The Mediterranean countries include France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal along the north; Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel on the east; and the African countries of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on the south. The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and about the countries of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Syria. This series continues with the country of Lebanon.
Stretching along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon’s length is almost three times its width. As it stretches from north to south, the width of its terrain becomes narrower. Lebanon has a Mediterranean climate characterized by a long, semi-hot, and dry summer, and a cold, rainy and snowy winter.
The country’s role in the region was shaped by trade. Lebanon is named “the pearl of the middle east.” It serves as a link between the Mediterranean world and India and East Asia. The merchants of the region exported oil, grain, textiles, metalwork, and pottery through the port cities to Western markets.
Lebanon was heavily forested in ancient and medieval times, and its timber, especially cedar, was exported for building and shipbuilding. Although Lebanon’s diverse and abundant plant and animal life suffered a heavy toll during the country’s lengthy civil war, the post-civil war period was marked by the rise of fledgling environmental groups and movements that worked toward the creation of protected areas and parks in Lebanon’s ecological areas.
Lebanon has a heterogeneous society composed of numerous ethnic and religious groups. Ethnically, the Lebanese compose a mixture Phoenicians, Greeks, Armenians and Arabs.
The cuisine of Lebanon is the epitome of the Mediterranean diet. It includes an abundance of grains, fruits, vegetables, fresh fish and seafood; animal fats are consumed sparingly. Poultry is eaten more often than red meat, and when red meat is eaten, it is usually lamb.
Many dishes in the Lebanese cuisine can be traced back thousands of years to eras of Roman and Phoenician rule. More recently, Lebanese cuisine was influenced by the different foreign civilizations that held power. From 1516 to 1918, the Ottoman Turks controlled Lebanon and introduced a variety of foods that have become staples in the Lebanese diet, such as cooking with lamb. After the Ottomans were defeated in World War I (1914–1918), France took control of Lebanon until 1943, when the country achieved its independence. The French introduced foods such as flan, a caramel custard dessert dating back to the 16th century AD, and croissants.
Most often foods are grilled, baked or sautéed in olive oil and vegetables are often eaten raw, pickled, or cooked. Herbs and spices are used in large quantities. Like most Mediterranean countries, much of what the Lebanese eat is dictated by the seasons and what is available. In Lebanon, very rarely are drinks served without being accompanied by food. Similar to the tapas of Spain and aperitivo of Italy, mezze is an array of small dishes placed before the guests. Mezze may be as simple as raw or pickled vegetables, hummus, baba ghanouj and bread, or it may become an entire meal consisting of grilled marinated seafood, skewered meats, a variety of cooked and raw salads and an arrangement of desserts.
Salads may include tabbouleh, fattoush and kebbeh. Patties such as the Sambusac and stuffed grape leaves are often included. Family cuisine offers also a range of dishes, such as stews, which can be cooked in many forms depending on the ingredients used and are usually served with meat and rice vermicelli. Lebanese flat bread, called pita, is a staple at every Lebanese meal and can be used in place of a fork. Although simple fresh fruits are often served towards the end of a Lebanese meal, there are also desserts, such as baklava. Although baklava is the most internationally known dessert, there is a great variety of Lebanese desserts.
Lebanese Dishes To Make At Home
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
4 cups bread flour, plus more for kneading/forming
2 teaspoons salt
1⁄4 cup and 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for greasing
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1⁄2 cup of warm water. Cover and set aside for 15 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, dissolve the salt in 1 cup of warm water. Add the flour and turn the mixer on.
Slowly add the yeast mixture and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Mix until the dough combines (it will be sticky), about 2 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 10 minutes.
Shape the dough into a ball and place on a lightly greased sheet pan. Coat lightly with oil.
Cover with plastic wrap and place in a warm area until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.
Punch the dough down and knead for 5 minutes. Divide the dough into 6 (5 oz.) pieces and roll each piece into a ball.
Place on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper.
Cover the balls with plastic wrap, being careful not to let the plastic wrap stick to the balls (you can do this by placing coffee mugs or short glasses on the sheet pan). Let the balls proof for 15 minutes.
Lightly dust one piece of dough at a time on both sides with flour.
Push the dough out with your fingers in a circular motion to create a disk that is approximately 5″ in diameter and 1⁄2″ thick.
Using a lightly floured rolling-pin, roll the dough in a clockwise motion to get it to 7″ in diameter and 1⁄8″ thick.
Transfer the dough to an inverted lightly floured sheet pan. Place in the preheated oven and cook for 3 minutes.
Flip the bread over and cook for another 3 minutes. Remove the bread from the oven, transfer to a parchment paper lined cookie sheet.
Place a second piece of parchment paper on top of the bread and cover with a damp towel. Let the bread sit for 10 minutes, or until cooled.
Repeat with the remaining dough.
When ready to serve, lightly brush the pitas with the remaining olive oil and grill for 1-1 1⁄2 minutes on each side.
It should be warm but still pliable. Cut the bread into wedges and serve.
Thick, tart, and creamy yogurt-like cheese, is eaten with olive oil, pita bread and za’atar.
8 cups whole milk
1 cup plain yogurt
Kosher salt, to taste
Olive oil, for serving
Bring milk to a boil in a 4-quart nonreactive saucepan fitted with a deep-fry thermometer.
Remove the pan from the heat and let cool until the thermometer reads 118°F.
Transfer 1 cup of the milk to a bowl; whisk in yogurt until combined.
Add yogurt mixture to the saucepan and whisk until smooth; cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm place (ideally 70°F-75°F) until thickened, 6-8 hours.
Line a fine-mesh strainer with 3 layers of cheesecloth; set over a bowl. Transfer yogurt to the strainer; let drain at least 8 hours or overnight.
Transfer to a serving dish. Season with salt and drizzle with oil. Add olives and za’atar, if desired.
Spiced Chicken And Tomato Kebabs
1 cup plain yogurt
1⁄2 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons orange zest
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons crushed saffron
1 teaspoon ground coriander
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion, sliced
2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 plum tomatoes, cored
Ground sumac, to garnish
2 limes, halved
Pita, for serving
Stir together the yogurt, juice, oil, zest, cumin, salt, pepper, saffron, coriander, garlic and onions in a large bowl; add chicken and toss to coat.
Chill for 4 hours.
Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, heat a gas grill to medium-high or a heat broiler to high.
Skewer chicken on 4 metal skewers and skewer tomatoes lengthwise on another skewer.
Grill chicken and tomatoes, turning often, until the tomatoes are soft and charred, about 7 minutes, and the chicken is cooked through and slightly charred, about 10 minutes.
