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The Mediterranean Table

Tour this ancient region with three flavorful dishes

Owen Dugan
Posted: April 23, 2003

Pastry chef Michael Moorhouse adds chocolate to the eastern Mediterranean pastry, baklavah.
 
 
  Ratatouille  
 
  Feta and Black Olive Crusted Roasted Leg of Lamb  
 
  Chocolate Baklava  
 
  Wine Suggestions  
 
  In Search of Mediterranean Cuisine
It's flavorful and good for you, but does it actually exist?
 
 
  When Mediterranean Meets American
Though pursits cringe, a new culinary amalgam is finding favor in U.S. restaurants
 
 

You can no more recreate the Mediterranean in your home kitchen than you can bottle sunshine. But with recipes from top Mediterranean chefs and the right ingredients -- tomatoes, herbs, some goat (or sheep) cheese, fish or lamb, and olive oil, which is essentially bottled sunshine -- you can come pretty close.

Each of the nearly 20 countries on three continents surrounding the Mediterranean Sea has its own distinctive regional cuisine. But these cuisines share staple ingredients, cooking processes, even dishes. The variety of the food eaten for centuries around this singular body of water is thrown into relief by its common denominators.

We asked three self-described Mediterranean chefs to contribute a course each to a menu our readers could prepare at home. Chefs Joyce Goldstein, Todd English and Michael Moorhouse proffered dishes representative of their approaches to Mediterranean food.

The first course was supplied by Goldstein, chef, teacher and cookbook author and possibly the preeminent American historian of food in the Mediterranean basin. While other chefs have Americanized the cuisine or combined elements from disparate cultures, Goldstein has hewed pretty close to the genuine article.

Her ratatouille recipe is emblematic of her work: This simple Provençal dish of eggplant, tomato, garlic, peppers, plenty of olive oil and sometimes zucchini is found in different forms around the Mediterranean. Spain has two versions, escalivada, in which the vegetables are grilled or roasted, and samfaina; Moroccans call it mishwyia or zahlouk, and add cumin, paprika and preserved lemon; while in Sicily it's called caponata, and usually has olives, capers and pine nuts. No matter the local variation, the bright flavors are the essence of Mediterranean food.

Goldstein recommends drinking rosé with the ratatouille. "Because it's still considered a girly wine, it needs to be prepared with macho foods, the big flavors like spices or tomato acid that would obliterate most whites." She kept French rosés on the list at Square One, her now-closed San Francisco restaurant, but found them less fruity than those made locally. A self-described "ecumenical drinker," the source of her rosé breakthrough was closer to home. "It had been seen as a sweet and fizzy date wine, then it was relegated to picnics. Then one time, I was making a paella and had a Phelps rosé, which showed just the perfect balance with the food. I never imagined rosé could be so good, especially with food."

After the true-to-tradition opener, the main course comes from the inventive end of the spectrum. English, who has described his cooking as "interpretive Mediterranean," sits atop a small restaurant empire. He is chef-owner of Boston's Olives and Figs, both of which have branches across the country, as well as restaurants Bonfire, Tuscany and Kingfish Hall.

His interpretations provide comfort and innovation on one plate. A single dish might contain elements from several regions -- couscous from North Africa, Italian mascarpone cheese, Greek yogurt sauce. What the food loses in authenticity, it gains in excitement.

The butterflied leg of lamb picks up the olive note of the ratatouille. As the old saying reminds us, the Mediterranean begins and ends with the olive tree. Its fruit is central to this cuisine. English uses an olive oil and herb marinade, with characteristic flourishes, then covers the lamb with an olive tapenade, goat cheese and rosemary bread crumbs. The flavors are all appropriate to the region, but the layering bears English's stamp.

Geography and flavor likewise guide his wine selection. "What I love about Mediterranean food is that it's peasant food, everyday, local food. The wine should fit that. We try to elevate -- to sophisticate -- the food, ... but you always have to think about the basic flavors. Olive oil, garlic, onion, herbs, spices in some areas, these are the important flavors, so you want good fruit and good acid in the wine."

One claim to fame of New York's Picholine, suppliers of our dessert recipe, has been owner Terrance Brennan's focus on the end of a meal. Desserts often contain Mediterranean accents such as blood oranges and other citrus fruits, pine nuts and almonds. The emphasis extends to wines, with 18 dessert wines available by the glass -- as many as there are still and sparkling wines by the glass, says beverage director Richard Shipman.

The baklava takes the archetypal eastern Mediterranean vehicle of phyllo dough and adds luxuriant chocolate to the traditional pistachios and cinnamon. Although pastry chef Moorhouse serves the dish with Bandol and mascarpone sorbets, we concentrated on drinkable accompaniments.

Shipman didn't mull over the 18 choices. He immediately suggested a sweet wine from a sun-baked volcanic island off Sicily: Malvasia delle Lipari by Hauner. "It's a passito Malvasia, so it has more body and intensity than most Malvasias, and the grape drying brings out a candied orange flavor. I'm a big fan of orange and chocolate -- this wine is a slam dunk with the chocolate."

In keeping with the convivial Mediterranean lifestyle, the majority of the cooking of this meal can be done ahead of time. The flavors of the ratatouille will develop over several hours, and it keeps, refrigerated, for a few days. The baklava needs to sit for a while to absorb the syrup and come to room temperature. The lamb requires some work during roasting, but because the meat is butterflied, the cooking time is pretty short, and as it needs to rest for a few minutes before it's carved, you can too. What could be more Mediterranean than relaxing with friends at the table during a leisurely dinner?

