Mediterranean vegetables glow with color, nutrition

Heart-healthy diet consists of low to moderate amounts of chicken, fish, dairy and very little meat.

By PHYLLIS GLAZER

The Associated Press

TEL-AVIV, Israel – If you were to think of “Mediterranean” vegetables, what comes to mind?

Ripe juicy red tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, multicolored peppers, garlic and even fennel perhaps: They are in high season now and being picked at their freshest, in North America, happily, as much as in the sunny countries around the Mediterranean.

With the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet receiving so much acclaim these days, too, it has never seemed more enticing to make sure these vegetables play a leading role in your kitchen and on your table.

Based on fruits and vegetables, various beans, nuts and seeds, refined and unrefined grain foods and olive oil, the traditional Mediterranean diet is a way of life throughout all the countries situated on the Mediterranean basin, including Italy, Greece, Spain, southern France, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and all along the North African coast.

This regimen also includes a moderate amount of fish, weekly servings of poultry, low to moderate amounts of dairy products like yogurt and cheeses, very little meat and a moderate intake of wine.

Why the Mediterranean diet?

Research has linked it to improved heart health and other benefits. Olive oil, for example, contains healthy monounsaturated fat. The Mediterranean diet, high in fiber, also promotes digestive health; the various colors of its many fruits and vegetables identify them as valuable sources of phytonutrients and antioxidants.

But what exactly are Mediterranean vegetables?

Though it’s hard to imagine the Mediterranean kitchen today without eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and string beans, these vegetables were imported from distant shores centuries ago eggplant from India, and tomatoes, peppers, corn and string beans from the Americas.

Others, like artichokes, cucumbers, celery, onions, garlic, zucchini, fennel, okra, various cabbages, squash and beets, have probably been around since biblical times.

Mediterranean vegetables are not only healthy, they’re also versatile. They turn up in salads, sautes and stews; marinated and roasted on the grill; pickled and even preserved in syrup.

Always select brightly colored vegetables (the intense color means more nutrients) with fresh-looking leaves, stems or roots, firm to the touch and unwrinkled.

Don’t let them crowd up your vegetable bin. Storage affects both flavor and nutritional value. Most vegetables are best stored in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, except for tomatoes, which should be kept at room temperature to bring out their full flavor, and eggplant, which tends to develop soft brown spots within a day or two.

Here are recipes for one famous vegetable dish, in a personal family version, and two that are quite a bit more unusual: one is a tasty “pickle” or condiment, the other a sweet dessert of Moroccan descent.

Ratatouille

It is often thought that “ratatouille,” that delicious vegetable melange, derives from the French “touiller,” which means “to stir.”

Originating in Provence, it is traditionally made with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and garlic. Although many ratatouille recipes suggest sauteing the eggplant and zucchini separately before combining with the remaining vegetables, this quick version preserves the color, nutrients and toothsome texture of the vegetables.

Serve it as an accompaniment to meat, chicken or fish, on rice or polenta, or with crusty country-style bread.

My Mother’s Ratatouille

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large (1 pound) onions, cubed or sliced

3 medium (1 pound) zucchini, unpeeled, sliced

1 large red pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 large yellow pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons fresh thyme

2 cups (packed) peeled and coarsely chopped large ripe tomatoes

5 to 6 large fresh basil leaves, cut in strips

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium heat, and saute onion, zucchini, peppers and eggplant together 2 minutes, stirring to coat with the oil. Heat thoroughly and add sugar, salt, pepper and thyme. Add tomatoes and basil, cover and simmer 8 minutes or until thickened.

Makes about 4 servings as a side dish.

(Recipe: Phyllis Glazer)

Pickles

These fennel “pickles” make a deliciously different and versatile condiment and topping. Serve them straight from the jar in salads or sandwiches, atop pasta, or baked on focaccia or fish.

Marinated Fennel in Olive Oil and Herb

3 pounds fennel (3 bulbs with 1-inch stalks)

2 medium onions, sliced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

2 lemons, scrubbed and sliced thinly, lengthwise (unpeeled)

4 sprigs fresh thyme

3/4 cup white wine vinegar

Pinch of sugar dissolved in 1 teaspoon water

Coarse sea salt or kosher salt

Coarsely ground black pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil to cover

Wash, dry, and trim the fennel stalks till they meet the top and sides of the bulb. Remove dry or pulpy outer leaves, stalks and edible leaves. Save the outer leaves and stalks for soup, and the leaves for garnishing.

Slice the bulbs thinly crosswise. Place the slices in a large bowl with the onion, garlic, lemon and thyme. Mix in vinegar and sugar water. Season with salt and pepper and cover with extra-virgin olive oil (or half olive oil, half vegetable oil), making sure that the olive oil covers the fennel.

Use a dish smaller than the circumference of the bowl, and a kettle half-filled with water on top as a weight to help submerge the vegetables. Let sit several hours at room temperature before serving.

Remove thyme sprigs and transfer to a 2 quart mason jar. Store tightly closed in the refrigerator. More fennel may be added to the same marinade throughout the week. Top up with olive oil so fennel is submerged.

Makes enough to fill a 2-quart Mason jar.

(Adapted from “The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking,” by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer, 2004, $29.95)

Dessert

Some tastes are never outgrown or forgotten. Chef Shalom Kadosh of the Sheraton Jerusalem Plaza Hotel has fed notables including Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Francois Mitterand, King Hussein and Bill Clinton, and he’s worked with world-renowned chefs of Michelin three-star restaurants. But he still cherishes the ethnic Moroccan flavors he enjoyed when he was growing up, among them the sweet preserves made with a wide range of unusual ingredients, including eggplant, and served as a dessert at the end of the meal.

Today, one of the most famous desserts he offers at the hotel consists of a serving of one or two little eggplants, cooked and served with spiced syrup, accompanied by fine vanilla ice cream.

Moroccan Confit of Baby Eggplant in Citrus, Honey and Fresh Ginger

2 pounds Italian baby or Japanese eggplants (see note)

Pinch salt

3 3/4 cups sugar

3/4 cup honey

3 cinnamon sticks

1/2 teaspoon each: cinnamon, cloves, grated fresh ginger

Juice of 5 lemons

Grated rind of 1 lemon

1/2 cup water

Vanilla ice cream, if desired

Rinse the eggplants and peel them, leaving the stems on. Use a fork to prick holes in the eggplant. Place in a pot with boiling water to cover and a pinch of salt, and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Remove and drain the eggplants and place in a colander. Let cool completely and lightly squeeze to remove excess liquid. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, mix the sugar, honey, spices and water and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook uncovered, stirring often, as the mixture thickens to the consistency of a syrup. Gently add the eggplants, cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour. Add the lemon juice and rind and continue to cook on lowest possible heat for 3 hours. Remove about a half cup of the syrup in the middle of cooking, and save to serve with the eggplant (the rest of the syrup candies the eggplant as they finish cooking, but is not totally absorbed).

Cool and serve with reserved syrup, accompanied by ice cream, if desired. Alternatively, pack into a sterile 1 quart Mason jar or smaller jars, and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Do not refrigerate reserved syrup (it would harden).

Makes about 5 to 7 servings, as accompaniment to ice cream.

Note: Baby eggplants range from about 2 to 3 1/2 inches long, and weigh from 2 to 3 ounces each.

(Recipe: Phyllis Glazer)