Capturing magic of Mediterranean

Preparation: Vegetables popular in the region are teamed with a variety of spices and other ingredients to make satisfying, healthful dishes.

May 17, 2000|By Janet Hazen | Janet Hazen,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Those must-eat vegetables on your dinner plate don't have to be a boring, bland part of your evening meal. As a matter of fact, they could be the most tempting, palate-stimulating portion of your supper.

Preparing fresh vegetables with Mediterranean flavors and cooking methods is a delicious way to work more nutrients and fiber into your diet while making dinner a more interesting culinary adventure.

Begin with an assortment of vegetables intrinsic to Mediterranean cuisine, such as baby artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, fava beans, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic. Add to these a variety of flavoring ingredients like olive oil, balsamic and sherry vinegars, sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary; and ground spices such as coriander, cumin and anise.

Consider this: When you pair zucchini with these lusty flavors, even this somewhat boring vegetable rises to new heights. The same goes for eggplant. When properly prepared and cooked, this versatile Mediterranean staple is quite delectable.

Southern France, Spain and Italy are probably the regions that come to mind when you think about your favorite Mediterranean dishes, but don't forget the other countries in the Levant, such as Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Near and Middle Eastern cuisines are equally rewarding and offer an abundance of satisfying, healthful vegetable dishes.

Baked Zucchini and Garbanzo Beans With Tomatoes

Serves 6

2 medium zucchini, cut diagonally into 3/4-inch chunks

2 yellow squash, cut diagonally into 3/4-inch chunks

4 large Roma tomatoes, finely chopped

1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon ground coriander

3 tablespoons olive oil

salt, pepper to taste

4-6 ounces shredded Italian fontina, provolone or mozzarella cheese, optional (see note)

2/3 cup fine bread crumbs

In large bowl, combine zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, garlic, oregano, coriander and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix well.

Transfer to generously greased 10-cup baking dish. Add cheese, if using. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes. Remove from oven. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top. Return to top rack of oven and bake until zucchini is tender and bread crumbs are light golden brown, 15 minutes to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and serve immediately.

Note: For a more substantial, richer-tasting dish, add the cheese.

Braised Fava Beans With Red Bell Pepper

Serves 6

6 pounds (in pods) fava beans, shelled (see note)

1 large red bell pepper, cut into small dice

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups homemade chicken stock or canned chicken broth

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional (see note)

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme

salt, pepper

Bring large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add shelled fava beans and cook 3 minutes. Drain immediately and cool to room temperature.

To remove outer shell, hold a fava bean between thumb and forefinger. Using fingertips, snip off tip of outer shell. Gently squeeze fava bean from shell. Prepare all fava beans in this fashion.

In large saute pan, cook bell pepper and garlic in olive oil over moderate heat 3 minutes. Add chicken stock and fava beans and cook until tender, 15 minutes to 25 minutes, depending on size of beans. Add butter, if using; thyme; and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Note: When buying fresh fava beans, look for thick, spongy fava bean pods with bright green, reasonably unblemished skin. Many Middle Eastern markets stock frozen, shelled fava beans.

The addition of unsalted butter adds extra richness and thickens the broth, but if you use homemade chicken stock, you won't need to use any butter.

Baby Artichoke Hearts With Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Serves 4

3 lemons, juiced

3 pounds baby artichoke hearts (about 24 medium chokes)

2/3 cup rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, ffinely chopped (see note)

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar

salt, pepper to taste

Have ready large pot filled with water and juice from 3 lemons.

To prepare artichoke hearts, remove stem and top third of each artichoke. Using hands, remove outer tough green leaves, stopping when you get to inner yellow leaves. Using paring knife, trim bottom of choke around stem, making smooth, rounded bottom. Drop into acidulated water. When all artichokes have been prepared and placed in acidulated water, transfer pot to stove top.

Cook over moderately high heat until tender, 8 to 10 minutes, depending on size. Drain immediately and return to pot. Add sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, thyme, rosemary, olive oil and vinegar and heat thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss gently. Serve immediately.

Note: Instead of using the more expensive oil-packed variety, you can buy dried tomatoes in bulk in most grocery stores, produce markets and specialty-food shops, and rehydrate them in water.

Middle Eastern Caramelized Eggplant and Onion

Serves 4

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