two nights cooked by others in the group, it was my turn to prepare a meal. It seemed fitting to share the Mediterranean dinner once more, and I was delighted with how the recipes came out all over again.
This dip is incredibly addicting, but so easy to make. You start by sautéing a diced green bell pepper and a diced jalapeño in olive oil over the stove. Then, you simply combine these items in a food processor along with feta, ground pistachio nuts, and some Greek yogurt. I love the mild green color of this dip! I served it with pita chips, but I think it would be great in endive leaves as well.
As I mentioned, I served the main part of the meal “mezze” style, which is kind of like the Greek version of tapas. There weren’t particular main course or side dish designations. I just set out five flavorful dishes so everyone could take a few samples from each, then fill up their plates with some more.
The first mezze, straight from the cookbook, was a vegetarian pasta dish: Pepper, Mushroom, & Walnut Pastitsio. I remember eating traditional pastitsio a few times growing up. It is usually a somewhat crusty casserole dish with a layer of ground beef on the bottom topped with macaroni in béchamel sauce.
Kremezi offers up a creamier pastitsio in her cookbook with a Greek yogurt béchamel sauce (!), and instead of beef, she mixes in eggplant and walnuts. Since I’m not a big eggplant fan, I went with her alternate version, which includes chopped bell peppers, mushrooms, and walnuts. There is a lot of cumin in this dish and it’s quite a delicious concoction.
I served two salads. The first was Portakal Salatasi, a citrus salad from the south of Turkey. I was inspired by Zaytinya to add this dish to the menu, and you can find Chef Michael Costa’s recipe here.
I used fresh kale instead of spinach, cutting out both the olives and pomegranate seeds as well. I learned that segmenting fruit can be extremely difficult if you don’t know what you are doing, so I was happy to have help in this area from our friend Peter the second time we made this meal.
The second salad mezze dish was even more interesting, adapted from Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts as well: Roasted Squash & Bread Salad with Fattet Hummus (yogurt-tahini sauce). This dish was put together first with an easy homemade sauce spread on the base of a serving dish. Then, roasted squash and toasted sourdough bread cubes were scattered all over. Finally, I sprinkled freshly chopped mint on top, drizzles of olive oil, and dots of more yogurt-tahini sauce. Wow! The second time around, I roasted cubes of sweet potatoes instead of butternut squash–and I think I liked this version even better!
I didn’t go completely vegetarian for this meal. I decided to serve a pot of Lamb Meatballs, a crowd-pleasing dish that I’ve made in the past. This time, however, I served the meatballs in a simple tomato sauce from the cookbook. For me, the game-changing ingredient involved in this sauce is an orange peel! The added citrus flavor is absolutely incredible. And with a little bit of feta on the sauce… just divine.
It just seemed right to make Spanikopita as well! In my family, we make this traditional spinach and feta pie for most holidays. It is quite labor intensive–you have to brush SO many layers of phyllo dough with olive oil–but the result is completely worth it. I used a recipe from the cookbook, which was very similar to the recipe that my mom likes to use.
Dessert was simple and prepared ahead of time from the cookbook: Rustic Chocolates. I soaked chopped figs in a little bit of lemon juice (instead of lemon liqueur, as the recipe stated). I mixed melted chocolate and olive oil with these figs, dried cranberries, pistachios, and walnut pieces. Everything was spread out haphazardly on a pan, then frozen and broken into delightful chocolate bars.
The Greek wine and ouzo for our first dinner was purchased at Georgetown Wine & Spirits. We especially enjoyed the red wine we picked out, a 2008 Naoussea “The Lady of Naoussa” Xinomavro. The white wine, a 2013 Santorini Argyros Assyrtiko, was pretty tasty as well. I must admit, I was a little wary about the ouzo as I don’t always enjoy the taste. However, this ouzo seemed to be especially delicious, and was the perfect way to finish off the meal!
This menu really was quite the medley of flavors. I went through mounds of Greek yogurt, feta, olive oil, and fresh herbs to pull it all together. Both occasions were filled with good times and great company as we enjoyed the spread. As a half-Greek, I am proud to represent such an incredible culture of food!