I am struck by the number of times over the years that I have been asked to explain my style of cooking. It is not that I don’t know but rather that I struggle with putting it into words. Lenore and I promote the benefits of eating in the Mediterranean style. But that doesn’t quite describe our style of cooking because the word Mediterranean in the mainstream is frequently associated with Greek, and though we love Greek cuisine, our lifestyle, isn’t. Of course, we called ourselves EVOO after extra virgin olive oil, because it’s the oil I choose to use most of the time.
This year we have embarked on a rather daunting task that has both of us awed by the amount of preparation required. Hats off to those who have written their own cookbooks! Our publisher wants to know just what our style of cooking is, and so started another awkward attempt to put into words how we prefer to cook! In order to do it justice I found myself going back in time.
In 2001 in Seattle we found a little Italian restaurant overlooking the city that was a little tired and in need of some new TLC. Being sold by owner, we were the only buyers looking. We hired an architect to show us that the remodeling we wanted would work. It was looking good and we were finally going to open the restaurant we had only dreamed about. At the same point in time we had a scheduled trip to Italy; the cafe owners were fine with waiting until we returned to complete the sale, and so off we went happily on our three-week vacation! In Italy we met up with several of our friends in Florence and they wanted to know about the restaurant. “What’s your style of cuisine?” (There’s that question again), and “What will you name it?”
Lenore summed up that we love cooking cuisines that use olive oil as the preferred fat, and of course Italian food is a favorite. One night during a lovely Tuscan dinner with our friends, the name, Oliva, (olive in Italian) earn the most votes. Check that off our list. The rest of the trip continued our focus on what was waiting at home. We bought some hand-painted Italian pottery that would fit nicely in our cafe. We learned as much as possible about olives and olive oil, too. It was a wonderful time.
Upon returning to Seattle, we discovered the bank had foreclosed on “our” cafe, sold to another buyer, and we were out. What a lesson to learn; once we got over the shock, we decided it wasn’t meant to be. At that point we took a drastic detour from our plans to find a restaurant of our own.
To mourn our loss of the cafe, we went to our favorite get-away. We had been weekending in Cannon Beach ever since we moved to Seattle! It was on this weekend we decided to put the money we saved for our restaurant toward building our beach house. Our spirits lifted and by April 2002 we had found the property, the builder had broken ground and we were in motion to the ocean! A year later our get-away was complete. It was about this time that we also picked up a standard poodle puppy to enjoy the beach with us. We named her Olivia—not quite the same as the restaurant name but by then, we had really moved on!
Little did we know we would turn our second home into our primary residence. We gingerly entertained the idea of opening a restaurant, but when the concept of a cooking school came up once again, we were in motion.
Again, the question surfaced: What is your style of cuisine? So once and for all, here is my recipe for what cooking in the Mediterranean style means to me. It is like a chunky guacamole with pieces of ideas that make for surprisingly different experience.
Lenore tells me this list is very close to the highly touted Mediterranean healthy lifestyle diet. Studies show people who live in the Mediterranean countries have the lowest rates of chronic disease and the highest life expectancy. Health organization studied these eating patterns to design a Mediterranean food pyramid, which shows most of the daily food intake from plant sources: fruits, vegetables, bread, grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Processed foods are to be avoided. Locally grown seasonal ingredients are preferred. The fat of choice is olive oil. Other fats in the form of cheeses and yogurt are minimal. Fish weekly and red meat no more than once a month, focusing on leaner cuts. Fresh fruit is the preferred and traditional dessert, avoiding significant amounts of refined sugar. One to two glasses of wine per day with meals rounds out the regime with a large dose of regular exercise (walking) throughout the week, of course.
The lands of the Mediterranean basin include Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, The Middle East, and North Africa. The sea itself touches the shores of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Historically the cuisines of these places grew out of the fact that the sea is at its heart, so no wonder fish and shellfish dominate cuisines. The rough rocky terrains tended to inhibit pasturing cattle, not so much sheep (lamb), which are more prominent, but still used more for special times than daily fare.
