Read an Excerpt
Making the Change
Changing eating habits may seem like a radical and difficult chore, but changing to the Mediterranean diet is easy because most of the foods and cooking techniques are already familiar to us. It’s a shift of emphasis that’s the key to cooking and eating in a healthy Mediterranean style.
Except for olive oil, there’s no need for special foods in the larder—in fact, many of the foods featured in the Mediterranean kitchen are probably already in your pantry cupboard. Several different kinds of beans, both dried and canned, long-grain and short-grain rice, cornmeal for polenta and flour for bread, pasta in a variety of shapes, canned tomatoes, and condiments like dried mushrooms and herbs are common ingredients and take no special effort to acquire. If there’s an Italian, Greek, or Middle Eastern neighborhood nearby, you’ll have access to first-rate olives and cheese; otherwise, make a special trip some Saturday to a more distant market and spend time wandering around examining the offerings. If you’re far from ethnic shopping areas like these, mail-order and Internet suppliers are a good, if sometimes rather expensive, resource. (See pages 465–466 for some suggestions.)
We invent all sorts of rationales for holding back on changing diets, especially where families are involved. But there are compelling reasons for making the switch, and most of the obstacles are easily overcome. Just remember that where families are concerned, change sometimes has to come slowly. Whatever you do, don’t make a big deal out of it. Small, quiet, almost unnoticeable changes are more effective than noisy family food fights.
Start off by structuring mealtimes, if you don’t do that already. It’s hard for American families, with so many of us apart at lunch, but dinner at least should be a time for the family to come together and share whatever is on the table. Try to have meals on the table at the same hour each day and let people know they’re expected to be there. It’s the first step in a Mediterranean direction, building a sense of food as a fundamentally communal, shared experience.
Switch from whatever fats you now use to extra-virgin olive oil. If you find it hard to get used to the flavor of extra-virgin oil, start off by combining it 50/50 with canola oil, which has no perceptible flavor or aroma. Gradually reduce the amount of canola as you grow accustomed to the delicious flavor of olive oil. Experiment with oils by buying several different varieties in small quantities—the flavors vary enormously from country to country, region to region, and even producer to producer. Begin by throwing out all those bottles of commercial salad dressing that are crowding your refrigerator shelves. Then follow one of the recipes on pages 261–264 for tasty salad dressings using extra-virgin olive oil. Start using olive oil to sauté meat, chicken, or fish. More flavorful oils are wonderful for frying potatoes, especially with a little garlic or onion added—another way to accustom your family to the distinctive flavor. Soon you may find yourself using truly aromatic oils on steamed vegetables or baked potatoes in place of butter or sour cream. Then you’ll be ready for a real summertime treat—extra-virgin olive oil lavished on fresh seasonal corn.
(For more on olive oil, see pages 30–33.)
Get out of the butter habit. A little butter from time to time is fine, but butter is never on the Mediterranean table, never assumed to be an automatic accompaniment to bread. Even at breakfast, only a little jam garnishes the bread, which is appreciated for its own good flavor. (And contrary to American restaurant custom, bowls of olive oil, even of the finest extra-virgin, are never put on the table, except during the autumn harvest when the flavor of new oil is appreciated.)
Use more whole grains. Even though Mediterranean cooks seldom use whole-wheat pasta or brown rice, they still get plenty of whole grains through dishes like tabbouleh, the hearty Lebanese salad, and bulgur pilafs. And breads throughout the Mediterranean are often made with unrefined wheat and barley flours. Fortunately we have much greater access to really high-quality bread than we had 15 years ago when I compiled the first edition of this book, but if you can’t find the kind of bread you want nearby, try making it yourself. It really isn’t time consuming once you get the hang of it, and that’ s quickly acquired. And presenting a homemade loaf of high-quality bread on the table is just eminently satisfying.
