Middle Eastern and North African cuisines are making waves
By Deanne Moskowitz
“When restaurants start winning James Beard awards for Israeli/Mediterranean cuisine, the general public gets excited,” points out Ryan Bouillet, executive chef at A Fare Extraordinaire in Houston. He’s alluding to Israeli-themed Zahav in Philadelphia, whose chef/owner Michael Solomonov was the 2017 James Beard choice for Best Chef and who turned Bouillet on to Middle Eastern cuisine at a chefs’ workshop in New York City in 2013.
When people speak of Mediterranean food now, mostly they mean the food of Greece, Israel and other countries in the Middle East, according to Bouillet. In fact, Israeli, Syrian and Greek are “by far” the leading Mediterranean cuisines in his operation lately, and Lebanese is on the rise, although he isn’t forgetting Italian, French and Spanish, which have always been important.
“Hummus and falafel have always been popular, but in the last few years we have introduced roasted vegetables with saffron labneh, grilled harissa chicken and roasted cauliflower with tahini sauce with great success,” Bouillet reports.
Many other catering chefs across the country are experiencing similar evolutions.
Kenny Rae, executive chef at Forte Belanger, a caterer in Troy, Mich., has been “selling more” eastern Mediterranean food in the last few years, too, and credits its popularity partly to the influence of casual Mediterranean bowl restaurants proliferating in the area. “It’s good, fresh food, and younger people are loving it,” he notes.
Gayle Orth, owner of Gayle Orth Catering in Tacoma, Wash.—serving an affluent, well-traveled, repeat clientele for nearly 40 years (including private corporate airline clients, who are exceptionally food savvy)—must always be on the cutting edge, she claims. Lately, that means emphasizing eastern Mediterranean influences, including Greek and Israeli, as well as Moroccan dishes.
David Turk, owner and founder of Indiana Market & Catering in New York City—who considers Greek, French, Italian and Spanish “old standbys,” saying he can always count on them—is starting to introduce food from the Middle East and North Africa. “Israeli food is very popular; Turkish food is very popular; Moroccan is popular,” he observes.
Beloved for its simplicity, freshness and health benefits, Mediterranean food has been a favorite at catered events for some time. Bouillet thinks that it may be “the most popular cuisine in America,” and Turk calls it “a crowd-pleaser,” which is what people want when they are spending big bucks to host large groups.
While the cuisines of the countries that border the Mediterranean or are surrounded by it are united in their preferences for olive oil over butter, they differ in their choice of herbs and spices. So while a big part of the appeal of western Mediterranean cuisine has been its relatability, the unfamiliarity of “new” Mediterranean’s exotic flavors is its attraction, especially for novelty-seeking millennials.
Testing the Water
One of the best ways to introduce new flavors is by featuring them as small bites, so chefs translate Mediterranean cuisines into hors d’oeuvres, small plates and stations.
Bouillet converts dishes designed for communal eating, common in these cultures, into hors d’oeuvres. He offers kofta-like lamb meatballs served with mint pesto; mini falafel sandwiches with Israeli salad; parsley-marinated chicken bites with sumac onions; and roasted beet hummus with pickled gooseberries.
At Gayle Orth, beet hummus is very popular, as are house-made flatbreads, sometimes topped with grilled pears and pancetta, or—for vegans—with arugula and pistachios. The “Amazing Grazing” menu at a corporate open house for 100 included charred onion dip, Mediterranean-spiced vegetable dal and Moroccan eggplant salsa.
Among Middle Eastern-inspired hors d’oeuvres favored at Forte Belanger are falafel tots, topped with radish salad; dates stuffed with herbed goat cheese; and candied pine nut or pecan garnish and tuna ceviche in a push pop. An interactive gyro station offers pita breads filled with chicken, lamb or tofu, and vegetables; while a bowl station gives guests a choice of yellow rice, hummus or tabouli; Moroccan-spiced chicken, lamb gyro or tofu; various vegetable and cheese toppings; and dressing choices including tahini, baba ganoush and fattoush.
