Skip to Content

How to season food the Mediterranean way

<i>Suzy Karadsheh/</i><br/>Karadsheh spices Mediterranean fish soup with cumin
Suzy Karadsheh/
Karadsheh spices Mediterranean fish soup with cumin

By Susan Puckett, CNN

(CNN) — It took me about 15 minutes, plus a half hour of simmering time, to throw together a rustic lemony chickpea and spinach soup scented with garlic and cumin for late-arriving out-of-towners. Then there was the warmly spiced stew of tomatoes  and fish that I shared with neighbors — it tasted even better the next day.

And a whole-meal salad starring farro with kidney beans, corn and cherry tomatoes, tossedin a fragrant basil vinaigrette, sold me on making that ancient nutty-flavored supergrain a pantry staple.

Those are just a few of the dinner options I’ve added to my repertoire since I began collaborating with Suzy Karadsheh as a writer and recipe tester on her 2022 bestselling cookbook, “The Mediterranean Dish: 120 Bold and Healthy Recipes You’ll Make on Repeat.” Karadsheh, who grew up in Egypt, is the creator of the popular website by the same name.

Each recipe I cooked through reinforced my understanding of why — aside from the evidence supporting its health benefits — enthusiasm for the Mediterranean way of eating never seems to wane.

Not only are the bold, bright flavors easy to love by anyone who’s open to garlic and olive oil, but Mediterranean cooking is also flexible, economical and easily adaptable to just about any situation.

Building blocks of Mediterranean cooking

Fresh produce, legumes, whole grains and lean proteins form the basis of the Mediterranean diet. But it’s the “flavor makers,” as Karadsheh calls them, that bring those wholesome ingredients to life.

Once you make them part of your everyday cooking habit, you can assemble a delicious, healthy meal with less sodium and saturated fat, and with whatever protein, grain or vegetable you have on hand. And with a bowl of cut-up lemons and a bottle of antioxidant-rich olive oil on the table, you may find yourself bypassing the salt shaker and butter dish without even thinking.

Using ‘handfuls’ of herbs

A lot of people use fresh herbs just as a garnish, for a pop of color right before serving,” Karadsheh said. “That’s not how we use herbs in Mediterranean cooking. We think in terms of cups and handfuls, not sprinkles.”

In fact, she buys fresh herbs in bulk. “A lot of people think they won’t be able to go through them before they turn bad, but trust me, you’ll be using them all if you cook the Mediterranean way.”

Parsley and cilantro are the herbs she uses practically daily and in greatest quantity. In classic dishes such as tabouli salad and zhoug (spicy cilantro pesto), they’re the stars of the show. She uses the tender parts of the stems as well as the leaves, which both hold flavor and nutrients. To extend the longevity of the herbs, she trims the ends after washing and drying them, places them in a cup or jar with a little water as she would a flower bouquet, and covers the leaves with a recycled bag.

Kept in the fridge this way, herbs can last a couple weeks, Karadsheh said, so long as you change the water every few days. This keeps the herbs in plain view so they’re less likely to get smushed and forgotten in the bottom of the crisper, and readily accessible for snipping and incorporating into rice dishes, salads, eggs or anything else that could use a boost of fresh flavor.

Other soft herbs, such as mint, dill and oregano, can also be cared for this way. She keeps her basil “bouquets” at room temperature on the countertop, because the delicate leaves tend to wilt and darken quickly in cold temperatures.

As for smaller quantities of hardy herbs such as rosemary and thyme, she wraps the washed and dried sprigs in damp paper towels and stores them in plastic bags in the fridge.

You may already have these spices

Karadsheh’s carefully curated spice rack is as essential to her culinary toolbox as parsley. The spices’ warm flavors balance the cool freshness of the herbs. But her arsenal is not as extensive as you might think.

“I’m not big on buying things that just have a single purpose,” Karadsheh said. “I don’t want to encourage people to buy things they aren’t going to use regularly.”

The seasonings she uses most are standard in any kitchen. “If you make tacos or chili, you probably already have cumin, coriander, paprika and cayenne,” she said.

“If you put allspice or cinnamon in your banana bread, you may be surprised to learn that those spices you associate with sweet dishes have savory uses as well. Even just a dash of cinnamon can elevate a chicken dish, for example.”

Garlic, onion and other aromatics

Garlic, Karadsheh said, is a Mediterranean diet “secret weapon” — both raw and cooked. She often peels whole heads at once and stores them in a jar in the refrigerator so they’re readily available to whirl into hummus or mince for a vinaigrette. Or she may roast a panful of garlic heads, turning the cloves soft, mellow and nutty-tasting for spreading on crusty toasted bread or adding to hummus or sauces.

Onions — red, yellow, white, green — are just as versatile. Chopped onions and garlic often join forces in a sauté pan with tomatoes and bell peppers for a “sofrito,” or vegetable base — a flavor-packed building block for myriad sauces and stews.

Lemons and other acids

Lemons were a staple of Karadsheh’s daily meals in Egypt, and a bowl of lemon or lime wedges is almost always on hand today. Bottled juice, she said, is no adequate substitute for fresh, but red or white wine vinegar stands in nicely for most applications.

“You’d be surprised by how much a squeeze of citrus or splash of vinegar can do to give a stew the lift it needs, rounding out the flavors and giving it a tad of brightness,” Karadsheh said. “You don’t necessarily notice it, but if you don’t use it you know it’s missing something.”

Before cutting up the citrus, she offers this tip: “Zest them until they’re bald!” The outer green or yellow part of the peel adds an extra punch of tang, with or without the juice, “and it’s there, and it’s free!”

Extra-virgin olive oil

The ingredient Karadsheh reaches for most often in all her cooking is extra-virgin olive oil. Touted widely for myriad health benefits, it’s “my kind of superfood,”  she said. Not only is it the main fat she uses for cooking, but it’s also the final flavor boost she drizzles over a salad, soup, bowl of hummus, or pan of roasted vegetables. Quality is paramount, and she offers extensive guidance for selecting and using extra-virgin olive oil for all different purposes.

Putting your flavor makers to work

Imagine you’ve got a package of chicken breasts in the refrigerator, but your mind is blank on what to do with them. Here’s what Karadsheh suggests: “First make a little sauce of olive oil, a couple of chopped-up garlic cloves and lemon juice, then dunk those chicken breasts in there, and sauté them in a skillet. Then finish them up with chopped parsley or whatever herbs you have.”

Keep rooting around in the cupboards and fridge and you’ll likely find some other embellishments: a crumble of feta, some olives, a few sun-dried tomato slivers, a sprinkle of smoked paprika. “And now you’ve got yourself an amazing skillet chicken,” she said. “That’s not even a recipe. It’s just learning to think of what you can do with what you already have to take that plain piece of chicken up a notch.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Health

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource


KTVZ NewsChannel 21 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content