The Delightful Flavors of the Mediterranean Kitchen – Part 1: Eat Like the Greeks

This is the first of a multipart series on the spices of the Mediterranean Basin Countries.

We begin with...




GREECE



History presents Greece as the cradle of democracy.

As such it seems fitting to begin our culinary excursion there. Also, as Mamma Spice is of Greek descent it made sense to start there!

In honor of Greece's 200th year of independence, this segment is dedicated to its beautiful people and my ancestors who fought to preserve freedom!


Over the next few weeks, the focus of our discussions will be on a series of spices commonly used in Greek cooking.


Part I: The Origins of Greek Cooking


While we know that olives were grown on the island of Crete in 3,500 B.C., it wasn’t until the 4th century B.C. that we see the first cookbook, Hedypathia (Pleasant Living), written by Archestratus in ancient Greece. In the following century (3 B.C.), Athenaeus described what was then considered to be a well-equipped Greek kitchen consisting of utensils, dishes, and special bowls used to prepare peacock and goose eggs (https://allthatcooking.com/history-of-cooking/).


It really wasn’t until the campaigns of Alexander the Great, that spices made their way into the Hellenic kitchen.Eastern spices like cinnamon, ginger and pepper were imported by the ancient Greeks.They were also used for a variety of other things like perfumes and medicines.


Grecian Spice … Ah, that’s Nice!


Because of the Spice Trade, many spices found their way to Greece. The Grecian spice pallette eventually came to consist of a wide variety of them. I've created a list here and talk about a few in a little more detail but in the weeks to come, I’ll describe all of these and talk about their use in Mediterranean cuisine.

  • Ajowan or Ajwain (Trachypermum copticum)

  • Anise commonly known as aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) - This is the common flavor in Ouzo…a favorite alcoholic aperitif that can be served neat or on the rocks. Beware when serving over ice as it will transform from clear viscous fluid to a translucent milky white refreshment that packs quite the punch! My dad, affectionately known as pappou not only to his grandson but to the rest of us as well, would frequently sit outside on a sunny afternoon sipping his ouzo accompanied by his mezethakia (canapes) consisting of a radish, pepperoncini pepper, some kaseri or feta cheese with freshly baked crusty white bread (by my mom or yiayia) and a few olives while admiring his garden.

  • Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) - I use bay leaves in tomato sauces but they have other uses as well. Some are non-culinary. For example, they are used in the celebration of Palm Sunday in some of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

  • Black pepper (Piper nigrum) - personally there is not enough of this for me! I use black pepper in all sorts of dishes. It is a staple in Greek kitchens for sure!

  • Caper (Capparis spinosa) - Pappou loved capers (cappari), particularly in fish dishes. But I must confess, as a child, I wasn't too fond of capers or fish for that matter!

  • Celery (Apium graveolens) - Pappou grew Greek celery in his garden. He used to braise it with carrots, potatoes and onions when roasting beef, chicken or lamb. The juice of raw celery can also be used as the base for a lamb marinade. It actually helps to break down the gaminess of the meat and tenderizes eat resulting in the most delectable dish you have ever had!

  • Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) - used in sweet and savory dishes alike!

  • Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

  • Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)

  • Dill (Anethum graveolens) – weed and seeds

  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

  • Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum)

  • Garlic (Allium sativum) - Garlic rivals black pepper in my household as the most used spice!

  • Ginger (Zingiber officianale) - I can't express in words my love for ginger! Used lightly, it adds a pop of flavor to savory dishes. Used with a heavier hand, it results in an intense flavor that brings its own heat to spicy dishes.

  • Hyssop (Hyssopus officianalis)

  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

  • Lemon (Citrus limon)

  • Machlepi also known as Sour cherry or Mahaleb cherry (Prunus mahaleb) - this is used in the baking of Vasilopita (New Year's Bread) and Tsoureki (Easter Bread). It has a unique flavor that is absolutely delicious!

  • Marjoram (Majorana hortensis)

  • Nutmeg (Muristica fragrans)

  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

  • Onion (Allium cepa)

  • Parsely (Petroselinum crispum)

  • Rocket or Arugula… my dad called this Roca (Eruca sativa)

  • Rose (Rosa damascena)

  • Rosemary (Rosmarimus officianalis) - this little herb really brings out the flavor of roasted meats.

