There is the Mediterranean Diet. And then there is the Mediterranean Diet.
The Mediterranean Diet is said to be one of the most healthful in the world. It emphasizes fruit and vegetables while minimizing red meat. It features plenty of fish, along with poultry. It uses oil instead of butter, and herbs and spices instead of salt. It encourages exercise, along with long meals with family and friends.
The Mediterranean Diet, on the other hand, is what is eaten by people who live around the Mediterranean Sea.
There are plenty of similarities, of course – the Mediterranean Diet was begun by looking at what people ate around the Mediterranean Sea. And here it should be noted that it is mainly focused on the northern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean. You won’t find many foods on it from, say, Algeria (the researchers who first publicized it, Ancel and Margaret Keys, focused on foods from Greece, Crete and southern Italy).
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But there are also differences.
For instance, the Mediterranean Diet specifically recommends fatty fish, such as salmon, and the use of canola oil. But salmon is a cold-water fish, native to the Northern Atlantic and Northern Pacific – neither of which is particularly close to the Mediterranean Sea.
And canola oil comes primarily from Canada (the “can” in “canola” is for “Canada”). It is also produced in China, India and northern Europe. In other words, nowhere near the Mediterranean Sea.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean Diet features a lot of lamb and goat meat. You'll find scant mention of either one in references to the Mediterranean Diet. And in northern Italy they use far more butter than olive oil.
So my goal in taking a healthful dip into these foods was to find that happy intersection where the Mediterranean Diet meets the Mediterranean Diet. To see where the healthy benefits of the diet are actually enjoyed by the people for whom it is named.
I began with an appetizer that couldn’t be more Mediterranean if it surrounded Italy on three sides: marinated olives and feta. This is a simple dish, but it creates an explosion of flavor.
Or rather, flavors. Everything that is so great about Mediterranean cooking is combined in one chunky dip: olives, feta cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, fresh rosemary and crushed red pepper. It’s like going to a Mediterranean food store and buying everything on the shelves.
I marinated mine overnight to allow the flavors to blend, and served it on top of crusty bread and crackers. As the Greeks would say, Nostimo!
Next up was a dish that was, as hard as it may be to believe, even easier to make. Date Wraps are like a slightly healthier and more elegant version of perhaps the best hors d'oeuvre in the world, dates wrapped in bacon.
This time, the dates are wrapped in prosciutto. The rich flavor of the cured meat plays beautifully off the sweetness of the dates, and the saltiness means you can dispense with the Parmesan cheese that is an important part of the bacon version.
A twist of black pepper on top provides just the right amount of spice to make it interesting. As the Italians would say, Delizioso!
For a side dish, I turned to perhaps my favorite vegetable, asparagus. In Andalusia – the southern area of Spain that borders the Mediterranean Sea – they cook it in an astonishingly good way.
First, they saute the asparagus spears in olive oil, which is a truly auspicious way to start anything. But then they go a step further by baking the asparagus with a topping made from blanched almonds, garlic and bread crumbs that are sauted in olive oil – auspiciously – and then all ground together.
It’s not the garlic that goes so magnificently with the asparagus, or the almonds or even the bread crumbs. It is the combination of all three. As the Spanish would say, Excelente!
And for a main course, I made fish, of course. Both versions of the Mediterranean Diet involve eating a lot of fish.
I used one of the most popular fish in the region, swordfish, and topped it with an abundance of Mediterranean ingredients: olives, capers, tomatoes and olive oil.
How did it taste? Let’s just say the French would call it superbe.
Marinated olives and feta
Recipe from EatingWell.
1 cup sliced pitted olives such as Kalamata or mixed Greek
1/2 cup diced feta cheese
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Black pepper, to taste
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Serve immediately, with crackers or toast points, or cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
Per serving: 100 calories; 9 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 11 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 280 mg sodium; 86 mg calcium
Recipe from EatingWell
16 thin slices prosciutto
16 whole pitted dates
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each date. Grind pepper on top.
Per piece: 38 calories; 1 g fat; no saturated fat; 6 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 5 g carbohydrate; 4 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 248 mg sodium; 4 mg calcium
Serves 4 to 6
Note: To blanch almonds, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Remove from heat and immediately add raw almonds. Let almonds sit in hot water for 45 seconds to 1 minute, but no longer. Drain immediately and briefly run under cold water to stop cooking. Remove peels; they should easily slide off with a pinch.
Recipe from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” by Nancy Harmon-Jenkins.
2 pounds young asparagus
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
4 garlic cloves, peeled
12 almonds, blanched, see note above
One 2-inch slice crusty country-style bread, crusts removed, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon very good quality sherry vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove and discard the bottom few inches from each spear of asparagus, rinse the remainder and set aside.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, almonds and bread, and sauté, stirring constantly, until all the ingredients are nicely browned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Do not allow them to burn. Transfer the almonds, garlic and bread cubes (use a slotted spoon if oil remains in the pan) to a food processor or blender. Add the vinegar and salt and process briefly until the mixture is a coarse meal.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil to the pan, if necessary, and saute the asparagus over medium-low heat until the stalks change color and start to become tender, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Remove the asparagus and place in an ovenproof gratin dish. Bring a cup of water to a boil and pour it over the asparagus. Then sprinkle the almond-bread mixture over the top. Bake for 15 minutes or until the asparagus is thoroughly cooked and most of the liquid has boiled away. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 6): 183 calories; 12 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 5 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 111 mg sodium; 50 mg calcium
Baked fish with capers and olives
Serves 6 to 8
Recipe from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 pounds boneless fish, especially swordfish, sea bass, haddock, cod, snapper, grouper fillets, halibut steaks or salmon
1 cup very ripe tomatoes, peeled and seeded, or 1 cup drained imported canned tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon drained capers, rinsed
1/4 cup chopped pitted green olives, preferably large Italian olives
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup unseasoned dry bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Use a teaspoon of oil to coat the inside of a baking dish large enough to hold all the fish in one layer. Place the fish in it.
Chop the tomatoes and mix with the sugar and lemon juice in a small bowl. Add the capers and olives and mix again. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. Pile the tomato sauce on top of the fish pieces. Distribute the bread crumbs over the top and drizzle on the remaining 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) oil. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until the fish is thoroughly cooked and the sauce is very bubbly and browned.
Per serving (based on 6): 199 calories; 5 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 63 mg cholesterol; 28 g protein; 9 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 309 mg sodium; 39 mg calcium