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Mediterranean Cuisine: Old Tradition, Fresh Idea
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Annette M. Mowad
Because lamb and goat are readily available in many countries in the Mediterranean area, they are a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. "People of Mediterranean descent love barbecued lamb and goat. It is a popular way of preparing these types of meat," Mansour says.
Kibei is a very popular dish, which is often made with lamb. Kibei is a mixture of lamb and rice or wheat, seasoned to taste. It is either baked in the shape of a loaf or pressed into small patties and baked into individual pies.
Wheat has always been an important grain in the Middle East diet. Cracked wheat is often used in kibei, tubuli and stuffed grape leaves. Its popularity is due mostly to its usefulness. Wheat may also be eaten as a side dish alone in place of rice or potatoes.
Another plus to Mediterranean dishes is that all vegetables that are used must be fresh. Salads such as tubuli require all fresh ingredients. This salad consist primarily of parsley, tomatoes, cracked wheat and onion if desired. This salad is then covered with a generous helping of fresh squeezed lemon and just a touch of olive oil. Tubuli makes a wonderful summertime meal or a flavorful side salad for almost any meal. Tubuli not only tastes delicious but contains only about 140 calories per serving.
Stuffed grape leaves is a popular and more commonly known dish. Canned leaves may be used or they can be picked straight off the vine. Fresh leaves can be frozen and then thawed when they are ready to be used. Once the leaves have thawed, the moisture from the ice will make them tender enough to roll and fold.
When the grape leaves are ready, a small spoonful of ground lamb and rice are placed on a leaf. The leaf is tightly wrapped into a small oblong bundle with its ends tucked in securely, and lemon juice is poured over it for a tart flavor. Toothpicks are often used to secure the grape leaves while they cook. Stuffed grape leaves are steamed slowly in a pot with very little water on a bed of lamb bones for added flavor for 30 to 40 minutes.
Olive oil is a main ingredient in the preparation of many Mediterranean foods. Olive oil is much lighter than most cooking oils and does not contain animal fat, which can increase the cholesterol in the body. Olive oil have varying flavors that enhance the flavor of the foods prepared with them. Each country uses different types of olives, and the varying techniques of raising the olives will affect the quality. Olive oil can be used in baking, cooking vegetables or in preparing salads as a light dressing with lemon and spices.
Although cheese is not used very often in Mediterranean cooking, it is still a definite favorite in the diet. A large number of cheeses, which range from mild to very sharp, provide variety. Halumi cheese has a slightly pungent smell. It is a sharp, oily and tasty cheese, which makes an excellent spread served on crackers or in pita bread. Feta cheese, another Middle Eastern favorite, has a slightly salty, sharp taste and is eaten mostly as an appetizer with crackers or fruit. Because cheeses are so popular, they are often eaten alone or prepared in a sandwich with sausage, tomato, avocado or other condiments.
Breads in the Mediterranean lands are eaten with most meals in one form or another. Breads and pastries are a very important part of the Mediterranean diet. Syrian or pita bread is prepared and eaten most often with Mediterranean dishes. This is a very light, round bread usually made with yeast, wheat, flour and salt. Pita bread is hollow in the middle and can be eaten alone or stuffed with almost everything for a quick snack. The pita bread is often used much like a Mexican tortilla either to scoop up food or to be stuffed with other foods.
Butter bread is a bit heavier than Syrian bread and can accompany most meals. Its ingredients include flour, sugar, salt, yeast, evaporated milk, eggs and mahleb, a Syrian spice. This bread is glazed with beaten egg and milk. Butter bread is baked and often served in the shape of a cake.
Women of Mediterranean descent take their baking very seriously. When baking breads, pastries and desserts, the women will usually get together in a group and bake a large amount at a time. These baking get-togethers allow women of different generations to gather and socialize while baking wonderful pastries and breads.
Although the pastries are not very low in calories, they are all made from scratch. The recipes have been handed down from generation to generation and have preserved the quality and culture of Mediterranean cuisine.
One of the best known Mediterranean pastries is baklava. Fillo (phyllo) is used for making baklava. It is prepared dough already pressed into light thin sheets. Butter is generously brushed across at least fifteen sheets of the fillo dough and each sheet is sprinkled with a walnut, sugar and vanilla extract filling. The baklava is then covered with sugar-water and lemon-juice glaze and baked into a sweet, golden-brown layered pastry.
Another favorite pastry of the Mediterranean area is simbosic. Simbosic is made from the same dough used for butter bread. The filling is the same as that used for baklava. The dough is pressed into a large flat sheet using a rolling pin. With a regular sized glass, small flat circles are pressed into the dough. Each flat circle of dough is pressed out and a teaspoon of the filling is placed in the center of the dough and folded into a half-moon shape. Finally, the edged of the pie are pinched closed, and the tart is placed on a regular cookie sheet and baked into a small pies that resemble the Mexican empanada.
Mediterranean cuisine has much to offer the border area. The various recipes for many Middle Eastern dishes bring healthy new ideas and change of pace to our corner of the world. So the next time your family asks what's for dinner, surprise them with something a little out of the ordinary. Next time consider Mediterranean cuisine.