What comes to mind when you think about Mediterranean cuisine? If you’re like most people, it’s probably a mental snapshot of a Mediterranean kitchen, packed full of olives. But Mediterranean cuisine is so much more than just olives! In this blog, we’ll explore the exciting and varied world of Mediterranean cuisine beyond olives.
1. Exploring Mediterranean Cuisine
The Mediterranean cuisine is a flavor adventure like no other. Going beyond olives, it is a culinary experience that celebrates the bright and vibrant flavors from a variety of cultures. Its cuisine is influenced by a stunning multitude of flavors from all over the world, from the sweet and tangy taste of countries like Greece and Turkey to the complex and punchy flavors of North Africa.
Here are some classic Mediterranean ingredients that make this cuisine so popular:
- Fruits and Vegetables: Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, bell peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, garlic, olives, and eggplant.
- Grains and Legumes: Couscous, bulgur wheat, beans, lentils, and quinoa.
- Cheeses: Feta, mozzarella, ricotta, goat cheese, and halloumi.
- Herbs and Spices: Rosemary, oregano, thyme, garlic, and red pepper flakes.
The original Mediterranean diet has become increasingly popular around the world. It is a healthy and balanced way of eating that prioritizes vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, herbs, and spices. It is low in refined sugar, saturated fat, processed food, and dairy products.
The traditional Mediterranean kitchen is colorful, savory, and full of flavor. A few classic dishes include Greek moussaka, Spanish paella, Turkish kofta kebabs, Moroccan tagine, French ratatouille, and Italian bruschetta.
When it comes to desserts, the Mediterranean cuisine is famous for its sweet treats. From classic Greek yogurt with honey and almonds to Turkish baklava, ricotta cannoli, and Italian almond biscotti, there’s something for everyone. And of course, no Mediterranean meal is complete without a delicious glass of wine.
Whether you’re looking for a light lunch or a more elaborate dinner, Mediterranean cuisine has something to offer. From unique ingredients, flavors, and textures to its health-promoting elements, it’s no wonder why the Mediterranean diet is one of the most beloved cuisines in the world.
2. Beyond Olives: Rich Ingredients
Tomatoes are ingredients that are most commonly associated with Mediterranean cuisine, and widely enjoyed in many Italian meals. The Mediterranean region is known for its love of bright, flavorful tomatoes. These fruits, which are actually classified as vegetables, add a unique flavor to any dish. Tomatoes also contain a range of health-promoting compounds, including antioxidants and polyphenols. These nutrients help reduce inflammation, prevent disease, and promote overall health.
Fresh fish is a staple in Mediterranean cuisine. Fish that have been freshly caught from the Mediterranean Sea are incredibly flavorful and nutrient-dense. They are also very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for good health. Fish is often cooked using simple ingredients such as olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, and garlic. This ensures that the delicate flavors of the fish stand out against a medley of unique flavors.
Cheeses play a prominent role in Mediterranean cuisine. For example, the classic Greek feta cheese is one of the most popular varieties in the region. Feta is often combined with olive oil, tomatoes, and herbs to create a delectable dip or spread. Other cheeses, such as ricotta, mozzarella, and feta all have a major presence in the region, providing creamy, salty, and savory flavors to dishes.
Legumes are another staple ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine. They can be used in a variety of dishes, including soups, casseroles, and traditional dishes. Lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans are some of the most popular legumes in the region. They are not only full of nutrients, but they also provide a great source of fiber and complex carbohydrates. Legumes are often combined with other Mediterranean ingredients such as tomatoes, herbs, and cheese to create hearty, satisfying dishes.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices are essential for bringing out the flavor of Mediterranean-style dishes. Basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme are all commonly used in the cuisine. These herbs provide a unique aroma and flavor to dishes, as well as a range of health benefits. Spices such as cumin, cinnamon, and red pepper flakes are also used to bring warmth and depth to the flavor profile.
3. Understanding Traditional Recipes
Humans build their identities around the food that they eat, and in Mediterranean countries, the focus is on fresh product and regional ingredients that are used to create traditional recipes. Olives serve as a central ingredient in many dishes such as tapenades, salads, and bruschettas, and are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet.
The Wonders of Ancient Flavors
Apart from being a powerhouse of antioxidants, olives inspire a sense of nostalgia for Ancient recipes, as many of them survive for centuries and offer many incredible aromas and flavors. One of the most recognized traditional dishes is Moussaka, a mouth-watering concoction of eggplant, potatoes, and minced meat, The dish comes from Greece and is a timeless testimony of its cuisine.
The Charm of Regional Cuisines
Though olives can be found across the region, the way they are used changes drastically from one area to the next, further reflecting Mediterranean cultures’ passions for their regional cuisine. Greece features olives heavily across its recipes, as it is one of its most well-known ingredients and flavors. Spanish traditional dishes, on the other hand, often mix olives with roasted red peppers, anchovies, and capers to create spicy and sweet notes. To the east, Turkish recipes often use olives as a side dish, infusing their color and aroma into tomato-based dishes or prawn salads.
