It seems Mediterranean food is back in the news, as it should be. As an author who writes about Mediterranean cuisines, I am often asked about my favorite cuisine and recipes. These are impossible questions, but heck let’s give it a shot. So here are my five greatest celebratory dishes of the Mediterranean. You can’t please everyone and the list won’t include everyone’s favorite, but here are my choices for legendary dishes.
The Mediterranean has been the home of great feast celebrations at least since Odysseus sailed the wine-dark sea with his men feasting on roast lamb. The popularity of Mediterranean food today draws all of us to its classic meals. We see this popularity everywhere from the promotion of the Mediterranean diet, to so-called Mediterranean dishes in scores of restaurants, and on the pages of food magazines.
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Celebrate with these great dishes of the Mediterranean
As soon as we hear about its health benefits we’re presented with a variety of famous and not-so-famous celebratory meals that are extravagant and rich and delicious that belies our perhaps false notion that Mediterranean food is mostly green vegetables with a touch of olive oil.
A celebration in the Mediterranean is a big deal and here are, arguably, the five greatest preparations in the Mediterranean, any of which can be made to celebrate. Each of these dishes is utterly unforgettable.
The Moroccan bastila (also transliterated pastilla) is a magnificent pigeon pie rich with eggs, butter, almonds, spices such as saffron and ginger, herbs such as cilantro and parsley, and orange flower water. The dish is encased in thin pastry leaves called warka, which are like phyllo pastry leaves, and finally dusted with confectioner’s sugar and powdered cinnamon.
In Morocco, it’s usually eaten at the end of Ramadan. If you try the recipe, read it several times before beginning so you are familiar with what happens. Given how labor-intensive the preparation is, you’ll only want to make it for friends who truly appreciate good food, and who love Moroccan food already. You’ll need a 16-inch round baking pan.
A large steel pan of saffron-infused and yellow sticky rice with fish, shrimp and runner beans or with chicken is an invitation to a great feast in Valencia. One of the great misunderstandings about paella is that true Valencian Spanish paella is made in one of two ways, with chicken or with seafood, and never with mixed meats. Today there are many variations, including dishes that mix meats and seafood. To make paella authentically, you cook it in a flat steel pan over an open fire outside without ever stirring the rice. You’ll need an 18-inch steel paella pan that can be purchased online from Dona Juana.
This classic preparation of coastal Provence is almost never made at home and tends to be a restaurant dish. That doesn’t mean home cooks can’t make bouillabaisse. My recipe seems more complicated than it should be because I wanted a recipe that doesn’t makes compromises. You should follow it exactly, and you’ll have an experience identical to the one I had at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan in France, where we lingered over a bouillabaisse all afternoon. The gentle waves of the Mediterranean sea were lapping mere feet away from us while the air was redolent of saffron, fennel, orange, garlic, and rascasse, the essential scorpionfish.
The idea of a pasta pie is one of the most extravagant in all Italian cuisines. The 16th- and 17th- century cookbooks included recipes per far pasticcio (for making pie) which usually meant pasta pie.
One version of a pasta pie is the timballo, which is a kind of pasta pie or pasticcio in Italian. This dish is made in a ball mold that looks like a timbale or kettledrum, hence the name. One of the most famous renditions of this dish is found in the wonderful 1996 movie “Big Night.” In the film, the timpano (Neapolitan for timballo) is not made with a pastry crust, making its unveiling all the more tense as everything is held together precariously. One can make it in any kind of springform mold or deep pie pan with or without a short dough pastry crust.
The Arabs, Turks and Greeks all make a variation of the same preparation of spit-roasted, seasoned fatty meat on a vertical rotisserie. It is purely street food and never made at home, and perhaps shouldn’t be called “celebratory” as it is everyday snacking food in its birthplace. For me, though, every bite of a gyro is a celebration, so I include it.
The Turks call it döner kebabı, the Greeks gyro (pronounced YEE-ro), and the Arabs shāwurma. In Greece, a gyro is made with slices of meat rather than ground patties as it is in some places. Although it’s quite common to see electric rotisseries, many believe the hardwood charcoal rotisseries with their vertical shelves for charcoal are the best way to cook the meat.
The meat used for these dishes is varied. Generally it is a combination of the best cuts of top sirloin, loin, and shoulder of lamb. These cuts are not necessarily ground but pounded very thin, layered, seasoned and skewered.
Any one of these five preparations will be a challenge with a great reward. Make any of these and you will understand more about the culinary patrimony of the Mediterranean than you can imagine.
Bouillabaisse at the Tetou restaurant in Golf-Juan. Credit: Ali Kattan-Wright