The holidays are a time when many people host gatherings with family and friends to celebrate, spend time together, and enjoy special dishes and cocktails. Though the main course may stay consistent each year—appetizers, drinks, and desserts are where you can get creative!
Mediterranean appetizers are usually small plates of food. In Portugal and Spain, they’re called tapas or pintxos, the latter which hail from the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain; antipasti or cicchetti in Italy; hors d’oeuvres in France; mezethes in Greece; or meze in Turkey, Lebanon, and other countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. Typically, these are small bites that feature vegetables, whole grains, ﬁsh, legumes, nuts, and/or seeds.
Aperitifs and Aperitivos are small alcoholic drinks taken to stimulate or open the appetite before a meal. Although the words are French and Italian, there are similar drinks throughout the Mediterranean, where alcohol consumption is not avoided for religious reasons.
Taking a quick trip around the Mediterranean, here are some classics for your holiday parties inspired by culinary travels—our Oldways Culinarias throughout the Mediterranean.
Or you could opt for some Spanish classics like Garlicky shrimp in olive oil, Tortilla Espanola, or Salmorejo, a cold tomato soup. To quench your thirst, a glass of cava, a white or rose sparkling Spanish wine will hit the spot.
The French Mediterranean, stretching from the border of Spain to the border with Italy, has some wonderful ways to start a meal. Try a Pissaladière, bread topped with caramelized onions and olives, or small toasts topped with grilled eggplant or Tapenade, a dip of capers, olives and anchovies. A cold, crisp Provencal rosé wine is a perfect accompanying aperitif.
A selection from north to south in Italy: In Venice, famous for cicchetti bars or bacari (you could call them appetizer bars!), try frittura mista or frito misto, which is a mixture of fried vegetables and ﬁsh (calamari and sardines). Farther south in Tuscany and Rome, or for that matter throughout Italy, bruschetta with a variety of toppings is a favorite starter, as is Bagna Cauda, a simple appetizer of seasonal vegetables served with a dip of anchovies, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Much farther south, Sicily is famous for arancini, basically a ball of rice, most commonly ﬁlled with ragu or mozzarella or ham or peas, then coated with breadcrumbs and fried.
Italian aperitivos are abundant. For many, happy hour doesn’t begin without the classic Italian sparkling wine Prosecco— light, bubbly and fun. Currently, the Aperol Spritz and the Negroni are very popular drinks, mixing an alcoholic liqueur (Aperol or Campari) with other ingredients. An Aperol Spritz is made by combining the liqueur Aperol with Prosecco and club soda. A Negroni is equal parts Campari, gin and sweet red vermouth.
In Greece, you can ﬁnd Dakos, a barley rusk with tomatoes, feta and extra virgin olive oil, almost everywhere, and it is very easy to replicate at home. Similarly, the yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip, Tzatziki is already on grocery store shelves from Maine to California. Serve it with pita bread, crudite or crackers for a fast and easy appetizer. Also well known is Spanakopita, spinach hand pies, or hortopita, horta (mixed greens) combined with herbs and feta and wrapped in phyllo— a staple throughout Greece. For a diﬀerent take, try Aglaia Kremezi’s Greek Pie in a Skillet. While there are many wonderful Greek wines perfect for serving with appetizers, the classic Greek aperitivo is ouzo, an anise-ﬂavored liqueur. Ouzo is best enjoyed by mixing ouzo with ice or cold water, becoming cloudy as the ouzo reacts with the ice or water.
Turkey has a similar aperitivo, also an anise-ﬂavored liqueur. Raki is sometimes called Lion’s Milk and is made of twice-distilled grapes and aniseed. Drink raki slowly, perhaps mixing it with water, and be sure to enjoy it with food (and friends!). Cheese and melon are traditional as are large numbers of meze dishes, including dolmas and sarmas, stuﬀed and rolled grape or cabbage leaves.
In the Eastern Mediterranean countries, leblebi, or what we know as roasted chickpeas, is a common snack. Simply toss canned or otherwise cooked chickpeas with olive oil and spices, spread them out on a sheet pan, and roast in the oven until crispy for a delicious and healthy snack. Baba ganoush is a smoky, smooth, creamy eggplant dip. The key to achieving that smokiness, the hallmark of a memorable baba ganoush, is to literally char the skin oﬀ the eggplant. Although the skin is discarded, the process of charring the skin infuses the ﬂesh of the eggplant with a wonderful smoky aroma. The eggplant is then combined with olive oil, tahini, garlic, lemon, parsley, and salt.
Whether Greek, French, Italian, Spanish or Eastern Mediterranean, one of the simplest ways to prepare a Mediterranean appetizer is the antipasti plate. Creating an antipasti plate or platter is simply a matter of assembling quality ingredients from that country: olives, marinated or pickled vegetables, traditional cheeses, breads, nuts, beans, and creamy dips like hummus, tzatziki, tapenade, or pesto. Although the food itself is already beautiful, it can be made to look even more attractive by artful arrangements on plates, platters or a board, decorated with ﬂowers or leaves and special table linens.
Traditional cheeses can be added to the antipasti platter or can be the star of the show, at the center of the plate! To create a traditional cheese plate, you can focus on one country or region, or on a variety of styles of cheese— a soft cheese, an Alpine-style cheese, a hard cheese and even a blue cheese— accompanied by condiments such as traditional balsamic vinegar, fruit spreads, mustard or honey. To get advice on creating a cheese plate, subscribe to Oldways Cheese Coalition’s monthly newsletter, The Cheese Plate. To get immediate advice for this year’s holiday, check out back issues of the newsletter, or read the blog How to Build the Perfect Cheese Platter.
Now that you have some inspiration for snacks, starters, and cocktails pre-meal—here are some dessert ideas to enjoy after the main course. We could write a whole blog just about Mediterranean sweets—oh wait, we did! From French Spiced Bread to Blue Cheese and Pistachio Stuﬀed Strawberries, we‘ve got you covered!
Here we will focus on a special one… Olive Oil Sufganiyot, a traditional Israeli dessert eaten during Hanukkah. They are like jelly doughnuts and cooked in olive oil because of the signiﬁcance of oil on the holiday. Like our friends at the North American Olive Oil Association said: “Throughout the world, Jews will light their menorahs with candles or oil lamps and prepare traditional foods cooked in oil. According to tradition, in 165 B.C., during the re-dedication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem, a small quantity of oil used to light the Temple’s menorah miraculously burned for eight days. Hanukkah commemorates this event. The oil used in the Temple’s menorah was most certainly olive oil. Olive oil was, and still is, the main oil used in the region. As Dr. Rafael Frankel explains, “In the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament in several places it speaks of pure-beaten olive oil for the light.” These little bites are festive and delicious.
We hope all these ideas take you to a new Mediterranean level of holiday hosting. Remember, while it is a time of celebration, and it is also smart to think of quality over quantity. Enjoy everything, just not too much!
Happy Holidays and Cheers from all of us at Oldways!