Whenever I read descriptions of Lebanese mezze plates, I’m always drawn to the idea of the pickles. Sour, punchy and enlivening amidst a sea of tahini and olive oil, pickles are integral to the concept of Lebanese mezze yet rarely feature in our interpretation of this wonderful cuisine. I’m a big fan of pickles – I eat pickled onions out of the jar and often order ham hock terrine as a starter just to get the cauliflower pickles – and I love Lebanese dips and breads and salads, so it stood to reason that I should make Middle-Eastern pickles. But I didn’t really want to make the turnip and beetroot pickles that are the norm in Lebanese fare – I had limited time; I wanted a pickle that could be eaten instantly rather than requiring a few weeks’ mellowing and I was keen to use early-summer ingredients to go with the beautiful early-summer weather. However, I also wanted my pickles to be as preternaturally pink and crisp as the beetroot and turnip version, so I came up with a quick radish pickle instead, made with crisp radishes, red onion and mint.
Along with the pickle, I served a yoghurt and mint dip (pretty much tzatziki but coming with Iranian inspiration from Sabrina Ghayour); warmed shop-bought falafel; baba ganoush in all its ugly, primeval beauty; sliced onion, cucumber and lettuce; hummus with a swirl of olive oil in the middle and toasted sesame seeds; olives, hot sauce and toasted pitta bread. I decided to try tahini again in the hummus and baba ganoush after years of avoiding it, but this time using light tahini rather than the ordinary version, which I always find too overpowering. You could also have pomegranate seeds, strained fresh labneh cheese, bulghur tabbouleh, preserved lemon, fresh herbs or meat skewers on your mezze plate. Serve the dips directly on a big platter, spreading them on with a spatula and swirling some olive oil and whatever else you want with them (whole, roasted chickpeas, chopped herbs, golden raisins) on top. If you’re serving this at a party you could drop rose petals over the dishes and the table and offer tiny glasses of iced lemon and mint juice – instant summer.
RADISH & RED ONION PICKLE
Middle-Eastern pickles use very little sugar – the emphasis is on the sour.
Makes one small bowl – double or triple quantities as required
2/3 cup rice wine vinegar or white wine vinegar
1tsp dried coriander seed
Pinch of cumin seed
Around 10 fresh, firm radishes, washed, stems removed
1/2 a small red onion, diced (optional)
Handful of mint leaves, diced
Warm the vinegar, sugar, salt and spices until they just come to a simmer, then remove from the heat. Pour over the whole radishes and leave for a couple of hours at room temperature, so that the beautiful pink hue draws out of the radishes and colours the vinegar. After an hour or two or when the vinegar is bright pink, remove the radishes from the vinegar and dice (or slice). Return the diced radishes to the vinegar and leave for another little while. About 30 minutes before serving, dice the onion and mint and add it to the pickle. Chill. Serve in a pretty bowl with a few more mint leaves on top.
“Only bread and roses will you find, at our table….”