It may seem funny to say, but I find a lot of similarities between food and music. With music, I have my “go-to” artists and “go-to” styles. It is the same with cooking for me. For example, there are five foods always in my refrigerator because they are the “go-to” ones for me. Let me explain a bit.
I am a big fan of jazz, especially the jazz of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Two of my favorite musicians are Stan Getz and Ben Webster. Both musicians played the tenor sax. Both were among the most well known and respected musicians of their time. Sit and listen to the two of them play. You will of course recognize that they are both playing the same instrument, even the same notes. But beyond that, they have two very different styles, two very different sounds. Dig into their recordings and you will find that Getz has a warm, lyrical tone. By contrast, Webster has a more raspy and brutal tone.
One of the first things that drew me to jazz many years ago was that sense of individualism. Starting with the same tools, and the same understanding of music, jazz can happen. Such individual expression is not only possible, but encouraged and celebrated. In many ways, Mediterranean cuisine drew me in for much the same reason. There is a lot of overlap among ingredients in Mediterranean cuisines. Still in each region the food has its own distinct character.
Five foods always in my refrigerator
Someday, I will write a whole post about how to stock a pantry for Mediterranean cooking. All around the region, you will find cooks using the same ingredients everywhere. You will also find some very localized ingredients too. Regardless, they all bring out the richness of the regional characters. I will get to that post. Today I’m going to focus on a handful of items that are common across the region. More important for today’s post, they can always be found in my refrigerator. You can transform any of these common ingredients to create quick meal. At the end of this post, I’ll share my recipe for a quick side salad using these five ingredients. This salad is not a stranger to the table here at mezze & tapas world headquarters.
Without further ado, let’s get to the five foods always in my refrigerator.
An amazing fruit, the lemon is ubiquitous in Mediterranean cooking. Like salt, lemons have the ability to make all the foods it combines with to taste better. And you can used virtually the whole fruit! Sliced, juiced, zested, peeled, all the lemon is useful. Lemon, garlic, capers and parsley make a great quick sauce for pasta. A strip of the peel is the perfect garnish for a Spanish Gin Tonic. Shaved zest atop a salad will add a flair. Preserved lemons are a staple of North African dishes. For a quick salad dressing, whisk together fresh squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, salt pepper and oregano. Add a touch of honey if you want to add some sweetness.
The slightly sweet cooling effect of the cucumber is used everywhere in the region. It offset heat, accentuates savory flavors, or to add a crunch to a dish. You will find the cucumber in a quick Moroccan cucumber salad or a Lebanese Fattoush. It slides easily into a Greek tzatziki, or Turkish Cacik (like tzatziki but more thin). Cucumber goes well in a Spanish Gazpacho. I prefer the seedless European variety. There are several popular varieties that complement Mediterranean cuisine. It is hard to go wrong with a cucumber.
Although they are not native to the Mediterranean tomatoes are as ubiquitous as lemons. You can find them everywhere in Mediterranean cuisine. They are also one of the five foods always in my refrigerator.
The tomato was first brought to Spain from South America by explorers in the 16th century. Since then it has become a staple of cooking. Gazpacho, Romesco sauce, Italian ‘red sauce’, and shakshuka all feature the tomato. Whether canned, fresh, or sun dried, the tomato is essential. While I always have several cans in the pantry, I also always keep several fresh tomatoes in the refrigerator. Nothing beats the garden fresh variety from late summer. Nothing. For the rest of the year, I will find what I can at the grocery store.
Olives are perhaps the mother food of all Mediterranean cooking. THE cooking oil of Mediterranean cuisine — olive oil — is made with olives. But there are many varieties of olives destined for eating and not pressed for oil. I always have at least one variety of green olive and one dark olive on hand. My current “go-to” green olive is the Castelvetrano olive from Italy. The kalamata for is my go to” dark variety. Olives taste excellent either cooked, cold, or room temperature. Warmed in a bit of olive oil and dressed with some lemon zest they make great tapas. Sliced as a pizza topping. Chopped and thrown in with tuna salad. Whole in a Salad Nicoise. No matter how served, the briny tang of an olive is a great accompaniment to almost any dish. Olives are an essential part of the Mediterranean pantry.
I can’t tell you when I fell in love with capers. It was a taste that I slowly acquired and that grew over time. But I can remember that the first time I had them was in a veal picatta. It was at a local Italian restaurant about 20 yrs ago. They were intriguing to me then. Now they are essential. The pickled bud of the caper flower, I love their briny and intense flavor. Grown all around the Mediterranean, capers have a long history. References to the caper are found in the texts of Apicus, who is the ancient Roman who purportedly wrote the first cookbook. Add a bit of caper to a dish, and the flavor will pop.
There are dozens of foods essential to Mediterranean cooking I could have included. Perhaps roasted red peppers, parsley, cilantro, cheeses, dried cured meats, or eggs. But for today, these five will have to do. They represent a core of items to always have on hand. You can add them to a wide variety of dishes, and travel all the way around the Mediterranean.
Super Simple Salad
Check out the quick and easy salad below. You can make it with these five ingredients (plus a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper). Whenever I’m at a loss for side with a dinner, what do I do? I throw together a quick salad with the five foods always in my refrigerator.
Cucumber, Tomato Olive and Caper Salad
- 1 Hothouse Cucumber Peeled, cut into medium chunks
- 1-2 Tomatoes Cut into medium chunks
- 1/2 cup Green Olives Halved
- 2 tbsp Capers
- 1 lemon zest a small amount (about 1/4 tsp) and set aside
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 tsp honey
- kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- pinch dried oregano or other dried herb
- Add cucumber, tomato, olives, and capers to a medium bowl and toss to combine
- Add the reserved lemon zest
- Juice the lemon and combine about 1 tbsp of juice with the olive oil in a small mason jar
- Add honey, salt, pepper and oregano to the mason jar and secure the lid
- Shake vigorously to combine dressing
- Add dressing to taste to the cucumber, tomato olive, and caper salad