Azure skies, white sands, and twenty-one different countries with their unique cultures and traditions, all with a bounty of deep purple, yellow, red and green fresh vegetables and flowers. From the shores of Morocco to the islands of Cyprus and Malta, from the coast of Turkey to the beaches of Spain, all these countries along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea are united by their cuisine.

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A Mediterranean lifestyle promotes life-long health and well-being. There has been much research on the benefits of a Mediterranean diet. Many dietitians will vouch for the fact that it’s not just a diet, but a way of life. Dr Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health, an expert on food and public health, advocates the Mediterranean diet for a healthier and happier life. Studies show that the people in this region have fewer occurrences of chronic disease and health related issues. Their improved quality of life has much to do with their diet, which includes an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits eaten daily, a weekly fill of eggs and cheese, and red meats limited to once a month, with a good dose of olive oil as the primary source of fat. The most important reason that this lifestyle works is because of its positive reinforcement, with pleasing flavors and fresh tastes.

As a vegetarian in California, The Mediterranean food pyramid works perfectly as a “gold standard for eating.” We are blessed with a seasonal array of vegetables from artichokes to tomatoes, a world class selection of wines, along with a high quality Californian olive oil. We have the beaches, the vineyards, vegetables and flowers. The only thing missing is the white washed walls and warm waters.

The Mediterranean pantry has a huge array of bell peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, courgettes (zucchini), cucumbers, okra, tomatoes, olives, peaches, figs, grapes, pomegranates and fragrant herbs like thyme and basil, nuts like almonds, walnuts, pistachios, breads, pasta, couscous, rice and legumes like beans and lentils, and wines. Yogurt and cheese are staples, along with olive oil.

Each region has its own version of cooking and serving of these foods, either fresh or sautéed, grilled, broiled, baked, roasted or pureed.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

Olives are native to the Mediterranean region. Tree ripened olives are pressed  to extract a flavorful oil that is high in mono-unsaturated fats. The flavor, fragrance and color of olive oil depend greatly on the regional growth and climatic condition. The grading of the olive oil is based on the degree of its acidity. Cold pressed olive oil is a method by which there is no chemical used, and the acidity is very low. Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is made by the first cold pressing of olives and is considered the purest and the most flavorful olive oil. It has less than one percent acidity. EVOO is usually used in salad dressing and in marinades because of its intense flavor. Light olive oil can be used for frying and baking. Regular olive oil is used for sautéing and roasting. EVOO is stored in a cool dark place or refrigerated as it can turn rancid quickly.

Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the SF Bay Area. She also blogs about cooking at rocketbites.com.


Ratatouille
Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves of garlic chopped fine
2 bay leaves
3 cups of vine ripe tomatoes blanched in hot water, peeled and chopped
2 red onions sliced thin
3 medium Italian eggplants chopped into cubes
2 courgettes (zucchini) cut into thick slices
2 medium bell peppers (red/ orange) seeded, sliced into chunks
1 tablespoon of fresh basil chopped
½ tablespoon of fresh Greek oregano or marjoram chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan and add garlic, bay leaves and red onion, and fry for a few minutes. Add the bell peppers, eggplant and zucchini and sauté for a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook (about 15-20 minutes) until all the vegetables are tender and resembles a stew. Add the fresh basil and marjoram and serve warm with crusty sourdough bread or a bowl of soft polenta.

recipe_greek_polpettes

Greek Polpettes
Ingredients
Olive oil to fry
4 medium potatoes cooked soft without skin
1 egg beaten
4 oz of feta cheese
4 scallions chopped fine
2 tablespoon of fresh dill chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
All purpose flour to dredge

Place the potatoes in a bowl and mash; add the crumbled feta cheese, chopped scallions, fresh dill, lemon juice and egg. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well and refrigerate until firm. Make small balls with the mixture and flatten into discs. Dredge the discs in flour and fry them in a hot pan with olive oil. Pan fry until golden brown on both sides. Serve warm with a yogurt dip.

Moroccan Dates, Orange and Carrot Salad
Ingredients
½ cup dates, seeded and sliced lengthwise
2 oranges peeled, cut into segments
2 carrots peeled and grated
¼ cup toasted almonds chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt to taste
Lettuce leaves

Mix all the ingredients except the almonds and lettuce in a bowl. Line the bottom of the salad bowl with lettuce leaves. Place the mix of oranges, carrots and dates in the middle of the lettuce lined bowl. Sprinkle the almonds on top and serve.

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