Since ancient times kitchens along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea have created unique regional cuisines by using fresh local produce, like heart-healthy olives and grapes that flourish in the dry climate and rocky soil; a variety of fish and other seafood; and distinctive cheeses like feta and parmesan.
Begin your Mediterranean odyssey by conjuring up a sun-drenched terrace in the Greek islands. Grill a skewer of souvlaki, cubes of chicken, lamb or pork marinated in a fragrant blend of oregano, lemon juice and olive oil. Add a Greek salad with the tangy flavours of kalamata olives and creamy feta cheese. And complete your meal with baklava, delicate layers of phyllo pastry, drizzled with honey and a sprinkling of nuts and cloves.
Play a CD such as Magic of the Greek Bouzouki - Near the Sea and the lyrical strains of the bouzouki, a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin, will have you dining in Crete with Zorba the Greek.
If you prefer to summon la dolce vita of an Italian piazza, start your meal with bruschetta, toasted bread rubbed with garlic and olive oil, and heaped with ripe tomatoes and aromatic basil pesto. Pay homage to the sea with some grilled prawns or scallops, and add a robust pasta salad (for example cheese tortellini tossed with olives, marinated artichokes, tomatoes and Italian dressing).
According to a recent survey, Canadians are interested in learning how to grill pizza. Prepare your pizza topped with sun-dried tomatoes, olives, sweet peppers and mozzarella cheese, or try a pizza capricciosa (ham, mushrooms, olives and artichokes) cooked on the barbecue to create an authentic crispy crust.
Top off the feast with a scoop of lemon gelato, or a decadent serving of tiramisu (lady fingers soaked in coffee and mascarpone cheese).
Perhaps the flair of flamenco is more to your liking. Start your Spanish repast with a refreshing bowl of gazpacho, a chilled chunky soup made with fresh tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers and sweet peppers. Round out the menu with your favourite grilled chicken recipe and paella, rice infused with golden saffron, a highly prized seasoning which comes from the flowers of the saffron crocus. And for dessert, serve a smooth custard or sugary marzipan, a confection made with ground almonds.
The sultry chords of Spanish Guitar Classics are a relaxing accompaniment to the meal.
In addition to the food, the right beverage choice can enhance your Mediterranean experience. Each country produces a multitude of wines and unique liqueurs. Try a bold red from Italy, or a refreshing Spanish rose. And an icy pitcher of sangria, wine punch brimming with sliced peaches or nectarines, is a welcome libation on a hot summer day.
Traditional Mediterranean dining is at its best casual and al fresco. This makes it well suited to the backyard deck, poolside patio or summer cottage. Position a table under a shady tree or near the water and get closer to nature.
And don't forget to make your meal a feast for the eyes as well. A few simple elements in your table setting can complete the picture. Choose colourful ceramics in the vibrant azure of the sea, or the fiery reds and yellows of paprika and saffron. Add some cheery geraniums or a fragrant pot of basil - even a bowl filled with lemons - or perhaps some terracotta pots to hold chunky candles. The more rustic, the better.
This casual style also applies to the food preparation. You don't need to be a gourmet cook to create a tasty Mediterranean meal. But if you want to delve further into the culture, you can find lots of traditional recipes in magazines, newspapers, cookbooks and online. For inspiration, check out chef Mario Batali's culinary road trip across Spain with Gwyneth Paltrow on the DVD Spain... On the Road Again.
One important aspect of Mediterranean cuisine is the abundant use of fresh seasonal produce. So be sure to shop local farmers' markets, and enjoy the fruits of your own backyard garden. Even apartment dwellers can enjoy bruschetta or Insalata Caprese made with tomatoes and basil that have been grown on the balcony, still warm from the summer sun.
This year, give the burger a break and try something new. Travel to the lands of the sunny Mediterranean without ever leaving home.