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Eat Like a Vegeterranean

A Seasonal Guide to Cooking Mediterranean Vegetables

 

In the Mediterranean – from Spain and Portugal, all along the coast through France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and the door of the Middle East through North Africa to Morocco – food is so much more than fuel. It’s pleasure. What makes Mediterranean-style food so amazing (apart from its health benefits and great flavours) is that anyone can make it. Although the different regions differ slightly in their approach to meat and spices, they share common ground in the vegetable arena. Much of what we know about cooking vegetables comes from this part of the world, and across the globe, the term “Mediterranean diet” has become synonymous with “sensible eating”. So, let’s take a page from the book of our vegetable-loving brothers and sisters and amp up our vegetable repertoire.

ARTICHOKES | SEASON: SPRING – SUMMER (September – February)

WHAT TO KNOW

From the same family as the thistle (as in, national flower of Scotland), artichokes come in many different varieties ranging from tiny and purple to large and bright green and are at their best in summer. Whatever the variety, the leaves should be tightly packed (open leaves mean they’re too mature), and their colour should look fresh. Like any picked plant in its twilight, the leaves will turn brown at the tips. When buying artichokes, look for ones that are still attached to the stems, as they will stay fresher for longer, especially when you place the stalks in water.

WHAT TO DO

There are many ways to cook an artichoke, like boiling, braising, grilling, stuffing, and baking them. I like to steam them personally, which makes them just juicy enough. When steaming, add some garlic and a slice of lemon to the water, and for added herbaceous-ness, a bay leaf or sprig of thyme. Let it cook for 30 minutes or more, depending on how you like your artichoke. When eating an artichoke, pull off the outer leaves and dip in melted butter, vinaigrette, or aioli.

ASPARAGUS | SEASON: SPRING – SUMMER (September – February)

WHAT TO KNOW

Still on the luxury side of the vegetable spectrum, asparagus has a very short growing season, which lasts from spring to early summer. It also can’t be faked because it’s so easy to taste an out-of-season asparagus.

WHAT TO DO

Boil, steam or roast your asparagus spears in olive oil and serve as a starter or side dish with butter and grated parmesan cheese.

AUBERGINES | SEASON: SPRING – AUTUMN (September – May)

(also eggplant and brinjal)

What to Know
When buying aubergines, look for firm, shiny specimens that feel heavier than they look with green stalks. Opinion is divided over whether or not to salt an aubergine to extract its bitter juices. It doesn’t make a big difference but salting your sliced aubergine for half an hour will prevent it from absorbing too much oil.

What to do
Grilled, baked, stuffed, stewed, or sautéed, there are so many ways to cook an aubergine, although skinning and pulping your cooked aubergine – and flavouring it with cumin, lemon juice, salt, and pepper – makes a fantastic dip for a summery canapé spread.

FENNEL | SEASON: SPRING – WINTER (JUNE – AUGUST)

What to Know
Fun fact about fennel that’s not ideally suited to dinner table conversation: it was originally a remedy for flatulence. These days, it’s one of the most important ingredients in Italian cooking. The feathery leaves are indeed used as a herb, but the bulbs – not unlike a celery root in looks – provide a delicate flavour similar to aniseed, but with a crisp, juicy texture.

What to Do
Fennel bulbs (also known as Florence Fennel) make a great salad, where they are eaten raw. When sautéed, baked, or braised, its characteristic aniseed flavour diminishes, and its texture fulfils a similar role to cooked celery. Braised fennel pairs particularly well with fish or chicken. When served on its own, try it with a cheese sauce.

COURGETTES | SEASON: SPRING – AUTUMN (September – May)

(also zucchini and baby marrow)

What to Know
Also known as baby marrows in South Africa, courgettes taste better when they’re small. The big ones tend to have a very neutral taste. As with aubergine, go for firm and shiny. Flabby and blemished ones are as tasteless as they look.

What to Do
There’s no wrong way to eat a courgette. It can be eaten raw, like a cucumber, or cooked, making a great addition to any Mediterranean-style roast vegetable dish. Also try battered and deep-fried courgettes, or courgette fritters with white sauce flavoured with parmesan or nutmeg. And cold courgettes flavoured with mint vinaigrette or marinara sauce make a great starter.

GARLIC | SEASON: SUMMER (December – February)

What to Know
Apart from dessert, there are few Mediterranean dishes in which the warm touch of garlic would be out of place. No matter how you prepare it (crushed, sliced or whole), garlic always develops a smooth, almost creamy texture when slow cooked. Used raw in anything from salads to sauces, garlic packs a strong punch and a crispy, crunchy texture. When buying garlic, the cloves must be plump and firm.

