Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert | May 2011 | By Marc Halperin

Mediterranean Sea Changes

Breaking down Mediterranean flavor profiles to their essence can inject new life into familiar menu favorites.

It’s taken many hundreds of years and bottomless reserves of diligence, creativity, and determination for cooks and chefs from southern Italy to southern France, from Morocco to Greece, and from Spain to Algeria to perfect the special blends of herbs, spices, and other ingredients that lend their nations’ cuisines such distinctive flavor profiles.

It has taken me roughly 10 minutes, with the help of some authoritative third-party sources, to boil down that distinguished culinary history to a series of rudimentary ingredient combinations that quick-serve operators may use to inject Mediterranean flavor notes into existing menu items.

I would hope it’s apparent that I intend these great nations and cultures no disrespect; the simple fact is that each of the Mediterranean nations’ cuisines has a flavor profile so remarkable and so memorable that we want to translate them quickly and easily to serve our own culinary ends. The desire to distill them down to their essence is, in a sense, the ultimate sign of respect.

Readers may well wonder, though: Why the foods of Mediterranean countries? What prompts us to look closely at this disparate assortment of cuisines in the hopes of uncovering promising quick-serve menu additions?

The answers, quite simply, are health and great taste. The cuisines of the nations that border the Mediterranean Sea are quite varied, but they share an emphasis on big, bold flavors and a common healthful heritage.

Back in 1993, Oldways Preservation Trust, the not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping people adopt healthier diets, teamed up with the Harvard School of Public Health to launch a program to increase Americans’ awareness of the Mediterranean diet. The organization characterized it as containing “plentiful fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes; an abundance of bread, pasta, rice, couscous, and other grain foods, especially whole grains; nuts and peanuts; extra virgin olive oil; fish, poultry, and lean red meat; cheese and yogurt; and moderate amounts of wine.”

Americans still aren’t eating quite like their generally leaner and longer-lived Mediterranean counterparts, but the concept of the Mediterranean diet has caught on among legions of chefs and foodies in the past decade.

“If celery with hummus sounds far-fetched, I only have two words for you: apple fries.”

Of course, while the health factor is all well and good, the foods noted above also happen to be delicious, which is the primary reason why I believe Mediterranean flavor profiles have lots to offer in quick-serve contexts. Consider the Sodexo 2011 “College Food Trends” report, which found that college students today crave Mediterranean food, particularly offerings such as grilled chicken souvlaki kabobs, paella, spanakopita, couscous chicken stew, pesto pasta bowls, and Spanish tomato bread with Manchego cheese.

Getting back to the idea of distilling nations’ cuisines down to their essential, signature flavors, I consulted Elisabeth Rozin’s seminal Ethnic Cuisine for the broad contours of some of the Mediterranean nations’ most compelling flavor profiles. Among them:

  • Southern France and Southern Italy: garlic, olive oil, parsley and/or anchovy, and possibly tomato
  • Northern Italy: wine vinegar and garlic
  • Spain: olive oil, garlic, nut, onion, pepper, and tomato
  • Morocco: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, onion, tomato, and fruit
  • Greece: tomato and cinnamon

Having identified the ingredient combinations that lend different cuisines their characters, what might a quick-serve operator do with them? A good place to start is condiments, sauces, and salad dressings. Greek Tzatziki sauce, made with yogurt, garlic, olive oil, and mint, could be as tasty on chicken tenders or onion rings as it is when drizzled over falafel in more traditional Mediterranean restaurants. Romesco, composed largely of roasted red peppers, almonds, and garlic, is an exceptionally flavorful Spanish sauce native to the Catalonia region that could also do incredible things for burgers and chicken sandwiches.

But there are other options as well. Roasted garlic spreads and harissa, a hot Tunisian chili sauce, jump to mind as intriguing alternatives to more standard fast food sauces and spreads. And as chains seek healthier alternatives to fried fare, they may want to consider the fact that raw veggies such as cucumber, carrots, and celery are very different, far heartier foods when schmeared with baba ghanoush, the traditional Arabic eggplant spread, or a garlic hummus made from chickpeas. If the latter suggestion sounds to you like a far-fetched premise for a fast food menu offering, I give you just two words: apple fries.

Chains could also consider the possibilities inherent in using different Mediterranean herb, spice, and fruit combinations as marinades. Letting chicken stew in a lemon olive oil, garlic mixture—or a succulent combination of garlic, cumin, and mint—could make for an accessible but decidedly different sandwich.

The same goes for sprinkling a powder made of cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and coriander over standard-issue french fries, which could turn an American favorite into an exotic North African variant.

The possibilities go on and on: kebabs coated in Greek spices, couscous salads, pasta dishes made with feta or ricotta cheeses, and even cured meats.

The bottom line is that the cuisines of nations that make up the Mediterranean’s perimeter have much to offer enterprising quick-serve chains, particularly those looking to add healthful options with plenty of flavor.

Marc Halperin

A classically trained chef who earned his Grand Diplôme d’Études Culinaires at Paris’s prestigious Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, COO Marc Halperin brings considerable gastronomic expertise and more than two decades of restaurant-consulting and teaching experience to the table. Prior to co-founding CCD, Halperin’s culinary tenure included stints in such celebrated kitchens as those of Taillevent and Maxim’s in Paris, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah, where he served as head pastry chef during the resort's inaugural season. Later, he was a chef instructor at Le Cordon Rouge cooking school in Sausalito, California, and at the California Culinary Academy.

Marc is a professional member of the Research Chefs Association and a member of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and currently contributes each month to QSR Halperin holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in music performance from Boston University.