  • Sage (Salvia officianalis)

  • Saffron (Crocus sativus)

  • Salt – OK, this one is really a mineral but it is used in many culinary delights!

  • Savory (Satureja hortensis)

  • Sumac (Rhus coriaria)

  • Thyme (Thyumus vulgaris)


The Greek Holy Trinity


When we hear about the holy trinity in the context of cooking, we frequently think of the most well-known trio: the French Mirepoix of chopped carrots, onion, and celery. There are many such trinities in cooking, each region or nation boasting its own.


In Spain, sofrito or the combination of garlic, onion, and tomato is well known. The Cuban variation of sofrito is garlic, bell pepper, and Spanish onion. In China, while there are a variety of regions, the main base of Chinese cuisine is scallions, ginger, and garlic. Worldwide, there are countless combinations. In Greece, we have the combination of lemon juice, olive oil and oregano that serve as the foundational element in all Greek dishes.


Building on this trinity, we see the frequent addition of black pepper and garlic in many Greek dishes. Depending on the region and the dish we then add dill or marjoram or rosemary. A different twist to some recipes is the addition of cinnamon and nutmeg. These two spices in particular are common to the taste buds of many eastern Mediterranean people. They are used in both sweet and savory dishes.


Certainly, in today’s contemporary Greek kitchen, the inquisitive culinary mind can find just about anything! What tastes good you ask? One particular combination that evokes childhood memories of my father cooking in our kitchen includes those contained in HungryGene’s Greek Seasoning mix… in fact this combo was inspired by my dad’s recipes:

Organic Mediterranean Oregano, Organic Onion Powder, Organic Garlic Powder, Organic Sea Salt, Organic Black Pepper, Organic Parsley, Organic Korintje Cinnamon, and Organic Ground Nutmeg. Using it brings me back to my childhood... I feel like pappou is with me cooking in the kitchen!


A closer look


Mediterranean Oregano

We talked about oregano in “Oregano is Oregano, Right?”The oregano used by the Greeks is definitely of the Mediterranean type and is also commonly known as Greek Oregano.This herb is used in virtually all Greek dishes and is what truly makes a dish class typically Greek. A word of caution, however… you need to make sure not to over do it otherwise you may have an overtone of bitterness in all of your dishes.



Organic Onion Powder

Onion powder is essentially dried, ground onion. Using it gives you the concentrated onion flavor without the moisture and bulk of the onion bulb. Onion powder is a terrific option when you don’t have time to chop onions! Onion powder has three times the potency of fresh onion. You can substitute 1 tablespoon of onion powder for one medium onion or 1 cup of chopped fresh onion (Deming, 2014). The benefit of using onion powder over fresh is that the flavor disperses evenly throughout a dish giving it an allover onion flavor. It is useful as a rub or in a marinade for meats, sprinkled on vegetables, into salads, dressings, and soups and quite delicious in casseroles.




Organic Garlic Powder

Who doesn’t love garlic?? Just as we found with the onion in onion powder, garlic powder is made from dehydrated garlic and is used to enhance the flavor in a wide variety of dishes. There are two types of garlic species: Softneck (Allium Sativum Sativum) and Hardneck (Allium Sativum Ophioscorodon). From these two species there are over 300 varieties grown worldwide (Perry, 2017).


The Hardneck varieties are thought to be more flavorful than the Softneck varieties but the latter appear to grow better in warmer climates and are more commonly used for garlic powder (Vanderlinden, 2019). For use in cooking, you can substitute 1/8 of a teaspoon of garlic powder for every clove of garlic in any recipe. Depending on the level of desired intensity, you can use garlic powder in salad dressings, rubs, marinades, sauces or stews. There are also potential health benefits in using garlic and garlic powder! Garlic powder is a good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6, iron, calcium, protein, magnesium, and sodium. Some of its bioactive compounds may help strengthen the heart, maintain blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, boost the immune system, prevent cancer and aid in digestion (Filocamo, et. al, 2012; Kim, et. al, 2017; Kwak, et. al, 2014; Varshney & Budoff, 2016).



