A Sea Full of Healthy Options

Mediterranean cuisine offers a world of variety for a healthy diet.

Braised tilapia from Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut.

With its rich flavors and general health factor—foods rich in protein, fiber and antioxidants—the Mediterranean diet continues to satisfy customers’ demand for authentic ethnic cuisine. Though loosely defined, this cuisine features foods from the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea, including Italy, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Slovenia, Morocco and Turkey. Many operators report Mediterranean items to be among the most popular in their operations, pointing to the versatility afforded by pasta and flatbreads.

Healthy for healthcare: At Morrison Management Specialists, Norbert Bomm, research and development chef, offers various Italian items on his Flavors 450 menus in retail outlets, focusing on items with 450 calories or less, such as a roasted eggplant with fresh herb flatbread and plum tomatoes topped with mozzarella, which is then baked until the cheese melts.

“We do a Mediterranean pasta station,” says Bomm. “Pastas and flatbreads are big sellers. They’re very trendy right now.” Bomm serves pasta with tomatoes, basil and baby spinach and tops its with Alfredo sauce and lemon-braised shredded turkey. He says Mediterranean cuisine gives operators a lot of opportunities.

“We do veggies or chickpea hummus with Moroccan flavors,” Bomm says. “You can produce awesome flavor profiles without loading them with calories and fat. We keep it simple and let the flavors come through. We do a great penne with cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs with some pepper flakes.”

Risotto, he adds, also is a big seller for Morrison. “We make risotto with seasonal veggies,” Bomm says. “It’s best to use good Arborio rice and a good chicken or vegetable stock. Put a little good Reggiano cheese on it and roasted chicken breast. We do things with all the grains, beans, mushrooms, legumes and tomatoes. A good cooked tomato sauce goes a long way. Ours has reduced sodium and we use fresh herbs.”

Morrison’s senior living facilities also have a new Mediterranean menu that includes Moroccan meatballs with couscous and stewed tomatoes. Another Morrison account, Norwalk (Conn.) Hospital, recently introduced a Mediterranean Diet program complete with a rooftop garden as part of its emphasis on locally grown fare.

“We decided our standard hospital fare of meatloaf and mashed potatoes was missing the boat,” says Trina Muro, patient services manager. Popular dishes include a Caprese sandwich of fresh mozzarella with sliced tomato and basil pesto on a whole-wheat ciabatta roll; a Mediter-
ranean lentil and Israeli couscous salad with fresh arugula, mint, lentils and feta cheese, served with a housemade vinaigrette; roasted chicken with herbed quinoa and fresh squash medley; and a hummus and tabouleh sampler plate with fresh tomato, cucumber and pita triangles.

“Instead of traditional heavy hot lunches, we’ll do a bean soup with pasta in it or a Greek salad plate, though the hot option is available,” Muro says. “We’re very excited by the response.”

David Willard, senior director of culinary services for Sodexo, sees rising interest in the foods of Northern Africa and the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean in the company’s healthcare accounts.

“We do a fattoush salad with lemon-based dressing, shaved hard cheeses and toasted cumin-seasoned flatbread triangle croutons,” Willard says. “Smaller, lighter dishes are natural fits.” Willard adds that Sodexo is looking to do more with Moroccan cuisine.

Mediterranean foods, he adds, are a linchpin in the effort to make healthier choices.

“There’s a big buzz driven by consumer interest in living healthier, and healthcare is well aware of the consequences,” Willard says. “We are seeing more interest in dishes from the south of Spain. To do Mediterranean cuisine well, it’s important to understand the ingredients and use authentic flavors.”

Small and authentic plates: Every other week at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham, Ralph Coughenour, director of culinary services, converts the deli area to a Mediterranean concept for the day. Among the dishes served are swordfish puttanesca, linguini Milan, chicken Calabrese and fettuccine Alfredo. UNH also offers a Mediterranean bar with dips, tabouleh, baba ghanoush, marinated feta cheese, and a hot artichoke and feta spread and pitas.

At Microsoft Corp., in Redmond, Wash., Mark Freeman, senior manager of services, offers a new Small Plates concept based around freshly prepared Mediterranean tapas. Designed to give guests smaller portion sizes and price points, Small Plates includes such favorites as shawarma, kefta kabobs, falafel, baba ghanoush, hummus and stuffed grape leaves. Freeman says they also feature gyros. The gyros are served in a pita wrap with onions, tomatoes, lettuce and tzatziki sauce. Microsoft also serves kebabs, such as lamb, which are grilled with spicy or sweet peppers. Regional foods from other parts of the world are rotated regularly. Freeman estimates the program has increased station participation by 6%.