Building upon Classic Meanings
The use of olives has evolved immensely over the years, and so has the meaning behind them. In between roasting, salting, and chopping, the traditional recipes offer many flavors and interpretations of dishes which have become staples to some countries. Chefs and home cooks tend to seek out these traditional recipes in order to pay homage to their local cuisine, while adding a newer and more exciting twist to it.
The Benefit of Good Quality Ingredients
Cooking good food often requires serving excellent ingredients, and that is particularly true of olives, as they are highly versatile ingredients and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. If you want your food to be delicious, getting the best quality of olive possible is a must. Seek out olive varieties like Manzanillas, located in the olive groves of Andalusia, or the Kalamatas, which come from Greece.
The Love for Food
Using olives as part of Mediterranean cuisine, allows for you to capture the spirit of the region, by reinventing classic recipes that can delight the senses. Express the ultimate love for food, and have fun while experimenting with different dishes, playing with spices and colors and create exciting flavor combinations.
4. Regional Variations Worth Exploring
If there is one thing that guarantees you an in-depth experience of Mediterranean cuisine, it’s exploring regional variations. Just beyond the olives are dishes pleasing to diverse palates, flavors, and spices, inspired by the geographical location of each Mediterranean region. Here are four dishes that best illustrate the wealth of versatility found in Mediterranean cuisine.
- Moroccan Tajine: This dish is a staple of North African cuisine and is most commonly associated with Morocco. Traditionally slow-cooked in a round clay pot of the same name, tajine consists of meat, chicken, or fish, usually cooked in a savory stew of vegetables, herbs, and spices, such as cumin and saffron.
- Greek Moussaka: A beloved classic for generations, this dish is a combination of fried eggplant, minced meat, tomato sauce, and a thick, creamy topping made of milk, eggs, and either feta or béchamel sauce.
- Turkish Kebabs: Kebabs are a traditional Turkish dish enjoyed in different forms throughout the Mediterranean. The most popular brand of kebabs are the ubiquitous doner kebab, made of roasted beef or chicken shaved off a vertical rotisserie and served in a pita.
- Italian Focaccia: Italian focaccia has a long and colorful history and can be found in all shapes and sizes, depending on the region. The traditional focaccia is a round flatbread, slathered with olive oil and topped with herbs and salt, and can be found anywhere in Italy.
This is just a brief overview of the exhilarating world of Mediterranean cuisine. Each culinary delight from this region is its own unique journey, full of flavor to explore and enjoy.
5. Fresh, Simple, Bright: Colorful Flavors
Mediterranean cuisine is all about flavor, color, and texture. You can expect vibrant and delicious dishes filled with an abundance of vegetables, herbs, spices, and creative sauces. From Moroccan tagines to fragrant Italian risottos and classic, Greek salads – the options for a classic and health-centric Mediterranean meal are truly endless.
However, beyond the olives and sundried tomatoes, there are a variety of remarkable Mediterranean ingredients that make their way into dishes; each with their own flavor profile when combined with the classic ingredients. These ingredients can be found in markets across the Mediterranean and can provide your next dish a unique twist.
- Barberries: tart, sweet, and naturally preserved, barberries create a dynamic flavor to dishes
- Saffron: originating in the Mediterranean area, saffron offers a unique, earthy flavor to add to any dish
- Sumac: add a tart, sour flavor to any dish with a sprinkle of sumac, perfect for gratins or before serving
- Rose Water: perhaps most famously used in Turkish Delight, rose water can also be added to almost any dish as a natural flavoring
- Aleppo Pepper: dried peppers originating in Syria, this special pepper provides a very mild, smoky flavor to dishes
- Cardamom: use this strong Aroma in sweet and savory dishes, a tiny amount can go a long way
- Lemon-Sultana Oils: choose from an array of flavors to add to your dishes, perfect to finish a stew or drizzle over a salad
Unique flavors paired with the classic Mediterranean fare create a fantastic culinary experience. Enhance any dish with these dynamic flavors, and you suddenly have something truly special. Whether it is adding a few teaspoons of saffron to your stew or garnishing your risotto with cardamom, there are countless ways to include these delectable ingredients to your meals.
With these flavors, your dishes will be quite the adventure. Start off by exploring a classic dish, and make it your own by incorporating these flavors into every step of the process. Let your creativity spark, play around, and see where the journey takes you. Soon enough, you too will be crafting creative Mediterranean dishes with beyond olives.
6. Food as Medicine: Health Benefits
1. The Health Benefits of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
The Mediterranean diet is famous for its abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, both of which are packed with essential vitamins and minerals. Fruits like oranges, kiwis, apples, and berries are high in fiber and antioxidants, while fresh vegetables such as leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are a rich source of several minerals and vitamins including beta-carotene and vitamin C. Eating a variety of fresh produce every day has been linked to numerous health benefits, such as improved cognitive functions, lower blood pressure and improved cardiovascular health.
2. Olives Are Only the Beginning
Olives may be the iconic symbol of the Mediterranean diet, but they aren’t the only way to get all of its amazing benefits. You can enjoy other traditional dishes like baked or grilled fish, whole-grain bread, couscous, hummus, and tabbouleh. The inclusion of nuts, seeds, and legumes is also beneficial as these foods are high in protein, healthy fats, and many vitamins and minerals.
