Discover the Pleasure of Cooking in Ghillie Basan’s ‘Mezze’
Don’t rush the process is the overarching theme of Ghillie Basan’s latest cookbook, Mezze. She wants her readers to discover the “pleasure, therapy, and satisfaction” that comes from cooking. With over 20 books published, Basan, a Scottish-based food and travel writer, has a thirst for travel, culture, and most importantly, food. Her experiences are translated into recipes that give her readers a glimpse into how food traditions, like the tradition of mezze, an ancient custom, thrive in Middle Eastern cuisine and affect eating habits in the far reaches of the world today.
Basan doesn’t seek to replace the ready-made quality that is engrained in modern food habits, but rather show readers another world where the process of cooking — however long it takes — is as celebrated as the food itself.
A student of social anthropology, Basan has a keen eye for culture, customs, and human behavior that shows through in her careful observations about Middle Eastern cuisine, the people who eat the food, and the people who cook it. From the narrowed sight of mezze, a tradition common among the ancient Greeks, Romans, medieval Arabs, and Ottoman Turks, Basan exposes the nuances of modern cuisine in the Middle East.
The dishes shared in her book utilize flavors considered exotic to the untrained Scottish or American palate — like zahtar, tamarind, and saffron — combined with the familiar taste of buttery pastries, grilled seafood, and spiced meats.
We had the opportunity to talk with Basan about her newest book, her philosophy on cooking, and the therapeutic quality of cooking.
The Daily Meal: Can you tell us a little bit about your philosophy on food and cooking?
Ghillie Basan: I believe that food is something to enjoy and share with others, not something to get worked up about or to follow trends — just keep things simple and cook from the heart.
How does that influence the recipes in this book?
The sharing of small plates of tasty food is at the root of the philosophy of mezze, so the recipes in the book are simple and versatile. They can be served in any combination with the sole purpose of dipping into them in a relaxed manner with family or friends.
In the introduction to your book, you talk a little bit about how your travels and food memories have affected your approach to cooking (and life), and how that compels you to create the best possible dishes. Can you elaborate?
Many of my memories of travels in different parts of the world are centered on food. I love spending time in different culinary cultures, visiting the markets, and cooking with the local people — partly because I love all the different tastes and aromas and partly because it is wonderful way to meet people and to get to know a different culture. This is also the only way to get to the heart of authentic cooking, using simple utensils to get the ultimate flavor, which is at the foundation of all my books and cookery workshops.
How would you want readers to approach — and use — this cookbook?
I hope readers and enthusiastic cooks will enjoy selecting a variety of cold, hot, and sweet mezze dishes to lay out together as little feast to get a real appreciation of the different tastes and the philosophy of sharing and relaxing, enjoying the food and the company at a leisurely pace — better for the digestion and for the pure pleasure.
And, what’s the take-away for readers? What do you hope they’ll get from this book?
So many people lead such busy lives and rely on ready-prepared ingredients or eating in restaurants, but it is good to catch your breath from time to time. Both the preparation and the eating of mezze encourage this — nothing needs to be rushed, and the whole experience can be very therapeutic. So the take-away should be pleasure, therapy, and satisfaction.
This cookbook embarks on an exploration of a food culture that is not your native cuisine. How does that affect the way you developed and presented these recipes?
I am Scottish, so there is very little apart from haggis and porridge that could be classed as my native cuisine! As a nation, we borrow from everywhere — from our history of colonization, from immigrants, from our travels — but I have been interested in food from a very young age. I grew up in East Africa, studied social anthropology at university, and traveled and worked in the Middle East and other parts of the world always learning about the cultures and the food, and I think it is easier to get a grasp of the historical links that shape some of the similarities between different culture if you are an outsider. Many cultures have extremely regionalized food and the local people only know the food from that region, whereas a traveler can adopt and adapt and create a wider picture of a country’s food.
Anything else you want to tell us about the book?
A book like this has a finite number of pages, so the recipes only represent a small collection of the myriad of mezze dishes enjoyed all over the Middle Eastern region — they should be used as a guide for people to create their own versions. Keep it simple and enjoy!
Want to try a recipe?
Artichokes with Broad Beans and Almonds
Fresh globe artichokes should be treated like flowers and stood in a jug of water until ready to use. In the early summer, the markets and street-sellers of the eastern Mediterranean region display crates of artichokes, which they skilfully prepare for you on the spot. — Ghillie Basan
Baby Saffron Squid Stuffed with Bulgur and Zahtar
Popular in the coastal regions of Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, these tender baby squid, stuffed with fine-grained bulgur and flavored with saffron and zahtar, are a delightful addition to any mezze table. — Ghillie Basan
Baked Shellfish and Coriander Pastry
These pastries (rghaif) can be baked in the oven or cooked on a griddle. Instead of shellfish, other traditional fillings include sautéed strips of chicken flavoured with saffron, or roasted vegetables and cheese. — Ghillie Basan
Pears in Saffron and Cinnamon Syrup
I regularly make batches of these pears and keep them in my refrigerator to pull out for my cookery workshops, or as impromptu mezze. I cut them into strips and tuck them around the roasted baby peppers stuffed with feta, and I also use fine strips on top of yogurt dips, creamy puddings, or strained yogurt. They taste great with tangy, salty, and blue cheeses and cut into quarters, revealing that the flesh is golden yellow all the way through, they grace any plate. Served whole, they look decorative and appealing and rather special. — Ghillie Basan
Roasted Meat-Stuffed Onions with Tamarind and Butter
Variations of this traditional recipe, makshi basal, crop up all over Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, where it can be served as a hot mezze dish, or as a main course. Large golden or red onions are ideal for this dish, as the layers can be easily unraveled, stuffed, and rolled up again. — Ghillie Basan
Shredded Pastry Filled with Cheese in Lemon Syrup
The pastry is called “kadaif,” which is also the name given to many of the sweet dishes prepared with it. The cheese most commonly used for konafa — dil peyniri — has a slightly rubbery texture and can be pulled apart into strings, so the standard pizza mozzarella is an ideal substitute. Perfect for the mezze table or, in fact, at any time of day, konafa is a sweet dish for reunions and celebrations — in other words, a dish to be shared. — Ghillie Basan
Other travel cookbooks we like.
My Paris Kitchen
By David Lebovitz
This classic cookbook is part travel memoir and part cookbook. David Lebovitz weaves his life in Paris seamlessly with over 100 classic recipes to tell a story of cultural exploration and food.
Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia
By Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
This book, from award-winning authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, follows the flowing natural terrain from Tibet to Vietnam, Southern China to Laos, to find the subtle differences and similarities in food customs and recipes across Southeast Asia.
James Beard's Classic All-American Eats: Recipes and Stories from Our Best-Loved Local Restaurants
By The James Beard Foundation
This upcoming book from the James Beard Foundation collects stories and recipes from all-American eateries. Travel the country through this collection of recipes that are the foundation of American cookery.
Angela Carlos is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Find her on Twitter and tweet @angelaccarlos.