Mediterranean cooking incorporates ethnic influences of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Among the more familiar are Italy, Spain, Greece and Albania. Location and climate conditions contribute to a cuisine featuring plentiful fruits and vegetables, grains and greens and many varieties of fresh seafood. Tomatoes, legumes, mushrooms, eggplant, squashes, and artichokes are staples in this region and the abundance of olive trees produces the oil used in cooking. Herbs of fennel, basil, oregano and thyme flourish in the mild climate; yogurt and cheese are natural byproducts of milk from herds of goats and sheep that roam the rocky ledges. With a combination of some of these flavorful ingredients, you can create elegant and delicious appetizers for your next social gathering.
The Spanish custom of enjoying small plates of interesting food (tapas) before the evening meal suggests several easy appetizers, such as steamed mussels and potato croquettes. Pair these with a pitcher of chilled Sangria or any favorite red or white wine from Spain.
Steam mussels in a covered pan of water over high heat until the shells open. Remove from heat and discard-do not eat-any unopened shellfish; then refrigerate mussels. Prepare a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice, seasoned with minced green onion, crushed garlic, red and green pepper, chopped parsley, dried red pepper flakes or hot sauce. Pour sauce over mussels before serving.
Spicy potatoes are simple. Peel large potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Season with salt and pepper and fry in olive oil, stirring intermittently until golden and cooked through. Prepare sauce by mixing equal parts of ketchup and mayo with minced onion and garlic, paprika, hot sauce, a pinch of cumin, thyme and black pepper. Mix potatoes and sauce just before serving and garnish with thin lemon slices and parsley. A crisp and refreshing white wine is a nice balance for this appetizer.
To whet the appetite in Italy, diners love combinations of thinly sliced flavorful pork products like prosciutto di Parma, Seranno ham, spicy dried salami or sweet and hot capicola, served with an assortment of cheeses. Readily available are imported and domestic varieties that will satisfy your guests. Choose from Parmigiano-Reggiano, gorgonzola, fresh mozzarella, asiago or fontina. Add the sweetness of caramelized onions and the tang of fresh lemon juice or champagne vinegar with assorted olives, marinated artichokes and mushrooms, roasted red peppers drizzled with oil and sea salt, and provide a platter of grilled Italian garlic bread rounds. Garnish this elegant plate of goodness with fresh basil or parsley. Serve with a mild red Chianti, crisp Pinot Grigio or sparkling Prosecco.
Seafood is abundant and fresh in Greek cuisine and shellfish are excellent impressive, easy-to-prepare appetizers. Clean and skewer large shrimp or meaty scallops that have been marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, Greek oregano, garlic and black pepper. Grill or broil till golden brown and present on a bed of crisp lettuce greens garnished with lemon slices. Pair with a fruity white or rose wine from California or from Greece, a wine producer for more than 6,000 years.
Albanian cuisine relies on meats and vegetables for hearty dishes, but a favorite vegetable medley can be used as an appetizer. In hot oil, fry eggplant and zucchini rounds and slices of green bell pepper. Drain excess oil from vegetables on paper toweling. Mix a dressing of yogurt, finely chopped cucumber, crushed garlic, salt and pepper; pour over vegetables and serve at room temperature. Add a platter of tiny fried meatballs made from a mixture of ground meat, grated onion, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, parsley, Feta cheese and crushed mint. Rakia is a popular Albanian alcoholic beverage made from fermented plums and grapes, but any more familiar red or white wine works well.