What to Do
When cooking with garlic, don’t overdo it. It doesn’t need much encouragement to shine. By simply slicing open a bulb along its width and roasting it, the cloves transform into a mouth-watering paste that you can squeeze over anything from a beef fillet to chicken, fish or your favourite pasta. Or just enjoy it on its own.

MUSHROOMS | SEASON: YEAR ROUND

What to Know
Typical varieties of Mediterranean mushrooms include button, open cup, flat, ceps, chanterelles, and oyster mushrooms, that are usually found at the markets in autumn. Don’t wash them or they’ll become waterlogged. Rather trim the stem and brush off the cap.

What to Do
To give your mushrooms the Mediterranean treatment, finely slice them and eat them raw, dress them with olive oil, or grill them in nothing but a drizzle of olive oil.

OKRA | SEASON: YEAR-ROUND (Peak in Summer)

What to Know
Not widely available in South Africa, okra is an unusual addition to the Mediterranean vegetable family. While its flavour is subtle, its texture is quite gelatinous, which is why it is often used to thicken stews.

What to Do
As a predominantly Greek and Middle Eastern vegetable, it is most often flavoured with garlic, onions and tomatoes.

ONIONS | SEASON: SUMMER (December – February)

What to Know
Although true of kitchens the world over, the smell of onions cooking is often considered to turn a house into a home. In the Mediterranean especially, there are so many varieties too choose from.

What to Do
Small, bunched onions are great for pickling and make a great addition to salads. Large onions, on the other hand are perfect for dishes that call for lots of onion. There are so many ways to cook onions, but they’re almost never browned in Mediterranean cooking, as this turns them bitter.

PEPPERS | SEASON: AUTUMN (March – May)

What to Know
Bell peppers (or capsicums) add a flamboyant splash of colour to the Mediterranean markets, usually coming in green, red, orange and yellow, although purple black is often encountered here too. Raw or cooked, peppers are some of the healthiest vegetables in the Mediterranean – high in fibre and vitamin C – with a sweet flavour and crunchy texture to boot.

What to Do
As an antipasto, have them raw or lightly roasted in salads. They can also be roasted and dressed with olive oil or vinaigrette dressing and capers. They make a colourful addition to stews, marinated in olive oil, or stuffed and baked in a variety of ways.

RADICCHIO | SEASON: SPRING and AUTUMN (cooler months)

What to Know
Pleasantly bitter to the taste, radicchio (or red chicory) adds a level of intrigue to a range of dishes and is one of the Mediterranean’s most popular salad ingredients.

What to Do
Its uses are simple. Radicchio is most often used in salads in summer and is often cooked in winter. Pan-fried or roasted, radicchio leaves respond well to heat, which results in a milder flavour.

SPINACH | SEASON: PEAK MID-TO-LATE SPRING (October – November) 

What to Know
Raw or cooked, spinach is one of the most popular leafy vegetables in the Mediterranean, and a great source of vitamins A and C, as well as minerals, like iron. Baby spinach is great eaten raw, but the older the spinach gets, the more it needs to be washed (with several changes of water) and the tough stalks removed. When cooked, spinach wilts to about half its weight, so make sure you buy enough when planning your next spinach dish – about 250 grams raw weight per person.

What to Do
Well partnered to egg and fish, spinach is also a staple in phyllo pastry dishes, Spanish-style tapas, and French savoury tarts.

TOMATOES | SEASON: SUMMER (December – February)

What to Know
Mediterranean tomatoes are widely considered to rank amongst the best in the world, and so, no Mediterranean meal seems complete without them, even though these “love apples” (heart shaped) were only introduced to the Med from Mexico in the 16th century. When choosing tomatoes, consider what you need them for. For salads, look for firm, easy to slice tomatoes. Plum, tomatoes are great for cooking. When looking for ripeness, go for vine-ripened tomatoes. A can of tomatoes is, of course, an absolute pantry staple.

What to Do
There are so many uses for a tomato that singling out any cooking suggestions seems just plain wrong. When eaten raw, the simpler the better. Just a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, torn basil leaves and a sprinkling of flaky salt results in a refreshing appetiser. Add mozzarella and you’ve got a Caprese salad. Ripe tomatoes with herbs and garlic are the ideal base for a classic pasta sauce.

Olive bread with tomato tartare

VINE LEAVES | SEASON: SUMMER (December – February)

What to Know
We’re less familiar with its use in South Africa, but they’re very popular in the Mediterranean, particularly in Greek cuisine, where they’re often stuffed with a variety of fillings. When choosing vine leaves, look for young and soft ones. When buying brined vine leaves, soak them in hot water for about 30 minutes before using them to neutralise the salt.

What to Do
Vine leaves add a beautiful flourish to a dish, and can be wrapped around meat, poultry, fish, or rice.

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