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This next recipe was requested by two dear friends, so once again the tagine recipe has been postponed but that’s perfectly alright, because the Moroccan spice blend which I’m hoping you made by now, is quietly maturing. These two very special friends of mine who have been extremely supportive and encouraging before and since the inception of this blog have specifically asked me for entertaining ideas. The first, a social butterfly who enjoys being hostess to friends and family in her beautiful beach home in South Africa, has asked me for tips on how to expand on cheese and cracker plates while the second, a vegetarian and media personality with little time on her hands, requested for a simple and healthy dish to entertain her friends and fans alike. Both these women take pride in their beautiful bodies and spend adequate time keeping themselves fit and healthy so I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone and was inspired to create a dish, a Mediterranean Mezze platter (a meal made up of little dishes) that is healthy yet delicious that both they, as well as yourself can relish at a gathering with friends.

If searching for quintessentially simple yet wholesome dishes, look no further than the Mediterranean for inspiration. It doesn’t take more than a quick browse through the latest  food magazines to notice the Mediterranean food revolution that’s shifting our food focus.  There is a culinary coup d’ètat taking place in the global food industry today with junk food rebellion growing from strength to strength. Armed with all of Mother Nature’s goodness this revolt seems to be what the world needs to get back to the pure, natural nourishment that is literally born from the earth.

I once watched a food documentary on Corporate Food Companies and I distinctly remember the narrator of the documentary commenting on how the food that is really, truly good for you needs no advertisement. Think about that for a second, how often have we seen marketing advertisements in the fresh produce section? Almost never and that’s because it sells itself, it doesn’t need marketing strategies to sell the consumer. But the next time you’re in a big supermarket take a stroll  through the aisles of manufactured food and notice the huge detail expended to convince you just how exceptional a factory made product is. Companies spend millions of dollars a year on packaging and marketing just to convince us that food with ingredients that we generally can’t decipher because it’s written in code, is supposed to be good for us.

The sale of processed food soared greatly in the west especially North America during the 70’s and 80’s and even up until the 90’s, but shortly before the millennium a gradual metamorphosis began to take place with consumers starting to take charge of what they spent their valuable money on at the giant food chains and sought to look for farmers markets instead. This turning point is the key to the transformation that many countries need to begin once again to appreciate the value of honest food.

Here in the Mediterranean the integrity of food is greatly important which I find very endearing.  Honest food is what it’s mostly about, created through an old-fashioned combination of rich soil, sunlight, thoughtful cultivation and without a doubt, skilful production. And when it comes to devouring all these rewards, keeping it simple and fresh is how it’s done. For example, here a virgin bread, drizzled with olive oil and eaten with seasoned cherry tomatoes and cheese is considered a fantastic meal. Actually it’s not merely considered if I must be honest, it is. The vegetables are prepared in a way that is focused on retaining its fullest nutritional value. The cheese, the oil, even the olives are of the finest quality and so a very ordinary meal, turns into the extraordinary. In this recipe I’ve combined some of my knowledge of Mediterranean food to show you how to create a vibrant platter that surpasses most restaurant standards. Along the way there are guidelines to help you chop and change to suit your preference so please read carefully.