Ratatouille
Recipe by Joyce Goldstein
  • 2 large globe eggplants, peeled and cut in 3/4-inch cubes
  • Salt
  • 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 3 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 3 medium red bell peppers, cored, seeded and diced
  • 3 small zucchini, diced
  • 3 or 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Sprinkle cubed eggplant with 1 tablespoon salt and drain in a colander for about 30 minutes -- it will release some of its bitter juices. Rinse off the salt and pat the eggplant dry.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick frying pan. Add half the eggplant and sauté over medium-high heat, turning often, until tender; the eggplant must be tender and translucent, with no opaque whitish areas. Transfer to a bowl, and cook the remaining eggplant in 2 more tablespoons oil.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in the pan, and cook the onions until soft and pale gold, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook a minute or two longer. Add to the eggplant.

Heat 2 more tablespoons of oil and cook the peppers and zucchini until soft. Return the eggplant, onions and garlic to the pan and add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until the vegetables are blended, about 15 minutes. Stir in the basil and parsley, taste and adjust seasonings.

Ratatouille is best served warm or at room temperature, and it keeps well for about 3 days in the refrigerator. Serve on grilled slices of substantial bread. Serves 8.

Feta and Black Olive Crusted Roasted Leg of Lamb
Recipe by Todd English
  • One 5-pound leg of lamb, butterflied, and trimmed of excess fat
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • 4 to 5 cardamom pods, lightly crushed, or 1 large pinch ground
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup coarse dry bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 cup olive tapenade (recipe follows)
  • 1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

In a deep casserole or roasting pan, combine olive oil, garlic, orange zest, fennel, cardamom, ginger and red pepper flakes. Add lamb and turn to coat well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 12 hours. Let return to room temperature before cooking.

Melt butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add rosemary and bread crumbs. Cook until bread crumbs are lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Fold in parsley and set aside.

Preheat the broiler. Remove the lamb from marinade, brushing off the seeds. Place on a broiler pan or jelly roll pan. Broil 3 to 4 inches from heat source until well-browned on top, about 5 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 400 degrees F and cook the lamb in the center of the oven for 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove lamb from oven. Using a spatula, spread an even layer of olive tapenade all over the lamb. Spread (almost like spackling) feta cheese on top of paste. Top with the bread crumbs. Cook in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes more, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the meat registers 125 degrees F for medium-rare and 140 degrees F for medium. Remove from the oven. Let rest for at least 5 minutes before carving. Serves 8.

Olive Tapenade

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 4 oil-packed anchovy filets, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons drained capers
  • 1 1/2 cups Moroccan dry cured olives, pitted

Heat olive oil in a frying pan. Add garlic and sauté over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the anchovies, capers and olives and cook, stirring, 3 to 4 minutes. Let cool slightly, then place ingredients in food processor and pulse until you have a chunky paste. Makes 1 cup.

Sauteed Pea Shoots

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cups pea shoots or substitute 7 cups cleaned baby spinach leaves
  • Salt

Heat oil in sauté pan. Add pea shoots and sauté over medium-high heat until just wilted, about 1 minute. Season with salt.

Chocolate Baklava
Recipe by Michael Moorhouse
  • 1 cup unsalted pistachios, chopped
  • 1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 14 sheets phyllo dough (about 1/2 pound, 16-by-12-inch sheets), at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • Syrup (recipe follows)

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the nuts, chocolate, sugar, cinnamon and cloves.

Lay phyllo sheets flat on work surface and cut them in half crosswise so you have roughly 8-by-12-inch rectangles. Cover surface with a damp cloth so the sheets don't dry out while you work.

Using a pastry brush, butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch-square baking dish. Lay 2 sheets of phyllo in the bottom of the pan, letting excess go up the sides. Brush phyllo with melted butter. Repeat process until there are 10 sheets in the pan.

Sprinkle 1/3 of the chocolate mixture evenly over the surface of the dough. Place 4 sheets of phyllo in the pan, buttering them 2 at a time. Sprinkle another third of the chocolate mixture evenly over the surface of the dough and top with 4 more sheets of phyllo, buttering them 2 at a time. Sprinkle the remaining third of the chocolate mixture evenly over the dough. Lay the remaining 10 sheets of phyllo dough on top of the nut and chocolate mixture, buttering them 2 at a time, including the top sheet.

Trim any excess phyllo from the sides of the pan so that the pastry is level and neat. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Remove baklava from refrigerator and cut into 24 pieces with a sharp knife. Bake until golden, about 50 minutes.

Remove the baklava from the oven, and pour the syrup (recipe follows) evenly over the top. Allow the baklava to stand and absorb the syrup for at least 2 hours before serving. Store covered at room temperature. Makes 24 pieces.

Syrup

  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine all of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

Wine Suggestions

With each course coming from a different source, it seemed only right to ask the chefs to supply wine matches too. Goldstein selected wines for the first course; Glenn Tanner, wine director for English's Olive Group, matched the lamb; and Shipman, beverage director of Picholine and Brennan's Seafood and Chop House, chose the Malvasia for the baklava. Below are their primary selections, followed by two alternates. Wine Spectator scores and average current retail prices are given where available.

Ratatouille
First choice: Joseph Phelps Grenache California Rosé Vin du Mistral (NR, $25)
Alternates: Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé 2000 (87, $23); E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rosé 2001 (85, $10)

Feta and Black Olive Crusted Roasted Leg of Lamb
First choice: Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1999 (90, $65)
Alternates: Jean-Michel Gerin Côte-Rôtie Champin Le Seigneur 1999 (92, $40); Bodegas Sierra Cantabria, Rioja Cuvée Especial 1998 (87, $16)

Chocolate Baklava
First choice: Hauner Malvasia delle Lipari 2000 (NR, $24/375ml)
Alternates: Capezzana Vin Santo del Carmignano Riserva 1996 (90, $26); Charles Hours Jurançon Uroulat 1999 (89, $25)

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