What’s Cooking at Third Coast? For a Light Meal, Meze to the Rescue

By George J. Tanber

You ate a larger-than-normal lunch and want something light for dinner. Tired of salads? Looking for something different that’s tasty yet simple?

Two easy-to-make Middle Eastern vegetarian dishes that often fall into the meze (appetizer) category can make for a nice, simple meal for one or two all by themselves. As a bonus, they are healthy, easy to make and inexpensive.

One, sautéed spinach and onions, is an awesome dish that brings out the best in one of our favorite leaf veggies. The other, baked cauliflower with tahini sauce, is one of those dishes that is hard to stop eating because it’s just so good. Add some freshly baked pita to the mix and you’re in for a treat that has been a staple of Syrian/Lebanese tables for generations, but rarely found in Middle Eastern restaurants.

The under-the-radar star of this meal is the tahini sauce, which has gone mainstream in recent years. Tahini is available at most grocery stores with ethnic food departments or at specialty Mediterranean markets. Long after the spinach and cauliflower are gone—they make excellent leftovers—the extra tahini sauce can soldier on in many support roles. It’s a must topping for your falafel sandwich or salad and also works beautifully with a chicken or spiced beef shawarma. Looking for a different veggie dip or salad dressing? The tahini sauce, slightly thinned with water, is your ticket.

If you’re really hungry and want to add a perfect main course to join the spinach and cauliflower, you can do what I did the other night: Grill some lamb burgers and serve them—with or without a bun—topped with crumbled feta, garden tomatoes and hot or mild giardiniera.

What’s needed:
12-inch, non-stick pan
large and medium-size mixing bowls
extra large baking pan
kitchen knife
garlic press
citrus squeezer
Blender (handy for the tahini sauce)

1 head cauliflower
1 large bag washed spinach
1 cup tahini
1 large yellow onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 large lemons
1/4-1/2 cup water
1/3 cup parsley, chopped (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil, 6 tbsp.
Kosher salt, to taste
Pita (fresh baked from any local Middle Eastern bakery or my favorite, the Middle Eastern Bakery)

Let’s get started:
Pre-heat your oven to 400° F. Cut the cauliflower—always a challenge—into medium-size  florets.

Tip: Turn the cauliflower upside down with stem facing up. With your knife, carefully cut the florets off the stem one by one.

Place in a large mixing bowl and add three tablespoons of olive oil (or a couple of swirls around the bowl as I do). Mix. Spread the florets on your baking pan and place in oven. After around 15 minutes as the tops start turning brown, flip the florets. Depending on how you like your cauliflower—I like mine semi-crispy—they should be done anywhere from 30 to 40 minutes. Monitor closely once you hit the 30-minute mark.

While your cauliflower is baking, get started on the tahini sauce. Pour one cup of the tahini in the other mixing bowl or a blender, if you like. This is easier said than done since the thick and pasty ground sesame sits on the bottom of the jar and the oil on top, much like natural peanut butter.

Tip: In advance, lay the tahini jar on its side or upside down. Then use a knife when initially stirring to help blend the paste and oil.

Add the juice of two lemons to start with and one-quarter cup of water. Add one minced garlic clove. Stir vigorously or blend. Add a bit of salt. Stir and then taste. This is where tweaking comes in. If you’ve nailed it, the tahini should not overpower the sauce. If not, dilute the tahini by adding more lemon juice and water a little at a time. At first it will be too liquid, but the sauce quickly thickens as you stir or blend. You may  want to add more salt as well. Eventually, you will find a taste you like and stop tinkering. Then you can stir in the chopped parsley.

With your cauliflower and tahini sauce completed, turn your attention to the spinach and onions. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil on medium in your large pan and add the sliced onion. As the onion starts to darken, add one minced garlic clove. Like the cauliflower, depending on your preference, you can take your onions all the way to well done or stop when they are a golden brown. Set aside. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan followed by your spinach. Add salt to taste. Sauté until done.

Now comes the fun and easy part. The spinach goes on a large plate with the onions on top. Middle Easterners like to add lemon to this dish, either squeezed on top of the completed dish or in individual servings. The cauliflower can be served in a bowl or large plate. Drizzle the tahini sauce on top. If you’re into low carbs, skip the pita. If not, the traditional way to eat each dish is to use pita wedges to make mini sandwiches.

George J. Tanber is a video producer and content writer living in Ohio with family ties to Chicago, where he frequently visits.

Photo Credit: George Tanber

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