FOR THE CONDIMENT BOARD

This butter bean and sundried tomato dip is fabulously easy and so I had to add it to the condiment board and you should as well. But with the regards to the rest it’s totally up to you. Olives are wonderful to add a fresh Mediterranean flavour. Here I used green olives stuffed with peppers, and some black for saltiness, but two types are not absolutely necessary, use what you can afford and what you can find. If you want to intensify the flavour of basic olives, drain them from the brine and add crushed garlic, crushed red chilli, dry herbs and a splash of olive oil. Olives flavoured this way are addictive and beats the typical stuffed olive. I had stuffed olives in the refrigerator so i used them here but I prefer the seasoned olives. With regards to cured meats, the truth is salami and other cured meats are very Mediterranean and if you are not hosting vegetarians it is an absolute must to complete the Mediterranean theme. However there is no need too much,  in fact  good salami or thin slices of other cured meats goes a long way. Always remember to get the best out of a salami it must be cut into the finest slices for a very delicate but distinct flavour, thick slices are considered sacrilegious. Here I used a French Saucisson D’Arles a dry cured sausage made from pork, fat and salt with added walnuts for extra texture and flavour but go down to your local market and choose one you prefer. Salami picante is good, with its hints of chilli, and similar to Spanish Chorizo sausage which will also work well for this board if you don’t find a salami you like. Always remember to remove the rind from salami before eating it. Regarding the oil, I used garlic but you are welcome to use chilli oil made in the same way or a lemon oil using lemon zest or more than one oil. In every way the oil is necessary for the bruscetta before adding the toppings. Bruschetta is an antipasto (starter dish) in Italy consisting of grilled bread rubbed with garlic and topped with olive oil and salt. Variations usually include grilled bread with toppings like todays recipe . Finally lemon wedges are used to spritz over the salad bowl to keep everything fresh and vibrant. I used amuse-bouche glasses (small appetiser glasses) to contain the little condiments but little bowls, or little espresso cups are fine.

Ingredients
  • butter beans (1 can)
  • 100g sun-dried tomato
  • handful of black olives
  • handful of green olives
  • 3 cloves of garlic chopped + 2tbs olive oil
  • 1 fresh lemon
  • 1 roll of salami (optional)
Preparation
  1. Rinse and drain the beans and then place in a medium bowl.
  2. Add tomatoes and blend with a hand blender until smooth and creamy.
  3. Transfer into a small bowl and drizzle the top with oils from the sun-dried tomato.
  4. Place olives in amuse-bouche glasses.
  5. Finely chop garlic and place in a separate amuse-bouche glass with olive oil and mix.
  6. Cut lemon in quarters and place in amuse-bouche glass.
  7. Arrange this assortment on a board with the salami.

FOR THE CHEESE BOARD

When it comes to the cheese you of course must choose what you know you and your guests would enjoy. The ones listed below work very well with grilled vegetable salad.  Notice that I used Gorgonzola Dolce which is basically a creamier and lighter blue cheese that Gorgonzola Picante. You can tell the difference between these two classic Italian cheeses by the blue stripes of mould inside the cheese. Picante is a bit more strong, and potent in flavour and with a slightly tougher texture while Dolce is lighter in stripes and has a soft creamy texture almost like cream cheese but with the unmistakable flavour of blue. With regards to the Parmigiano Reggiano I know that it can be a bit expensive because it reigns as one the supreme cheeses one can buy but it is packed with a flavour that is unrivalled, making it perfect for mini bruscetta and you don’t have to use too much. I can also assure you that a small wedge goes a long way and if you want to get more out of it, instead of leaving the entire wedge on the board you can simply add shavings to the salad bowl. Shavings are easy to do with this particular hard cheese, you can even use a potato peeler to get thin, delicate shavings. For the cream cheese, you can enhance the cream cheese to your preference also. If you don’t have capers, mixed herbs combined into the cheese is a good alternative. Any kind of patè that you might have at home like for example an olive patè, or an artichoke patè can be mixed together with the cheese to create an unusual and tasty cream cheese dip. Another good idea is to mould the cheese into a  small roll using a good piece of cling film, make the roll nice and tight and leave to rest in the fridge for about half an hour. Meanwhile crush a tablespoon of pepper (not too finely), and place it on some parchment paper, remove the cream cheese roll from the fridge, unwrap and roll it onto the pepper to make an aesthetic and appetising peppered cream cheese roll.

Ingredients
  • Gorgonzola (Dolce) or Creamy Blue
  • Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 200g Cream Cheese
  • 1tsp capers + 1tsp mix dried herbs
Preparation
  1.  Use the tip of your knife to loosen the cream cheese from its packaging and tip it onto a cheeseboard. Sprinkle with herbs and capers.
  2. Place the other cheeses on the board as desired with a cheese knife.

