- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

In North America, we often start the day with a sugary taste. Many of our popular breakfast foods — cold cereal, oatmeal, pancakes, waffles and French toast — are decidedly on the sweet side. On a typical table in the Middle East, however, the choices are different.

During our latest trip to the eastern Mediterranean, my husband and I particularly enjoyed the savory breakfast selections and the healthy eating style they reflected.

In the northern Israeli town of Metulla, which has glorious views of Lebanon and the Golan Heights, we stayed at a charming inn, a sort of bed-and-make-your-own-breakfast place. Daily, we were provided with the ingredients for an Israeli-style morning menu. The refrigerator was stocked with the ingredients for a Mediterranean diced salad: slim, tasty cucumbers, ripe tomatoes and sweet peppers.

For dressing, there were lemons and a cruet of fragrant, locally pressed olive oil. There were slices of a cheese similar to Dutch Edam, as well as eggs, cottage cheese and yogurt. On the table was a bowl of peaches and plums from the owner’s garden. Someone had quietly hung a bag of sesame rolls on our door while we were still asleep. There was milk for coffee but not a single cornflake in sight. Our meal was fresh and satisfying and gave us just the right amount of energy without making us feel stuffed.

At the Druze villages we toured in the area, we savored a popular midmorning pick-me-up that was also savory and tangy: just-made flatbreads, similar to thin lavash, which were spread with thick labneh (strained yogurt) and sprinkled with walnuts and a thyme-like herb called za’atar. This was similar to the breakfasts of the nearby Syrians, who start their day, according to Sarah Woodward, author of “The Ottoman Kitchen” (Interlink), with labneh served with olives and flatbread.

Two weeks later, we visited Turkey and stayed at hotels that hosted many guests from Istanbul and an area near the Syrian border. As in Israel, on the table there were always good-quality cucumbers and ripe tomatoes, but on the Turkish breakfast menu the savory element was even more dominant. The cheese was a feta type, salty and tangy. It was served in slices and also flavored several of the breakfast rolls. There was no cottage cheese, but there was plenty of thick, rich, tart yogurt.

Olives were prominent on the breakfast table. We could choose among several kinds: large pungent green ones, luscious wrinkled ripe ones and spicy marinated black ones. There was olive bread, too. Even on our 16-hour bus ride from Gaziantep in southeast Turkey to Istanbul, we got olives for breakfast. They came in the form of black olive paste that somewhat resembled French tapenade.

For a sweet touch, there was watermelon, a favorite breakfast fruit, sweet Sharlyn-type melon or grapes, as well as the delicious dried apricots for which Turkey is famous worldwide. Sometimes we found a plate of spiral-shaped tahini rolls.

Back at home, we make big salads for our morning meals by combining many of the savory foods we relished at our breakfasts in the Middle East. Good olives, olive oil and feta cheese complement raw vegetables and prevent our salads from being bland.

We vary the vegetables according to the seasons, sometimes adding romaine lettuce or fresh spinach to the basic tomato-cucumber duo or, when time is short, packaged medleys of iceberg lettuce or baby greens. Eating such a bold-flavored fresh salad is an invigorating way to start the day.

Breakfast vegetable salad with feta cheese and olives

4 ripe plum tomatoes or 2 medium-size round tomatoes, diced

long cucumber or 3 slim Middle Eastern cucumbers, diced

1 small red, yellow or green bell pepper, diced, optional

4 ounces feta cheese, diced, sliced or crumbled in large chunks

12 olives such as Kalamata or Nicoise, pitted and halved or quartered

2 to 3 teaspoons olive oil, optional

2 to 3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, optional

Pinch of za’atar or dried thyme, optional

Salt, freshly ground pepper

Mix together diced tomatoes, cucumber and bell pepper. Add cheese and olives and mix gently. Add oil, lemon juice and za’atar or thyme, if desired.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve cold or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.


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