Simple fare upholds region's tradition and spirit Mediterranean Medley

September 28, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It's not a diet, it's a way of life -- a prescription for good health that hasn't changed in thousands of years.

It's the Mediterranean diet, a catchall phrase that includes the foods generally eaten on the edges of the Mediterranean Sea, from Spain to Italy to Greece to Lebanon to Morocco and Tunisia.

Study after study has found high correlation between the typical diet of the people of this region and general good heath. Interest in the studies, and in the diet, has spawned a slew of cookbooks and created new markets for such Mediterranean foodstuffs as couscous, lentils, and olive oil.

Increasingly, food with a Mediterranean focus is showing up on restaurant menus, as chefs and consumers seek food that is full-flavored and health-enhancing at the same time.

"It's simple food, simply prepared," says Linwood Dame, owner of Linwood's-Due and chef at Linwood's in Owings Mills. He has long prepared food Mediterranean-style in his restaurants.

"The emphasis is on freshness, seasonal availability," says Due chef Mark Hoffman. "There's also an emphasis on pastas, grains and beans."

"Those things are accented with things like olives, garlic, wild berries and figs," Mr. Dame adds. "But all of the foods are things that stand up well on their own."

One of the most important aspects of the Mediterranean way of thinking about food, Mr. Hoffman says, is shopping. It's important to find the best-quality ingredients. A simple dish, such as Due's linguine with arugula and black olives, finished with a little olive oil, depends heavily on the quality of its individual parts to provide sensational taste.

There is a working definition of the Mediterranean diet, devised during a conference held early last year in Cambridge, Mass. As reported by Nancy Harmon Jenkins in her new book "The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook" (Bantam Books, $27.95), participants in the conference, sponsored by Harvard School of Public Health and by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, described the diet as:

"Plentiful fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains; olive oil as the principle fat; lean red meat consumed only a few times per month, or somewhat more often in very small portions; low to moderate consumption of other foods from animal sources, such as dairy products (especially cheese and yogurt), fish, and poultry; and moderate consumption of wine [primarily at meals]."

"The main thing that sets [Mediterranean cuisine] apart is the fresh ingredients," says J. Ashley Sharpe, chef of Piccolo's of Fells Point.

"It's always been a healthy cuisine," Mr. Sharpe says. "There are not a lot of creams . . . and of course, the use of olive oil. It's cuisine that's quick and simple so you can get on with the pleasures of life."

At Piccolo's, which features the cuisine of Tuscany, the philosophy results in such dishes as pasta with chicken, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and olives, and broiled oysters with pancetta, fennel, a touch of Pernod and a touch of Parmesan cheese. Mr. Sharpe also offers a saffron risotto with seafood.

'They let food speak for itself'

"It's my style of eating," says Holly Forbes, executive chef at the Harbor Court Hotel. "Because it's fresh. They let the food speak for itself. There's not a lot of contrivance." For the hotel's monthly Cellarmasters dinner earlier this week, Ms. Forbes and new Hampton's restaurant chef Scott Hoyland created a Mediterranean menu of bouillabaisse (fish stew), roasted eggplant and tomato terrine and Majorcan-style duck with green olives, herbed potatoes and braised fennel.

The variety of cuisines represented in the Mediterranean region gives a cook's imagination wide scope, Ms. Forbes says. "On the east coast you have Lebanon, and on the west coast you have Spain. Humble foods run through my mind when I think of Provence, and exotic things when I think of Morocco."

She too finds the freshness and simplicity of the food appealing. "I think so much of the cuisine is defined by the purity of the ingredients, from the sea, and what they grow." The result, she says, is "simple presentations and bold flavors."

While the benefits of eating this way -- lower incidences of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and good health and vigor continuing into old age -- are clear, there is some controversy over a blanket recommendation that people adopt the diet, because of the amount and the kind of fat involved.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently recommends that Americans' diets contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat.

Fat is the issue

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