Sunday, September 27, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh Part 3-Eating Locally

Eating locally is the Make It Fresh part of the title for this series. It cannot be understated. What sets most Mediterranean cultures apart from us is the use of fresh, locally available, seasonal resources. The concept of a mass merchandiser that has everything you are looking for in one stop is unheard of in many cultures. You don't decide on what you are making for dinner and then run to the local Walmart Superstore to get everything you need. Your daily meals are dictated by what you find at the market that morning.

Think about it. Most of what we buy at the store comes from somewhere else. Lets factor in how long it took to get here, how much it cost to get it here and how many pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals were used in the preservation of the items we are purchasing so that they still look palatable. All of a sudden, our instant gratification, fast food lifestyle doesn't seem particularly appealing does it. Substitute that with freshly picked produce that came from a local farm, farm fresh eggs that were collected this morning, fish that has been caught this morning, locally produced wine and cheese, all at an affordable price. Sounds pretty good doesn't it.

In France, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Greece, all over the Mediterranean, a trip to the local market for food is a daily pleasure. That's not to say larger grocery stores don't exist, particularly in bigger cities, but in general, the local market is where most people find what they will be eating on any given day. When I spent 6 months in Paris studying for my Bachelor's Degree in French at the Sorbonne, I would pass by the local market on my way to school every day. I was taken aback by the colors, smells and tastes of the produce, cheeses and other items being sold there. I couldn't believe how fragrant a tomato could be when it was freshly picked or how pungent a fresh goat cheese could be. I had the same unique pleasure in Morocco and in Italy. Market after market, loaded with fresh ingredients of all kinds. It was eye opening and really changed my perspective of what good food really is.

For example, it wasn't unheard of in Morocco for someone to actually buy a live chicken in the market and then bring it home and feed it a specific diet depending upon what kind of dish that chicken would eventually be cooked in. I heard arguments about how one shopkeeper fed his chicken grain to fatten it, while another fed it parsley and cilantro so it would have the flavor of the parsley and cilantro he was using in his stew, even if it gave the meat a slightly greenish hue. The point being they were so passionate about what they were eating that they made sure to take the time not only to get the freshest chickens, but to treat them in such a way as to maximize their flavor. No pre-butchered, pretty plastic wrapped cut pieces in a refrigerator or freezer.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you should never shop at a grocery store again. There is a time and place for everything. What I am suggesting is that we maybe pay a little more attention to what we can find locally. If I can get farm fresh eggs within a 5 mile radius and Walmart is 15 miles away, doesn't it make more sense to go to the farm and get some fresh eggs?? Or if the Farmer's Market and Walmart are both equidistant, which in Princeton they are, doesn't it make sense to go to the market to pick up my produce, knowing that it was all picked fresh and grown locally, then to Walmart where I can't guarantee when it was picked and where it was grown and how long it took to get there. All of this is just good common sense. Your food will taste better and you will be supporting your local economy.

Mediterranean cuisine isn't something unreachable. It is very accessible simply through changing a few basic habits. Begin with stocking your spice cabinet with the basic spices of the region as we discussed in Part 2 of this series and then start looking at what you can find fresh and local. Then you are well on your way to adopting the basic tenets of the Mediterranean Diet.

For locally available resources, contact me and I'll send you a list of all of the farms locally that can offer you practically anything you need from meat, eggs and produce to herbs, spices and bread. Call at 815-454-2419 or email me at or you can log onto to find out what is available in your area.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh Part 2-Spices

One of the truly great pleasures of Mediterranean cuisine is the degree to which you eat with all of your senses. The single biggest aspect of this is the aggressive use of spices in these cultures. While most of the foods in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco and others are not inherently spicy per se, they are loaded with spices of all kinds and they aren't shy about applying them to their dishes. As a dish is brought in front of you, the first thing you notice is the wafting aroma from the dish that dances in your nose, preparing your taste buds for what they are about to experience. The spices are not only complex, but these cultures have mastered the art of combining spices you wouldn't traditionally expect to see together and in conjunction with meat for example. It isn't uncommon to pair traditionally "sweet" spices, like cinnamon and ginger, with chicken or lamb, adding a hint of dried fruit to create an unctuous sauce that is to die for.

