March 4, 2016
Vol. VIII No. 5
Mediterranean Rice
If you were to ask someone to name cuisines that use a lot of rice, many would say Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian or other Asian cuisines. They would also be right if they mentioned Mediterranean cuisines. Rice is a staple along the Spanish Mediterranean coast, in northern Italy, along Croatia's Dalmatian coast, and in the eastern Mediterranean: Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the eastern half of Libya. 

Rice is eaten almost daily in these countries, for weeknight meals and on special occasions. It is a base for whatever flavors are on hand, and offers countless ways for cooks to make it their own. Many people around the Mediterranean grew up eating rice in the special way their family prepared it, making it a popular element of comfort foods. As an inexpensive grain, it is also used to stretch ingredients to make filling meals. In the Balkans, leftover rice is made into patties with seasonal vegetables, eggs, and cheese, then fried in olive oil, and in Greece, avgolemono soup uses rice to stretch a light, lemony chicken soup into a more substantial dish.

Along the Dalmatian coast, keeping with the tradition to not let anything go to waste, the ink from squid or cuttlefish is used to flavor long-grain rice in a popular dish called crni rizot (literally black rice). Croatians also take advantage of an abundant seafood stock to make an appetizer of stuffed clams or mussels with rice, much like how Turks stuff vegetables to make dolma

The most widely recognized and savored rice dish in Turkey and in the eastern Mediterranean overall, however, is probably rice pilav (pilaf). The basic components of pilavs are long-grain rice, water and oil, but they can be made with any combination of extra ingredients, from lamb and currants to anchovies and fava beans. Pilavs have been important to the culture since Ottoman times, when huge pilavs would be passed around at the end of royal banquets to make sure everyone left happy and full. 

Paella (pictured above), named for the large, shallow pan in which it's cooked, is probably the most well known Spanish dish outside of Spain. In fact, it's the national dish of Spain, and is a protected part of the identity of Valencia, the region where it originated. The basic ingredients are rice, oil, water, and saffron, but many are made with fresh fish and shellfish, seasonal vegetables, and meat. Like many rice dishes, paella brings families and communities together. Cooking it usually involves a party - some paellas have fed thousands! 

In northern Italy, risotto is the rice dish of choice, made by slowly adding liquid to short-grain rice to create a delectable creamy texture. It also takes on different flavors depending on the season. Unlike paella, however, in which the rice isn't touched until cooking is over, risotto is stirred regularly to release more starch. It's a technique similar to that used to make sweet and chewy rice pudding, a popular dessert all over the Mediterranean. 

Try serving a pilav or paella for a special event coming up, or make a simple risotto on a weeknight. Plainly cooked whole grain rice, with just a little olive oil and water, is also a great accompaniment to Mediterranean stews and main dishes. Check out the recipes below for a few more Mediterranean-inspired rice dishes.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipe.

Basmati rice, a long-grain aromatic rice, is popular in the eastern Mediterranean, where there is Middle Eastern and South Asian culinary influence. Vegetables biryani is a popular vegetarian dish, featuring many different vegetables that can easily be substituted based on taste preferences and what is available. Use fresh spices for best results, and choose brown basmati rice if possible. 

Recipe and photo courtesy of Al Wadi Al Akhdar.

Making risotto is a process of building layers of flavor, starting with onions and olive oil, then broth, salt, pepper, and cheese to finish at its most basic. This risotto is flavored with wild mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth to make it vegetarian.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Bella Sun Luci.

This recipe is an easy and fast way to turn leftover poultry, vegetables, and rice into a new meal. There is plenty of room for experimenting with different ingredients to find a flavor combination you like best.

Recipe and photo courtesy of the Egg Nutrition Center

by Engin Akin
Engin Akin shares her culinary mastery and describes the evolution of Turkey's diverse culture of food in Essential Turkish Cuisine. Complete with 200 recipes found across the country, including traditional dolmas, kebabs, halva, and pilav, this definitive book offers rare insight into the myriad influences on modern Turkish cooking.
by Jeff Koehler
At the heart of Mediterranean cuisine lies a trio of traditional staples: rice, pasta, and couscous. Join Koehler as he travels from Morocco to Syria to Italy to Spain, telling fascinating stories of the food artisans he meets and cooks with along the way. He reveals how rice, pasta, and couscous have become an integral part of Mediterranean culture and today's family table.
by Robin Asbell
From rice to bulgur and millet to kasha, whole grains add a hearty, healthy, and flavorful boost to any meal. In The Whole Grain Promise, Robin Asbell shares quick and easy whole grain recipes that will entice the pickiest eater and appeal to the whole family. Whether you want to improve your health or try something new for dinner, whole grains are the perfect place to start. 

Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.   

To find even more delicious Mediterranean recipes please visit: