The chefs who know Mediterranean cuisine best call it “sunny cuisine”, and there’s no better description. Ripe tomatoes and refreshing cucumbers, grilled meats, fresh herbs—you can’t help but be invigorated by the ingredients and flavors that make up restaurant menus in this part of the world.
When thinking about Mediterranean cuisine, you probably automatically default to Greek foods like kebabs and bagels. However, the azure waters of the Mediterranean touch 22 countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, so it would not be accurate to reduce cuisine to Greek food. From Spain, Portugal and Morocco in the west to Turkey, Syria and Lebanon in the east, Mediterranean cuisine is much more than hummus and gypsy.
Riviera restaurant group partner and director of culinary operations, holder of 26 Michelin stars Michael – Michael Diess was born in Cannes, a city on the Mediterranean coast in southern France (also home to the famous film festival).
His work has taken his kitchens all over the world, from Hong Kong to Tokyo to New York, but now he’s based in Florida, where he oversees operations at Mira in Miami Beach and Ava Mediterranean Aegean in Winter Park outside Orlando.
A Greek father, a Dutch mother, and growing up at his French grandmother’s table, Michaelidis developed a discerning palate early on. “We’ve always had beautiful produce: asparagus, strawberries, potatoes,” he told Yahoo Lifestyle. These ingredients inspired him to start helping his grandparents in the kitchen. At the age of 14, he knocked on the door of the most iconic hotel in Cannes for an internship, and his training began there.
Michaelidis takes me on a tour of his Mediterranean cuisine, punctuated with bright flavors like sumac and lemon, but grounded in freshness: the best seasonal ingredients, simple to prepare, and grounded in fruits, vegetables, and young herbs.
Mediterranean foods are the healthiest, experts agree
Of all the restaurants you can go to, dining at a Mediterranean restaurant — or a restaurant that represents cuisine from Mediterranean countries — is probably the healthiest option.
A review of the Mediterranean diet by the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed that the ingredients and preparations used in this cooking style — primarily fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains, ﬁsh, olive oil, a small amount of dairy and red wine — -Supports prevention of cardiovascular disease, increased lifespan and promotion of healthy aging.
Also, eating like this can help promote weight loss due to the abundance of nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods packed with healthy fats such as olive oil and the integration of whole grains such as bulgur used in parsley salad tabbouleh, etc. wait.
Simple ingredients, simple preparation are key to Mediterranean cooking
Although the Mediterranean spans nearly two dozen countries, each country’s cuisine has a common thread. “Olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs,” says Michaelidis. “Greece has oregano. France has the herb of Provence. Armenia, Lebanon and Israeli cuisine have parsley. Every country also grows grapes, so we use them in some sort of grape-leaf stuffing almost everywhere.”
Vegetables and fruits are plentiful throughout the region due to the similarly mild climate of the Mediterranean countries. Nuts are also a culinary staple, including walnuts and pistachios, found in desserts like kunefe (a sweet cheese pastry) in Turkey and baklava in Greece. Cheeses, such as Feta from Greece, Halloumi from Lebanon, Chevre from France, and ricotta salata and burrata from Italy, are fresh, unripened cheeses with a grassy flavor that maintain the quality of the sheep they are made from. And the smell of goat’s milk.
The techniques used in Mediterranean cooking are simple ones, but designed to accentuate the natural flavors of each ingredient. “Grilling, roasting and braising are the main techniques we use,” says Michaelidis. “Really healthy, but comforting. It’s something you can eat all the time”.
Drinks to pair with Mediterranean cuisine
For dinner, choose a light-bodied wine like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio to complement the freshness of the produce and the delicate flavors of grilled meats like chicken or fish. For heavier proteins or braised dishes, choose Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Cabernet Sauvignon over heavier wines like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Rosé wine is also a winner on Greek salads or sandwiches.
After dinner, enjoy a small digestif, such as Greek ouzo or French pastis or ouzo – both are infused with anise and liquorice, which neutralize aromatics like garlic and onions. Turkish coffee or mint tea from MENA countries are also elegant ways to end a meal.
For non-drinkers, consider a spritz made with citrus, pomegranate or cucumber with herbs like rosemary or mint.
The 3 Best A la carte Items for Beginners
Still not sure what to order on the menu? Michaelidis recommends choosing the items below that can be found on any menu for the best first-time experience.
Chopped Salad: This will surprise you – salads don’t need lettuce. In fact, most Mediterranean salads are “composed” salads that combine chopped vegetables with a light dressing (olive oil and lemon juice will often do the trick) as well as fresh herbs, salt and pepper. That’s it! Sometimes, cheeses like feta show up — Michaelidis has beautiful chunks of Macedonian feta on top of a Greek salad at Ava MediterrAegean — and tiny purple kalamata olives like in the garden found jewels. Just watch out for pits.
Seared or Grilled Whole Fish: Americans tend to have an aversion to whole animals on a plate, but whole fish straight out of the water is a classic Mediterranean preparation. At Ava, Michaelidis wraps a whole branzino (a mild white fish) in grape leaves and grills it in a salt crust, and the server slices it up at the table. Stuffing fish with lemon slices and oregano or other young herbs is another popular presentation.
Meatballs: Almost every Mediterranean cuisine has some version of minced meat mixed with savory spices, nuts, dried fruit, and herbs, then roasted—sometimes on a stick—and served with a sauce. In MENA countries it is Kofte made with minced lamb or beef. Spain has albondigas, Italy…well, you know. Yogurt sauces are popular with these morsels, sometimes mixed with herbs, grated or diced cucumbers, and lemon juice to offset the richness of the meat mixture.
1 thought on “Mediterranean Restaurant 101. From whole fish to chopped salads, beginners should order these dishes”
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