As foodservice operators look for more ways to emphasize healthful dining, Mediterranean cuisine has become more and more important. The diet is generally healthful with fresh foods and unique flavors. Common characteristics include the use of olive and vegetable oils and the high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, grains, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds with less attention on meats.
Some companies, such as Pittsburgh-based Parkhurst Dining Services, have created programs that feature Mediterranean cuisine. Parkhurst’s program is called Hemisflavors. Grace Zarnas-Hoyer, of Hoyer & Associates, Inc., which manages marketing and public relations for Parkhurst Dining Services, explained Hemisflavors, a program that includes several Mediterranean countries.
“Although the program was initially launched in 2007, new and exciting Mediterranean recipes are added all the time,” says Zarnas-Hoyer. “Parkhurst has also made a number of overall changes that reflect the Mediterranean diet ideal, using healthy oils and adding more grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables, the latter through its FarmSource program—our local sourcing and sustainable program, which purchases fresh food from over 100 of the finest local farms and growers’ cooperatives. This is very popular right now.”
One Parkhurst location that has embraced Mediterranean is Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.
“We have two programs where we feature Mediterranean,” says John Cummings, general manager of residential dining for Parkhurst at Bucknell. “This cuisine is whole body and healthier, dramatically different from the typical American diet. We feature legumes, vegetables, oils and vinegars with techniques and recipes from Spain and Sicily. This is very successful in our college dining. For marketing, we hang flags from the various countries and show examples of the dishes available.”
Besides being a healthy option, Mediterranean cooking allows for expanse on the part of the chef. Brian Ritchie, Bucknell’s executive chef, likes Mediterranean because it’s healthy, flavorful and he gets to be creative.
“I use a lot of roasted and grilled vegetables, olives, beans, olive oils, nut oils, specialty oils and different vinegars,” Ritchie says. “We also use a lot of chickpeas.”
Bucknell features two or three panini sandwiches each week. They do lean grilled chicken with roasted red peppers and feta cheese, lean roast beef with garlic aïoli and fresh spinach and a roasted veggie panini with olive oil and a roasted garlic aïoli.
“We also do a hummus wrap with a baby spring mix and a sesame tahini sauce on the panini grill,” he says. “We grill it fast just for the markings.”
Ritchie makes several Greek artichoke dishes and also serves tapas items, which are derived from Spain.
“We take a Spanish tortilla, which is made from potato, and fill it with various ingredients,” Ritchie says. “We also make a piquillo pepper pesto that we can spread on the inside before adding other ingredients.”
Bill Zimnoch, senior general manager for Parkhurst at Philadelphia University, feels Mediterranean is all about the style.
“Lamb and yogurt are good for you,” Zimnoch says. “With lentils and quinoa, it’s the style. It’s healthy without featuring it as healthy. They try it because there is more of an interest, and it’s also recognizable. We use olive oil instead of canola, chickpeas instead of rice.
“Mediterranean eating is using the right oils and spices,” he adds. “The vegetable or the grain is the center-of-the-plate item. We do couscous with chicken, herbs and lemon or they can add meat or fish. We get the flavor from the couscous and the vegetables; the protein is more of an added side.”
Harvard University Dining Services places an emphasis on Mediterranean cuisine for its health benefits, according to Crista Martin, director for HUDS marketing.
“Our Heart of the Plate concept at the Harvard School of Public Health is based on the Mediterranean diet, which the SPH Department of Nutrition strongly advocates,” says Martin. “At Harvard, a new Mediterranean Mezza station was introduced on the residential seasonal cycle menu after hosting several food carts in Harvard Yard.”
Martin Breslin, director of culinary operations for HUDS, explains the concept.
“We had a Middle Eastern Mediterranean al fresco cart over the summer that was very successful,” Breslin says. “We had beef kabob, on Syrian bread, with grilled oregano steak tips, lettuce, tomato, cucumber with a hot chili sauce. Then we would offer a squirt of tahini or tzatziki. We also had a chicken shawarma with shredded radish, lettuce and chopped pickles. We sprinkled powdered sumac on top; it’s like a lemon tart vinegar flavor.
“In our resident program, we have a more Spanish Mediterranean table where most of the food is at room temperature except the saffron brown rice pilaf. We offer oven-cured plum tomatoes, rosemary toasted almonds, tuna, orange scented aïoli, grilled zucchini and roasted eggplant with olive oil.”
At Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, it is likely that Mediterranean menu items will become regular features.
“We ran a multicultural bar in our main cafeteria featuring cuisines from around the world,” says Bill Cunningham, production manager for food and nutrition. “The Mediterranean Day was one of the most popular.”
Paninis are as popular as they are diverse.
The panini is a sandwich that originated in Italy before it burst onto the international scene. Typically, the sandwich is grilled on a panini press, and the bread is usually an artisan type, such as ciabatta or rosetta. The bread is cut horizontally and the sandwich is filled with a variety of ingredients found traditionally in the Mediterranean region. The original panini featured ham, prosciutto or salami with cheese, but has evolved into hundreds of variations.
At Kingman Regional Medical Center in Arizona, Nutrition Services Director Robin Rush, R.D., says her department offers Mediterranean fare several times per week at either an action station, grill or hot line.
“Mediterranean food is very popular right now, and we plan to offer more selections in the future,” she says. “People enjoy it and you can’t get any better than Mediterranean.”