Begin or end each meal with a salad. Make it from crisp greens and whatever vegetables are in season—tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, scallions, shavings of carrot, sherds of fennel, celery, tender chicory, raw fava beans. Don’t use iceberg lettuce, which has almost no nutritional value, but do look for dark green leaf lettuces like oak leaf and romaine. Add some fresh green herbs for variety, but not all at once—basil at one meal, dill at another, cilantro, if you like it, at a third.
Add both more vegetables and different vegetables to the menu. Get away from the American focus on potatoes, peas, and salad greens. Nothing wrong with any of them but life is so much richer! The average American consumes just three servings of fruits and vegetables daily and many Americans don’t even get that. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the Department of Health and Human Services, recommend up to nine servings, which is about 41\2 cups, for otherwise healthy people consuming 2,000 calories a day. So let vegetables take up most of the room on your plate.
Every day try to get in at least one serving each of cruciferous (cabbage family) vegetables—broccoli, broccoli rabe, cabbage, cauliflower, turnip and mustard greens—and bright-colored vegetables and fruits that are rich in antioxidants—again broccoli and broccoli rabe, but also carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, and yellow squash, as well as apricots and cantaloupe, just to mention a few. Experiment with different vegetables, ones that may not be familiar—artichokes, leeks, fava beans are exotic to many Americans, and vegetables like Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), celery root, and many greens are virtually unknown.
Vegetables don’ t have to be served separately—vegetable combinations, vegetables cooked in a sauce for pasta, vegetables served cut up in a soup, are all ways to increase the quantity consumed. But no single fruit or vegetable provides all the nutrients you need to be healthy. In the end, it’s variety that is the key.
Cut down on the amount of meat consumed. There’s no reason for normal, healthy adults to eat more than 4 ounces of lean meat a day, and much less is much better. Children, of course, need even less. (If your family is used to 8-ounce portions, start cutting the portions down gradually rather than all at once.) Eat lean red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) just once or twice a week. Other meals can feature chicken, fish, pasta, rice, beans, or vegetables.
One easy way to cut meat consumption is with stews that feature meat as an incidental to lots and lots of vegetables. You’ll find recipes for such preparations throughout this book. Or make a hearty soup the main course, with plenty of bread, perhaps a little cheese, and salad to accompany it. Soup is a delicious and cheap way to get lots of vegetables on the table.
Move meat away from the center of the plate by adding complex carbohydrates like rice, beans, and pasta to fill the gap that meat once occupied. When you do serve a main course of meat or fish, get into the Mediterranean habit of offering a filling first course of pasta or soup before the meat arrives.
And if you’re worried about budgetary constraints, think of this: by adding olive oil and subtracting meat, you’ll probably come out even over the course of a week.
Think about portion size, especially when dining in restaurants. Americans on the whole now spend almost half their food dollars outside the home in fast-food, take-out, and family-style restaurants. It’s no secret that portion sizes have increased dramatically in such food outlets—indeed, some national chains actually brag about the humongous size of burgers, fries, and soft drinks, and what a bargain they are. Some bargain! Anyone who saw the movie Supersize Me knows all too well the consequences of this. But when Drs. Lisa Young and Marion Nestle at New York University studied the phenomenon, they discovered that between the 1975 and 1997 editions of the Joy of Cooking, that venerable cookbook has decreased the number of servings it says a given recipe will yield. No wonder we’re a fat nation, cradle to (often early) grave.
Now think of a deck of cards: that’s about the portion size of meat or fish in a restaurant in just about any country in the Mediterranean, and the vegetables, the soups, the pasta and rice dishes are equivalent. As for dessert, most often, if it’s anything at all, it’s a single small portion of seasonal fruit. If there’s an actual sweet involved, it will be the size of a little espresso cup, no more.
So think about portion size, whether at home, where it’s much easier to control, or when eating out, where it’s often quite difficult. In the right kind of restaurant, you can order from the appetizer list where portions are notably smaller. Or share a main course with a friend dining with you. Or eat half the presentation and ask to bag the rest to carry home.