Pastas Via Roma

A trip to Rome inspired healthful preparations.

In 2008, Rick Lasko, executive chef for Parkhurst Dining Services at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe, Pa., took a trip to Rome with members of the monastic community at the college. The university is not only a liberal arts college but also an archabbey, he explains. Lasko brought back inspiration from the trip to add to his program.

“We brought back some recipes from Italian chefs in Rome including our bucatini pasta all’Amatriciana, which is very simple and really terrific,” Lasko says. “It’s made with ingredients most people would have at home. But in Italy, the chefs go to the market daily, as part of the whole culture of eating there, and that is very important from both a health and social standpoint. It’s a fresh preparation that uses fresh, sweet grape tomatoes, olive oil, a bit of crushed red pepper, kosher salt and cured, not smoked, pancetta that’s rendered. You can add a bit of water for a thinner sauce. Cook the pasta to order and add white wine and Pecorino cheese. When I smell it, it takes me back to being in Rome.”

Lasko also says he makes a classic pasta Asiago, which is a great vegetarian option with tomatoes, basil, garlic and white wine.

“We’ll also do a Sicilian recipe with flank steak or round steak that’s marinated in red wine,” Lasko says. “To finish it, you take the drippings and add rum and cocoa powder. You can grill it and finish it by braising it in the oven with carrots and celery. You can also do a dish with beef knuckles marinated with fresh sage and a mirepoix of herbs and wine, which is then seared on all sides. You take the marinade and heat it, purée it, stir in a little rum and cocoa powder and finish it in the oven.”

The pastas are typically served in the monastery dining room for 60 priests. Pastas are cooked in the back of house and served as starter courses between salads and entrées. They’re also prepared for VIP lunches and dinners in small dining rooms. Lasko says a Sicilian dish that also is popular with the students is pastitsio, which is ground meat with mint and sautéed onions, with a béchamel sauce, served over penne pasta and baked like lasagna.

“The students also like our version of tiramisu for dessert with whipped, sweetened mascarpone cheese with a bit of Galliano, pastry cream and fresh fruit,” Lasko says. Mediterranean food, Lasko adds, is “very simple, healthful and natural–simple peasant food.”


Classic with a Twist

Ida Shen, assistant director of culinary and executive chef for Cal Dining at the University of California, Berkeley, likes to tweak a classic dish for a unique result. While serving as the food and beverage cochair for the 2010 NACUFS national conference, she created a recipe for orecchiette with melon and pancetta, which was inspired by a recipe she had read in a classic pasta cookbook.

“The first time I made the dish, I was following a recipe from “The Classic Pasta Cookbook” by Giuliano Hazan. I modified it over time and came up with this recipe when I decided to revise it for the conference.

For this dish you cube the melon and the pancetta or prosciutto small enough so that they remain no bigger than the pasta. You want them to nestle in the pasta and be easy to eat. To lower the fat content, you can use evaporated milk instead of cream. The melon needs to be ripe but firm. Play with the type of melon you use; each one gives the dish a different flavor profile.

I like the dish because when most people think about prosciutto and melon, they never think of adding it to pasta. However, it does make for a lovely summer dish when you add orecchiette pasta.

This was pretty much taking a classic pairing and adding the pasta to it. One can do that with most classic sweet and savory or fruit and protein pairings. For example, I have also made a dish of sautéed white peaches and shrimp over ricotta ravioli, and a Chinese duck salad that incorporated melons, strawberries and grapes with five-spice roast duck and napa cabbage.”

Orecchiette with Melon and Pancetta

24 (2-cup) servings

4 lbs. orecchiette or rigatoni pasta
Olive oil
6 lbs. fresh ripe, but firm melon, such as Ambrosia, Crenshaw or Persian, 1/2-in. dice
8 tbsp. butter
1 1/2 lbs. pancetta or prosciutto, diced
1 1/2 qt. heavy cream
1 1/2 cups fresh basil or mint, chopped
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 lbs. Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated

  1. Cook pasta until just short of al dente. Drain pasta and drizzle with olive oil to prevent from sticking. Place pasta flat on sheet trays or hotel pans and cool in blast chiller or walk-in fridge. Store in Ziploc bags or sealed plastic container; refrigerate and use within several hours.
  2. For each serving, to order: Melt ½ tsp. butter in sauté pan over medium heat. Cook 1 oz. pancetta until crisp. Add 4 oz. melon dice and heat for 30 seconds. Add ¼ cup cream, about 1 tbsp. herbs and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Bring to simmer. Stir in ¼ cup cheese and 1 1/3 cups pasta. Stir and heat until warm . Plate and garnish with additional cheese or herbs.