Yet the use of spices in these cultures goes far beyond the food itself. One of the most profoud experiences I had in Morocco was in a spice shop in the souks of ancient Fez. The two hours I spent there were eye opening in the degree to which it showed me that every spice has not only a culinary purpose, but a medicinal one as well. People in these cultures truly eat for their taste buds and their health. The following are a few samples of what I learned that day.

Cumin, which is delightful with vegetables, meat and fish, is actually a powerful aid for intestinal discomfort. A teaspoon dissolved in a cup of water will cure any stomach ailment.

Saffron, which is the highly prized stamen of a crocus flower, and very expensive, is a wonderful immunological booster. A cream is often manufactured out of saffron which is used for skin irritations and acne.

Ginseng, also known as the Mandrake, is a common supplement that can aid in promoting circulation, hindering depression and helping against dizziness. Can often be steeped in hot water to make a soothing tea.

Nigella or Sativa, is a wonderful spice for headaches, migraines, colds and asthma. We took some of this and placed it in a tissue. Then we rubbed the tissue along with the seeds in the palm of our hand and inhaled. What resulted was nasal clearing sensation that actually re-energized us. These seeds are often used in baking as a subtle flavoring.

And the list goes on, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, cayenne pepper, all of these spices have alternate purposes ranging from digestion to circulation and overall health.

Many of these spices can be found at gourmet food markets, such as World Gourmet Foods in Bloomington, IL. You can also find them on various websites such as and Learning to incorporate them into your cooking will not only make your food taste wonderful, but may offer other potential health benefits. And if nothing else, using more spices in your cooking is a wonderful way of cutting out fat and sugar, which as we all know is healthier for us. Note: Spices begin to lose much of their flavor after 6 months. Purchase them in smaller amounts more frequently and keep them in a cool dry place in an airtight container for maximum shelf life.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Make It Mediterranean, Make It Fresh

Most of you know that I love mediterranean cuisine and cook it here at the inn frequently. But what is mediterranean cuisine, why is it special and how can you recreate it at home. First of all, the countries surrounding the mediterranean are all countries that have very distinctive food cultures that vary regionally, taking advantage of locally available, seasonal resources. Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, in all of these countries people live to eat. Don't be mistaken, people don't live in wealth, luxury and abundance, but rather they relish every meal they have and enjoy it with ultimate pleasure. Food here isn't eaten simply for survival, consumption is social and represents centuries of tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next. It is all too common for people in these countries to be planning their next meal as they enjoy their current meal, fantasizing about the incredible produce or meat they may have found at the marketplace that very morning. The concept of fast food and supersized foods is foreign. As is the concept of sitting in front of the television eating off of a little tray while shoveling food into your mouth. You take the time to eat, enjoying the experience with others and appreciating the care that was taken in the preparation of what you are eating.

Most of these cultures utilize healthy oils, like olive, grapeseed and argan oils, which are low in cholesterol and high in omega 3 fatty acids. They also tend to eat more vegetables and less meat and have mastered the art of coaxing maximum flavor out of every part of the vegetable as well as every part of an animal, prime cut or offal. Nothing goes to waste and everything is sublime. The use of fresh herbs and spices is also critical in all of these cultures. It isn't merely a method of cooking, but an artform. Perhaps the most incredible moment I spent in Morocco was in a spice shop where I learned not only what spices to use to spice what dishes, but how each and every spice had a medicinal purpose and people here really knew how to eat for their health and enjoyment. It was eye opening to say the least.

In the next few postings I would like to expand on Mediterranean cuisine of all kinds and discuss specific elements of what makes this region unique and uniquely delicious. I'll also focus on how to incorporate some of these ideas into your own cooking, adapting it to your own lifestyles and to the areas you live in. Just because you live in a big city, doesn't mean you cannot enjoy locally produced meats, eggs and vegetables. And for those of you in a rural area where most people are used to a real meat and potatoes lifestyle, I'll show you how you can apply mediterranean concepts to your routine and begin to expand your culinary horizons. Make it Mediterranean, Make it Fresh isn't a gimmick, it is a statement encompassing the essence of how the cultures of the mediterranean eat. Eat fresh, eat local, and by all means enjoy what you consume by sharing it with others. I think we can all stand to learn something from this philosophy and it would certainly improve our quality of living drastically.