To celebrate the recent opening of an Italian restaurant at a resort, Indiana worked with the chef and emulated the menu, turning the many Sicilian dishes into hors d’oeuvres. There were pan-seared beef crostini with oven-roasted tomatoes tossed in olive oil, thyme and oregano; tomato-based chickpea stew topped with grilled shrimp; and a take on panzanella salad, transformed into an easy-to-eat skewer.
The Middle Eastern station served at an Indiana-catered wedding recently included lamb, chicken and vegetable skewers grilled to order; Moroccan spiced lentils; Persian rice; cheese borek; and crispy falafel.
Coasting Dietary Concerns
Bombarded by dietary requests these days, especially from millennials, caterers find Mediterranean a rich source for solutions.
Some of Indiana’s most popular Middle Eastern-influenced hors d’oeuvres are “great options for accommodating all dietary needs,” notes Turk. Among them are falafel bites with tahini and tzatziki sauce, and Greek salad in Persian cucumber cups—the latter both vegetarian and gluten-free.
Rae and another Forte Belanger chef adapted a chickpea cake using a gluten-free binder of chickpea flour, and gracing the dish with a coconut milk and curry reduction, along with a salad garnish of toasted almonds, cilantro and dried apricots mixed with olive oil. It’s “extremely popular” now as a vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free selection for seated dinners and buffets, he reports.
To please vegetarians, Gayle Orth invents a variety of bruschetta, substituting olive oil and leaving out cheese, if necessary, to render them vegan. One made from cannellini beans, sweet onions, sundried tomatoes, fresh rosemary and oregano with a splash of white wine is “utterly delicious” and a hit with millennials, she says; also popular, in season, is a combination of grilled fresh figs, basil and micro arugula. Eggplant fans, done with or without mozzarella, are another vegetarian/vegan favorite.
Netting New Ingredients
Bringing unfamiliar ingredients and preparations in their wakes, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines are delighting clients by delivering greater variety to the table. Lamb is surfacing on more menus; olives and lemons (whether fresh or preserved) are brightening chicken dishes; fruit is a common element in meat entrees; and less familiar grains supplant traditional starches and form foundations for hearty salads.
Lamb is “huge” at Gayle Orth Catering, where it gets a variety of Middle Eastern treatments. Riblets or racks may be marinated and served with spiced pomegranate and red wine reduction, or with fresh mint and basil pesto; or they may be seasoned with herbes de Provence and sauced with chermoula. Among North African chicken dishes gaining acceptance is one roasted with green olives and lemons and paired with bulgur or couscous, and a Moroccan-brined one with lots of root vegetables, house-made spiced plums and preserved lemons.
Turk touts a roasted chicken dish starring preserved lemon and sparked by harissa. And he describes the Middle Eastern station at a recent Indiana corporate event, where grape leaves stuffed with lamb and chicken souvlaki were the linchpins.
Grilled chicken with muhammara, the Syrian walnut and red pepper spread, led the menu at an A Fare Extraordinaire event with a street food format. And at a recent Moroccan-themed dinner, Bouillet served a beef short rib tagine featuring figs and flavored with saffron and cinnamon.
Mediterranean grains are having their moment. Indiana combines bulgur with farm-fresh tomatoes, goat cheese and parsley; features farro in a salad along with chickpeas, pea shoots and feta; and chooses the ancient grain kamut to mix with roasted vegetables as a side.
Bouillet finds freekeh, made from cracked green wheat berries, “much more interesting than barley or farro,” saying that it’s a great rice substitute in risotto and “amazing” in salads. He substitutes cooked freekeh for bulgur in tabouli.
Spices Make a Splash
As newer Mediterranean cuisines gain acceptance, flavors from the North African and Middle Eastern pantries are becoming better known. Topping everyone’s list are sumac, a lemony spice made from a berry; and za’atar, a blend usually combining sumac with dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, toasted sesame seeds and salt.
Confirming the dominance of sumac and za’atar, Orth observes that they would “never have been on anyone’s menu five to 10 years ago.”
Her house-made za’atar is the secret to a beet dip combining Greek yogurt and toasted pistachios that is flavored and finished with the blend. The two also figure in a roasted Israeli chicken dish made with red onions, lemon and cinnamon, and finished with pine nuts and green tahini sauce.
