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May a la Mode-National Mediterranean Diet Month by Ron Skaar


May a la Mode
National Mediterranean Diet Month

by Ron Skaar

Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of “modern” times, around 1700, enormous changes occurred in Mediterranean cuisine. The upward mobility of the Islamic civilization brought scientific, mathematical and especially agricultural gifts west. Arab agronomics acquired many methods from the Romans but had become far  more sophisticated farmers.

Surprisingly, stirrups played another important part in challenging the subsistence diet of the area. Norman knights became human tanks as they stormed south thru southern Italy,  Sicily, Tunisia and Greece. Their protection brought stability, transforming lives from feudalism to capitalism. Humanism, recognizing the dignity of mankind, appeared in the 14th century. All this culminated in the Renaissance and its delight in all things harmonious, including cuisine.

Catherine de’ Medici of Florence married King Henry II of France in 1533. She brought along an entourage of Italian chef’s who transformed the cooking and eating habits of the Francophiles. Meaning, Italians may lay claim to inventing French cooking! Plus, thru the budding age of exploration to the new world, the conquistadors brought back much more worth in new food products than in gold. 

The culinary revolution began early in the Middle East. This cuisine is robustly Mediterranean, full of sun-ripened vegetables, of aromatic herbs on meats and vegetables cooked over coals in the open air. Oregano sharpens and mint sweetens the flavors of eggplant, peppers and tomatoes, while onions and garlic add snap to the dish. Olive oil bathes salads, meats and vegetables, and the bread is a course, crusty loaf or baked to form flat oval pita pockets.

The Ottoman Turks had a huge influence on the culinary catharsis of the Mediterranean area. Food remnants of their rule, dolmas, moussaka and baklava are standard Greek fare. Freshly caught swordfish has been grilling over coals with a touch of olive oil, lemon juice and oregano, since ancient times. Those fresh stuffed grape leafs with yogurt, crisp fried whitebait, olives, plus little triangular flaky phyllo pillows, are relished by the Greeks. 

In Venice the sea abounds with clams, spiny lobster and the true scampi of the Adriatic. Seafood is also the strength on the northwest Italian coast, simmered in soups or sautéed in Genoa with olive oil and finished with fresh basil. Along the coast, in southern France huge sheets of the original pissaladiere are consumed. The hearty Provencal cuisine attests to the voluptuous tomatoes, olive trees, garlic, sweet onions, fruits and herbs grown in the sunny hillsides.

Stuck out in the Mediterranean, Sicili may be the true culinary amalgamation of the area. Seafaring Greeks, Arabs, Africans and Turks (plus those meddlesome Normans) have all left a mark on their cuisine. Figs, prickly pears, almonds, pistachio nuts and choice citrus fruits grow in abundance. Many Sicilian dishes combine dried fruits, nuts and spices.

May is “National Mediterranean Diet Month”. The recipe below highlights the similarities of our local ingredients (and climate) to those of the Mediterranean.


¼ cup plus olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley or oregano

4 (5-6 ounce) wild salmon filets

2 lemons, halved

For the Tzatziki:

2 ripe Hass avocados, peeled, pitted and chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 serrano chile, seeded and diced

¼ cup Greek yogurt

Grated zest and juice of one lemon

½ English cucumber, diced

¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Put the avocados, garlic, serrano, yogurt, lemon zest and juice in bowl of food processer and process until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in cucumber and parsley and season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Heat your grill.

Combine ¼ olive oil and herb in blender and blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper.

Brush filets on both sides with oil and grill for about 3 minutes per side. Brush the cut sides of lemons with oil and grill, cut side down until grill marks appear. Serve the fillets with the Tzatziki sauce and squeeze the juice from lemons on top. Serves 4.




Ron Skaar is Executive Chef at the Mary Agatha Furth Center in Windsor and a Sonoma County caterer. He can be reached at