American Essence: You define three principles of the Mediterranean diet as, “Eat with the seasons; use mostly whole foods; and above all else, share.” Can you elaborate?
Suzy Karadsheh: These are three things I grew up with in my parents’ home [in Port Said, Egypt]. It was not so much a deliberate attempt at following particular principles, but a way of life. We’d go to the souq [fresh market] a few times a week. So naturally, we ate in season. I did not grow up on a lot of processed foods at all. When the farmers market [in Atlanta] is open, I am there every Saturday, and I am looking at whatever is in season and chatting with the merchants and farmers.
Sharing is probably the biggest part of what I try to deliberately do right now. At my parents’ home, at the table, we always had so many people. There was a real sense of community, and sharing meals was just a part of that.
AE: What do we get wrong about the Mediterranean diet?
Mrs. Karadsheh: Mediterranean people would not think of it as a “diet”; it’s a pattern of eating. Here in our [American] culture, people think of it as a rigid list of dos and don’ts. It comes with that restrictive feeling. But eating the Mediterranean diet is anything but that.
We eat everything, but we eat more from the bottom of the pyramid. At the tip of the pyramid, you have anything processed, sweets, heavier red meats. It doesn’t mean we are not eating them every week. But the focus is more on the vegetables, the legumes, the hearty grains, and all that good stuff; protein from fish and maybe a little bit of dairy. You will fill your day and your plate with those fiber-based and plant-based proteins that keep you satisfied for longer.
AE: What are some of your earliest memories around food and cooking?
Mrs. Karadsheh: My mom was a teacher and so we did our homework at the kitchen table while she prepared dinner. So my memories are of pages of homework with tomato sauce on top.
My mom was more of an intuitive cook. And my dad, too. It’s all just eyeballing. I remember vividly the kitchen and the smells around me and just the joy, and that throwing together of simple humble ingredients that turn into good meals in a half hour or so.
But my biggest memories of food are of my dad taking me to the market. He was a pastor, going mainly to check up on people and chat. He took so much joy in showing me a tomato and telling me to smell it, touch it.
AE: Are there any uniquely American or Southern culinary techniques that you’ve picked up since you’ve made the South your home?
Mrs. Karadsheh: I’ve lived in America longer than I have in Egypt. I am very much an American mom, so I have to be efficient in the kitchen. What drives my cooking are the ingredients available, my schedule, and the hurriedness of it. I have become efficient at making skillet dinners and casseroles.
AE: What are some essential ingredients that are always in your pantry?
Mrs. Karadsheh: Extra virgin olive oil, garlic, dried and canned beans, whole grains. Keep in a dry, dark, cool place.
Mrs. Karadsheh: Something in a skillet, [such as] a quick chicken skillet with oregano, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil.
AE: What do you do when you’re stuck in a cooking rut?
Mrs. Karadsheh: I grab two cans of chickpeas. I’ll throw them in a skillet with lots of olive oil, lots of garlic, lots of lemon juice. And then whatever else I have in my fridge. I don’t stress about cooking. It just takes a little bit of imagination to open the fridge and think, “What’s lying around that needs to be used today?” That’s not to say we haven’t had a Chick-fil-A or pizza night! I am not a superhero.
Suzy’s Smart Storage Tips
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
“Buy oil at a place where you know there’s a lot of turnover. Once you open it, keep it in a dark, cool place and finish it within six months. A lot of people will spend good money on olive oil and then they don’t want to use it so fast. Use it within six months and that’s going to give you the best flavor.”
“Softer herbs, I will wash and dry really well. Then I treat them like a bouquet of flowers: I snip the bottoms a little bit and put them in a large glass with water. Then I cover them with a bag and stick them in the fridge.”
Nuts and Seeds
“I use a lot of nuts in my cooking, and the freezer is a good place to store those. They keep well and they don’t get that stale, oily taste.”
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com