Mediterranean cuisine is as varied as the countries that border the sea. The region features seafood, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes, chickpeas, olives, eggplant and various grains, but it’s the different spices and how they are used that often characterizes and differentiates dishes from these diverse cultures. While rosemary, thyme and basil are characteristic of Southern Europe, saffron, cloves and cinnamon dominate African cuisine, and mint, dill and cardamom are featured in Eastern Mediter-ranean cooking.
“We like to offer Moroccan cuisine with couscous, chickpeas and some coriander and cilantro,” says John McDonald, executive chef at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “We use coriander and cilantro in many of our marinades and dressings. We also use cinnamon in a lot of our sauces and rice dishes. It’s not a sweet profile, more savory. It gives the impression of sweetness without adding sugar.”
The region surrounding the Mediterranean is exceptionally fertile; herbs and spices flourish there. Also, because of the trade routes used throughout history, these sea-connected lands had access to even more exotic spices.
“Oregano and basil are so basic, we use them on a daily basis,” McDonald says. “We make a lot of different pesto sauces. We do a portabello mushroom soup with fresh tarragon and herbs. And rosemary is used on a variety of our marinades and roasted meats. It’s a very popular flavor.”
Saffron, si: Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. With its floral aroma and unique flavor, it lends a golden yellow hue to its accompanying ingredients. Originating in Asia, saffron is now grown in Greece and Spain. It can be added to pastas and rice and is essential for paella, a Spanish dish of rice, meat, poultry and seafood.
Mike Smith, executive chef for Restaurant Associates at the New York Times Building Café, finds saffron to be very popular among his diverse customer base.
“We use saffron quite a bit, usually in broth,” he says. “In our Kettle Program of one-pot meals, we offer a grilled salmon in a saffron vegetable broth with white wine, marjoram and oregano, served with a mixed arugula salad. Sometimes we’ll make a lobster broth with green olives and artichokes.”
With spring in the air, Smith likes to create dry rubs using Mediterranean spices for roasted meats.
“It’s infusing flavor without using any heavy sauces,” he says. “At the salad bar we offer grilled chicken with an infused spice rub.”
Smith likes to dehydrate olives to a powder, which he then mixes with different spices like cumin, coriander, basil and oregano.
“We’ll take that mix and make a crust on a lamb sausage or add it to couscous and Moroccan vegetables,” he says. “We also make a fresh lemon and orange dry zest. We turn it into a powder, add basil and rub it into something like a roast pork shoulder to increase the flavor and give it an extra boost.”
Smith says marjoram also makes several appearances in the rotating international menu, in the Greek and Moroccan cuisines.
More call for spices?: In years past, a variety of spices has seldom been a hallmark of hospital fare, but Janet Baker, director of nutrition services at Mt. Carmel St. Ann’s Hospital in Ohio, wants to change that.
“We recently revised our menu,” she says. “We added more spices because hospitals are known for bland food.”
Finding saffron too expensive, Baker made other flavorful dietetic adjustments that could fit in her budget.
“In the cafeteria, we’ve featured beans with hot sausage using crushed red pepper and fennel,” she said. “We have a rosemary chicken and a blackberry balsamic chicken with a blend of thyme, rosemary and marjoram. We also use a spice blend with garlic and vegetables. It just gives us a better flavor profile.”
Eric Cartwright, executive chef at the University of Missouri in Columbia, has added several Greek and Middle Eastern dishes to the campus menu in the last few years as he continues to experiment with exotic spices from these regions.
“We do sumac-marinated red onions with salt and pepper on a Greek burger, which has oregano, garlic and onion in it,” he says. “It’s the ground berry from the sumac bush with added salt, forming a magenta color. It’s got acidity to it and was used when citrus fruit wasn’t available. We’re also playing around with zahtar, which is found in a lot of Turkish cuisine, but we haven’t served it yet.”
Zahtar is a spice blend that is generally prepared using ground dried thyme, oregano and marjoram, sometimes with other spices like cinnamon, cloves, savory or sumac berries, mixed with toasted sesame seeds and salt. Though mixtures vary by areas, zahtar is always high in antioxidants.