Sprinkle skewers with sumac; serve with limes and pita.
Garlicky Lentil Salad
1 cup green lentils, rinsed
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
12 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1⁄4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring lentils and 3 cups of water to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan.
Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until the lentils are tender, about 35 minutes. Drain lentils and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in an 8” skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until soft, 7–8 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the remaining oil, lemon juice, cumin and allspice. Pour the garlic mixture over the lentils.
Add parsley. mint and season the lentils with salt and pepper; toss to combine. Serve lentils at room temperature.
The Mediterranean countries include France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal along the north; Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel on the east; and the African countries of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on the south. The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and about the countries of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. This series continues with the country of Syria.
Think Mediterranean diet and Italian and Greek food comes to mind. But the Mediterranean coastline spans thousands more miles throughout the Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel. The Middle Eastern Mediterranean diet emphasizes healthy fats, lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and red wine. However, it also offers delicious and different flavors not found in southern European food, such as unique spices, tangy fruits and healthy seeds, some of which include pomegranate juice, mint, sesame and yogurt.
Syrian cuisine mainly uses eggplant, zucchini, onion, garlic, meat (mostly from lamb, mutton and poultry), dairy products, bulgur, sesame seeds, rice, chickpeas, wheat flour, pine nuts, fava beans, lentils, cabbage, cauliflower, grape leaves, pickled turnips or cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, mint, a spice mixture called “baharat mushakkaleh” (Arabic: بهارات مشكّلة), hazelnuts, pistachios, honey and fruits.
One of the many highlights of Syrian food is mezza, the tapas of the Middle East. Mezza refers to a generous spread of small dishes, mostly eaten without cutlery, using flat bread, lettuce or grape leaves to scoop up dips or to wrap portions of salad. Baba ghanouj and hummus, both well-known in the West, are key elements of a traditional mezza. Another favorite in Syria is muhammara, a spicy pepper and walnut dip made with pomegranate molasses. Salads include tabbouleh, a parsley and bulgur mix; fattoush, a crunchy cucumber, radish, tomato and herb salad topped with toasted pita; and fateh, a salad with chickpeas, yogurt, tahini and garlic. Other finger foods include baked pastries filled with meat and spices called sambusic or spinach and baked lamb pies called sfeeha. Kibbeh is the national dish and comes in many varieties with the core element being cracked wheat and fresh ground lamb or beef that is seasoned with spices.
For Syrians, presentation is everything. Making the food look appetizing and setting the table appropriately are very important. Everything, even the simplest dishes, are garnished with fresh herbs.
Syrian Recipes To Make At Home
Syrian Stuffed Grape Leaves
Adapted from a recipe from Mary Sanom
2 lbs. ground lamb or beef
1 lb. long grain white rice, uncooked
1 small onion (finely diced)
1 small green pepper (finely diced)
1 clove minced garlic
8 oz can tomato sauce
8 oz of tomato paste
10 cups water
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon black pepper to taste
Grape leaves (16 oz jar hold about 60 leaves)
Place the rice in a large bowl, pour boiling water over to cover it and let soak for 1 hour.Drain well.
Mix ground meat, soaked rice, onion, green pepper, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper and tomato sauce in large bowl.
Place enough grape leaves in the bottom of a large pot to cover the bottom of the pot.
This will keep the filled grape leaves from sticking to the pot and burning.
To fill the grape leaves:
Lay out a grape leaf with the vein side up.
Place a small amount of the meat and rice at the bottom 1/3 of the leaf, tuck in the sides of the leaves over the meat and to roll up like a cigar.
Continue rolling the grape leaves and laying them in the bottom row in the prepared pot,
When the first layer of grape leaves has lined the bottom of the pot, start the new layer in the opposite direction, so that the rows criss-cross each other. This will allow the liquid to get to all the leaves.
Keep rolling up all the leaves and stacking the layers, until there are no more leaves/or no more filling/or the pot is ¾ full.
Place a plate upside down over the leaves. This will keep the rolls from floating during cooking and coming unrolled.
Mix together the tomato paste and water. Pour the tomato/water mixture over leaves until they are just covered.
If the leaves are not covered, add additional water until they are covered.
Add a teaspoon of salt and a squeeze of half a lemon into the pot
Cover the pot with a lid and bring the leaves and liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to medium, and cook for about 30 – 45 minutes or until the meat is cooked and the leaves are tender.
Take out a roll from the top of the pot and test it. Place the grape leaves on a platter to serve.
Retain some of the cooking liquid to reheat the leftover rolls.
Aubergine Fetteh (Fetteh Beitinjaan)
Layering food on toasted bread with a yogurt sauce is a Syrian speciality.
Olive oil, for roasting and drizzling
2 flatbreads or pitas
500g plain yogurt
2 small garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp lemon juice
Handful of parsley, roughly chopped
Handful of pomegranate seeds
50g pine nuts, toasted
Salt, to taste
Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas mark 4.
Cut the eggplants into quarters lengthwise, slice them into 1 inch chunks and place in a baking pan.
Pour over a generous helping of olive oil and a sprinkle with salt.
Roast in the oven for approximately 40 minutes or until the eggplant is soft.
Brush the bread with olive oil and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes until crispy. Then break it up into pieces.
In a bowl combine the yogurt, garlic and lemon juice.
Take the eggplant out of the oven and allow to cool. Place them in a shallow bowl then pour the yogurt mix on top.
When ready to serve, sprinkle with the crispy bread, parsley, pomegranate seeds and toasted pine nuts.
Spiced Fish (Samaka Harra)
6 garlic cloves, chopped
2 red chillies, finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup/40g walnuts, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 whole fish, such as sea bream or snapper
1 bunch of fresh coriander, roughly chopped, including the stems
1 lemon, plus ½ lemon, sliced
Heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas mark 4. In a bowl, mix together the garlic, chilies, cumin, walnuts, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper.
Stuff the fish with this mixture, reserving two tablespoons for later, then add a handful of coriander, saving some to garnish.
Squeeze the whole lemon over both fish, with a drizzle of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Let the fish marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Place the fish in a large baking pan with the remaining 2 tablespoons of stuffing on top and a couple of slices of lemon. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
Milk Pudding (Muhallabiyeh)
This is a very light dessert that is simple and can be prepared far in advance. Syrians say the name of this pudding comes from the Umayyad Prince of Damascus, Al Muhallab Ibn Abi Sufra. One day, the bored potentate ordered his servants to make him something different, a special pudding, and this is what they came up with using the only ingredients they had available – milk, sugar, starch and mastic. The pudding then became known as the ‘milk of the princes’, but commoners soon caught onto how simple it was to prepare and it became known amongst them as the ‘milk of the commons’. Today, people flavor the milk with a variety of spices, depending on each individual’s taste. This pudding has a smooth texture, with the nuts on top adding a crunch, which Syrians love.
