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By "Middle-Eastern Meal" I am referring to the generic but authentic preparation of falafel in pita bread with cucumber yogurt sauce, hummus and/or baba ghanouj, and tabouleh salad. I have discovered the appeal of such a meal by visiting a local Lebanese/Syrian restaurant. There is quite a variety of food to be experienced, but my longtime favorites are the basic staples that come with every meal -- staples that comprise a high-protein and varied vegetarian meal in their own right.

Falafel is made with mashed chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) or chickpea flour. I find that it is far more cost-effective to buy falafel in a powdered mix form, which is easily found at large supermarket chains and health-food stores. Most mixes are amazingly simple to make; mix the falafel powder with water, let it absorb for ten minutes, then bake it, fry it, or sautee it. Traditionally they are fried, and personally, I prefer to fry them in some light olive oil, but they are just fine baked or sauteed, and and are much lower in fat that way. Chickpeas are loaded with protein, and the seasonings used are far from bland. I find that some brands are too spicy in that they leave a strong aftertaste. They aren't hot, in any chili-pepper sense, but they can give me heartburn. My personal favorite is "Casbah" (tm), which has no aftertaste, and the least potential to cause heartburn (in my experience). Most falafel mixes are $2.00 or less, and will produce enough to serve 2-4 people, depending on how hungry they are.

Hummus is also made from chickpeas, along with sesame tahini (pureed sesame seeds), garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil, all pureed together (to give any exact proportions would require me to plagiarize a recipe; there are tons of variations online, such as on www.allrecipes.com). It makes a delicious dip for chips of any sort, and also goes great with falafel. I prefer to smear a significant quantity of it inside the pita bread itself. It's also good to simply dip the pita bread in hummus with nothing else. The olive oil can be left out entirely to reduce fat content, or it can be drizzled on top of the finished product instead of blending it together (allowing those who want to avoid the fat to dip around the oil). If you don't like falafel but love hummus, skip the falafel and make a ton of hummus, as you're pretty much eating the same thing. While falafel is easiest prepared from a box, I prefer to make hummus fresh from canned chickpeas.

Hummus can be made in a blender (food processors work best) or from a mix -- the blender method simply requires some patience, as you must allow the blender to rev up temporarily, then all the way down down before pushing the remaining firm chickpeas down into the blades to get it completely pureed. I have ruined a spatula myself by being impatient...give it time, it will work! Black olives are great in hummus, but green olives make it nasty. If you are too lazy to make it yourself, don't get the mix -- check out the "dip" or deli section of your grocery store. It can be bought fresh and is usually delicious. "Athenos" (tm) brand is very reliable in quality, and is almost as cheap ($2-3) as making it yourself.

Baba Ghanouj/Ghanoush is similar to hummus in consistency, but is prepared from roasted eggplant instead of chickpeas. It's great to have both for variety. Again, I don't have an exact recipe, but it is based on pureed eggplant, lemon juice, sesame tahini, garlic, olive oil, and sesame seeds. Like hummus, it also works great as a dip for any purpose. It can also be found in mix form, or can be bought pre-made like hummus. It may be harder to find -- health-food stores are far more likely to carry it. It is also usually $2-3 for a decent quantity for 4 people.

Pita bread can be found just about anywhere. Usually it's near the bagels or bread, and it may be available as white or wheat bread. It's best to get enough so that each person will at least get two whole pitas. Don't buy too much, as it's best fresh. Cost is usually $2 or less for at least six pitas. It may be a good idea to buy some greens to stuff in your pita as well, if you like that sort of thing.

Tabouleh/taboule/tabouli/etc is a salad made from parsley, bulgur wheat, mint, tomatoes, various seasonings, and onions. Personally I don't like it too much (I hate onions and tomatoes), but everyone else who's tried it in my presence just loves it. It's easiest to buy this in mix, but the parsley is completely dehydrated and powdered, so it may be a good idea to buy some fresh parsley just to toss in with it for texture and flavor. The tomatoes must be bought separately (or it'd suck) and chopped fresh. Tabouleh takes about an hour to prepare, as the bulgur wheat needs time to absorb water. The mix is very easy to prepare, and it's just as easy to make it yourself if you're willing to buy all of the original ingredients. It's nice to serve tabouleh on top of some greens or lettuce, but far from necessary. It also makes a good pita stuffing.

Cucumber yogurt dressing is a great dip for individual falafel, and goes great drizzled into a well-stuffed pita. Most variations center around finely chopped cucumber, plain yogurt, and salt and pepper. Again, check out the internet, although it's slightly harder to find this. Personally I don't care for it too much, but it's a nice authentic addition, and some people just love it, potentially to the extent that they eat it like ice cream.

Tahini dressing is also a good addition -- simply puree tahini with nearly equal parts water and some garlic, lemon juice, fresh parsley, and salt/pepper to taste. I believe most brands of falafel mix come with a recipe for it on the box.

I generally spend $25-30 at the local restaurant, whereas a meal prepared in this manner is usually under $10. Leftovers are always good, as most of the ingredients are served cold, with the exception of the falafel. Falafel patties re-heat graciously in a microwave, requiring a mere 25-40 seconds to return to optimal temperature without "soggifying."

A traditional Middle Eastern meal - or more specifically, a meal from the Eastern part of the Mediterranean basin (Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey) - will usually be quite cheap, because it is more than possible to make it fully vegetarian without the carnivores even noticing anything is missing. As for it being simple, well, this of course depends on how much effort you want to put into it.

Making your own hummus is, to my mind, a huge deal of effort for not much return; the stuff you can buy in jars or cans is more than good enough. Just make sure, and this is a general rule, that you get something made in Lebanon or Turkey, and not a Tesco's Own pathetic imitation. The same goes for tahini sauce - I've never heard of even the proudest grannies making their own. You can even buy very decent falafel mix in Arab delis and also in Kosher ones that sell Israeli products. Baba ganoush is another traditional salad that is so ubiquitous the shop bought versions tend to be on the good side - and it's pretty labour intensive to boot, so I would definitely say buy it.

Two of the most importat components of any Middle Eastern (and indeed Italian and Spanish too) meal are bread and olives, so a brief note on that. Pitta is leavened bread. It should therefore be full of air and elasticity. Even the flattest Iraqi or Turkish flatbread should have some give to it, and when it comes to Palestinian or Lebanese round pittas, well those should be just as fluffy and satisfying as the whitest brioche bun. If the bread is at all crunchy, brittle or liable to rip at the seams, you've got stale pittas. It is very difficult to get pittas this fresh outside major areas of Arab population (in Europe this means London and Paris, pretty much). So what I suggest you do is try and get your hands on some Arab-produced pittas, then stick them into a preheated oven for a minute or two before serving; this will restore some of the freshness, especially if you place a small dish of water in the oven so it's nice and steamy.

On the subject of olives: canned olives stink. Even ones imported from the Middle East. They are crap and don't buy them. If you cannot find proper Arab olives (usually green, usually smallish, preserved in brine with slices of lemon or chillies), buy some good Greek or Spanish ones from a deli counter. It may not be exactly the right thing, but it wil be tasty!

Most of what you need to worry about in terms of cooking, then, are things that involve fresh vegetables. I have recently cooked a Palestinian/Israeli meal at home, and these are the dishes I prepared myself:

I cooked this for 6 people, and what with bread, pickles and dessert, had enough leftovers to feed another 6. A good tip for a meal like this would seem to me to be: just because it's a vegetarian meal, don't make the mistake of thinking it's not filling enough and cook far too much food like I did!

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