For my new TV series Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook, I went on a journey to explore the history of Mediterranean cooking and the routes the ingredients themselves have taken. My travels led me to the far corners of the Med and included cuisines from three continents, taking in both the familiar and unfamiliar.
Over the course of the journey, I discovered that although the food of the Mediterranean is diverse, with each country having its own distinctive style, there are many similarities, both in cooking methods and ingredients. Olive oil is a prime example of this – each country producing uniquely different flavours. Bread is also at the heart of most Mediterranean meals and there is an enormous variety across the region – from rustic loaves and stuffed breads to a wonderful array of flatbreads.
The countries I visited are linked not only by the Mediterranean Sea, but also by the ancient spice routes, which played a huge role in shaping Mediterranean cuisines.
During our stay in Riad Monceau in Marrakech, we were treated to a daily selection of wonderful appetisers, often including small pastries similar to these vegetable parcels (or briouats). Traditionally, a briouat is fried, but I’ve chosen to bake mine for a slightly healthier but equally tasty version.
Fattoush is a fresh, crisp salad popular throughout the eastern Mediterranean. It’s a great way to use up any leftover flatbreads or pitta and makes a crunchy side dish or satisfying lunch on its own. Each country has its own version of fattoush and I have tried and made a few on my travels. In Jordan I was shown how date molasses is made and I used a little of the wonderful rich syrup in this salad. It worked so well that I would recommend getting some if you can, or you can use pomegranate molasses if you prefer.
Tabbouleh is traditionally a Levantine dish that’s become popular all over the Mediterranean. In Jordan and around the Middle East it’s usually served as part of a mezze, but here I’m serving it as a herby, fresh-tasting salad to complement the zesty lamb. The herbs are the star of this salad. Sumac grows wild in Jordan and is used to give meat, fish, vegetables and dips a tangy lemon flavour. This dish is also great for a barbecue − just cook the chops on the hot grill for 3-4 minutes on each side or until cooked to your liking.
Gambas al ajillo is a popular Spanish tapas dish, which also makes a great midweek supper when served on toasted bread with a side salad. It’s delicious and so quick to prepare. For a really authentic touch, add a splash of dry sherry when cooking.
Squash and sweet potato work beautifully with earthy, aromatic Moroccan spices and saffron. This is a quick tagine that makes for an easy yet impressive vegan lunch or dinner. Feel free to mix up the veggies. The zesty couscous is simple to prepare and makes a perfect side to tagines and stews.
Romesco is a classic Spanish sauce popular throughout the Mediterranean. Traditionally made from slow-roasted tomatoes, I’m using a jar of roasted red peppers for a quick and punchy accompaniment to the steak and crispy potatoes. Any leftover sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for a week. It’s also great with chicken or fish, or try stirring through some cooked pasta for a tasty vegan meal.
Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook starts on ITV today at 10.30am
Get 20 per cent off the book
Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook by Ainsley Harriott will be published on 26 March by Ebury Press, price £20. To preorder a copy for £16 with free p&p until 5 April, go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.