Made at Home
To help you bring a taste of this part of the world home, we asked top chefs to share their favorite tips and dishes inspired by the region -- and a health expert to explain why you can feel good about eating them. Think of it as the same good-for-you Mediterranean approach to preparing meals and enjoying them with family and friends -- only now more varied and delicious!
Eat More Fish!
Fish is an essential part of the Mediterranean diet, but it doesn't have to be a plain piece of broiled salmon. For Suzanne Goin, chef-owner of Lucques restaurant in Los Angeles, among others, the rich fish is an ideal canvas for Middle Eastern and north African ingredients -- savory pistachios, tangy yogurt, sweet apricots and earthy couscous. "It's hitting all the flavors people like," says Goin. She focuses on eating seasonally, too. "When we have apricots in the summer, I try to find different ways to use them," she says. Here, Goin cooks them with star anise and uses the juices to season the fish.
Salmon with Apricots, Yogurt & Pistachio sauce
Heart-healthy fats are key to this way of eating, and fish (as well as nuts and olive oil) is full of them. "Omega 3 fatty acid-rich foods can help lower triglycerides (fat in your blood) and increase longevity," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Embrace Herbs & Spices
An easy way to wake up mild meat like chicken is by using flavor-packed marinades and zesty condiments. "This bright sauce has a lot of herbs and lemon and spices," says Mourad Lahlou, chef-owner of Aziza in San Francisco and author of Mourad: New Moroccan. "It's my Moroccan version of gremolata or salsa verde."
Moroccan Lemon-Herb Chicken Skewers
"Herbs and spices have all kinds of health benefits," says Blake. "And seasoning with them means you'll need less salt and fat."
Go with the Grains
The foods of Turkey are chef Ana Sortun's muse. "Bulgur is a staple at our restaurant -- it's the rice of the Middle East," says Sortun, who serves a bulgur pilaf rich with nuts and fruit at Oleana in Cambridge, MA. "It's the quickest-cooking whole grain I can think of, yet it's so light and fluffy."
Bulgur Pilaf with Nuts & Figs
"Whole grains are high in fiber," says Blake. "That fiber will fill you up, which means you'll have less room for unhealthy foods."
Fill up on Veggies
"Most people think salad is just raw vegetables that come on the side of meat or fish," says chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who, with his partner, chef Sami Tamimi, has built a reputation on making veggies the star of the meal at their Ottolenghi restaurants in London. "Where we're from, salads have their own identities," says Ottolenghi, an Israeli native. They can be a meal unto themselves, or make up a starter course called meze, a feast of vegetarian small plates. "We try to add surprises to our vegetable dishes. There's always quite a bit of contrast. There will be acidity or something perfumed like orange zest, herbs or roasted garlic that you get every few bites, a nut that breaks up the experience," says Ottolenghi. "That's what salad is all about -- it's a celebration."
Grilled Broccolini with Tahini
"Vegetables provide all kinds of nutrients," Blake says. "Broccolini is high in vitamin C, and tomatoes have lots of lycopene, a phytochemical that reduces the risk of some cancers. Adding a sesame sauce like tahini delivers zinc, a known immune booster."
Fried Chickpea & Fresh Vegetable Salad
Hearty, protein-packed chickpeas compliment crunchy veggies like cucumbers and radishes for a well-balanced side dish or meatless main.
Eggplant Salad with Yellow Peppers & Red Onion
Spicy, sweet, crunchy and acidic -- this dish reaches all your taste buds!
Rethink Your Proteins
Who says you can only eat eggs in the morning? Chances are you have everything you need to make shakshuka -- a Middle Eastern dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce -- in your kitchen. "In Israel, people talk about their mom's shakshuka like we talk about mom's lasagna," says chef Michael Shemtov, who serves a version at Butcher & Bee, his Charleston, SC, restaurant. It's a satisfying meal with a satisfying ritual: "You bring the skillet to the table, each person scoops an egg and sauce onto a plate, adds some hot sauce, grabs some bread and mixes it all together."
Spicy Tomato-Poached Eggs
Eggs are a phenomenal source of protein," Blake says. "Because the tomato sauce is highly seasoned with herbs and spices, you don't need excessive salt, which can raise blood pressure."
Finish with Fruit
Fresh or dried, fruit is a healthy, delicious finale to a meal, and in the Middle East, a common one. Chef Scott Snyder, who cooks with the flavors of the region at his restaurant Levant in Portland, OR, loves these easy, satisfying date-walnut balls, which he adapted from Middle East food expert Claudia Roden's classic recipe. He uses the softest dates he can find, and doctors them with a bit of cardamom and dried coconut, and is as likely to eat them as a snack as he is to serve them at a dinner party. "I like the simplicity of it," says Snyder.
Spiced Date-Walnut Balls
"Fruit replaces sugary desserts in the Mediterranean diet," says Blake. "And the concentrated sweetness of dried fruit means you only need a little to get your sweet fix." Plus, "walnuts are rich in protein and fiber, while dried fruit is high in potassium, which can lower blood pressure."