1 quart/litre milk
1 cup/200g sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch/cornflour, mixed with water
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon rose-water or orange blossom water
2 tablespoons/20g pistachios, crushed
Rose petals, to decorate (optional)
In a saucepan, gently heat the milk and sugar over low heat, stirring regularly.
Just before it boils, add the cornstarch mix and stir constantly until it thickens, then add the vanilla and rose or orange blossom water.
Once it reaches a thick consistency, pour the mix into individual bowls or trifle glasses and let cool.
Once cool, put them in the refrigerator to set for at least 2 hours.
When ready to serve, sprinkle the tops of the pudding with the crushed pistachios and for extra color, rose petals.
Source: Syria: Recipes From Home by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi. Published by Trapeze.
The Mediterranean countries include France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal along the north; Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel on the east; and the African countries of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on the south. The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and about the countries of Portugal, Spain, France and Italy. This series continues with the country of Greece.
Before it became known as a “Blue Zone”—a region of the world where people tend to live unusually long and healthy lives—the island of Ikaria, Greece, was unknown to most Americans. Ikaria is where the majority of the people live to be well into their 90’s.
In the past few years, Ikaria has received considerable attention from scientists and journalists who want to learn the secrets of its long-living residents. Food clearly plays a large role in the Ikarians’ longevity: The Mediterranean diet they follow has been linked to lower rates of cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, and—most recently—heart disease. Although, we, Americans, can’t adopt all aspects of the Greek-island lifestyle, we can incorporate some of the eating patterns and dietary traditions practiced there. And, the best part of “eating like a Greek” is that the food is delicious.
Ikarians regularly dine on potatoes, greens, olives and seasonal vegetables. Vegetables are a big part of every meal and they are prepared in a healthy way—served raw in a salad or roasted with olive oil, rather than fried.
The majority of people in Greece eat a salad as an appetizer before the main course. This way, their appetite is significantly reduced by healthy ingredients.
Shellfish and fish are abundant in their cuisine, all of which tastes great over pasta with lemon and olive oil or in a souvlaki-style flatbread wrap with vegetables. Ikarians also eat smarter snacks—like raw vegetables and protein-rich dips made from Greek yogurt, beans or lentils.
Ikarians typically have a late morning breakfast comprised of goat’s milk, yogurt and or cheese, fruit, herbal tea or coffee, whole grain bread and local honey. At lunch, salads made of beans, legumes and potatoes, along with cooked fresh garden vegetables are standard fare and prepared with generous amounts of olive oil. Locally-caught fish may also be served and Ikarian red wine typically accompanies the meal. Meat is eaten just a few times per month. Ikarians eat a late lunch and it is usually followed by an afternoon nap, a practice that many Ikarians still follow and which results in a restful and stress free rest of the day. Quiet leisurely late afternoons and a heart-healthy routine greatly reduces the risk for heart disease. A light dinner of bread, olives, vegetables and wine is followed by evening visits with neighbors before bedtime.
Ikaria is the Mediterranean Diet in all its aspects, including the ways in which locally produced fresh, seasonal, home-cooked food and community are all integrated in ways that support physical, emotional/ mental health, relationships and the environment.
“Eat Like a Greek”
Greek Lentil Soup
Recipe and photo by Chef Diane Kochilas
- 2 large red onions, coarsely chopped, about 2 cups (500 mL)
- Salt, to taste
- 2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 pound (500 g) small brown lentils
- 1/2 cup (125 mL) chopped or pureed tomatoes
- 4 fresh sage leaves
- 2 sprigs dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 fresh or dried whole chile pepper or crushed red pepper flakes to taste
- 1/2 cup (125 mL) extra virgin Greek olive oil
- 1/4 cup (60 mL) red wine vinegar
- Raw red or white onion for serving
Coarsely chop one of the onions. Place in a large, heavy pot, sprinkle with a little salt and cook, covered, over very low heat until tender, about 6-8 minutes. Add the minced garlic and stir.
Rinse the lentils in a colander. Add the lentils, tomatoes, sage, oregano, bay leaf and chile pepper to the pot, and toss all together for a few minutes over low heat.
Pour in enough water to cover the contents of the pot by 3 inches. Raise heat to medium, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered, for one hour, or until very tender.
Season to taste with salt. Pour in the olive oil and vinegar just before serving.
To serve: Remove the bay leaf, oregano and sage leaves and discard. Slice the remaining onion. Sprinkle a few onion slices over the top of each soup portion. Drizzle in additional olive oil and vinegar if desired.
Briam – Baked Vegetables in Olive Oil (Island of Ikaria-Greece)
FOODS OF CRETE COOKBOOK, recipe and photo by Chef Bill Bradley, R.D.
Briam is an oven baked dish of fresh vegetables, herbs, olive oil, and an optional feta cheese. It is one of the most classic dishes of Greece.
- 2 small or 1 large eggplant, cut into large, thick strips
- 4 small or 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into large pieces
- 3-4 small zucchini, ends cut off and cut into large pieces
- 2 onions, cut in half
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into large pieces
- 1 orange bell pepper, cut into large pieces
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 bunch dill, stems removed and chopped
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup feta, crumbled
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a large Dutch oven or baking dish, mix together all the ingredients except the feta cheese. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil.
Bake for 1 hour and stir. Re-cover and bake for another hour. Remove the baking dish from the oven, stir in the feta cheese and serve immediately.
Rosemary and Olive Focaccia
FOODS OF CRETE COOKBOOK, recipe and photo by Koula Barydakis
- 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cups warm water
- 2/3 cups Kalamata olives, pitted
- 2 tablespoons dried or fresh rosemary, chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Mix flour, yeast, oregano, sugar, salt, olive oil and water in a bowl. Knead until the dough is soft (at least 5 minutes).
Cover with a warm, moist towel and put in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size (about an hour).
Spread dough on a baking (cookie) tray, pressing lightly so that it is flat and even.
Oil the dough. Make little cavities throughout the top of the dough by pressing down with your fingers.
Place olives and rosemary in the cavities.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 1 hour. Serve hot.
Chicken Salad Greek Style
Recipe and photo from GAEA.
- 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup bite-sized broccoli ﬂorets
- 2 small fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
- 1 orange, segmented
- 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 avocado, sliced
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped chives
Using a rolling pin, glass jar or mallet, pound and ﬂatten the chicken breasts to an even thickness. Season all sides with salt and pepper.
