Earlier this year, on a trip to Jordan and Syria, I hiked through the ancient red-rock city of Petra, went off-roading over desert dunes and floated effortlessly in the Dead Sea. But what really made an impression -- at least where my palate was concerned -- was all the meze: an assortment of hot and cold appetizers that are a staple of the region, and which I ate a ton of.
Once I got back home, I knew I had to throw a party to introduce my friends to these Middle Eastern delights. So I composed my menu: black olives, hummus (pureed chickpeas and sesame paste), labneh (smooth cheese), fattoush (diced cucumber and tomato salad), shanklish (crumbly cheese) and balila (whole chickpeas with butter, cumin and cinnamon), plus, my personal favorite: muhammara, a mixture of roasted red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses that infuses the mouth with a subtle sweetness and has a spicy kick.
The preparation for each appetizer is quite simple individually, but making all at once required a comprehensive checklist and military-style precision. (If you plan a meze party of your own, to spread out the work, you can make some apps one day ahead and chill them.) The one harder-to-find ingredient was the pomegranate molasses for the muhammara, which I dug up for about $4 at Middle Eastern Cuisine & Market in Takoma Park (7006 Carroll Ave., 301-270-5154); it's also stocked at Dean & Deluca for $4.75 (3276 M St. NW, 800-925-7854).
Traditionally, the only accompaniment to these dips is pita bread. I couldn't find anything locally that rivaled the soft, puffy varieties I ate in the Middle East, but grocery store versions are perfectly adequate (it's all about the dips, anyway). Cutting dozens of pita loaves into triangles seemed like way too much work, so I simply warmed them and let my guests rip them up. Soon, people were skillfully folding the pita and using it as a utensil as if they'd been doing it that way all their lives -- a good thing, since my tablecloth was a new memento from Syria.
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