Sumac and za’atar are common in A Fare Extraordinaire’s kitchen lately, along with Aleppo peppers, baharat (a blend of black pepper and usually cumin, cinnamon and cloves), and ras el hanout, according to Bouillet. He attributes their popularity to the “incredibly diverse population” in Houston, which has engendered numerous authentic restaurants to serve people from these regions. The result is a dining public that is not only familiar with these flavors but wants them.
Bouillet stirs za’atar into olive oil as a dip for bread, and he uses sumac to “soften” raw onions for salads. He thinks of baharat as a pumpkin spice with a Middle Eastern twist, and likes it in desserts and in stews and braises, especially with beef and lamb.
Harissa also is getting hot in Bouillet’s cooking, and he sees no need to temper it for American palates. On the other hand, Turk often tames the heat by adding sour cream or avocado.
Appreciated for its anti-inflammatory benefits, turmeric is a buzzword lately, according to Turk. He uses it with honey to flavor a pork roast, and with ginger in the vinaigrette for a fresh corn salad with dandelion greens and cherry tomatoes.
Rae is fond of sea salts, especially flakey Maldon, and uses them for finishing, to add “an amazing flavor pop” redolent of the sea to both savory and sweet dishes. For his surf ’n’ turf, a grilled Angus filet finished with sea salt is paired with a seared lobster drizzled with Spanish extra-virgin olive oil and fresh parsley. His crème caramel is garnished with a salt-sprinkled chocolate disk and candied orange peel.
On the Horizon
The current continues to strongly favor Mediterranean as a theme or accent for both corporate and social occasions, with western European concepts still deeply entrenched, but Middle Eastern and North African increasingly coming on stream.
In 2017, for the fundraising gala that it caters annually for the Detroit Institute of Arts, Forte Belanger produced a complete Spanish menu, showcasing such appetizer delights as seared piquillo peppers Roncal with Spanish extra-virgin olive oil, extra-virgin olive oil braised Campari tomatoes Garrotxa with smoked salmon in a wonton cone, and bonito crostini with caramelized onions and pickled guindilla; an individually served “raw bar” of shrimp cocktail, oysters and snow crab claws presented with salsa rojo, rabano picante and cava mignonette sauces; and a sweet-and-sour salad of heirloom tomatoes, Ibores goat cheese, frisee and chervil in a cider-thyme vinaigrette.
Many of the wide selection of Mediterranean stations that Rae offers to meet frequent demand are Middle Eastern, however. They feature such fare as dolmades with skordalia sauce; hummus and tabouli with grilled pita; and grilled lamb chops with garlic, rosemary, saffron couscous and red wine syrup.
Orth’s Mediterranean-themed events run the gamut from Western to Eastern cuisines, and from corporate to social occasions. Shakshuka, the new egg dish darling from the Middle East, and house-made merguez sausage with harissa led the menu for a post-wedding brunch for 50, while a recent wedding dinner menu for 200 had a Spanish flair, featuring such tapas as pintxos morunos (kebabs, usually made of lamb), and Medjool dates filled with Manchego cheese and finished with maple syrup, and a buffet offering paella.
A corporate dinner for 200 looked eastward with its Greek-style grilled marinated chicken with Meyer lemon, Bermuda onion, Kalamata olives and crumbled feta in a basil-and-oregano seasoned vinaigrette, and grilled eggplant over bulgur, infused with olives, onion, currants and toasted pistachios; while a corporate open house for 100 leaned further east with an appetizer of vegetable crudites and hummus garnished with sumac, olive oil, and roasted pignoli nuts and garbanzos; fattoush salad; and an entree of roasted chicken enlivened by lemon, sumac, allspice, cinnamon, za’atar and pignoli nuts in citrusy green tahini sauce.
The future looks sunny for newer Mediterranean cuisines as diners get to know and love their less familiar flavors. Now that the internet has “demystified” so many foods and made ingredients more accessible, “there’s a hunger for more diverse foods” and “a need to discover ‘new’ cuisines,” explains Bouillet, adding that “the Mediterranean is an easy place to start.”
And Turk sees the tide turning in the direction of Middle Eastern foods. “Not everybody understands Lebanese or Turkish,” he admits, but invariably their reaction when they try the cuisines is, “Oh, this is so good!”