Popular in the US for decades because of a winning combination of healthy benefits and delicious flavors, Mediterranean cuisine keeps winning fans. With an emphasis on fresh vegetables, lean meats like fish and the good healthy fats found in olive oil and legumes, it’s no wonder that people are exploring these ingredients more. But what makes it Mediterranean, exactly?
Traditionally, the region is classified in three culinary areas: Eastern Mediterranean (places like Greece and Turkey), Southern Europe (Spain and Italy) and North Africa (Morocco, Libya and Tunisia). Let’s explore these areas and a few common ingredients in this tremendously popular food culture.
1. Olives & Olive Oil
We can’t discuss the Mediterranean without discussing the ingredients that make it famous: olives and olive oil. With nuanced flavor that sings on its own next to fresh bread or salumi, olive oil is a foundation for cooking, adding a bright flavor to sautés and enhancing fresh sauces that top everything from pasta to grilled fish. Olives make for delectable, savory appetizers or all-day snacks. Each area has distinctive olives and olive oils to share, from the rounded, nutty flavors of Spain to the potent, herbaceous olive oils of Greece.
The Mediterranean cook celebrates everything about the lemon, from zest to juice. Preserved lemons are especially common in the North African region, where they combine with dried fruits, chicken, and warm spices like turmeric, cumin and ginger in filling stews. Lemons are also used heavily in the Eastern Mediterranean for dressings and marinades. In the Southern European region, where dishes may be a little richer than their coastal counterparts, you’ll find lemon as a finisher for roasted meats like pork and lamb, and combined with capers in pasta dishes.
While most of us think of yogurt as a morning staple, the Eastern Mediterranean region in particular utilizes yogurt all day. Fresh yogurt can be used as a dipping sauce for spicy kebabs or in the classic gyro condiment, tzatziki, made with yogurt, fresh garlic and cucumber. Tart and refreshing, it provides a cooling element for heavily spiced grilled meats. And speaking of those grilled meats, don’t be surprised if your dinner has been marinated in yogurt and seasonings before getting grilled or roasted. The enzymes in the yogurt tenderize the meat and create unbeatable texture.
4. Fresh Fish
The proximity of the Mediterranean Sea to this region means that the Mediterranean diet also features fresh seafood! Roasted fish may be seasoned with a spice rub served with couscous in the North African region, where the Eastern Mediterranean fish may more likely be grilled and served with a fresh herb condiment to waken the palate.
An incredibly versatile protein, chickpeas are used in many forms in Mediterranean cuisine. American eaters see this legume most often in hummus, the Eastern Mediterranean dip made with chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic and other spices. When not in a spread, chickpeas can also be found roasted with vegetables like eggplant and tomato to accompany grilled meats. The flavor and texture – creamy when boiled, crispy when baked or fried – makes it ideal for salads and main dishes alike.
Contributed by Rachel Wendte