FOR THE SALAD BOWL

For the grilled vegetables in this dish you could try your own variations without having to strictly stick to the recipe below. You could add a trio of colourful bell peppers, eggplants, beetroot, and fennel which are all popularly Mediterranean.

Ingredients
  • 300g mixed salad leaves /1 head of iceberg lettuce
  • 200g cherry tomatoes (preferably on the vine)
  • 2 medium zucchini
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 large bell pepper
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 ripened avocado
  • 2 fresh carrots
  • splash of balsamic vinegar (2tbs)
  • a few pinches of dried oregano
  • splash of lemon juice
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 1 tsp crushed black pepper
  • splash of olive oil (2tbs)
Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees convectional/220 conventional.
  2. Rinse veg under cold water.
  3. Hold the bell pepper under upright on a chopping board and cut the cheeks of the pepper leaving only the core. Slice the cheeks into bite size pieces.
  4. Peel the onion, slice in half and then into thick slices.
  5. Slice off the stem of the zucchini and discard then slice into rounds without slicing them to thinly.
  6. Add the sliced vegetable with the tomatoes into an ovenproof dish and season with half a tsp of crushed pepper, olive oil, salt, oregano and balsamic.
  7. Smash the garlic with the skin on.
  8. Mix  all the vegetables together well and roast for 20 minutes.
  9. Then turn on the grill and grill for a further 10 minutes on the top rack of the oven.
  10. Slice avocado in half then remove the seed and slice into quarters, do not remove the skin.
  11. Brush all sides with olive oil and place on a very hot griddle pan turning on each side until griddle lines distinctly appear.
  12. Remove from pan, remove skin and drizzle with lemon juice.
  13. Peel the carrots and using your peeler make thin ribbons. Drizzle with lemon juice, salt and black pepper to taste.
  14. On a platter or large bowl arrange salad leaves. On one side place the carrots then the pear quarters and finally the grilled vegetables. Drizzle all the juices from the vegetables over the entire dish to season.
  15. Shave of a few slices of Parmigiano and place it in the centre of the dish. Sprinkle the dish with remaining crushed pepper.
  16. At this point you could heat up a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar to reduce it to a balsamic cream for an extra depth of flavour to add to the salad bowl.

FOR THE BREAD BOARD

On the day of your party, pay a visit to your local bakery and get a good artisan loaf. Here I used a rustic French baguette which is a tad wider and a bit more flat than a regular baguette but you can decide what bread bests suits you. Ideally what you want is a crisp, crusty bread preferably a ciabatta or baguette. When laying your table place the bread on a board and cut a few slices, drizzle those slices with some of the garlic oil from the condiment board. Here the Italians simply rub their bread with slivers of garlic for that hit of garlic, but for many guests who might not want to get their fingers dirty, the garlic oil is perfect. You may also add stems of fresh herbs or even a pot of herbs to decorate your table. Here I’ve used long stems of rosemary, but thyme is beautiful and fragrant too. When the party is over, dry these and store in a bottle. With regard to devouring all this food my most delicious advise is to pile each slice of bread starting with either the bean dip or cream cheese, and layer each slice with whatever suits you to make a mouth-watering bruscetta.

FOR THE DRINKS

With this very light appetizer a cold glass of something is what is recommended. I would suggest a light beer, or a cider. I served this dish with lemon beer which is very refreshing paired with a light meal. Keep these in the refrigerator hours before the party. I would also suggest a glass of fresh white wine with fruity notes. Preferably a semi-sweet, not dry. My favourite drink to have with this might be sneered at by wine snobs but the truth is my taste buds cannot handle a dry wine and I take an Italian dessert wine with most meals. Now while this gets me a few looks at parties with Italian friends (because nobody understands this crime) I have a feeling that my South African lady friends would be happy with this information. For any of you ladies who suffer with the same problem as I do, the answer to your problem is Moscato. Moscato Dolce is a sweet, fruity Italian dessert wine that is sublime when served chilled.