Given these same regions with twenty first century changes and influences, and we probably see less of the healthier peasant characteristics of their cuisines. And yet, perhaps after centuries of eating low on the food chain the tradition continues enough, even with modern availability of meats and dairy foods. In addition, the trade of spices and the use of spices in its cuisine have significant influence, too. Spices were considered much more than just seasonings and were touted to propel foods to the luxurious, fine and pungent, accolades we still use today. The contrast between then and now is perhaps best seen with dessert that has evolved from simply fruit to the amazing sugary sweets for special occasions and traditional celebrations. For sure, we owe much to the Mediterranean for its purity of ingredients, boldness of tastes, and simplicity of preparations.
I guess I am comfortable now saying that my style of cuisine is to cherry pick from the myriad of Mediterranean dishes, use my locally available ingredients, and put a whole small meal on a plate! Here’s an example of a plate that somewhat replicates the Mediterranean pyramid along with this week’s recipes.
Picture at the base of the pyramid, savory green salad coated lightly with lemon infused extra virgin olive oil. Choose a 2-3 ounce filet of Washington or Oregon wild sturgeon or pacific cod; marinate it in a spicy buttermilk blend for up to four hours and then pan sauté Building on top of the fried fish is a large dollop of rustic hummus topped off with warm minted sesame seed vinaigrette over quickly sautéed julienne carrots. Wine: Abacela Syrah. Dessert: Baked figs with Grilled blood oranges, Ice wine Sabayon and Candied walnuts
2 1/2 TBS paprika
2 TBS salt
2 TBS garlic powder
1 TBS black pepper
1 TBS coriander
1 tsp ground mustard
1 TBS onion powder
1 TBS cayenne pepper
1 TBS dried leaf oregano
1 TBS dried thyme
1-2# sturgeon steaks, block cut 3-4 oz each
1 ¼ cups buttermilk
As needed vegetable oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
Method: In a medium bowl, combine spices and herbs; mix well and reserve. Or, purchase a blend with similar ingredients.
In a large bowl, gently toss the sturgeon with 1½ tablespoons of the spice mixture; add the buttermilk and let marinade under refrigeration for 1 hour.
Preheat enough oil in a large sauté pan to fill the bottom ¼ inch; heat to almost smoking. Combine the flour with1 tablespoon of spice mix in a bag; remove the sturgeon pieces from the buttermilk and add to the bag in batches, tossing to coat with the seasoned flour; shake to remove any excess breading and place on a parchment lined sheet pan until ready to pan fry. Add to the hot oil in batches and cook, turning, until golden brown and cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Drain on paper towels and season lightly with spice mix.
1 lb. serves 3-4, 2 lbs. serve 4-6
8 oz garbanzo beans, cooked
2 ea. garlic cloves, minced
1 TBS parsley, chopped
1 tsp lemon juice
TT Sea salt
1 1/2 cup EVOO Method: Rough chop garbanzo beans. (You may use blender or food processor, but we like the texture better this way.)
Blend all ingredients. Taste as you go. Flavors will intensify as they sit. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.
MINT VINAIGRETTE OVER BLANCHED JULIENNE CARROTS
1 shallot, minced
2 clove garlic minced
¼ cup parsley, finely chopped
¼ cup mint, finely chopped ¼ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup EVOO
2 cups match stick cut carrots
As need e sea salt, pepper and coriander
Method: combine shallots, garlic, parsley, mint and vinegar in a medium bowl; whisk to combine; place bowl on a towel for control and begin drizzling in oil while whisking to combine; adjust seasonings with sea salt, pepper and coriander. Blanch carrots 2-3 minutes in boiling salted water. Drain well, toss with vinaigrette and serve.
BAKED FIGS (PEARS MAY BE SUBSITUTED) serves 4
8 ripe figs or 4 small Anjou Pears, whole unpeel, pricked with fork
2 TBS honey
Juice of 1-2 oranges
Zest of 1/2 orange
2 TBS brandy
2 bay leaves
Method: Place upright in baking dish. (prick to allow juice to penetrate better). Pour remaining ingredients–should cover 1/4″ in bottom of pan. Cover with foil and bake 25-30 min until fruit is tender. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle with sugared walnuts.
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup walnut
Place in heavy bottom sauté pan over medium high heat. Move walnuts around in the pan to coat well while sugar is melting. When lightly brown about 4-6 minutes, remove to silicone sheet lined pan to cool at room temperature. When cool break apart and serve. Note: nuts will still have sugar granules.