In the grand American tradition of creating new fare by combining local American products and the inspirations, recipes and techniques of world cuisine, a new food trend has emerged in U.S. restaurants and — we hope — home kitchens.
This innovative style is beginning to get a name.
Some call it innovative Mediterranean or Mediterranean-American. In California there is a Cal-Med style of cooking best exemplified by Alice Waters (although some would call hers Cal-French or even Cal-Provencal). Interestingly, this style of cooking doesn’t exist in the Mediterranean, and I would argue it ironically can’t exist in the Mediterranean.
One of great attributes of American cooking is that Americans are less constrained by tradition than other cultures. There is an upside and a downside to that. The downside is often soulless international eclectic food ignorant of foundations inspired by extravagance, faux-dietetics, fads, gigantism, disrespect and foolishness. The upside is embryonic dishes laying a foundation for a new cuisine. Local American products and ingenuity tied to Mediterranean culinary sensibilities holds great promise.
For lack of a better term, we can call this new style innovative Med-American. Two chef-practitioners in particular offer us some insight into this cuisine, although there are many more. Chef Ana Sortun of Oleana restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., and chef Suzanne Goin of Lucques restaurant in Los Angeles produce popular food in this style. Most important, much of their food respects the source cuisine, and a few preparations are reproducible in the home kitchen.
A look at their menus lets us trace their inspiration. Remember that what follows is textual analysis and not restaurant reviews.
A mix of Mediterranean themes
Goin named her restaurant Lucques after a variety of Provencal olive. Goin is an accomplished chef and winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef California in 2006. An appetizer on her menu is called “spiced lamb tartare with fava bean puree, black olives and shaved pecorino.” We know that tartare means a preparation of ground or very finely chopped raw meat, almost always tenderloin of beef or lamb, and the fact that it is spiced lamb is a dead giveaway that this dish is none other than kibbe nayya, a delectable and famous Lebanese meze said to come from the town of Zahle. Properly made in the Lebanese style, lamb tenderloin is traditionally pounded in a large mortar until a paste. It’s made in a food processor today, and then mixed with fine bulgur and spices such as allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne and cumin and served raw with a drizzle of olive oil, almost like a dip. Although known throughout the Mediterranean, Goin’s fava bean puree is either the Egyptian biṣāra, heavily flavored with herbs such as coriander leaves, or a southern Italian-style puree with olive oil. Goin’s preparation may have entirely different spicing, but the theme is clear.
A main course dish on Lucques’ menu is called “grilled whole branzino with cumin couscous, summer squash, yogurt and charmoula.” Now this dish is more of a hodgepodge mix of culinary traditions. Charmoula, or properly sharmūla, (also transliterated as tchermula) is a Moroccan relish-marinade used for fish cookery. It is made by mixing very finely chopped coriander (cilantro), parsley, garlic, onion and sometimes tomatoes and seasoning it with lemon juice, olive oil, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, cinnamon, saffron, salt and pepper. Branzino is the Italian name for sea bass. Many restaurants prefer the Italian word branzino or the French word loup de mer rather than the English sea bass. I have no idea why, unless it’s an attempt to seem more sophisticated. But now the dish gets a little weird, because although it has been established that we have something of a Moroccan theme here, with the sharmūla and cumin couscous, the Italian branzino creeps in, but that’s just a name, a fish is still a fish. We also have the yogurt paired with the sharmūla. That’s truly strange, because yogurt is not a food of North Africa or Morocco in particular, and it is never eaten with fish. In the hands of a talented cook such as Goin this probably all tastes great, but in terms of Mediterranean regional culinary aesthetics it’s jarring.
Sortun’s restaurant Oleana has received stellar reviews, and she won the James Beard award as Best Chef Northeast in 2005. Her food is a perfect example of innovative Mediterranean. She doesn’t mix traditions as much as Goin does and sticks closer to the parameters of the inspiring source cuisine. Sortun is very much influenced by Turkish and Levantine Arab spicing primarily and North African spicing secondarily. For example, she offers an appetizer called “heirloom tomato kibbeh and heirloom tomato dolma with labne.” Unless diners are knowledgeable about Mediterranean food, I’m sure they ask the waiter what that means. Personally, I like when a chef encourages the diner to ask the waiter questions: It helps them understand and enjoy the food better.
“Kibbeh” is nothing but a Levantine Arab food of ground meat mixed with fine bulgur and spices formed into a hollow torpedo-shaped ball for stuffing. Kibbe is grilled, fried, eaten raw and poached in yogurt. So it’s hard to figure out what a tomato kibbe is without asking the chef. It might be a tomato stuffed with something, probably bulgur or a lamb, except we know it’s not because Sortun already has a stuffed tomato on the plate. A dolma is the Turkish word for stuffed vegetable and labne (or lubny) is strained yogurt. After I asked Sortun how the dish was made we learn that the tomato is grated and whisked in with diced green bell pepper, red bell pepper paste, lemon juice, cumin, lots of scallions, olive oil and bulgur and spread thinly on a plate topped with tomatoes halves stuffed with the lubny. Sortun says that the Turkish cooks she knows call anything that is mixed with bulgur a kibbeh or kofta. Fair enough, although note that Arab cooks do not. This is an innovative dish, and if you served it to an Arab they would probably peg it as some kind of Turkish preparation.
Sortun also serves a quite alluring “duck shawarma with pickled green tomatoes and green beans with cardamom-rose yogurt.” Shawarma is the Levantine Arab version of the Greek gyro and Turkish doner kebab. However, here the chef braises duck legs seasoned with cumin, coriander and cardamom and then debones them. Sortun crisps the meat briefly, places it upon homemade flatbread with lightly dressed purslane, dried rose petals, cardamom-seasoned yogurt, and pickled green tomatoes and sauteed green beans, and serves it flat like a pizza. You can wrap it up or eat it like a taco. The dish sounds, and is, far more elegant than its street food origins. Frankly, it’s far removed from authentic shawarma which, traditionally, is layered lamb and lamb fat pressed together and spit-roasted on a vertical rotisserie in front of either an electric heating element or a tower of balconies of red hot charcoal. The carver slices the meat off the spit. In Syria, it is wrapped in thin flatbread called marqūq bread, which is just about identical to the Armenian lavash bread that one sees in many markets now. The Syrian carver puts a dollop of creamy lamb fat into the bread with tons of parsley and bright pink pickled turnips. Sortun’s duck shawarma is an extrapolation on all this, and it works well.
For the home cook
I imagine there is a lot of Med-American cooking going on in homes now as we see more and more foods described as “Mediterranean” in our supermarkets. If you want to try dishes like the ones Sortun and Goin offer in their restaurants, check out their cookbooks:
Ana Sortun’s book is “Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean” (Regan Books.)
Suzanne Goin and Teri Gelber wrote “Sunday Suppers at Lucques: Seasonal Recipes from Market to Table” (Knopf).
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photo by Chef Ana Sortun