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Once heated, sauté the chicken breasts until golden brown, about 1 minute each side.
Reduce heat to low and cover for 10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and let the chicken rest, covered, for an additional 10 minutes.
Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the broccoli ﬂorets and cook until slightly softened, about 1 minute.
Place the fennel, oranges, cherry tomatoes and avocado to a large salad bowl.
Mix all of the dressing ingredients together. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add the chicken slices to the salad bowl. Drizzle dressing on top and gently toss all of the ingredients together. Serve.
Baked Seafood Orzo with Kalamata Olives
Recipe and photo by Chef Diane Kochilas
Orzo is one of the most popular Greek pasta shapes. In Greek, it’s called kritharaki.
- 1 pound orzo
- 1/2 cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
- 1 large red onion, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 cups chopped tomatoes (good quality canned are also fine)
- Pinch of hot sauce or hot pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup white wine, plus one cup if using whole, unshelled mussels
- 2/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives
- 2 pounds mussels in their shell, or 2 ½ cups shelled, frozen mussels, defrosted
- 2 cups cleaned, shelled small fresh or frozen and defrosted shrimp
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh oregano
- 1/2 chop chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 350F / 175C.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and salt generously. Add the orzo and simmer until al dente. It should be a little underdone.
Drain, transfer back to the hot pot and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
While the orzo is boiling start the sauce:
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large, wide pot or deep skillet and cook the onion over medium heat until wilted and translucent, about 8 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Add 3 of the 4 chopped garlic cloves and stir.
Pour in the tomatoes. Bring to a boil and add the wine. Simmer until the alcohol has cooked off.
Add 1 cup of hot water, the star anise and hot sauce or hot pepper flakes, and season with salt and pepper.
Cook the sauce over medium heat for 15 minutes, until slightly thickened. Add the olives to the sauce five minutes before removing the pan from the heat.
While the sauce is simmering, prepare the seafood:
If using mussels in the shell, make sure they are cleaned and well-washed.
Steam them in two inches of wine in a wide pot with the lid closed, over high heat, until they open.
You can add herbs or garlic if you want to the steaming liquid, before adding the mussels.
Remove and strain in a fine-mesh sieve, reserving the liquid.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in the same pot and add the shrimp and remaining garlic.
If you are using shelled mussels that have been defrosted, drain them and add them to the shrimp.
Stir over medium heat until the shrimp start to turn pink. Remove.
Toss the mussels and shrimp, the reserved steaming liquid, and the pan juices from lightly sautéeing the shrimp into the tomato sauce.
Stir in the oregano and parsley. Remove the star anise.
Oil a large baking dish, preferably ovenproof glass or ceramic. Place the orzo in the baking dish and mix in the sauce thoroughly.
Pour in any remaining olive oil.
Bake, covered, for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until the orzo is fully cooked. Remove, cool slightly and serve.
Tahini-Walnut Phyllo Flutes
Recipe and photo by Chef Diane Kochilas
- 2 cups tahini
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 to 1 ½ cups water
- 3 cups finely ground walnuts
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 pound phyllo dough, thawed and at room temperature
- 1/2 cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
- Greek honey for serving
Whip together the tahini and sugar at high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer until creamy, about 5 minutes.
As you whip the mixture, drizzle in the water. It should end up being the consistency of peanut butter.
Using a wooden spoon or whisk, stir in the cinnamon and walnuts.
Preheat the oven to 350F/170C. Lightly oil two sheet pans.
Open the phyllo and place horizontally in front of you.
Cut three stacks of three-inch strips and keep them covered with a kitchen towel and a damp towel on top.
Take the first strip, oil lightly. Place a second strip on top and oil that, too.
Place a tablespoon of the filling on the bottom center of the strip, fold in the sides, and then roll up to form a tight cylinder.
Place seam-side down on the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining ingredients until everything is used up.
Bake the flutes for 8 – 12 minutes, until golden. Remove and cool slightly.
To serve: Drizzle with honey.
You can store the cooled pastries in tins in a cool dry place for up to 5 days.
The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and in the countries of Portugal, Spain and France. This series continues with the country of Italy.
The Mediterranean Diet is more than just a way of eating. It is a way of thinking about food. It embraces the concept of eating together and sharing food with others. Modern populations are pressed for time, so food is often prepared and consumed in a hurry and in isolation. However, for the Mediterranean peoples, preparing food and eating together is very important and it is an important key in why the Mediterranean Diet is successful. For Italians, food is not simply sustenance and nutrition. It is community.
The Italian cuisine is typically Mediterranean which means eating a lot of vegetables, fruit, grains, fish and some chicken. In addition, the Italians use olive oil for cooking in large amounts instead of animal fat. Olive oil combined with a high volume of vegetables prevents disease. The Italians also follow nature and only eat what is in season. If you eat according to the seasons, you will be eating a variation of different colored vegetables. Each different color has a different antioxidant, which helps prevent disease, including cancer.
There are big differences between the Italian food in the North and in the South. Italy’s Alpine and sub-alpine regions in the North produce more livestock (cows) and fewer olives. That means more butter and lard and less olive oil. Corn (maize) and rice (such as arborio) are more popular in the northern regions than pasta. In the inland cities (Milan, Turin, Bologna), fish is more expensive than it is in the coastal cities (Genoa, Venice), and therefore consumed in lesser quantities. Fish and fresh fruit cost much less in Naples and Palermo than they do in Turin and Milan.
Southern Italians eat 40% more fruit and 80% more grains than Northern Europeans do. Southern Italians eat approximately 490 grams (17 ounces) of pasta and bread a day and research studies have found that eating a lot of grains was clearly NOT harmful to the Italians. The next largest proportion of their fiber comes from tomatoes, onions, artichokes eggplants, peas, lentils and chickpeas.
The Typical Italian Daily Menu:
Breakfast: Yogurt topped with berries and walnuts, coffee or tea
Lunch: Lentil soup with Swiss chard and bread on the side
Snack: cheese, bread
Dinner: Roasted cod paired with a wheat berry salad (cooked wheat berries with olive oil vinaigrette, feta, parsley, and tomatoes) and a glass of red wine
Dessert: Fresh fruit drizzled with honey
The Typical Italian Diet:
Snacks: In Italy, snacks are usually a very light: an espresso, a pizzetta, cheese and fresh fruit are popular options.
Lunch: In Italy lunch is usually a single dish, either pasta, frittata, fish with vegetables or salad.
Dinner: A soup with fish and vegetables is typical for a first course, followed by pasta with meat or fish and salad or vegetables. Fruit is usual for dessert.
