Mediterranean flavors going mainstream

by Donna Berry
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After Italian, Mexican and Chinese, the next big ethnic cuisine in the US is Mediterranean. Meat and poultry processors can readily incorporate ingredients associated with Mediterranean gastronomy into marinades, prepared heat-and-eat entrees, meatballs and sausages, with the latter two formats being very popular in traditional Mediterranean dishes.  

There’s a total of 21 countries with a coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the same foods are indigenous to these countries, and it is these items that are collectively recognized as being Mediterranean. When it comes to protein, fish, lamb and poultry are consumed more often than red meat. And when a recipe calls for red meat, it’s often ground beef, combined with lamb or pork. Most dishes focus on fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains, nuts and olives or olive oil. 

Probably no other food represents Mediterranean cuisine more than olives and olive oil, which is the foundation of the popular heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Olives are the fruit of one of the oldest cultivated trees, growing in regions surrounding the Mediterranean basin where long sunny days and temperate winters combined with rich, fertile soil are idyllic for growing.

“Fermentation makes the pulp of olives edible,” says Paula Sánchez, marketing and promotion for Olives from Spain, Sevilla, Spain. “The color of an olive is an indication of its ripeness, and ripeness influences flavor.”

Green olives are harvested early in the season and have a firm texture with a nutty, almost smoky flavor, whereas semi-ripe olives, with a pinkish, wine-colored hue, are collected before complete maturation. Ripe olives are fully matured and come in a range of reddish black colors that vary by growing region. They have a robust, profound flavor and tend to be softer, richer and meatier. Olive variety impacts flavor, as does the fermentation. 


“Olives infuse meat and poultry dishes with a unique depth of flavor, with the salty brine bringing out subtle aromatics that might otherwise go undetected,” Sánchez says.

They can be used diced or sliced in all types of prepared meat and poultry dishes. Olives that come in brine must be properly rinsed and drained prior to recipe addition. This manual, labor-intensive step leads to inconsistencies in the olives, which may impact final product taste and texture. This makes dried olives often a smarter choice. They will also provide functionality, as they act as a water binder and keep comminuted meat products moist.

The same is true with spinach, another ingredient common to many Mediterranean dishes. Working with fresh spinach presents a host of challenges, ranging from food safety issues to introducing too much free moisture into the meat matrix. Frozen spinach has the moisture issue, too. On the other hand, dried spinach flakes are properly cleaned and chopped into a desirable piece size for identification in the finished product. 

Cooked
 
Feta, and other no- and low-melt cheeses perform very well in their natural form. Their ability to withstand high temperatures prevents them from oozing out of a product and losing piece identity. The challenge, however, is feta and similar cheeses can be quite mild in flavor, especially when blended with other flavorful ingredients. In order to deliver on cheese flavor, enzyme-modified cheese concentrates and flavor extracts are often incorporated into the recipe.  

Mediterranean foods are typically not about heat. In fact, many dishes skew sweet or sour/acidic. That’s what you get with some commonly used ingredients, such as cucumber, honey, lemon, mint, red bell peppers, sun-dried tomato and yogurt. Typical herbs and spices include basil, dill, fennel, oregano, rosemary and turmeric, with both basil and oregano coming in many plant varieties that vary significantly in flavor profiles. Other familiar ingredients associated with Mediterranean cuisine include anchovies, capers, garlic, onions and pine nuts.  

Private-label retailer Aldi, Batavia, Illinois, has offered frozen Whole & Simple Mediterranean Style Chicken Quinoa. This fully cooked entrée combines diced chicken breast, spinach, sundried tomatoes and red bell peppers. 

Tribali Foods, San Marino, California, recently introduced a line of organic 100% grass-fed and finished beef products. This includes frozen beef patties, with the Mediterranean style variety made with tomatoes, fire-roasted garlic and onion, along with aromatic rosemary, spearmint and a spritz of citrus. 

Home Market Foods Inc., Norwood, Massachusetts, has entered the booming refrigerated fresh meatballs category with a range of ethnic recipes. This includes a Mediterranean-inspired chicken recipe with spinach and feta.  
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