Rush says their Mediterranean pizza with hummus is popular, but the panini grill is a constant hit for lunch and dinner.
“Grilled panini sandwiches go like crazy,” she says. “We have roasted peppers and cheeses with garlic pesto sauce, portabella and fresh basil, salmon with a chopped tomato salsa; there are so many variations. Our Production Manager/Chef, Annette Euell, is also developing a recipe for roasted veggie ciabatta sandwiches for the grill and they will include eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, roasted red peppers, onion, hummus and basil pesto on ciabatta bread. We are planning to increase our Mediterranean choices as they are popular and a healthier choice for a healthier lifestyle. We are in process of purchasing a combi convection/microwave oven that will expand our capabilities.”
Patricia Klos, director of Dining and Business Services at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., says that in a recent renovation one unit was renamed Café Mediterranean.
“Part of our population originated from that part of the world,” she says. “Panini has become very popular; it’s crisp, filling and very flavorful.”
Some of the more popular American versions of paninis at Tufts are chicken Sahara, eggplant gouda and turkey Italiano with mozzarella and asiago.
“We do a make-your-own panini and salad bar,” she says. “Sometimes it’s simply peanut butter and jelly, but they also have creative concoctions of their own, which they really seem to like.”
At the mezza bar, customers assemble items on a platter, much like a salad bar. Students select from different greens, vegetables, hummus, cured meats, olives, stuffed grape leaves, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, balsamic vinegars and boiled eggs.
“Paninis can be snacks or small meals,” Klos says. “People align their appetite with their budget.”
Mediterranean is the mother of creative cooking—no one knows this like a native.
San Diego State University’s Executive Chef Ahmed Shazly obtained his culinary training at the Scottsdale Culinary School in Arizona and has 17 years in the industry. Born in Port Said, Egypt, Shazly came to America when he was 27. He began his career as a sous chef and then a chef at a restaurant. He also worked as a banquet chef at a country club and an executive chef at a hotel before joining SDSU.
“Mediterranean is the food from where I grew up. I love the freshness of the food and the combinations of the flavors.
As a kid, I watched my mother cook. After I got my business degree, I went into the army. I was an officer in the Air Force. I spent three years in Kuwait before I came to the United States. I got a job as a bus boy, then a waiter. Business got bad and one day the chef didn’t show up so I had to cook. I’ve been in the kitchen ever since. Someone told me I had the skills to be a chef. I started here as a production supervisor before I became executive chef about three years ago.
I like to concentrate on Mediterranean food, which includes Portugal, Spain and Italy, but also Northern Africa and the Middle East. You have the fresh basil, fresh oregano, parsley and thyme; you marinate this into the meat, sometimes with cumin and curry, and it adds a lot of flavor. You can smell it when it’s cooking.
We have a minestrone bar here, with a choice of ingredients. You can have beef, chicken or vegetable with orzo and my own tomato broth. You can add spinach, zucchini, other squashes, carrot or eggplant and kidney beans. You eat it in a bowl, but it’s not a soup. It’s good for students because they can pick what they want. The orzo is in the sauce; the meat and the beans and the other things are on top.
Are you familiar with a shawarma? It’s a pita sandwich like a gyro from Greece that’s also popular in the Middle East and Egypt. It’s served with salad, parsley, turnips, pickled gherkins or cabbage and a variety of sauces. You cook it on a stick, the chicken, lamb, turkey or beef, then you slice it. So I got the idea to do a buffet with this. The meat is marinated for two days with some cumin, curry, lemon and herbs and cooked on a rotisserie. I slice the meat off and I’ll sauté it with Egyptian rice and curried tomato sauce, like my mom used to serve me. It’s long-grain rice with orzo, chicken base, salt, pepper, lemon and tarragon—it’s like a rice pilaf from Italy.
We do an orzo and seared salmon Florentine dish, with spinach and some herbs. This is filling but healthy. Mediterranean food is good for you because it’s simple and fresh, with healthy oils. Cheese is optional.
Many of the foods are vegetarian, like hummus (chickpea and sesame seed paste dip with lemon, garlic and soy sauce) and baba ghanoush (an Arabic dish of seasoned and mashed eggplant). We have a vegetarian area here that is 90% fat free and most of it is Mediterranean-style food. We do an Italian or Mediterranean wrap with lettuce, roasted bell pepper, onion, garbanzo beans and a yogurt sauce in a housemade gourmet tortilla. We do a carrot and zucchini veggie patty, sautéed in olive oil, served with various dips. Also we do a Nicoise salad with salmon, fresh greens, Swiss cheese and Kalamata olives, sometimes with crumbled egg, capers or potatoes. We have falafel with garbanzo beans mixed with onion, cilantro and a little cumin. We mix a little egg and Italian breading and sauté in olive oil. It doesn’t have to be greasy to be crispy.
Sometimes we do theme dinners with dessert. We do baklava, custards and I do my own puff pastries with glazed banana, apple and raisins, baked in the oven. There is also a couscous dessert with a little sugar, butter and roasted walnuts. You can add coconut.
One day, I came up with the idea for a sweet pizza. I use pizza dough with butter, sugar, cinnamon and black and white sesame seeds. You put it in the oven and bake it like a pizza. It bakes in three minutes at 500°F. We make about 55 Mediterranean sweet pizzas a day. The thing about cooking is you get to be creative. The Mediterranean is where it all began.”