Bring the Italian Mediterranean to your table with these recipes:
Saffron Orzo Pasta Salad
- 10 oz Orzo pasta
- 6 cups low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 teaspoon saffron
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 medium red onion, finely diced
- 1/2 cup black oil-cured olives, sliced
- 1/2 cup fresh mozzarella, diced
- One 8 oz can Italian chickpeas
- 1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes, under oil, drained and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
- 3 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated
- 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup white balsamic vinegar
- 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Bring 6 cups of chicken stock to a boil.
In a small bowl combine 1 teaspoon of saffron and 2 tablespoons of the hot chicken stock and stir to dissolve.
Add the saffron to the chicken stock and stir.
Add the orzo to the boiling chicken stock and let it cook for 7 minutes.
Drain the orzo, transfer to a bowl, drizzle 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set aside.
Dice red bell pepper, red onion and mozzarella; set aside.
Slice the sun-dried tomatoes into 1/2-inch piece and set aside.
Slice the olives and drain and rinse the canned chickpeas.
In a medium bowl, combine balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice.
Add the diced onion to the vinaigrette and let it marinate for 5 minutes.
Transfer all of the ingredients into the orzo and mix well, add the vinaigrette and toss well to coat.
Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh parsley just before serving.
Serve at room temperature or refrigerate for later use.
Warm Farro Salad
From TN&M Magazine
- 10 ounces dried chickpeas
- 10 ounces farro
- Truffle oil to taste
- 1 Garlic clove
- 1 Tomato chopped fine
- Chili flakes
Soak the chickpeas in cold water for 12 hours, changing the water 3 times. (If you use canned chickpeas, rinse them thoroughly!)
Cook the chickpeas in water to cover for about 1 hour.
Cook the farro in lightly salted water until tender.
Finely chop the garlic, basil, sage, rosemary, chili flakes and oregano.
Lightly sauté the herbs in olive oil, then add the tomato.
Add the drained chickpeas and farro, drizzling with a bit of broth.
Off the flame, stir in truffle oil to taste.
Courgettes with Sultanas and Pine Nuts
From TN&M Magazine
Serves one, as a main course.
- 1 210g tin of sardines, drained, oil reserved
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon sultanas (raisins)
- 1 tablespoon pine nuts, toasted
- 1 tablespoon capers
- 1.5 courgettes (zucchini), julienned
- ½ tablespoon chopped chives
- Zest and juice of half a lemon
- Black pepper to serve
Tip a little of the oil drained from the sardines into a frying pan and sauté the garlic for a few minutes until softened.
Add the julienned courgettes to another pan, and sauté over low heat in a little of the sardine oil until softened – approximately 4 minutes.
Add the sardines to the garlic pan, and break them up with the back of your wooden spoon as you stir them around the pan. Next add the sultanas, pine nuts and capers and stir well. Cook for a few minutes until the sardines are warmed through.
When the courgettes are ready add them to the saucepan and toss all the ingredients together, distributing the sauce evenly through the courgettes. Scatter in the chives, lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice. Add a little extra salt if necessary, but likely not as the capers are salty.
Transfer to a serving dish and add liberal amounts of black pepper.
White Fish Fillets With Cherry Tomatoes
By Bon Appétit Test Kitchen
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes (about 12 ounces)
- 1/2 cup chopped green olives
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
- Four 6-ounce white fish fillets
- 1/4 cup (packed) chopped fresh basil
Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the broiler. Combine the shallot, garlic, tomatoes, olives and oil in a medium bowl, season with salt and pepper, and toss well. Set aside.
Place the fish in a 13 x 9-inch glass baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Scatter the tomato mixture over the fish and broil until fish is opaque throughout and tomatoes have started to burst, 10–13 minutes. Serve with basil scattered over top.
Spaghetti With Clams
by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers
- 6 1/2 pounds clams
- 6 tablespoons olive oil divided
- 1/2 cup dry white wine, divided
- 3 garlic cloves, sliced, divided
- 3 small dried chiles, crumbled, divided
- 1 pound spaghetti or linguine
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Place clams in a sink filled with cold water. Scrub shells well with a coarse brush to remove any sand. Drain water and soak clams in clean water, repeating until the water remains clean.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot with a lid over medium heat. Add ¼ cup wine, 1 garlic clove, and 1 chile. Add half of the clams, cover, and cook over high heat, shaking pan frequently, until clams open (keep lid on pot so heat is not released, making cooking time longer).
As soon as the clams open, transfer the clams and their juices to a large bowl (discard any clams that do not open). Repeat the process with 2 tablespoons oil, remaining ¼ cup wine, 1 garlic clove, 1 chile, and remaining clams.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until tender but al dente; drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking liquid.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in pot with lid over medium heat. Add remaining 1 garlic clove and remaining 1 chile; stir until garlic is fragrant and light golden, 1–2 minutes. Return clams and their juices to the pot; toss to coat and remove from the heat.
Add pasta and toss to coat evenly with juices, adding pasta cooking liquid by ¼-cupfuls if pasta is dry. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle parsley over and serve.
The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients.
Provence is a geographical region and historical province of southeastern France, which extends from the lower Rhône River on the west to the Italian border in the east, and is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the south.The area also includes the Côte d’Azur, often known in English as the French Riviera.
The food of Provence resembles more closely the cuisine of Italy, Greece and Spain than typical Parisian fare. Emphasis is on locally grown vegetables, seafood, fresh herbs and olive oil, Provence is the birthplace of three well-known dishes: salade Nicoise, bouillabaisse and ratatouille.
There are many common traits between the French diet and the other Mediterranean countries, not only with regards to food choices, but also in the organization and structure of meals during the day. For example, there is no snacking in France, they eat three meals a-day, each with three courses, they eat together, portion control is common and they avoid “junk food”.
While the French embrace a wide range of foods, they keep things simple and like to use cheese, eggs, potatoes, butter, yogurt, as well as pasta and bread in their meal preparation. France is renowned for some of the world’s best wines and cheeses, and wine and food pairing is taken seriously in France even at informal dinner parties.
Beyond French wine and cheese is a mixture of traditional French dishes, many which come with long histories, regional variations and modern adaptations. The French cuisine is to a great degree a culinary art. Traditional French cuisine relies on basic combinations and together with butter are the basic ingredients for the creation of their well-known sauces, appetizers and entrees. Full fat dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, in combination with small quantities of meat or poultry are the main ingredients in French recipes. Garlic, tomatoes, olive oil and Mediterranean herbs are used to enhance those ingredients. Such recipes often include:
Appetizer Course: Provençal tomatoes, Scallops Provencal, Tapenade
Soup Course: Bouillabaisse, French Onion Soup, Saffron Mussel Bisque
Main Course: Coq au Vin, Lobster Thermidor, Ratatouille, Poulet de Provençal
Dessert Course: Orange Creme Brulee, Plum Clafouti, Poached Pears
Traditional French Recipes
Madame Saucourt’s Ratatouille
Hotel Mas des Serres in Saint Paul de Vence.