3. Eating the Mediterranean Way
The Mediterranean diet can be an easy way to make healthy changes to your eating habits. Incorporating as much fresh, unprocessed produce as possible is key, as is limiting unhealthy fats and red meats in favor of lean proteins and healthy fats such as olive oil. Eating this way has been linked with decreased risk of certain diseases, increased energy levels, and improved overall health.
4. Making the Swap to Whole Grains
Whole grains are an important part of any healthy diet, and the Mediterranean diet is no exception. Swap white, grain-based processed foods in favor of whole-grain versions of pasta, bread, and cereals. Whole grains like bulgur, couscous, and quinoa are also excellent sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and essential minerals and vitamins.
5. Enjoying Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices don’t just add flavor to food, they are also packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals. Garlic, oregano, and basil are all Mediterranean staples and are loaded with micronutrients and beneficial compounds. Traditional Mediterranean cooking also includes the use of condiments like balsamic vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil, both of which provide health benefits, though in moderation.
6. Making it a Lifestyle
The Mediterranean diet isn’t just about eating particular foods—it’s the way they’re prepared and the culture and lifestyle of the people who eat them that make it special. Allowing time for meals, enjoying them in the company of others, and choosing foods based on what’s in season are all key components of this nutrient-rich diet.
7. Tips for Choosing Quality Ingredients
1. When selecting ingredients for a Mediterranean dish, opt for fresh foods whenever possible. Choose seasonal fruits and vegetables and look for responsibly-sourced seafood to deliver the best flavor. Choose locally-produced items to transport the authentic flavor of the Mediterranean.
2. Look for high-quality olives when cooking a Mediterranean-inspired dish. Opt for brine-cured black olives or better quality oil-cured green olives to enhance the flavor of the dish.
3. Make sure to select premium quality olive oil when preparing a Mediterranean meal. Look for Extra Virgin Olive Oil (which is highest quality) or Greek Olive Oil, which has the most intense flavor.
4. Consider substituting more expensive items with less expensive ingredients. Try using cheaper root vegetables like fennel and artichoke hearts or canned anchovies and capers instead of pricier fish and seafood.
5. Give your dish a burst of flavor with fresh herbs. Look for an array of herbs like oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, and sage for the best flavors.
6. Experiment with spices such as cumin and coriander, which add depth of flavor to your dish. Don’t forget to check for seasonings like garlic, chili pepper, and pepper flakes to spice up your dish.
7. Opt for whole grain breads, grains, and beans for both flavor and nutritional benefit. Look for items like bulgur, couscous, barley, farro, and white beans for added complexity to the dish.
8. Use cheese to balance out your meal with salty and creamy flavors. Look for traditional cheeses like Feta and Ricotta or experiment with other types of cheeses like Halloumi and Crottin.
8. Making Mediterranean Cuisine at Home
If you thought Mediterranean cuisine was just about olives, it’s time to discover the wonderful world of flavors beyond this traditional ingredient. Mediterranean dishes are known for their simplicity, yet rich flavors. With a few key ingredients you can make Mediterranean cuisine at home. Here are some of the most popular dishes.
- Tabbouleh: This classic dish originated in Lebanon but is popular throughout the Mediterranean. It’s a salad made from bulgur wheat, tomato, onion, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil, and herbs. It’s light, fresh, and healthy.
- Kebabs: Kebabs are popular in many countries, but one of the best known Mediterranean versions is made with lamb, chicken, or beef marinated in yogurt and spices. Serve with a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh herbs.
- Falafel: Falafel is a favorite snack in many countries, but it’s also an integral part of Mediterranean cuisine. The fried balls or patties are packed with flavor thanks to the combination of herbs and spices.
- Hummus: Hummus is a classic, creamy dip made from chickpeas, tahini (a sesame seed paste), garlic, and lemon juice. Serve with warm pita bread or cut-up vegetables for a delicious snack.
- Gazpacho: This chilled soup is perfect for a hot summer day. It’s a tomato-based soup with garlic, onion, cucumber, and peppers, blended until smooth. Add a drizzle of olive oil and some croutons before serving for a delicious meal.
- Chickpea Curry: Curries are popular in many countries, but the Mediterranean version is slightly different. This simple curry is made with chickpeas, herbs, and spices, simmered with tomatoes and onions. Serve with basmati rice for an easy dinner.
- Moussaka: This popular Greek dish is a casserole made from layers of eggplant, potatoes, and a minced meat sauce. Topped with a creamy white sauce, it’s baked until golden and bubbly. Serve as a main course with a Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives.
- Baklava: Last but not least, this beloved dessert is made from layers of flaky phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey and spices. It’s a rich, decadent treat that’s perfect for a special occasion.
These are just a few of the delicious Mediterranean dishes you can make at home. Get creative with the ingredients and flavors you use and you can create your own unique Mediterranean dishes.
Eating Mediterranean cuisine is a great way to explore the tastes of the region, from classic comfort foods to the varied regional dishes. And beyond olives, the unique flavors of the cuisine can make any meal special. Get to know this amazing cuisine and enjoy its flavors!