“We do a Mediterranean curried bulgur dish with sunflower seeds, raisins, carrots, onions and coriander,” Cartwright says. “We also use floral coriander on our winter roasted squash. We peel and cube the squash, then coat the cubes with liberal amounts of the spice along with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. We roast that in a hot oven, 450°F, for 15 minutes, just to get it a little crisp on the outside.”
Beni Velazquez, CEC, executive chef at Stanford University Medical Center, Palo Alto, Calif., relishes opportunities to create new dishes by incorporating various spices.
“We do a special salad with salmon,” he says. “We grind together cumin, fennel, coriander, sea salt, black pepper and orange rind. We cover the fish with Spanish olive oil, coat it with the spice mix and pan-sear it. Then we bake it, forming a quarter-inch crust. We call this a spiced Mediterranean salmon salad with goat cheese, candied spicy pecans, fine julienned red onions, fresh orange segments and a citrus dressing of lemon, lime, orange and Spanish sherry vinegar.”
The signature salad has become a Stanford favorite.
“We use juniper berries in a marinade for rack of lamb,” Velazquez adds. “We mix olive oil, crushed garlic, black, green and red peppercorns, sea salt and fresh rosemary. We lollipop the lamb and let it marinate for at least an hour, sometimes overnight. We top off the dish with romesco sauce.”
Romesco sauce from Spain is a purée of roasted almonds, tomatoes, peppers, garlic and olive oil. Velazquez adds thyme, coriander and a little cumin to his version.
Do it yourself: Janet Paul Rice, associate director of dining services at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., seeks better control of menu items by being more spice savvy.
“We’ve been using more spices [in-house] and fewer preseasoned items,” she says. “When a manufacturer stops a line with a certain spice profile, you’re lost.”
Regarding a Moroccan spiced chicken breast they previously purchased, Rice says: “We asked, ‘how can we make it ourselves?’ It gives you control over sodium and fat. You have better control over your product.”
Concordia serves various herb-baked fish dishes, such as an herb-baked tilapia with butter, garlic and dill. Dining Services also does pork loins with different spices, like rosemary, garlic and caraway.
Keeping a healthy profile: Some use Mediterranean spices instead of salt. “We’re being creative by using healthy spices for flavor,” says Nancy Allen, chief of nutrition and foodservice at VA Illiana Health Care in Illinois. “When we get it right and it tastes good, all patients can have it. I’m not making two separate pots of food. If I spice it up and avoid using so much salt, then everyone can eat it, including those with dietary restrictions.”
Spencer Tan, executive chef at BYU-Hawaii, preaches health as the most important thing in life.
“When you use a lot of spice, you tend to use less salt, which is healthier,” he says. “Spices are good for you. Turmeric is good against cancer. The Moroccans, the Egyptians, they don’t have a lot of heart attacks or strokes. Americans don’t eat spice, just salt and pepper. Ginger kills intestinal parasites. I use only olive oil; it’s good for your body. Garlic is also good; you rub it into the barbecue and the aroma flies up.”
Tan marinates chicken in turmeric, ginger, lemon juice, cinnamon and clove powder for kebabs. He also concocts a chickpea and chicken stew with tomato, eggplant, lemon, cumin and cinnamon.
Making memories: At the Alzheimer’s Research Center in Plantsville, Conn., where Harry Parlee is director of dining and culinary arts, flavorful meals are important to the 130 residents, all of whom suffer from dementia.
Parlee uses a roasted garlic, rosemary demi-glaze for meatloaf and a fresh basil burgundy reduction for other meats. He also offers a roasted chicken breast with spinach, feta, sundried tomatoes, garlic and cumin.
“We do a stir-fry pork or chicken; we can’t go too heavily with spices, but we can pinch,” he says. “You can offer an extravagant stir-fry, but if they hear hot dog with beans or mac and cheese, they’ll jump for it. In the progression of the disease, the last thing they lose is their long-term memory, their comfort foods, flavors and smells.”
So, although he likes to experiment with the exotic, Parlee knows there’s a place for traditional Mediterranean spices.
“Although a lot of new trends are floating around, they are not functional with residents at our facility. However, some of the old spices, like garlic, oregano, basil and fresh thyme trigger memories. They work because they are able to touch deep-rooted experiences.”