Source: Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert
Ratatouille, from the southeastern French region of Provence, is a stewed vegetable recipe that can be served as a side dish, meal or stuffing for other dishes, such as crepes and omelettes. The vegetables are generally first cooked in a shallow pan on high heat and then oven-baked in a dish. French chefs debate the correct way to cook ratatouille: some do not agree with sauteing all vegetables together, such as Julia Child, and argue the vegetables should be cooked separately and layered into the baking dish. The ingredients usually consist of tomatoes, garlic, onions, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, bell peppers, basil, marjoram, thyme and herbs.
5 pounds eggplant
5 pounds zucchini
5 pounds sweet onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
1 quart extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs: rosemary, savory, peppermint, thyme, and celery
1 bay leaf
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups dry yet fruity white wine
2 pounds ripe red tomatoes, cored and seeded
5 pounds red bell peppers
A few drops of red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons chopped mixed herbs for garnish: basil, parsley, thyme
Stem and peel the eggplant. Cut the flesh into 1″ cubes and place them in a deep kettle filled with very salty water. Keep submerged with a non-corrodible plate for at least 1 hour
Stem and peel the zucchini. Cut the flesh into 1″ cubes and place in a deep colander. Toss the zucchini with salt and let stand 1/2 hour.
In a very large heavy skillet or heavy-bottomed roasting pan cook the chopped onions in 1/2 cup water and 1 cup olive oil until the onions are soft and golden, about 30 minutes. Add the garlic, chopped herbs, bay leaf, sugar, salt, pepper, and 1 cup of the wine. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes.
Coarsely chop the tomatoes with their skins in the work bowl of a food processor. Add to the skillet and continue cooking at a simmer for 11/2 hours. Whenever the onion-tomato mixture starts to stick or burn, “deglaze” with a few tablespoons of water and scrape with a wooden spoon.
Grill the peppers; when cool, peel, stem, seed and cut into small pieces. Set aside.
Rinse and drain the eggplant and zucchini and lightly press dry with toweling.
Slowly heat the remaining 3 cups of olive oil in a wide pan or fryer until medium-hot. Add the zucchini in batches, and fry until golden on all sides. Transfer the zucchini with a slotted spoon to a colander set over a bowl to catch any excess oil. When all the zucchini has been fried, fry the eggplant in the same manner. From time to time return the drained oil in the bowl to the pan.
Spread the zucchini, eggplant, and peppers over the simmering onion-tomato mixture and pour in the remaining wine. Cover and cook at a simmer for 11/2 hours. From time to time remove the cover to help evaporate some of the liquid.
Place a colander over a large bowl and pour the contents of the skillet into it to drain. Stir carefully to avoid crushing the vegetables while trying to encourage any trapped oil and juices to drain. Quickly cool down the captured juices in order to remove as much oil as possible. If there is a lot of juice, boil it down until thick. Reserve all the frying oil and oil from the vegetables for another use. Pour the juices over the vegetables, taste for seasoning, add vinegar, and carefully stir to combine. Serve hot or cold. Sprinkle with fresh herbs.
“Although coquilles St-Jacques simply means “scallops” in French, in the idiom of American cooks, the term is synonymous with the old French dish of scallops poached in white wine, placed atop a purée of mushrooms in a scallop shell, covered with a sauce made of the scallop poaching liquid, and gratinéed under a broiler. This rich, classic recipe was a signature dish of most of the small French restaurants in New York when I came here in the late 1950s. While working at Le Pavillon back then, I must have made it thousands of times. These days, most chefs, myself included, have moved away somewhat from that dish, favoring lighter preparations. But I’ll tell you one thing: last time I made coquilles St-Jacques, it was for students at Boston University. I prepared two dishes for them: scallops cooked in a modern way, served with a green herb salad, and also the classic, gratinéed version. Now, these were not chefs-in-training; they didn’t know what they were supposed to like. And there wasn’t one student who didn’t choose the old way over the new. It just goes to show: Truly good food never really goes out of style.” —Jacques Pepin, chef, cookbook author, and PBS-TV cooking series host
8 oz. button mushrooms, minced
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 small shallots, minced
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 tablespoons minced tarragon, plus 6 whole leaves, to garnish
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 cup dry vermouth
1 bay leaf
6 large sea scallops
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup grated Gruyère
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Heat mushrooms, 4 tablespoons butter, and 2⁄3 of the shallots in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat; cook until the mixture forms a loose paste, about 25 minutes. Stir the parsley and minced tarragon into the mushroom mixture; season with salt and pepper.
Divide mixture among 6 cleaned scallop shells or shallow gratin dishes. Bring remaining shallots, vermouth, bay leaf, salt, and 3⁄4 cup water to a boil in a 4-qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add scallops; cook until barely tender, about 2 minutes.
Remove scallops; place each over mushrooms in shells. Continue boiling cooking liquid until reduced to 1⁄2 cup, about 10 minutes; strain.
Heat broiler to high. Heat remaining butter in a 2-qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add flour; cook until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add reduced cooking liquid and cream; cook until thickened, about 8 minutes. Add cheese, juice, salt, and pepper; divide the sauce over scallops.
Broil until browned on top, about 3 minutes; garnish each with a tarragon leaf.
This hearty dish from southwestern France, known as a cassoulet, is a one-pot meal. A slow-simmered mix of beans, pork sausages, pork shoulder, pancetta and duck topped with a bread crumb crust , takes its name from the earthenware casserole in which it was traditionally made.
1 lb. dried great northern beans
10 tablespoons duck fat or olive oil
16 cloves garlic, smashed
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 large ham hocks
1 lb. pork shoulder, cut into 1″cubes
1⁄2 lb. pancetta, cubed
4 sprigs oregano
4 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves
1 cup whole peeled canned tomatoes
1 cup white wine
2 cups chicken broth
4 duck legs
1 lb. pork sausages
2 cups bread crumbs
Soak the beans in a 4-qt. bowl in 7 1⁄2 cups water overnight.
Heat 2 tablespoons of duck fat in a 6-qt. pot over medium-high heat. Add half the garlic, onions, and carrots and cook until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add ham hocks along with beans and their water and boil. Reduce heat and simmer beans until tender, about 1 1⁄2 hours.
