There's a great diversity to the cuisines around the Mediterranean Sea, but also a common thread. We immediately think of Italian, Greek and Spanish food, but other countries border that beautiful expanse of water. Provençal in France, Portugal and Croatia are there too, as are Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. The tie that binds these countries' cuisines is often attributed to the spread of olive trees around the region, but I think there's more to it. The Mediterranean has seen many great empires – the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans Babylonians and more – and with the prosperity of those civilisations came the idea of cooking for pleasure rather than just sustenance.
The idea that food is a communal joy is implicit in the region's cooking, and it's an idea we could all embrace. Here are a couple of dishes that are just right for enjoying with family and friends on a balmy evening. Sea views optional.
Chicken, peppers and basil tray bake
This simple summery bake is an easy dinner that combines the natural affinity of basil and capsicum with succulent roast chicken.
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 6 chicken thigh cutlets, bone in
• salt and pepper, to season
• 2 red onions, peeled and cut into wedges
• 4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed
• 1 red capsicum, cut into thick slices
• 1 yellow capsicum, cut into thick slices
• 6 anchovies, chopped (optional)
• ½ cup chicken stock
• a pinch of sugar
• 1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, torn
• a splash of balsamic vinegar (optional)
Heat your oven to 200°C. Take a large baking dish or frying pan that can be placed on a stovetop as well as into the oven (cast iron is perfect) and heat over high heat. Add the olive oil, season the chicken thigh cutlets with salt and pepper and fry, skin side down, until golden brown.
Turn the chicken and add the onions, garlic and capsicum around the chicken pieces. Scatter with the anchovies (if using) and pour over the stock. Season very well with salt, pepper and a good pinch of sugar and transfer to the oven for 30-35 minutes, until the chicken is just cooked though. Scatter with the torn basil leaves and serve immediately, with a splash of balsamic vinegar on top if you like.
Smothered salad with tomato croutons
Smothered salad with tomato croutons. Photo: William Meppem
The classic Spanish pan con tomate becomes tomato croutons with a creamy dressing. It's a bit like a BLAT in salad form.
• 2 tbsp olive oil
• 3 rashers of bacon, roughly chopped
• 1 small head of iceberg lettuce, cut into wedges
• ½ small red onion, finely diced
• black pepper, to serve
• 1 tbsp finely chopped chives, to serve
• 3 slices sourdough, roughly torn
• ¼ cup tomato passata
• 2 anchovies or 1 tsp fish sauce (optional)
• 1 clove garlic
• 1 avocado
• ½ cup mayonnaise
• ¼ cup sour cream
• juice of 1 lemon
• 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
• a pinch of sugar
• a pinch of salt
• a little milk (or water)
For the avocado dressing, combine all the ingredients except the milk in a processor and blend until smooth. Add a little milk or water if necessary to bring it to a thick but pourable consistency.
Heat a frying pan over medium heat, add the olive oil and fry the bacon until it's crisp. Remove with tongs, reserving the oil and bacon fat in the pan. For the tomato croutons, toss the sourdough in the passata and allow to stand for 10 minutes. Fry over medium heat in the reserved oil and bacon fat (adding more oil if necessary), for 4-5 minutes, until crisp. Allow to cool.
Place the lettuce wedges on a serving plate and pour the avocado dressing over the top to smother. Scatter with the bacon, onion and tomato croutons. Grind over plenty of black pepper and scatter with chives to serve.