Buon Appetito!

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Maestros Need to Know

*When choosing avocados, try to remove the part that the stem of the pear was attached to. Use your forefinger and try to gently push it out. If this little piece of the leftover stem comes away from the pear easily, it is an indication that the pear is ripe and ready. When cutting avocados, make a slit going around the pear, to halve the pear, then while the two halves are still attached twist the top half like you would a bottle cap and the two halves easily come away from each other. Take your knife and stab the seed deeply so that the knife sticks in well, then pull the knife back and the knife will come away with the seed without damaging  the smooth texture of the pear. Once the pear skin has been removed you must drizzle with lemon juice to avoid discolouration. Like regular pears, avocados discolour easily.

*When grilling tomatoes in this way or even when adding raw tomatoes to salads or breads, always ensure that the tomatoes are well salted. Tomatoes love salt and the salt brings out the flavour in tomatoes. For a Mediterranean flavour, oregano is the herb to use to season tomatoes as well as fresh basil.

*Balsamic vinegar has sweet tones to it and when reduced it turns to a cream. Balsamic cream is very popular in the Mediterranean and like the normal vinegar the price increases according to the age. A basic vinaigrette for salad is made with balsamic vinegar but the cream can be drizzled over vegetables, cheese, bread, meats, pizza, pasta and even fruit. To make your own at home you must reduce the vinegar over a medium heat until by 1/3rd. Reducing deepens the flavour and is very similar to the bottled variety however if you are in a rush and need a thick balsamic cream to plate a dish, you could add a bit of of cornflour to thicken before heating. This however does not increase the depth of flavour and in fact it will also change the colour slightly to a lighter brown depending on the ratio between the vinegar and the flour.

*Lemons are a wonderful way to keep vibrant dishes like salads fresh, however while it should be a staple at home, most times its not. Often we buy lemons, use it for a dish and the rest of the bag dries up day after day. With its growing popularity lemons are not cheap anymore as well, we can't afford to let them dry up to end up in the trash. My best advice in this regard is to preserve the lemons so that you can use them for as long as possible. The French are famous for using what they call a lemon confit. Lemon confit is basically lemons cut into quarters and left in an airtight jar filled with heaps of salt for three months before it is ready to be used. What happens is that the presence of the salt ensures that the lemon maintains its beautiful natural colour and the rind is then used in a variety of dishes to add a lemony flavour. However you can do the same and use the lemons to flavour as normal whenever you need going up to the three months. The lemons used in the above recipe is from a lemon confit that I made a month ago. As you can see  the lemons still look like they've been plucked from a tree. When using lemon juice to stop the discolouration of fruit though, bottled lemon juice is just fine. Save your fresh lemon juice for cheesecakes, and salads and basically full dishes. Save your lemon confit to use in savoury dishes.

*Some key information about garlic. The flavour of garlic changes depending on the way that it is sliced. As much as it may sound ridiculous to some the truth is that different recipes will call for different ways to slice garlic of this specific reason. Grated garlic for instance is extremely strong and volatile in flavour and personally when I have to prepare a dish where the garlic is eaten raw, I refrain from using grated garlic. As an example, when making garlic oil, to add to  bruscetta, pizzas and pastas it is best to use chopped garlic than grated. While grating is easier than finely chopping, if eaten raw, grated garlic can sting the mouth with an uncomfortable burn. Chopped garlic however, does not have the same volatile effect. That being said, it is also important to remember that when cooking garlic it is perfectly fine to use it grated to get the most out of it, which is common in Indian cuisine. Whole garlic simply crushed with the skin still on to prevent burning works beautifully for roasts and when eaten it is soft and sweet and full of flavour. By keeping the skin on you are softening the garlic and protecting it from burning rendering it useful for a gravy or sauce. In every way though, garlic must never burn, once garlic  burns it can ruin an entire dish. It has a terribly bitter taste. Remember that the finer the garlic the faster it burns.
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