I love Mediterranean food. My dad is an avid fan of this cuisine, and he introduced me to falafel and stuffed grape leaves from a young age. Growing up in New York, these dishes were always easy to find — the deli below my apartment, for instance, sold the sweetest, stickiest baklava.
Finding a Mediterranean eatery in St Andrews, however, is a bit harder (Dervish doesn’t count). Thankfully, the mezze class run by the Fine Food and Dining Society solved this issue: in two and a half hours, they taught us how to make easy, student-friendly Mediterranean dishes.
The evening was led by Kathryn Nassar, the society’s president, and Ella-Daisy Williams, one of its events coordinators. Kathryn’s father is from Lebanon, so she had plenty of experience with authentic mezze to share. The hummus we made, for example, was a family recipe that had been passed down and perfected by each generation.
From behind the counter of the St Andrews Episcopal Church’s kitchen, Kathryn and Ella explained each of the dishes to the students, who were seated around a large square table. The students went up and helped make the food on a volunteer basis, which gave the class a relaxed atmosphere, as each person could be as involved as much as we wanted to be.
We were given a booklet that had the recipes for all of the dishes we made that evening. This meant we could take home what we learned without worrying about taking notes, allowing us to just enjoy preparing and eating the food.
The first dish we made was baked feta with chilli and oregano. This simple but impressive appetizer is exactly what it sounds like; Ella and Kathryn compared it to “a Mediterranean baked camembert”. I’m not usually a cheese person (in fact, most of the time, I hate cheese), but I loved the texture and saltiness of the feta with the accents from the spices.
We then started on the hummus, with a few volunteers helping Kathryn shell the chickpeas. According to Kathryn, the amount of tahini and lemon juice that you put into hummus is what personalizes it. These two ingredients definitely put this homemade hummus way up above the kind from Tesco, with the sesame aroma from the tahini and the bite from the lemon.
At the same time, Ella went through the steps of making five-minute flatbreads. Though they probably took a bit longer than five minutes, these flatbreads did take surprisingly little time to go from a flour-and-yoghurt mixture to steaming, char-grilled discs slathered in garlic and herb butter. They went well with the hummus, too.
We also made two salads, a Greek salad and tabbouleh. Mediterranean salads are a favourite of mine: they’re simple but flavourful, without the need for overpowering dressings. The taste of these salads mostly relies on olives and feta for the Greek salad and parsley and lemon juice for the tabbouleh. Tabbouleh also has a unique texture due to its base of bulgur. Unfortunately, bulgur is a bit difficult to find in St Andrews, but Ella suggested using couscous for a similar consistency.
For one of the main dishes, we made rolled stuffed grape leaves. Like bulgur, grape leaves are hard to come by in this town; Kathryn mentioned that they can be found at the two Arab food stores in Dundee or ordered online. These stuffed grape leaves also called for minced lamb. While lamb is available in St Andrews, it’s relatively expensive. Beef, Kathryn told us, works as a cheaper alternative.
Of course, if you’re making stuffed grape leaves and you can get lamb, get lamb. Its distinctive flavour goes beautifully with the unique tang of the grape leaves. I’m quite particular about lamb: I often find its flavour too pungent, but when cooked well, the pungency is a nice almost-aftertaste that enhances the accompanying flavours — and Kathryn definitely cooked this lamb well.
The second main dish was Greek moussaka, which Kathryn said was “like a cottage pie, but Mediterranean”. It was a hearty dish, with lamb mince and eggplant in tomato sauce, topped with a creamy, cheesy layer that turned gooey and golden brown in the oven. The first bite immediately warmed me up, which was perfect on that rainy evening.
For dessert, we made baklava, a puff pastry with cinnamon and nuts between the layers, drenched in a honey-orange sauce. I’ve been eating baklava ever since I was little — including in Turkey, a place famous for its baklava — so it’s no small thing when I say the baklava at this mezze class was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. The layers of phyllo pastry were perfectly crisp, and the orange zest in the sauce added another dimension to the sweetness. To top it off, it was unexpectedly easy to make (provided that you buy your phyllo pastry). It was also fun to smear butter all over the layers of pastry with my fingers.
Needless to say, there was a lot of food. Even though one of the dishes, the falafel, never made it to the table due to textural issues, we still had more than enough to go around. Most of the students brought along Tupperware to take leftovers home, which I wish I’d done: I was sad when I realised I was too full to eat another bite. Then again, that sadness is how you know just how good the food you’ve been eating is.
The Fine Food and Dining Society’s mezze class worked on all levels: it taught its students how to actually make the food so that we could cook the dishes at home, and it provided us with a delicious, filling meal and a relaxed atmosphere in which we could have fun cooking and eating together. With good food, good company, and Arabic music playing in the background, the mezze class was a great way to spend a Wednesday night.
For upcoming Fine Food and Dining cooking classes, visit their Facebook page or their website. Classes run every Wednesday from 5pm to 7pm. The next two classes are Indian Cuisine on 21 October and Traditional Jewish Cuisine on 28 October.
Photo Credit: Isaree Thatchaichawalit