In Istanbul, Turkey, walk into any restaurant where the locals eat and you’ll find the same thing: a selection of hot and cold dishes on display. You just point to the ones you want, and indicate whether you would like a large or a small serving. This way, you get a meal that’s varied in texture, color, and temperature. A selection of small dishes like this is known as mezze, and it’s a perfect way to go when you’re entertaining at home.
Throughout the holiday season, when you’re having friends over for casual gatherings, you can make mezzes ahead of time — or buy them readymade — and set them up so guests can serve themselves. Go easy on yourself and serve dishes that are cold or room temperature. If you want to serve something piping hot, limit yourself to one or two dishes that can sit on the stove. Otherwise, dishes like rice or cooked vegetables are perfectly delicious when served lukewarm.
I like mezze-style eating because it’s light and healthy, and that’s a relief at the holidays, when we tend to go overboard with sugar. I ate mezze at several restaurants in Istanbul, but I think my favorite was the one that was a few blocks away from our hotel, where we were the only foreigners, and because of the language barrier, most of our communication was through pointing. The food came on trays in simple dishes, and we ate at plywood tables, but the food was so fresh — and inexpensive — that we went back day after day.
Here are some of my favorite mezze dishes, all of which can be served cold:
Lentil and parsley salad
Cucumber yogurt with mint
Poached fish with lemon juice and dill
Stuffed grape leaves
Couscous salad with tomatoes and mint
Roasted red pepper dip
Here is a recipe for cucumber yogurt, an essential part of every mezze spread in Istanbul, and a neutral, refreshing condiment that aids digestion.
Cucumber Yogurt with Mint, adapted from Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, Ten Speed Press 2009
½ cucumber, peeled, halved, and seeded
5 fresh mint leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried
2 cups plain yogurt
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Thinly slice the cucumbers and squeeze them to press out the excess water. Mince the mint leaves. In a small bowl, combine the cucumber, mint, and yogurt. Season with salt and pepper.