Coastal Cuisine
Enjoy these simple, heart-healthy meals from the Mediterranean

By Rebecca Broida Gart
Photos by Rita Maas

For acclaimed chef Todd English, the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are an added bonus to his menus. One of today's superstar chefs and owner of nearly a dozen high-profile restaurants from Boston to Las Vegas, English says he simply started cooking with ingredients that he loves—legumes, vegetables, olive oil, garlic, rosemary, lemon, fish, and others—using his favorite techniques, including braising, roasting, and grilling.

"I wasn't conscious that it was a healthful diet," he said from his newest restaurant, Olives, located in the posh St. Regis Hotel in Aspen, Colorado. "At the time there were no studies out [about this]. Mediterranean cooking was just a wonderful inspiration for my cooking. Simple concepts, fresh ingredients, innovative, and yes, often nutritious."

Some might say English just got lucky. Since his early days of experimenting with Mediterranean cooking, and training at the Culinary Institute of America, the results of various studies have been released on this robust, healthful diet. Researchers have discovered that Mediterranean people have a low incidence of heart disease and a very healthy cholesterol balance. This is in part due to the abundant use of olive oil, which is said to change the composition of LDL (bad) cholesterol to a healthier form, which in turn helps inhibit the buildup of substances that block arteries.

Another health-promoting feature of the Mediterranean diet is the preponderant use of high-protein fish and lean meats balanced with whole grains and vibrant vegetables. "It's about taking protein and cutting it down, using grains and vegetables to garnish," says English. But it's quite a different approach than serving a 12-ounce steak with a side of buttery mashed potatoes. In fact, it's the flavors of the Mediterranean—garlic, lemon, and a handful of signature herbs—that give this cuisine its lusty aromas and characteristic taste without adding extra calories or fat.

Capturing the soul of the Mediterranean in your own kitchen is easier than you may think. The flavors might be complex and exotic, but the techniques are simple. And the results will fill your home with rich aromas and satisfy your appetite for fresh, healthy, low-fat foods.

Asparagus Soup

Serves 6 / This recipe is based on Todd English's Asparagus Soup, which he tops with slightly melted feta cheese. You can also substitute broccoli for the asparagus.

4 quarts water
2 pounds asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium-size waxy potato, peeled and sliced
6 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup whole milk
Salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a large pot, bring water to a boil. At the base, cut off 2 inches of the asparagus and discard. Chop off asparagus tips and reserve. Slice remaining stalks into 1-inch pieces.

2. Submerge tips in boiling water for 3 minutes. Remove tips and immediately plunge into a bowl of ice water; drain. Add stalk pieces to boiling water and cook for 5 minutes, until they turn bright green. Plunge into a bowl of ice water; drain.

3. In a medium-size skillet, melt butter and oil. Add the onion, garlic, and potato and cook until the onions turn translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the asparagus stalks, broth, and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes.

4. In batches, purée the soup in a blender or food processor. Pour soup into a pot and reheat. Add the asparagus tips and milk, and season with salt and pepper.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 153 calories % fat calories: 41 Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 8mg Carbohydrate: 16g Protein: 9g

Artichoke Guacamole

Makes about 1-1/2 cups / This is a fun play on guacamole without the fat and calories. Serve with toasted pita chips or as a condiment scooped onto crostini or grilled chicken, steak, or salmon.

6 large fresh, frozen, or canned artichoke bottoms, including stem
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1 large beefsteak tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/3 cup chopped scallions
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1. Place artichoke bottoms in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until the artichokes are very soft, about 20 minutes. Drain.

2. When cool enough to handle, finely chop the artichokes and place in a medium-size mixing bowl. Add the onion, tomato, lemon juice, olive oil, sesame oil, scallions, cilantro, salt, and pepper and gently mash with a fork.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1/4 cup): Calories: 99 calories % fat calories: 67 Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 7g Protein: 2g Recipe courtesy of The Olives Table by Todd English and Sally Sampson (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

Garlic Scampi and Bean Salad

Serves 6 / Tart balsamic and sherry vinegars combined with sweet shrimp and soft buttery beans form an unbeatable combination. Serve as an entrée or luncheon salad, followed by raw, sliced fennel.

Bean Salad:
4 cups cooked pinto or cranberry beans (about 1-3/4 cups dry), rinsed
1 beefsteak tomato, diced
1/2 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and diced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Garlic Scampi:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound large shrimp in the shell, butterflied and deveined, with tails left on
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 large bunches arugula, well washed, dried, and torn into bite-size pieces
Parmesan cheese, for garnish

1. To make the bean salad, place beans, tomato, and fennel in a large bowl. Sprinkle with oil, lemon juice, vinegars, mustard, cilantro, scallions, parsley, salt, and pepper; toss well. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight.

