Food Exploration: The Flavors of the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean region is home to one of the healthiest and most flavorful diets in the world. So, have you considered bringing a taste of Greece into your home? According to the Mayo Clinic, eating a Mediterranean diet can significantly lower the risk for heart disease. In fact, an analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer, as well as a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Key components of the Mediterranean diet
According to the clinic’s report, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes:
- Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
- Replacing butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil
- Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
- Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
- Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
- Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)
The diet also recognizes the importance of being physically active, and enjoying meals with family and friends—and it also provides you with a delicious selection of foods to prepare for your family!
Staples of a Greek diet
Greek food has a rich and varied history that dates back 4,000 years. In fact, the first food writer was Greek! It’s true. In 320 B.C. Archestratos was the first scholar to ever write about food and he is even credited with creating the first cookbook. Even the French with their prestigious culinary reputation can’t boast a history like that. Before starting to explore the world of Greek cuisine, it may be helpful to understand the basics of the culture’s diet.
- Olive oil. As the ultimate staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is widely used in Greek dishes, in both cooking and frying as well as for making pastries and flavoring meals.
- Seafood. Given that Greeks live on a peninsula surrounded by the Ionian, Mediterranean, and Aegean seas, it’s perhaps inescapable that Greeks eat a diet rich in fish and other types of seafood, including octopus, lobster, mussels, and squid. Seafood dishes are consumed more frequently than those made of lamb or goat, which helps explain why Mediterranean food tends to be healthier for the heart.
- Cheese. According to Greek mythology, the gift of cheese-making was given to the Greeks by the gods. In her About.com article, Greek Cheeses: Essential on Every Table, Nancy Gaifylia writes, “According to Greek mythology, Aristaios, son of Apollo and Cyrene, was sent by the gods to give the gift of cheese-making to the Greeks. It was called a ‘gift of everlasting value,’ and if the reputation of today’s variety of Greek cheeses is anything to go by, the value of that gift keeps increasing with age.” Given that prominence, it’s no surprise cheeses such as feta, kefalotiri, kasseri, and manouri have become an essential part Greek diets.
- Fruits, veggies, and whole grains. The bakeries of Greece are busy places as the locals come in each day for the freshest breads. While many people have cut back on bread as they become more conscious of their carbohydrate intake, whole grain loaves are still popular components of their meals.
It’s all Greek to me!
Despite the diversity of the region’s geography and climate, cooking is relatively similar throughout Greece. Unlike many other cultures, the Greeks incorporate the method of cooking into the name of the meal.
Ladthera describes dishes that are prepared with a lot of olive oil (called ladi). Common examples of ladthera are tomatoes stuffed with rice or giant butter beans stewed with tomatoes.
Stoforno is a dish prepared in the oven, such as lamb with lemon potatoes.
Psito is a roasted dish and is how pork and lamb are typically prepared.
Kokkinisto translates to red or blush. In cooking it refers to a tomato dish that is baked in the oven. Typically kokkinisto also contains beef or chicken.
Saganaki is Greek for fried and refers to using a skillet or cast iron frying pan in the process. This term can also refer to a kefalotiri cheese that is dusted with flour and fried in olive oil using this type of cookware.
Enjoy family and friends at meals
Meals are traditionally times to socialize with friends and family in Greece, so get in the mood by preparing your new Mediterranean recipes on a night the entire family is home or while you have company over. Meals were prepared and eaten slowly, creating a leisurely and familial atmosphere.
Plus, Greek food often uses the freshest ingredients, so be sure to pluck as many as possible from your home garden—or stop by a local farmers market to pick up what you need.
Tip: How To Coat Vegetables With Olive Oil
Roasted vegetables are a favorite at our house. An olive oil glaze helps bring out the caramelized flavor.
To control the fat, fill a bowl with cold water and pour a few teaspoons of olive oil on the top. Drop the cut up vegetables (I love sweet and white potatoes, fennel, onions, and carrots—but almost anything will work) and as you scoop them out, they will get a very fine oil coating. Roast as usual, without extra calories.
For an authentically Greek experience, try these recipes!
A great dish for a special gathering or a quiet dinner.
1 white onion, peeled and diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
6 plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped garlic (2 large cloves)
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped ( or 1 teaspoon, dried)
12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup sheep’s milk feta cheese
1/4 cup ouzo
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Place the onion and peppers in a large skillet with the tomato and olive oil and cook them over medium-high heat for about 4 to 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the vegetables for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are soft. Stir in the garlic and oregano and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Pour the vegetable mixture into an 11″ pan and embed the shrimp into it in one even layer. Sprinkle with feta.
Bake uncovered for 20 to 25 minutes, until the shrimp is cooked through and the casserole is bubbly.
Just before serving, place the casserole on a medium burner until the mixture starts to bubble again. In a separate small sauté pan or saucepan, heat the ouzo until it is hot. Then carefully light it with a long match, standing back a little in case the flame goes high. Immediately pour it over the casserole and bring it to the table.
Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, cut off the top of the tomatoes and score them with your knife by running a shallow slit from the top to the bottom. Add the tomatoes to the boiling water and let them sit 45 seconds to 1 minute, or until the slits start to separate and the skin pulls away from the flesh. Drain the tomatoes immediately and plunge them into ice water or cool them under running cold water. Peel the skins off and cut the tomatoes in half. Remove as much seed as possible and squeeze them gently in your hand to drain off some of the water.
6 ripe tomatoes, stem on if possible
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
1-2 garlic cloves
1 t. oregano
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 c. cooked kamut*
12 oz. quality tuna packed in water, drained, broken into bite size pieces
1 shallot, finely minced
1/3 c. crumbled feta
1/4 c. chopped Nicoise or Kalamata olives
1 T. chopped capers
1/4 c. chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Using a serrated knife, trim a small slice off the bottom of the tomato, allowing them to sit squarely on the plate. Slice the tops off the tomatoes and reserve. Using a tablespoon, scoop out the center of the tomato into a large bowl, to make space for the filling. Season the inside of the tomato with salt and pepper and reserve.
Mash the tomato pulp with a fork or potato masher. Stir in vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, and oregano. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, whisking constantly. Season with salt and pepper and reserve.
In a large bowl, place the kamut and the next six ingredients. Drizzle with some of the vinaigrette, stir gently to combine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Fill each tomato with kamut salad, mounding it slightly and placing the reserved top at an angle on the filling. Drizzle with more vinaigrette if desired. Serve cold or room temperature.
*To cook kamut: Soak overnight to reduce cooking time. Drain. Place 3c. water for every cup of kamut in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Season with salt. Add kamut, cover, and simmer 30-45 minutes, until tender. Drain. Lightly coat with olive oil and season with salt. Use as desired.
Recipe provided by Chef Shellie Kark, Kitchencue, © 2010 Kol Ha’kavod, LLC. The information here is not to be used or reprinted without permission.
Perfect on a warm day!
6 ounces tuna, canned
1 can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
3/4 cup Greek olives, sliced
1/2 small red onion, minced
1/4 cup parsley, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dry/fresh oregano
3 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
In a large bowl combine tuna, red onion, parsley, Greek olives, artichoke hearts, garlic, salt, pepper, and lemon juice.
Mix and serve.
Your turn: What is your favorite facet of Greek cuisine? The feta cheese? The olives/olive oil?