Organic Sea Salt

When we think of sea salt, we frequently think of spas and relaxation. And yes, there are benefits from using sea salt in that way but, using it in cooking may prove to be even more beneficial! Because the preparation of sea salt requires very little processing, it retains its moisture and minerals which then are more readily absorbed by the body. Additionally, the climate and geographic location of the where it is harvested are important in the quality and combination of the minerals that comprise the salt. These include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, bromide, chloride, copper and zinc among other elements. The health benefits of sea salt range from skin care to oral health to pain relief from conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (Nagdeve, 2020).



Organic Black Pepper

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) is a flowering vine that produces fruit known as peppercorns. The peppercorn is then dried and used as the spice we consume. Peppercorns appear in several varieties: Black pepper is the cooked and dried unripe fruit of the vine; green pepper is the uncooked dried unripe fruit, pickled to retain their color; and white pepper is the ripe fruit seeds. Red peppercorns are typically preserved in brine and vinegar to preserve their color similar to the pickling process used for green peppercorns. Pink peppercorns come from an entirely different plant. They are the fruit of the Peruvian pepper tree (Harrison, 2016).


Cooked, ground, and dried peppercorns have been used in cooking and as medicine for centuries. Black pepper is the most widely traded and used spice world-wide. Piperine is the compound that gives black pepper its characteristic spiciness which is different from capsaicin the compound found in chili peppers. One tablespoon of ground black pepper contains vitamin K, manganese and trace amounts of other essential nutrients (CondeNast, 2014). Black pepper gives a depth of flavor and heat to dishes and is quite tasty!


Organic Parsley

Parsley belongs to a family of aromatic flowering plants – Apiaceae. There are thousands of different species that belong to this family (Gorvett, 2018). What we typically use in cooking is simply known as garden parsley (Peroselinum crispum). We find it as curly leaf (often used as a garnish) or flat leaf (easier to grow). In the Mediterranean kitchen, parsley is used both as a garnish and in a variety of dishes (e.g. rice dishes, stews, on fish, chicken, lamb, with vegetables, on salads). (USDA, 2021) .


Truthfully, I never had much use for parsley. I always thought of it as a garnish and palette cleanser between courses. Sadly, I have underestimated this potent little plant’s utility! For example, did you know it is rich in vitamins A, C, and K? Were you also aware that it has been used to treat high blood pressure, allergies, and inflammatory disease? This mighty little plant is rich in antioxidants (e.g. flavonoids, cartenoids, vitamin C) which help to fight off cancer and protect your eyes, helps support bone health because of it’s high content of vitamin K which helps increase bone mineral density, may improve the health of your heart because of its high content of folate, and has antibacterial properties (Zamarripa, 2019).



Organic Korintje Cinnamon

Korintje cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmanii) is a variety of cinnamon that is indigenous to Southeast Asia and Indonesia. This variety of cinnamon is also known as cassia. Its bark is sold as the spice we use in cooking. The powdered form is the most common and inexpensive form that we find here in the United States. It is also more flavorful than “true” cinnamon (Sri Lankan or Ceylon cinnamon).


Normally we think of sweets when talking about cinnamon but in the Greek kitchen, it is also used in savory dishes. It can be used in tomato sauces for beef kapama (one of my absolute favorites!) and pastitsio. It can be used in the preparation of sausage. It can also be used in pilafi. Cinnamon gives all of these dishes a warm earthy flavor. It is a potent little spice! Most recipes call for just a tiny pinch because it can be very overpowering (Stella 2016).


Cinnamon also has some important health benefits. It can help fight off colds, bacterial infections and yeast infections. It contains large amounts of polyphenol antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory effects. It can reduce blood pressure and help to lower blood sugar. It also is used to help relieve digestive discomfort (Lewin, 2021).


Organic Ground Nutmeg

Did you know that the majority of the world’s nutmeg comes from Indonesia? Because of the Spice Trade this seed of the Myristica fragrans tree found its way to the Mediterranean and is what gives Greek food a little taste of heaven.