2. To make the garlic scampi, place a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the oil. Sprinkle the shrimp with the salt and pepper; add the shrimp and garlic to the skillet. Cook until the shrimp are pink and opaque throughout, 2-3 minutes.

3. Peel the shrimp and add to the salad. Sprinkle with pepper flakes. Toss with arugula and Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 342 calories % fat calories: 29 Fat: 11g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 147mg Carbohydrate: 35g Protein: 27g Recipe courtesy of The Olives Table by Todd English and Sally Sampson (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

Grilled Tuna with Green Olive Tapenade

Serves 4 / Tuna is a great fish for grilling—its meaty texture holds up well on the grill, and it looks beautiful under a spoonful of green olive tapenade.

4 tuna steaks, 6 ounces each
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup green olives
2 teaspoons capers, drained
Juice of two lemons
4 lemon wedges, for serving

1. Preheat grill to medium-high. Brush tuna steaks with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

2. In a food processor, coarsely blend garlic, green olives, capers, lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons olive oil, keeping the consistency slightly chunky. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.

3. Grill the fish for 3-4 minutes each side. Remove and spoon tapenade over the fish. Serve immediately and garnish with lemon wedges.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 330 calories % fat calories: 352 Fat: 13g Saturated Fat: 2g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 4g Protein: 51g

Roast Chicken with Herb and Lemon Paste

Serves 6 / A simple roast chicken is one of the great pleasures in life and the test of a good kitchen. It may seem like extra work to sear the chicken breasts on the stove, but the crispy skin and moist meat are well worth it.

Herb And Lemon Paste:
1 Spanish onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 pounds bone-in chicken breasts, rinsed and patted dry

1. To make the herb and lemon paste, place the onion, basil, parsley, rosemary, mint, sage, salt, pepper, and lemon zest in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. While the machine is running, gradually add the olive oil in a thin, steady stream and process until the mixture is smooth and emulsified.

2. Place the chicken in a large glass or ceramic bowl and cover with the paste. Cover and refrigerate for 6-8 hours, or overnight. Discard the excess paste.

3. Preheat oven to 500°. Place a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, add the chicken breasts. Cook until deep brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Place the chicken in the oven and roast until the juices run clear, about 25 minutes.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 407 calories % fat calories: 49 Fat: 23g Saturated Fat: 5g Cholesterol: 135mg Carbohydrate: 3g Protein: 50g Recipe courtesy of The Olives Table by Todd English and Sally Sampson (Simon & Schuster, 1997).

Grilled Bread Salad

Serves 6 / Serve this unique salad as a side dish, or top with grilled shrimp or chicken and present as a main course.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, for seasoning
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 1-inch slices day-old French bread, cut on the diagonal
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 pound medium tomatoes, chopped
1 small cucumber, peeled and sliced
4 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

1. In a small bowl, mix 1/4cup olive oil, vinegar, and honey. Whisk well and season with salt and pepper. Set this vinaigrette aside.

2. Preheat grill to medium-high. Mix the garlic with 2 tablespoons olive oil and let sit 10 minutes. Lightly brush the bread with the olive oil mixture and season with salt and pepper. Grill the bread until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes each side, being careful not to burn it. Transfer bread to wire rack to cool. Tear slices into 1/2-inch pieces.

3. Toss onion with tomatoes, cucumber, capers, and herbs. Add bread and toss; season to taste with vinaigrette, salt, and pepper. Toss salad well and cover; refrigerate at least 2 hours. Sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese before serving.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 7298 calories % fat calories: 51 Fat: 17g Saturated Fat: 4g Cholesterol: 8mg Carbohydrate: 31g Protein: 6g

Roasted Sweet Peppers

Roasted peppers, whether red, yellow, or orange, are a wonderful accompaniment to any meal. Serve them on crostini, in salads or pastas, or as a side dish to chicken or fish. The following is a basic recipe, but you can embellish the dish by chopping the peppers and tossing them with garlic, basil, rosemary, and extra-virgin olive oil.

6-8 yellow, orange, or red bell peppers
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

1. Slice the peppers in half and remove core and seeds. Rub both sides with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place peppers, open side down, on a baking sheet and broil on the top rack for 10-15 minutes, until the tops are blackened. Seal peppers in a paper or plastic bag and let sit for 15 minutes. When they are cool, peel off the skin and slice.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (1/2 pepper): Calories: 20 calories % fat calories: 49 Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 2g Protein: 0g Food writer Rebecca Broida Gart hopes to visit Spain sometime next summer to further research Mediterranean cooking (and eating).