- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

We often speak of Mediterranean cooking as if it’s a uniform style. There are many shared essentials, but there are also distinct differences among the region’s cuisines.

Consider French cooking, with its subtle, long-simmered wine sauces that embellish meats and fish. Next look south to Morocco, where the flavors come from spices instead of spirits. At the sea’s eastern edge, sesame seeds enrich appetizers, breads and even desserts.

Fusion cuisine has been around the Mediterranean for eons.

Recently I saw a good illustration of modern Mediterranean fusion at La Guta, an elegant French restaurant in Jerusalem where I dined with Moroccan chef-owner, Guta Ben Simhon. There, three Mediterranean styles — Moroccan, French and Israeli — gracefully come together.

The house-baked rolls were shaped like minibrioches (buttery, fluted French rolls) but were sprinkled with aromatic nigella (black onion) seeds that are favorites in the Mideast and India. Along with them we were served a dish of tapenade, the garlic-flavored black olive paste from Provence.

On the menu were many other time-honored specialties from France.

A smooth and velvety Jerusalem artichoke soup tasted as if it had come straight out of Escoffier’s “Guide Culinaire.” Yet it had been modified according to Jewish dietary requirements.

It was kosher, like the restaurant’s other dishes. With meat on the menu, no dairy products were allowed.

As is appropriate in a fine French restaurant, Mr. Simhon’s menu featured foie gras (rich goose or duck liver), but with a sauce seasoned with date syrup, a Middle Eastern sweetener.

Mr. Simhon also enhanced the beef with a red wine sauce spiked with ginger, a favorite Moroccan spice.

Ginger made another appearance in a sauce for chicken, along with garlic and honey, thus demonstrating the Moroccan fondness for main courses with sweet and pungent accents.

Adding bold flavors to wine creates interesting sauces for meat and poultry. So when you’re in a hurry, doing this can help you put a wine sauce together quickly.

Because garlic, ginger and other favored Middle Eastern spices, such as allspice and cinnamon, are so aromatic, the sauce doesn’t need lengthy simmering in stock to develop the flavor. Honey helps mellow the red wine and balance its acidity.

If you have a favorite spice or seasoning blend that you grew up with, use it, at first with a light hand, to give your sauces, soups and stews your own personal touch.

Doing so will make you more confident in the kitchen, no matter what region’s recipes you happen to be cooking.

Chicken with mango, red wine and ginger sauce

This dish is inspired by the fruity sauces used at La Guta to accompany poultry. You can prepare the sauce base a day ahead and refrigerate it in a covered container.

For a luxurious alternative, use duck breasts instead of chicken and saute for 3 minutes per side for medium rare.

You’ll find duck breasts at fine butcher shops and specialty stores.

2 ripe mangoes (1 pounds) for sauce, plus 1 additional mango for garnish

1 cups chicken broth

1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger root

2 large garlic cloves or 2 medium shallots, minced

⅓ cup dry red wine

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

4 boneless, chicken breast halves (about 1 to 1 pounds), skin removed

Salt, freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 to 2 teaspoons honey or sugar, optional

Cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon butter, optional

Peel and puree 2 mangoes in a blender or food processor. Add 3/4 cup broth and blend until smooth. In a small saucepan, simmer ginger with garlic, wine and vinegar over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until about 3 tablespoons mixture remain.

Add cup broth and bring to a boil. Add pureed mango mixture and bring to a boil; remove from heat. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper on both sides.

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet. Add chicken and saute over medium-high heat, pressing on chicken occasionally with slotted spatula, about 4 or 5 minutes per side or until meat feels springy and is no longer pink inside. (Cut to check.) Transfer to a platter, cover and keep warm.

Meanwhile, peel and slice remaining mango and reserve for garnish. Pour off fat from skillet. Add remaining cup broth to skillet and boil for 2 minutes.

Add mango sauce and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes or until it is thick enough to coat a spoon. Taste and add honey or sugar, if desired, and simmer for a few seconds to blend. Add cayenne to taste. Turn off heat, stir in butter, if using, taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer chicken to serving plates, discarding juices from platter.

Spoon sauce over chicken. Serve garnished with mango slices. Makes 4 servings.


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