Spice it up

Mediterranean spices add both flavor and health benefits to dishes.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

mediterranean fish

Healthy and a big flavor kick. That’s what chefs like about dishes made with spices, such as cumin, coriander, thyme and oregano, that are common in the Mediterranean region.

David McHugh, chef at Pavilion Dining at the University of San Diego, says his menu is often inspired by the campus’s Mediterranean-inspired architecture.

“We fully embrace the Mediterranean diet here in that we use a lot of the spices and a lot of veggies,” McHugh says. “One spice we really like is sumac, particularly sumac that comes from Sicily. It has this great magenta-red color and the taste has a tartness and a bitterness. It’s something that if you just dust some over a dish, it really brightens up the flavor. When people gravitate to cheese or egg to amp up a dish, sumac will give you a more exciting flavor profile, like a squirt of Meyer lemon would. It kind of wakes up your mouth.”

The department uses sumac in an entrée of baked cod with a coriander crust. McHugh thinks coriander on its own can often be too strong, so instead he grinds it with a mortar and pestle to make a firm paste. He adds sumac to the paste to make the crust for the fish.
“It gives it a cool green-magenta color,” McHugh says. “We also got in some local oranges that were tiny and misshapen, but the juice was amazing. We cut them, put them in the oven and bronzed them. It cooks off those juices and sugars and keeps the acids. We took those and gently squeezed them over the cod.”

McHugh also uses dustings of sumac on simple dishes such as piadina with hummus and Kalamata olives, as well as on the croutons of a Caesar salad. Beyond sumac, his team creates pestos using fresh herbs and blends, including a Dijon, anchovy, olive oil, cracked pepper and pecorino cheese version. The pestos are used to coat meats or gloss over pasta.

Dedicated focus

The Mediterranean diet has become so popular that some campuses have concepts dedicated to it, including Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, a CulinArt account. At the Evgefstos concept, the menu focuses on vegan and vegetarian food with a Mediterranean bent, serving items such as falafel, which uses cumin, coriander and cayenne, and tabbouleh salad, which uses mint and parsley. Chef Victor Erich Schmidt says there is also a world flavors concept that features only Mediterranean cuisine.

“We made a Mediterranean fish stew that features onions, celery, carrots, anchovies, tomatoes, white wine, orange zest, cod, saffron, oregano, parsley and basil,” he says. “We serve it with crusty bread or garlic croutons. The flavors of Mediterranean spices are very potent. The fact that they have a healthy aspect to them makes them even more of a bonus.”

Schools also are taking advantage of Mediterranean spices’ health and flavor benefits. For the Mediterranean chicken wraps at Salida Union School District, in California, Billy Reid, director of child nutrition services, caramelizes fresh garlic in olive oil before adding a little marjoram and oregano. Once the spices start to activate, he deglazes the pan with lime juice and adds seared chicken. The dish is served in a whole-wheat tortilla and offered with toppings such as lettuce, tomato and cheese.

“That’s quite popular in the middle and high schools,” Reid says. “We also do a roast chicken that uses many of the Mediterranean spices. We use marjoram, oregano, cumin and parsley on the roasted chicken and serve it with a 50% brown rice, 50% couscous blend. In the rice, we put fresh diced tomatoes, the herbs and a little chicken broth, but we try not to overpower the rice.”

Reid says the rice and couscous mix also works well cold on the salad bar. “It’s a great option for when we have extra rice left over,” he says. “We’ll add diced red peppers, onions, oregano, marjoram, cumin, a little chili powder and some citrus for dressing. We take whatever canned fruit we’re opening that day—usually I like to use pear juice—and we infuse a citrus juice into that. That acts as an acid and almost like a salad dressing.”

At Highmark Pittsburgh, Chef Cameron Clegg likes that Mediterranean spices such as cumin and coriander can be used in so many different cuisines. To reflect a Spanish profile in the cafe’s new taqueria concept, Clegg developed Spanish roasted vegetable enchiladas that are filled with bell peppers, zucchini, portobello mushrooms, diced red onion and pinto beans. The enchiladas are topped with a sauce made from poblano peppers, yellow onion, garlic, ground cumin, paprika, tomatoes and fresh cilantro.

Another dish that leans heavily on spices from the Mediterranean is the department’s Moroccan carrot soup. For the soup, Clegg sautés onion in olive oil before mixing in carrots and chicken broth. When the carrots are tender, he adds cumin and pureés that with an emulsion blender. Once smooth, he adds honey, lemon juice and allspice and garnishes it with a dollop of yogurt. 

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