August is not the best month for gardening here in north Florida. This weekend the temperatures are soaring into the triple digits. We let the garden go in August. It’s not intentional, but the heat and insects drive me inside in short order. I sneak out early in the morning just long enough to gather eggs, herbs and maybe some figs or a late tomato and console myself with the knowledge that in a few short weeks, we’ll be planting kale and garlic and fava beans. I have learned to cope with my August lack of gardening zen by experimenting in the kitchen. And this summer my daughter, Natalie, has decided to join me and explore the world of Mediterranean cooking. Inspired by Marie-Pierre Moine’s gorgeous new cookbook, The Mediterranean Cookbook (public library link), and a desire to eat healthier, we’re journeying through Greece, Tuscany, Spain and Provence…
It’s well known that a Mediterranean diet is really, really good for you. It’s rich in vegetables, simple grains, healthy fats like olive oil and yogurt, legumes, fruits and nuts. Seafood takes center stage, with red meat playing a supporting role. There are wonderful cheeses to indulge in, like salty feta and creamy goat cheese. Garlic, lemons and herbs are used generously. As we shared books and recipes, I was struck by how many of the traditional foods enjoyed in the Mediterranean are grown right here in the South. Greens, fennel, lemons, olives, pomegranates, figs, potatoes and beans are available in abundance at various times of the year. The local farmers market provides peaches, honey, nuts and even milk to make our own delicious yogurt. I realized that in addition to enjoying traditional Mediterranean dishes, we could also reinvent traditional beloved but not-so-healthy dishes of the American South by using familiar ingrdients in new, but much healthier ways, like this cool and refreshing peach and fennel salad that we made last night. As satisfying as peach cobbler, it is seasoned with mint from the garden and a little sprinkle of country ham. We devoured it.
Mediterranean cooking is fast and simple and allows the beauty of fresh ingredients to shine. For instance, last night I threw boneless chicken breasts into a marinade of fresh lemon juice, garlic, pepper and olive oil, which we will grill for dinner tonight. I made extra chicken to add to a quick stir fry or salad for a busy weeknight. Thick Greek yogurt takes on a whole new personality when you stir in a couple of cloves of minced garlic and some olive oil. It makes a terrific dip for raw veggies, pork or chicken. And a store-bought jar of Greek olives marinated in red wine vinegar with toasted cumin and fennel seeds and some refreshing citrus zest is perfect for a little snack!
If you’re interested in incorporating Mediterranean ingredients into your cooking, here are some items to stock in your pantry: http://www.kqed.org/w/weircookinginthecity/med-pantry.html.
Natalie and I are looking forward to gnoshing our way through the Mediterranean. I hope you join us for the journey!