In ancient times, particularly in East India and China, nutmeg was considered to be a potent aphrodisiac. By the Middle Ages, it was used to ward off evil spirits. While these uses have long been buried in antiquity, contemporary chefs love this earth spice for its warmth and rich flavor (MasterClass, 2020).


Nutmeg can be used in savory and sweet dishes. For example, many use nutmeg in custards, pumpkin pie, and egg nog. On the savory side, nutmeg brings out the flavor of root vegetables and can be used in stews and soups. Nutmeg can also be used in cheesy dishes like souffle’s and alfredo sauce (MasterClass, 2020). In Greek cooking it is used in the bechamel atop pastitsio (the Greek’s answer to lasagna).


In addition to delicious flavor, nutmeg also provides health benefits. Did you know that nutmeg is rich in antioxidants? This makes nutmeg valuable in helping to fight off general signs of aging, cancer, heat and liver diseases (WebMD.com). Nutmeg can also help protect your teeth and mouth with its antibacterial properties. It also can improve your mood, help you sleep, keep your digestive system health and prevent spikes in blod sugar . But don’t eat too much of it because in large quantities, it has been known to cause hallucinations (WebMD.com).

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this multipart series where we will delve into the spice palette’s of the rest of the Mediterranean Basin.


Until then, remember, When the Hungry Gene strikes… feed it spice!

~ Mamma Spice!



References


Deming, L. (2014, August–September). "Homemade Onion Powder". Mother Earth News.


Filocamo, A., et. al. (2012). Effect of garlic powder on the growth of commensal bacteria from the gastrointestinal tract. Phytomedicine, 15(19), 707-711. DOI: 1.1016/j.phymed.2012.02.018. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22480662/


Gorvett, Z. (2018). The mystery of the lost Roman herb. BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170907-the-mystery-of-the-lost-roman-herb?referer=https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2F


Harrison, P. (2016). What are the different kinds of peppercorns? Food republic. https://www.foodrepublic.com/2016/01/27/what-are-the-different-kinds-of-peppercorns/


Kim, W.T., et. al. (2017). Garlic extract in bladder cancer prevention: Evidence from T24 bladder cancer cell xenograft model, tissue microarray, and gene network analysis. International Journal of Oncology, 51(1): 204-212. DOI: 10.3892/ijo.2017.3993. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28498422/


Kwak, J.S., et. al. (2014). Garlic powder intake and cardiovascular risk factors: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. Nutrition research and practice, 8(6), 644-654. DOI: 10.4162/nrp.2014.8.6.644. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4252524/


Lewin, J. (2021). 6 health benefits of cinnamon. BBC Good Food. https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-cinnamon


MasterClass Staff. (2020, Nov 8). What is Nutmeg? Learn How to Cook with Nutmeg. MasterClass. Food. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-nutmeg-learn-how-to-cook-with-nutmeg


Myhrvold, N. (2021). Cooking. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/cooking


Nagdeve, M. (2020). 19 amazing benefits of sea salt. Organic Facts. https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/other/health-benefits-of-sea-salt.html

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NutritionData (2018). Spices, pepper, black – Nutrition Facts & Calories. CondeNast. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/spices-and-herbs/200/2


Perry, Leonard (2017-03-30). "Types of Garlic". Perry's Perennial Pages.


Staughton, J. (2020). 4 proven benefits of garlic powder. Organic Facts. https://www.organicfacts.net/garlic-powder.html


Stella (2016). Greek Cinnamon – Cooking and medicinal info. GreekBoston.com http://www.adiscoveringnetwork.eu/blog/greek-cinnamon-cooking-and-medicinal-info


United States Department of Agriculture [USDA]. (2021). Taxon: Petroselinum crispum (Mill.) Fuss. Agricultural Research Service. https://npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/taxon/taxonomydetail?id=27448


Vanderlinden, C. (2019-10-01). "Grow the Right Garlic for Your Needs". The Spruce.


Varshney, R. & Budoff, M.J. (2016). Garlic and heart disease. Journal of Nutrition, 146(2), 416S-421S. DOI: 10.3945/jn.114.202333. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26764327/


Zamarripa, M. (2019). 8 impressive health benefits and uses of parsley. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/parsley-benefits

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