December 22, 2017   - Vol. IX No. 26
Holiday Cooking with Mediterranean Spirits
Wine and spirits are essential parts of the Mediterranean Diet, adding both flavor and a cultural identity to meals. While you may cook regularly with wine, you may be less familiar with the idea of using spirits and liqueurs to bring out the unique flavors of dishes from countries like Greece, Italy, and Turkey. Anisette , sambuca , ouzo, rakı , and limoncello —among the most famous of Mediterranean spirits—are ready to pour out their secrets and rev up the flavor in your meals, while making spirits bright (!) for the holidays.

Many Mediterranean liqueurs fall into two categories: fruit liqueurs and spirits with the licorice-like flavor of anise. Chief among the fruit liqueurs is limoncello, a traditional Italian lemon liqueur made from lemon zest, alcohol, sugar, and water. It’s usually served in small, chilled glasses as an after-dinner digestivo believed to calm your stomach down after multiple plates of food. Campari , another Italian liqueur, lends its orange flavor to cooking, while Chambord and cassis , two French liqueurs, give raspberry and blackberry flavors, respectively, to dishes and drinks. Fruit liqueurs are often used in baking to bring a subtle yet deep fruit flavor to cakes, biscotti, and other treats.

Anise seeds are the base of many traditional Mediterranean spirits. They flavor absinthe , the high-proof French spirit that was the muse of many famous writers, and anisette, a liqueur popular throughout Mediterranean Europe and some Middle Eastern countries. Anise seeds also give their licorice/fennel flavor to pastis from France, sambuca from Italy, ouzo from Greece, chinchón from Spain, and rakı from Turkey.

Italian feast days begin as less formal dinners end, with short glasses of sweet  sambuca . The spirit is served neat, on the rocks, or with water or coffee, to which it can be added to create a  caffé corretto (or “correct coffee”). In the kitchen, you may find sambuca added to a cream sauce served over shrimp or chicken, or added to a tomato sauce to give extra depth of flavor.

In Greece, family and friends gather at the ouzo  bar, or ouzeries , for meals composed entirely of mezes (known as mezedes, the Greek version of tapas), always accompanied by cool ouzo . Due to the strength of the drink, drinking ouzo without food a practice known evocatively as  xerosfýri  or "dry hammer" is generally frowned upon. So why not put the ouzo in the food? You can use ouzo to flambé shrimp and vegetables, to marinate seafood, or even to add to salad dressing.

If a Mediterranean country touches the sea and its culture permits alcohol consumption, it boasts an anise spirit all its own. Turkey and Crete have their rakı , Lebanon its arak, and other Middle Eastern countries have similar spirits, sometimes spelled arrak . Along with ouzo, arak and rakı are distilled from the leftovers of winemaking grape seeds, stems, and skins —and then flavored with anise seeds. All of these anise spirits are interchangeable in recipes.

Water, and wine in moderation, are the typical beverages of the Mediterranean Diet. During the holidays, Mediterranean spirits make a great addition to meals. If you drink wine or spirits, enjoy moderate amounts: up to one glass per day for women and two for men, accompanied by plenty of water to keep well hydrated. Or even better, add small amounts of spirits to your recipes, as we’ve done in the special recipes below.

Wishing you and your family a happy and healthy holiday, from all of us at Oldways!

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

Add fruit liqueur or ouzo to the dressing and enjoy this delicious citrus salad for dessert or as a side dish. If the fruit is covered and chilled in the refrigerator separately from the dressing until just before serving, it maintains its fresh appearance and texture. 

An Oldways recipe and photo.

Melissa Clark, prolific cookbook author and food writer, traveled with Oldways south of Naples to the province of Salerno, the land of lemons and limoncello. Here, Melissa re-created the lemon babas she discovered in the beautiful, sun-kissed village of Minori.

Recipe courtesy of Melissa Clark for Oldways. An iStock photo.

James Beard award-winning chef Ana Sortun traveled with Oldways to Greece, where she cooked one of her favorite recipes. Poached pears with ouzo, chocolate yogurt, and almond phyllo is the perfect finish to a big meal. 

Recipe courtesy of Ana Sortun for Oldways. Photo courtesy of Paola Garza for Oldways.
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.