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Hillary Nelson: Get grilling with heart-healthy Mediterranean foods

  • Grilled mackerel<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

    Grilled mackerel

    Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

  • Grilled lamb<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

    Grilled lamb

    Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

  • Grilled mackerel<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor
  • Grilled lamb<br/><br/>Hillary Nelson for the Monitor

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine proved pretty decisively that a “Mediterranean” diet, rich in olive oil, fruit, vegetables and fish, can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke by about 30 percent.

The recommendations include 4 tablespoons of good quality extra-virgin olive oil a day. Look for cold-pressed, green-colored oil (fresher oil is greener) and read the label for the oil’s harvest date – the more recent the better. Good olive oil tastes kind of spicy and often leaves a distinctive “burn” at the back of the throat, an indication of the presence of healthful antioxidants called polyphenols.

Good olive oil is pricey: Four tablespoons of will cost you upwards of a dollar a day. But consider how much the average person spends in a week on things that aren’t so healthful – like soda, fattening coffee drinks and pre-packaged snacks – and spending a dollar on something delicious that may also fend off heart attacks seems like a bargain. Consider American-made California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil; it’s just as good as many pricier European oils and is easy to find at local grocery stores.

Spring is here, and it’s time to break out the grill, a great excuse to get some Mediterranean-style food into your diet. Below you’ll find easy recipes for olive oil and herb-marinated lamb kebabs (feel free to substitute chicken, turkey or rabbit – all promoted in the Mediterranean diet), as well as simple sliced vegetables tossed in olive oil and thyme and then grilled.

And for those who are trying to eat more fish, there’s a recipe for omega-3 rich mackerel marinated in chermoula, an herb and spice paste from Mediterranean North Africa. Chermoula is traditionally served with seafood, and is a delicious way to coax a non-fish eater into trying something new.

The same basic ingredients always turn up in chermoula recipes – cumin, garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon, sweet paprika – but embellishments vary from chef to chef. Parsley, cilantro, ginger, coriander seed, hot pepper and saffron often appear as well, depending on personal taste.

I like my chermoula with twice as much parsley as cilantro, skip the ginger completely, add mint (dried or fresh), use my homemade preserved lemons rather than fresh, and go heavy on the garlic and olive oil and light on the salt.

If I’m marinating a fatty fish, such as mackerel, then I cut back a bit on the olive oil and add a bit more lemon. If I’m marinating lean meat, I do the opposite.

You get the picture. The recipe below is an approximation, not a rule. Taste as you go, and feel free to experiment. It will always be delicious.


1 heaping tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground, or 1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt (less if using fine salt)

6 fat cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1∕2 cup loosely packed washed parsley leaves, chopped

1∕3 cup loosely packed washed cilantro leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh spearmint or 2 teaspoons dried spearmint

1 tablespoon sweet ground paprika

1∕2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1∕2 teaspoon ground hot red pepper flakes or cayenne

juice from one large lemon or the pulp from one preserved lemon, rinsed and chopped

1∕4 cup extra virgin olive oil (2 tablespoons if using on fatty fish, such as mackerel)

Puree the ingredients together to form a paste.

If using a mortar and pestle, start by grinding the cumin seeds with the salt, then add the garlic to the mortar and grind to a paste. Next add the other dry ingredients and incorporate, then add the fresh herbs and incorporate, and finish by adding the lemon pulp or juice and the olive oil, and incorporate.

Or, combine all the ingredients at once in a blender or small food processor and pulse until reduced to a puree. Taste the mixture and tweak as desired.

This is best used fresh, but will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1∕2 cup.

Grilled Mackerel
Marinated in Chermoula

4 small cleaned mackerel (or a similar amount of other sturdy fish)

1 recipe Chermoula (above)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (optional), plus additional oil for the grill

lemon wedges for serving (optional)

Set aside about 1∕3 of the chermoula. Coat the mackerel’s skin and interior generously with the remaining chermoula. Refrigerate for at least an hour and as long as overnight.

Before heating, make sure your grill is very clean, particularly if you are cooking fish that has no skin. Fish is much more fragile than meat, and if it sticks, you will be sorry.

Heat the grill to medium high, and as it heats, brush it well with oil to prevent the fish from sticking. When the grill is hot, place the mackerel on it and cook for about 5 minutes on the first side.

How long the fish will need to cook depends on how hot the grill is and how big the fish.

Carefully flip the mackerel over – the skin shouldn’t stick if the grill was properly prepared and is hot enough. Peek beneath the skin, and you should see that the mackerel’s flesh has turned white and is flaky.

Cook on the second side, again for about 5 minutes, or until the flesh is cooked.

While the fish is cooking, mix the two tablespoons of olive oil into the remaining chermoula.

Serve the fish hot, with chermoula and lemon wedges on the side.

Makes 4 servings.

Turkish Style
Lamb Kebabs

1 1∕2 pounds shoulder or leg of lamb, trimmed of silver skin and cut into ¾e_SSiS-inch cubes (you may substitute beef or chicken, if desired)

1 medium onion, peeled and grated

3 cloves garlic, peeled and grated

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt (or to taste)

freshly grated black pepper, to taste

½ teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground hot red peppers or cayenne (or to taste)

1 teaspoon dried spearmint

½ cup plain, full-fat yogurt

2 teaspoons hot pepper paste (Sriracha works well), or to taste

4 pieces pita bread

grilled vegetables (see recipe)

In a medium bowl, combine the onion, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, ground hot red pepper and spearmint and stir well. Add the lamb cubes and toss well.

Marinate the meat for at least two hours and as long as overnight, if desired.

While the kebabs are marinating, combine the yogurt and hot pepper paste to make a sauce.

Refrigerate until needed.

When ready to cook, thread the chunks of meat on 2 long or 4 smaller skewers, pressing the pieces of meat up against one another (this keeps them from losing all their juices while cooking).

Heat a very clean, oiled grill to medium high. When hot, place the meat on the grill, and cook for a few minutes on each side. It’s time to turn the meat when grill marks appear and it is easy to lift the skewer without the meat sticking.

If you prefer your meat rare, you will probably not cook the kebabs on all four sides before the meat is ready.

To check how well cooked the meat is, simply slide the chunks apart from one another, and you will be able to see how pink they are near the skewer.

When the kebabs are just about done, toss the pita bread on the grill (if there’s room – otherwise, grill the bread after removing the lamb).

Cook only long enough to heat the bread a bit and leave some grill marks on it.

Serve the kebabs hot with grilled vegetables, grilled pita and yogurt sauce.

Makes 4 servings.

Grilled Vegetables

2 red peppers, pith and seeds removed, cut into 1∕2 -inch rings

2 onions, peeled and cut into 1∕2 -inch rings

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut lengthwise 1∕4 -inch thick

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1∕2 teaspoon dried thyme (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

Toss all the ingredients together and set aside to marinate for at least one hour.

When ready to cook, heat a clean, well-oiled grill to medium high. Place the vegetables on the hot grill and cook for a few minutes, flipping them over when they are grill marked on the bottom. They are done when tender and grill-marked on both sides. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.

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