- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The Spanish have tapas, the Italians have antipasto and the Greeks have meze. All are small plates of savory food served in the afternoon with a glass of wine or spirits.

At home where I embrace all things Italian, we enjoy antipasto before dinner with a glass of wine, especially when we have friends in for dinner. Usually, it consists of ingredients I keep on hand: jarred roasted peppers, black olives, sharp cheese, such as provolone, pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, thin slices of salami and crusty bread.

Travels in Spain introduced me to tapas, the small savory dishes accompanied by beer, wine or a wide range of sherries. Tapas offerings can be modest servings, such as a bowl of olives and small bites of marinated fish, or more substantial, including stuffed roasted vegetables or a wedge of Spanish tortilla, a thick potato and egg omelet.

Having never traveled in Greece (at least not yet) my experience with meze is limited to the books of Diane Kochilas. A dear friend and colleague, Miss Kochilas writes books on the cooking of Greece that make me want to go into my own kitchen and cook her food.

Consider her newest cookbook, “Meze: Small Plates to Savor and Share From the Mediterranean Table” (William Morrow). In this book Miss Kochilas, with her talent for writing as well as cooking, offers a vivid description of the meze of Greece.

Although she counsels that a meze spread is not meant to be a meal but a nosh — a communal, convivial landscape of small dishes perfect for grazing — I decided to experiment with her recipes, putting them together as a menu.

The following recipe for shrimp baked with feta is a classic meze specialty found at the taverna-lined quay in Piraeus, the ancient port of Athens. Once the shrimp is shelled, the preparation and cooking time go quickly.

Serve it with an arugula salad with oil-cured olives and slices of fresh fruit.

For dessert, serve bowls of chilled cubed watermelon drizzled with yogurt, honey and fresh mint sauce.

Preparation: Cook and shell the shrimp. Cube the watermelon and chill. Bake the shrimp and make the salad. Stir the yogurt and seasonings together just before serving.

Shrimp baked with feta

This recipe is adapted from “Meze” by Diane Kochilas (William Morrow). Look for a mild creamy feta. If you must buy packaged supermarket feta that is usually too salty, pour off the liquid it has been packed in and rinse the cheese.

Next, place the rinsed cheese in a bowl or storage container and cover with milk. Refrigerate several hours or longer before using. The preparation time is 20 minutes, and the cooking time is about 25 minutes.

1 to 1 pounds large shrimp

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil

3 large ripe tomatoes, grated (see note)

1 scant teaspoon sugar

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

6 ounces Greek feta, crumbled

2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

Wash and drain shrimp. Bring 8 cups of water and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar to a boil. Blanch shrimp in water for 1 minute. Drain and cool slightly. Remove shells but leave the tails intact.

To make tomato sauce, heat 2 tablespoons butter or oil in a medium saucepan; add tomatoes. Season to taste with sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes, or until thickened.

Butter an oven-proof glass baking dish large enough to hold shrimp in one layer. Place shrimp in neat rows in the baking dish, one snugly next to the other. Sprinkle half of the feta over. Pour tomato sauce over and sprinkle with remaining feta. Dot with remaining butter or oil. Bake in 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or just until the feta begins to melt. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: Grating tomatoes is typical of Mediterranean cooking. First cut a slice from the bottom of the tomato. Place the grater over a bowl or on a deep plate and rub the tomato over the coarse shredding side of the grater. Alternately the tomato can be pressed though a food mill.

Arugula salad with black olives and peach slices

This recipe is adapted from “The Greek Vegetarian” by Diane Kochilas (St. Martin’s Press). The original recipe is made with an orange peeled and cut into thin slices. Because it’s summer and stone fruits are ripe, I have substituted thin wedges of peach or nectarine for the orange.

Peel the peach if the skin is thick and fuzzy. The nectarine won’t need to be peeled. The preparation time is 10 minutes.

cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar

teaspoon dried oregano

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

2 bunches arugula, trimmed, washed and dried

1 large, ripe peach or nectarine, halved, pitted, cut into thin slices

cup wrinkled (oil-cured) black olives, pitted

cup thin slivers red onion

Whisk olive oil, vinegar, oregano and salt and pepper to taste in a salad bowl. Add the arugula, peach or nectarine slices, olives and onion. Toss to blend. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Watermelon cubes with yogurt and mint sauce

The preparation time is 15 minutes, and the chilling time is about 30 minutes.

4 cups peeled and cubed (about -inch pieces) watermelon

1 cup plain low fat yogurt

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon slivered fresh mint leaves

Place watermelon in a serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes. Combine yogurt, honey and mint in a small bowl. Stir until smooth and blended. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, spoon watermelon into dessert bowls. Pass the yogurt sauce to drizzle over.

Makes 4 servings.


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