Transfer ham hocks to a plate; let cool. Pull off meat; discard skin, bone, and gristle. Chop meat; add to beans. Set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons duck fat in a 5-qt. dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add pork and brown for 8 minutes. Add pancetta; cook for 5 minutes. Add remaining garlic, onions, and carrots; cook until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Tie together oregano, thyme, and bay leaves with twine; add to pan with tomatoes; cook until liquid thickens, 8–10 minutes. Add wine; reduce by half. Add broth; boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook, uncovered, until liquid has thickened, about 1 hour. Discard herbs; set dutch oven aside.
Sear the duck legs in 2 tablespoons duck fat in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat for 8 minutes; transfer to a plate. Brown the sausages in the fat, about 8 minutes. Cut sausages into 1⁄2″ slices. Pull duck meat off bones. Discard fat and bones. Stir duck and sausages into pork stew.
Heat the oven to 300˚F. Mix beans and pork stew in a 4-qt. earthenware casserole. Cover with bread crumbs; drizzle with remaining duck fat.
Bake, uncovered, for 3 hours. Raise oven temperature to 500˚; cook the cassoulet until the crust is golden, about 5 minutes.
Credit for inventing Crêpes Suzette is claimed by French restaurateur Henri Charpentier, who in 1894, at age 14, while an assistant waiter, accidentally set the sauce aflame when serving this dessert to the Prince of Wales. Once the fire subsided, the sauce was so delicious that the prince asked that the dish be named for a young girl in his entourage, Suzette.
For the Crêpes
6 tablespoons flour
6 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Unsalted butter, as needed
For the Sauce
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
10 tablespoons sugar
7 tablespoons Cointreau
1 tablespoons Kirsch
1 teaspoon orange flower water
5 tablespoons cognac
Make the crêpe batter:
Whisk together flour and eggs in a medium bowl. Add milk and cream, and whisk until smooth. Pour through a fine strainer into a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
Prepare the sauce:
Use a vegetable peeler to remove rind from 2 of the oranges, avoiding pith; mince rind and set aside. Juice all the oranges and set juice aside. In a medium bowl, beat butter and 1⁄2 cup sugar on high-speed of a hand mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add rind to butter and beat for 1 minute. Gradually drizzle in juice, 2 tbsp. of the Cointreau, Kirsch and orange flower water, beating constantly until very light and fluffy, about 2 minutes more.
Make the crêpes:
Heat a seasoned crêpe pan or small nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Grease pan with a little butter, then pour in 1⁄4 cup batter. Working quickly, swirl batter to just coat pan, and cook until edges brown, about 1 minute. Turn with a spatula and brown other side for about 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining batter, greasing pan only as needed.
Melt orange butter sauce in a 12″ skillet over medium heat until bubbling. Dip both sides of one crêpe in sauce, then, with best side facing down, fold in half, then in half again. Repeat process with remaining crêpes, arranging and overlapping them around the perimeter of the pan. Sprinkle with remaining sugar. Remove pan from heat, pour remaining Cointreau and the cognac over crêpes, and carefully ignite with a match. Spoon sauce over crêpes until flame dies out, and then serve immediately.
While my primary cooking focus is on Italian food, I am fascinated with all the cuisines of the Mediterranean region. This geographical area broadly follows the olive tree, which provides one of the most distinctive features of the region’s cooking, olive oil. The region spans a wide variety of cultures such as, the Maghrebi, Levantine, Ottoman, Greek, Italian, Provençal and Spanish. History, as well as the impact of the Mediterranean Sea on the region’s climate and economy, mean that these cuisines share similar dishes, such as roast lamb, meat stews with vegetables and tomato (such as, Spanish andrajos and Italian ciambotta) and the salted cured fish roe, bottarga, found across the region. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and the country of Portugal. This series continues with Spain.
The Mediterranean diet is the basis of Spain’s cuisine. The regions of Andalusia and Catalonia are best known for Spain’s olive oil. It is an important ingredient in Spanish salads and soups, such as gazpacho and salmorejo ( a cold soup made with tomato and bread). Whole olives, sometimes stuffed with anchovies or pimento (red pepper paste), are eaten as appetizers and snacks, or added to stews, hot pots and salads.
Some of Spain’s fertile agricultural regions are in Navarre, Andalusia, Murcia,the Balearic Islands and Valencia. Valencia is well-known for its citrus fruits. Other essential Spanish fruit includes bananas from the Canary Islands, strawberries from Huelva and Aranjuez (Madrid), Vinalopó grapes and peaches from Calanda (Aragon).
Bread is traditionally served as an accompaniment to food, often with a little extra virgin olive oil for dipping. Bread with cheese is a common snack, and bread is also used to thicken soups and stews.
Spanish cuisine also features many rice-based recipes and paella is world-famous. Spanish paella is cooked outside on an open wood fire in a large flat-bottomed pan called a paellera and paella can include all types of ingredients including seafood, chicken, chorizo sausage, rabbit and even snails.
The regions in the north of Spain are well known for their milk and dairy products. Traditional desserts, such as cuajada (made with curd cheese) and rice pudding are made from such ingredients. Spanish cheeses include Manchego (Castile-La Mancha), Burgos (Castile-León), Cabrales (Asturias), Idiazábal (Basque Country) and Majorero (Canary Islands).
Omelets and seafood are eaten often. The most popular fish dishes contain anchovies (very common in Cantabria), cod (typical of the Basque Country), “pescaíto frito” (fried fish) in Andalusia and seafood from Galicia. Fish and shellfish are used in a myriad of ways—grilled over hot coals and served with bread and salad, fried in olive oil and served as tapas (small appetizers served hot and cold in bars and bistros throughout Spain to accompany sherry, wine, or beer) dotted through a paella, or enjoyed in a saffron-infused stew with tomatoes, fish, shellfish, potatoes and wine.
Tomatoes, bell peppers (capsicum), potatoes and zucchini have now become synonymous not only with Spanish cuisine, but Mediterranean cuisine as a whole. Other commonly enjoyed vegetables include onions, garlic, asparagus, eggplant, spinach, cabbage, cucumbers, artichokes, lettuce and mushrooms.
These vegetables are used in rice dishes, stews such as cocida (a one pot dish with vegetables, beans and chicken or meat that originated in Madrid but is eaten throughout Spain) as well as soups such as gazpacho (a cold tomato-based soup) and a wide range of salads and vegetable side dishes.
Chickpeas and white beans are used to make hearty bean stews and flavorsome soups. Lentils, such as Spanish pardina lentils, are also added to stews and soups and are used in salads. Green beans and peas are used in a wide range of dishes including paellas and hot pots.
