About Mediterranean Summer

Tomato risotto with pistou at La Fenière, Lourmarin, France (Photo by David Shalleck)

Tomato risotto with pistou at La Fenière, Lourmarin, France (Photo by David Shalleck)

“I REALIZED VERY EARLY THE POWER OF FOOD TO EVOKE MEMORY, TO BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER, TO TRANSPORT YOU TO OTHER PLACES, AND I WANTED TO BE A PART OF THAT.”

— CHEF JOSÉ ANDRÉS

   

Having spent many years living, cooking, and teaching in the Mediterranean region and preparing the food of these wonderful cuisines at home, I am excited to share my enthusiasm with you. In what has become for me an almost insatiable need, the more places I go, people I talk to, and inquiries I make, the deeper I get into learning about the gustatory delights of the region. This grandiose mosaic of flavors, colors, smells, and textures that have endured millennia of history and tradition continually humble me.

One day, during an internship I did at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Don Alfonso near Sorrento, Italy, the chef and owner Alfonso Jaccarino advised me, “don’t just bring home recipes, bring home ‘the idea’ of our cooking.” There are so many layers to the “idea” of Mediterranean cooking that something as humble as his version of tomatoes with fresh mozzarella cheese, pure extra virgin olive oil, basil, and salt is only at its best when the parts are optimum: pungent sun-ripened tomatoes grown in volcanic soil that have never been in a refrigerator, mozzarella made from local milk to be consumed the day it’s made, the provenance of the olive oil, freshness of the basil, and large crystal salt from a clean water area of the sea.

The above is an example of something that has become so common we take it for granted: “insalata Caprese.” However, when success from the kitchen is reliant on the quality of the ingredients there is a reason this dish is timeless and classic. Knowing when and how to use a short list of ingredients puts one in synch with the essence of simplicity.

I like to say when it comes to pure flavor, Mother Nature has already done a lot of cooking for us. What can possibly done to plump strawberries in season bursting with color, fragrance, and flavor? Sweet corn in July? Crisp and tart apples in autumn? A beautifully marbled steak? Other than a couple of adornments one of which being some form of basic knife work or cookery, the other a seasoning, just leave them alone!

Summer fruit, Mercado de Sapadores, Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by David Shalleck)

Summer fruit, Mercado de Sapadores, Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by David Shalleck)

When I make green beans I cook them in batches in well-salted boiling water. I take them out a minute sooner than the doneness I want to cool instead of putting them in icy water. I drizzle them with extra virgin olive oil while they’re warm. Serve. Everyone always asks why they taste so good. The first part of the answer is I am a picky food shopper. The second part is because I did very little to them. These were some of the first lessons I learned during my initial internship abroad in Provence, France.

The Mediterranean Summer way to cook starts with making choices. A season, mood, occasion, crave, taste memory from another place— even a wine varietal— can inspire what to eat. Better yet, a walk through a community market or the perimeter isles of the supermarket and seeing what’s available can stimulate the build from raw ingredients to a dish or menu. When traveling abroad, conversations about cooking and eating with the folks we meet can lead to amazing discoveries. And there should always be room in one’s luggage to bring home food souvenirs from the markets and shops.

With a backstory that’s thousands of years old I’m not sure if there’s enough time to get through it all. Among many cultural mindsets there are different ways to look at things and numerous opinions about food—all in tandem with a plethora of research that supports the healthy benefits of the Mediterranean Diet lifestyle. Suffice to say the entire topic is fascinating. By keeping things simple and approachable, I want Mediterranean Summer to be an alluring source of inspiration for us all.


The Tomato

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“Chef David, why a tomato wedge next to Mediterranean Summer?” you might ask.

It’s a quintessential summer ingredient. It hints to something to eat that’s pure and natural. It’s beneficial to our health and well-being. The bright colors, happy shape of the wedge, and the shadow suggest a sunny day. All of these are wholesome attributes of the Mediterranean Diet.

The tomato wedge also symbolizes one of the greatest imports in the evolution of cuisine. In the late 15th century when Christopher Columbus returned to Spain with plants and seeds from the New World, the cooking calendar should be marked “BC” for Before Columbus, and “AC” for After Columbus. It is indisputable the discoveries of foodstuffs from his voyages changed eating forever. From the creation of pan con tomate along the western shores, anything with pomodori or domates in the center, and shakshouka all along the east, the tomato is one of the most characteristic ingredients in the cooking of the Mediterranean that has become ubiquitous throughout the world.