Spices and Herbs lend flavor, color, and important micronutrients – all without adding fat or calories – to home cooking. The base foods in Mediterranean cuisine are at least similar to the meats, vegetables, and grains found around the world, and the cooking methods aren’t terribly different. The true difference between other cooking and the Mediterranean lies in the herbs and spices and the way in which they are combined
So the secret? Quality spices, and herbs.
When I think of Mediterranean cooking in my family, sumac comes to my mind. I have always loved sumac and the sweet, tart and lightly astringent flavor it adds to dishes. To make sumac you crush the dried fruits of the sumac bush. You can typically find this in a local Middle Eastern or Lebanese store or sometimes in the ethnic section of grocery stores.
Cinnamon is a well-known spice that is fragrant with a slightly sweet taste. It is used in a variety of recipes from baking, drinks, soups, main dishes, and more. In Lebanese cooking, we use cinnamon in so many dishes to help create that warm, rich flavor.
Most paprika comes from Hungary and Spain and is either sweet, hot, or smokey. The type of pepper used, where it comes from, and how it is prepared determines the flavor.
In Spain, paprika is actually known as pimentón. Spanish paprikas are sold in several varieties, like dulce (sweet), picante (spicy), agridulce (sweet and spicy combined to create a medium heat), and the famously smoked pimentón. Drying the peppers over open fires is what imparts that smokey flavor.
Cumin seeds dating back to the second millennium B.C.E. have been discovered by archaeologists in Syria and Egypt. Cumin can be found in practically any savory dish in Mediterranean cooking, it is native to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa. Cumin is used in soups, stews, and sauces because of its warming flavor. As well as often used in curries, spice blends and stews.
It is a rich source of iron, as well as small amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium. One study found cumin may also improve indicators of diabetes.
Cumin can be used both as the whole seed or ground. Ground cumin has a very distinctive and somewhat intense flavor with an earthy, nutty, spicy taste.
Aromatic and distinctively bitter, cumin is the dried fruit or “seeds” of a plant belonging to the parsley family. As one of the principal ingredients in curry powder, the cumin plant is found growing naturally in the Nile River Valley and is used in hummus, couscous, meat dishes, and mashed tahini and chickpea spread.
Possessing a sweet, hay-like aroma and rich, bitter taste, saffron is an expensive Middle Eastern spice due to the fact that each flower’s stigma must be collected by hand. Currently, Iran is responsible for producing most of the saffron in the world–nearly 90 percent. With over 150 aromatic compounds contributing to its unique flavor, saffron is found in Middle Eastern confectionaries, liquors, and meat dishes. It is also used in India and China as a fabric dye and in perfumes.
Cloves add a delicious, mildly licorice-like flavor to meats, vegetables, and drinks in many Egyptian, Turkish, Moroccan, and Syrian dishes. Immature buds are picked then crushed to release their taste and aroma. When combined with garlic or cinnamon and rubbed on chicken, lamb, or beef, this spice acts as a strong flavor enhancer that draws out a rich, meaty taste.
Mediterranean cuisine incorporates basil into many popular dishes. Basil is a strong herb with bright green leaves. It’s a key flavor in Italian dishes and the main ingredient in pesto, a sauce made with herbs, olive oil, and pine nuts.
From the iconic Italian Caprese salad to Zucchini and Basil pesto, basil is used to boost the flavor all kinds of dishes.
Basil can also be used in combination with spices like parsley, rosemary and sage really well.
Also known as coriander, cilantro is native to regions spanning from Southern Europe and Northern Africa to Southwestern Asia.
It has a warm, spicy, and nutty flavor to most popular. However, a sizeable proportion of the world population have a genetic variance that makes cilantro taste like soup. This is found most often in East Asia, where approximately 20% of the population experiences soap-tasting cilantro.
Places like Latin America and India, where the herb is used more often, have lower incidences of this genetic variance (roughly 3-4%).
Cilantro is rich in vitamins A, C, and K. studies show cilantro can drastically help lower blood sugar levels.
Mediterranean Oregano is a staple culinary herb, used for the assertive, woodsy, slightly peppery flavor of its leaves, which can be used fresh or dry, but are more flavorful when dried. Mediterranean Oregano’s most prominent modern use is in Italian and Greek cuisines.
Mediterranean oregano is also used to marinate meats and seafood before grilling and to season olives, cheeses, vegetables (especially eggplant), egg dishes, grains, breads, casseroles, meats, poultry, and salads
Thyme is an extremely fragrant herb with thin, woody stems and small, pungent leaves. Available in both fresh or dried, this herb is easily found in most supermarkets year-round. It has been a staple in southern European and Mediterranean cuisines for centuries.
Meat, tomatoes, and beans all go well with thyme. Thyme is a popular ingredient for lamb dishes in Mediterranean cuisine because its slightly flowery flavor balances out the gaminess of lamb.
Rosemary is a very popular herb in Italian cooking, in which it is often used in vegetable preparations – particularly, roasted potatoes. It is virtually impossible for Italians to cook roasted potatoes without rosmarino; though other vegetables, such as mushrooms, as well as cannellini beans are enhanced by this herb, too.
It is great with all kinds of grilled and roasted meats and fish – and especially poultry. When grilling, it’s a great idea to first marinate the meat in rosemary, sage, bay leaves, thyme, pepper, and olive oil; then, while cooking, sprinkle rosemary leaves and branches directly on the glowing charcoals.