Popular nuts include almonds, pine nuts and hazelnuts which are often ground down and used to thicken and enrich the flavor of stews, sauces and soups. Toasted almonds are also a popular snack.
Meats like dry cured Serrano ham, lamb or chorizo sausage are used in small amounts to add flavor and texture to a dish instead of being the main ingredient.
Chicken is a popular addition to stews and rice dishes and eggs are used in a variety of dishes including tortilla de patatas, a traditional Spanish omelet with eggs, potatoes and onion.
For over 700 years much of Spain was ruled by the Moors (a Muslim tribal people from the Moroccan region of North Africa) and their influence remains today in many of the seasonings used in Spanish cooking including saffron, cinnamon and cumin.
Other commonly used seasonings include smoked paprika, garlic, flat-leaf parsley, pepper, sea salt, white wine vinegar and sherry vinegar, fresh chilies, capers, wine and lemon juice. These seasonings are all used to enhance, not mask, the natural flavors of the food.
Tortilla de Patatas
1 potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 red onion, finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and finely diced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cook the potato in boiling water for 4-5 minutes. Drain.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and cook the onion and green pepper for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the potato and cook for 2 minutes.
Whisk the eggs together in a bowl with the parsley, salt and pepper. Pour the eggs over the vegetables in the pan, cover, and cook gently over a low heat for 8 minutes.
Remove the lid and place under a hot oven broiler to cook for a minute or until the top is set. Cut into wedges to serve.
This cold soup is delicious and refreshing—a perfect summertime meal served with bread.
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1/2 red onion, roughly chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and roughly chopped
1 cup peeled, seeded and roughly chopped cucumber
3 cups low sodium good quality tomato juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Garnish: chopped cucumber, onion or bell pepper
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.
Chill in the refrigerator for twenty four hours for the best flavor.Garnish with chopped vegetables, if desired.
Add a few drops of Tabasco sauce for a spicy version.
You could use ripe, fresh tomatoes instead of tomato juice, but you need to skin and remove the seeds first.
The following paella recipe serves 4, and for best results cook in a 14 or 15-inch paellera. A large shallow frying pan makes an acceptable substitute. Most Spanish Paellas are made with seafood.
Prepare the vegetables:
Finely chop: 1 red onion,1 red and 1 green bell pepper, 4 cloves of garlic and 2 tablespoons of fresh flat-leaf parsley.
1 cup of canned peeled tomatoes mashed with a fork.
Prepare the seafood:
Peel and devein 16 large shrimp
Cut 2 squid tubes into rings
Scrub and debeard 12 fresh mussels.
Cover the fish and refrigerate.
Sofrito is a Spanish tomato and onion sauce which is used as a flavor base for a variety of dishes, including paella.
To make the sofrito:
Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in the paella pan over a medium heat and cook the chopped red onion, 2 tablespoons of parsley and 3 of the chopped garlic cloves for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the tomatoes and 2 teaspoons of Spanish smoked paprika.
cook until all the liquid from the tomatoes has evaporated and the sofrito has the consistency of jam. Transfer the sofrito to a small bowl to cool and wipe the paella pan clean with a paper towel.
Cook the mussels:
Bring a ½ cup of water to a simmer in a saucepan. Add the mussels, cover the pan and steam on a low heat for 5 minutes. Remove the mussels and set aside, discarding any that haven’t opened.
Cook the shrimp and squid:
Heat 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in the paella pan over a medium-high heat. Add the remaining clove of chopped garlic and the shrimp and cook for 1½ minutes. Add the squid rings and cook for a 1½ minutes more. Remove the shrimp and squid from the paella pan and lightly season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and set aside.
Prepare the paella:
Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in the paella pan over a medium heat and cook the diced red and green peppers for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the sofrito back to the pan along with 1½ cups of Spanish Calasparra or Bomba rice and cook for a minute, stirring to coat the grains.
Add 3 cups of heated fish or chicken stock, a pinch of saffron threads, 1½ teaspoons sea salt and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine, and bring to a bubbling simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, uncovered without stirring. (To make sure the rice cooks evenly you will need to regularly move the paella pan around the heat source, or you can position the paella pan over two burners.)
Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 15 minutes more without stirring. After 15 minutes, turn the heat up to medium-high for a minute or so until you can smell the rice toasting at the bottom, then remove the paella pan from the heat.
Push the cooked shrimp, mussels and squid into the cooked rice and scatter a half a cup of defrosted frozen green peas over the paella.
Cover the pan with foil or a clean cloth and let the paella rest for 5 minutes.
Present the paella in the pan at the table with lemon wedges.
Classic Spanish Flan
Makes 12 servings
For the flan:
4 cups whole milk
2 strips lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup granulated sugar
For the caramelized sugar-coating:
1/2 cup sugar
5 by 9-inch mold
Preheat the oven to 300º F.
To prepare the caramelized sugar-coating, spread the sugar evenly in the bottom of a small heavy saucepan and place over medium-low heat. It may take several minutes before the sugar begins to melt. Without stirring, watch the sugar closely as it begins to liquefy at the edges. All of it will slowly turn first into a yellowish and then golden syrup and finally into a brown caramel sauce.
When the liquefied sugar is turning from golden to brown, immediately remove the saucepan from the heat. (If you miss this point, the sugar will quickly turn too dark and taste bitter and you will need to discard it and begin again.)
Working swiftly, pour the liquid caramel into the flan mold and tilt to cover the bottom and sides evenly. It is important to do this transfer quickly, as the change in temperature causes the caramel to solidify rapidly. Set aside.
In a saucepan, combine the milk, lemon zest and cinnamon stick over high heat and bring to a boil. Immediately decrease the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes to infuse the milk with the flavor of the seasonings. Remove from the heat and let cool.
In a bowl, combine the whole eggs, egg yolks, and granulated sugar and whisk until foamy. Pour the cooled milk through a fine-mesh sieve held over the egg mixture and whisk until well blended. Pour the mixture into the coated mold.
Place the mold in a large, deep baking pan or roasting pan. Pull out the oven rack, put the baking pan on it, and pour boiling water to a depth of about 1 inch into the pan to create a water bath. Bake for about 1 1/2 hours, or until set when tested with a thin-bladed knife in the center. Carefully remove the water bath from the oven, and then carefully remove the custard from the water bath and set aside to cool completely.
You can cover and refrigerate the cooled flan to serve cold, or you can serve it at room temperature. Run a knife around the inside of the mold to loosen the edges of the custard and then invert the flan onto a dessert plate.