Mediterranean cooking is the new "in" cuisine. It's touted for its light, bright, big taste and inherent healthfulness -- complex carbohydrates, vegetables, lean meats and monounsaturated fat (olive oil).
The term "Mediterranean cuisine" misleadingly suggests a unified body of dishes. But the food of the Mediterranean is as distinctive as the countries the sea is surrounded by: Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, France, Italy and Spain and more.
The warm, dry and extraordinarily sunny climate of the region enables these lands to produce the common ingredients that bind their cuisines. Chief are the olive and its oil, garlic, capers, tomatoes, eggplants, almonds, lemons and honey.
Herbs and spices play a part, too -- in Europe, basil, thyme, parsley, oregano and rosemary; in the Middle East, coriander, mint and cumin; and in North Africa, caraway and hot chilies. And the sea itself is rich with fish and shellfish.
Phoenician merchants first developed the Mediterranean as a trade route. Later Carthage, Greece and Rome contended for control of the sea and its shores. So important was the Mediterranean that the ancient Romans simply called it "mare nostrum," our sea. With the trend toward light eating, the day does not seem far off when the cooking of Mediterranean countries becomes "our food."
A spate of cookbooks has helped fuel interest in this deeply satisfying food. My favorites include Claudia Roden's "Mediterranean Cookery," Martha Shulman's "Mediterranean Light," Joyce Goldstein's "The Mediterranean Kitchen" and Paula Wolfert's classics, "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco" and "Mediterranean Cooking."
5) Here are two dishes from those books.
MARTHA SHULMAN'S GARLIC AND CHICKEN KEBABS
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
juice of 1 1/2 lemons
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup plain, low-fat yogurt
3 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned, halved and cut into cubes
pepper to taste
24 whole garlic cloves, unpeeled
Use a pestle to pound the peeled garlic cloves with the salt in a mortar and work in paprika, cinnamon and cayenne. Whisk together lemon juice, oil, yogurt, salt mixture and pepper. Toss -- NTC chicken and unpeeled garlic in marinade and let marinate 2-4 hours, turning occasionally. Skewer chicken and garlic. Grill or broil, turning and basting, until chicken is golden and garlic is charred. Heat leftover marinade and serve. Serves 6-8.
JOYCE GOLDSTEIN'S PEARS IN DESSERT WINE
4 Bosc pears
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange, removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise, optional
1 bottle Quady Elysium (black muscat wine, about 1 1/2 cups) or red or white wine
Peel pears and stem, halve lengthwise and remove seeds. Place a bowl of cold water with the lemon juice. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil in a large saucepan. Add pears. Reduce heat and simmer until a toothpick easily penetrates pears, about 30 minutes. Transfer pears to a bowl. Cool liquid and pour over pears. Refrigerate overnight. Serves 8.