Salads that fit well into entertaining are those that double as appetizers. You can serve them as starters at a sit-down meal. They can be served as part of a cocktail open house buffet or as a side dish to entrees.
Those found in Alice Bezjian's "The Complete Armenian Cookbook" caught our eye because the salads are so unusual yet so festive.
"They are typically Middle Eastern salads," said Bezjian, who owns one of the oldest family-operated Middle Eastern grocery stores in Los Angeles. Bezjian is also a cooking teacher of both Middle Eastern and international cooking.
'We Ladies of Lebanon' A gentle woman, whose husband once owned an exclusive lingerie shop before leaving Lebanon to settle in Los Angeles, Bezjian recalls the times when "we ladies of Lebanon" would get together in the afternoons for cooking lessons taught by the city's finest chefs. "That was my start in cooking, and I have been collecting recipes ever since," she said.
The salads are highly decorative, befitting the arabesque style typical of Middle Eastern cooking.
Ich (Vegetarian Wheat Salad) , for instance, which is of Armenian origin, is a salad made of bulgur, the cracked wheat found in bulk form at Middle Eastern or health food grocery stores. Sometimes the wheat is available in package form. The rather fine-grade bulgur is allowed to expand in boiling water to soften the grains. Tomato paste-based vinaigrette is added to the grains and tossed. Bulgur salads, whether Ich or its close cousin, tabbouleh, are eaten by scooping up the grains with leaves such as lettuce or, as Bezjian prefers, the young grape leaves from her garden.
Green Olive Salad, also of Armenian origin, is loaded with green olives and walnuts, which add a crunchy note. Seasoning is simple: lemon juice with a touch of red pepper.
Unusual Walnut Dip Among the popular Middle Eastern salads are the salads one dips into with pieces of Arabic bread (pita bread). And one of the most unusual of the group is a walnut dip called Mouhammara , originating in Syria. This dip-salad requires two pounds of walnuts mixed with fine bread crumbs. Pomegranate juice concentrate, which is found in Middle Eastern grocery stores, is added along with cumin, sugar and hot red pepper paste for a tangy seasoning effect. Bezjian uses pine nuts to garnish the dip in a scrolly border pattern.
Eggplant salads topped with yogurt abound in Middle Eastern cuisine. Bezjian's version mixes sesame seed paste (tahini) with yogurt. Eggplant is sliced and fried in olive oil, then topped with yogurt-tahini sauce. Pomegranate seeds and parsley decorate the salad for a holiday touch. Pomegranates are available during the winter months and can add wonderful flavor to duck or game. The seeds provide a jewel-like effect when used as garnishes on salads.
For Bezjian, no menu is complete without an international dish added. Bezjian added Avocado Supreme to her collection of salads because it is a simple yet satisfying molded salad for any buffet. Avocado and a mayonnaise-mustard dressing are used to bind lobster, crab and shrimp. Any seafood may be substituted, however.
AVOCADO SUPREME 2 cups cubed cooked lobster meat
1 cup shredded cooked crab meat
1 1/2 cups cooked, cleaned shrimp
1 small green pepper, chopped
1 medium red pepper, chopped
Combine lobster, crab meat, shrimp and green and red peppers in large mixing bowl. Cut avocados in halves. Remove stones. Scoop avocado pulp into lobster mixture. Add Dressing. Mix well. Spoon into oiled mold. Chill. Unmold over lettuce. Makes 6 servings.
Dressing 2 cups mayonnaise
1/4 cup mustard
Blend together mayonnaise and mustard and season to taste with salt and pepper in bowl.
VEGETARIAN WHEAT SALAD (Ich) 1 1/2 cups light olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup lemon juice
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 1/2 cups bulgur (No. 1 grade)
3 cups boiling water
1 red pepper, slivered
1 green pepper, slivered
Heat oil in skillet. Add onion. Saute until tender, but not browned. Stir in tomato paste, lemon juice, water, salt and red pepper. Bring to boil. Stir in bulgur. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add boiling water. Cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Transfer to serving platter. Garnish with slivers of red and green peppers and parsley. Makes 6 servings.
WALNUT DIP (Mouhammara) 2 pounds coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup fine fresh bread crumbs
1 small onion, grated
2 cups olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons concentrated pomegranate juice
1 cup hot water
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup red pepper paste
Dash cayenne pepper