Healthy Dining Mediterranean-StyleLinda Gabris June 1, 2023
It does my heart good to know that I’ve been serving my family Mediterranean-style meals long before I even heard of the Mediterranean Diet, which is praised as being one of the healthiest and most nutritious diets in the world.
New research has shown that those who eat the traditional foods of Mediterranean countries are less likely to develop one of the most rampant health problems in our country’s aging society – Alzheimer’s disease. According to figures recently released by the Alzheimer Society of Canada, about 500,000 Canadians have Alzheimer’s or related dementia. So it’s comforting to know that eating the same foods as folks in Mediterranean countries can help us to ward off memory-thief.
But the good news doesn’t stop here. The Mediterranean Diet is known to prevent diabetes – another North American disease that has been rising in numbers. And for those already afflicted, the diet can help keep the disease under control. This diet also lowers cholesterol levels while keeping the blood vessels running smoothly. Those who are accustomed to eating Mediterranean-type foods have lower rates of coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as lower incidences of cancers – especially those of the stomach and colon.
Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is definitely a step in the right direction to looking and feeling better, both inside and out, and the diet is hailed as having the power to increase life expectancy.
The Mediterranean Diet is based upon the dietary patterns of the coastal regions of southern Italy, Greece, France, Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East – basically the areas of these countries that sit upon the sunny and warm shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
This type of cuisine revolves around the life sustaining staples that these cultures thrive on, which happen to be low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fibre. Unlike other types of ‘diets,’ the Mediterranean Diet is not so much a diet in itself, as it is a healthier approach to eating in general.
What follows is a list of Mediterranean staples, and a few of my favourite recipes to help you get into the healthy habit of cooking and eating Mediterranean-style.
Olive Oil for Healthy Skin, Hair, and Nails
A diet rich in olive oil – a staple in Mediterranean countries – helps build and maintain strong teeth, hair, and bones. In fact, olive oil is used in almost every single meal, taking the place of other types of fats, including animal (lard) and dairy (butter) fats, as well as other types of cooking oils. Foods are ‘fried’ or sautéed in olive oil, salads are dressed in it, breads are dipped in it, and it is the preferred fat in many types of breads and baked goods.
Olive oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fatty acids, proven to lower cholesterol while dishing up vitamins A, D, and E – the latter being a powerful antioxidant that helps the body ward off and fight diseases.
Olive oil is the only vegetable oil that can be eaten directly from freshly pressed fruits or vegetables, without needing a great deal of processing and refining.
Studies have also shown that olive oil is easily tolerated by the stomach and helps protect against ailments such as ulcers, gastritis, gallstones and the occurrence of stomach and colon cancers. It keeps the body functioning regularly and, as Grandma used to say, “the track running smoothly…”
Ancient Mediterranean people used olive oil as a gargle and mouth rinse for mouth sores and unhealthy gums. They also rubbed olive oil onto their temples to relieve headaches. I can vouch – the Old World treatment really works, especially for migraines. A little bonus is that the olive oil is good moisturizing cream for ironing out those pain-related wrinkles that set in from a furrowed brow! And no need to fret if a little bit of the olive oil makes it into your hair – you’ll end up with an unexpected dose of shine!
Here is a summary of the different grades of olive oil to take with you to the market:
Grades of Olive Oil
• Extra virgin olive oil is considered top quality, rendered by using a cold press (no heat is used during extraction of the oil) and comes from the first pressing of the olives. It must have an acidity level lower than 1% to make the high-ranking grade. It has excellent colour, aroma, and rich flavour, and is the most beneficial to good health and well-being.
• Virgin olive oil comes from the second pressing, making it a little more refined than extra virgin olive oil. Its acidity level is below 2%. It has good colour, aroma, and flavour, and is the next best choice to extra virgin oil.
• Pure or plain olive oils are filtered and refined. They are processed by using heat extraction and can come from third or fourth pressings. Their acidity levels do not exceed 3.3%. Pure or plain olive oils are not as desirable or healthy as extra virgin and virgin oils.
• Extra light olive oil is the most processed of all the family, coming from the last pressing, which renders it the lightest flavour and the least beneficial to good health.
Protect your oil by storing it properly, tightly capped or corked, in a cool, dark place. Olive oil can turn rancid when exposed to air, light, or excess heat for long periods of time. It can turn cloudy and solidify if refrigerated, thus making it hard to work with. I find that my wine cellar – which is about 57ºF, is the ideal temperature for storage, but if you don’t have a wine cellar, store on a pantry shelf.
If you’ve purchased an extra large container of olive oil, rather than opening the large container every time a drop or two of oil is needed, transfer some of the oil to a smaller jar, thus preventing air from entering the ‘mother’ container during frequent openings.
Like fine wines, there are many different types of imported olive oils on the market today, made from many different types of olives, processed in ancient olive-producing regions. And like fine wine, each region produces uniquely flavoured oil. I enjoy trying different brands of virgin olive oils, as each one has its own taste, colour, and bouquet. Once you discover a brand of olive oil that you love, you can stick with it or keep exploring as I do, just for the sheer pleasure of becoming an olive oil connoisseur.
Fruits and Vegetables Help Fight Cancer and Heart Disease
As with any healthy food plan, fruits and vegetables rank at the top of the list of must-haves. In Mediterranean countries, it is common for folks to eat an average of nine servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day. Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and a super healthy dose of antioxidants that fight off body invaders such as heart disease and cancer.
Common Mediterranean fruits are oranges, lemons, figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes, and tomatoes – with the latter, which are eaten in great quantity, being especially good for men’s health, helping to prevent prostate cancer. Pair these popular picks with apples, peaches, bananas, pears, berries, and other fruits for endless variety.
Vegetables, like fruits, are a part of every meal in Mediterranean culture. Along with common picks such as carrots, onions, peppers, garlic, peas, corn, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, and courgettes (or zucchini as we know them), add some exotic choices to your menus, too, such as aubergine (eggplant), okra, fennel, and artichokes in order to make up the daily quota with lots of Mediterranean flair.
Grains, Pulses, Nuts, and Seeds
Whole grains are the foundation of the Mediterranean diet and an important part of the daily menu. Rice, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, corn, barley, and other grains are the basis of many main course dishes, as are unbleached flours used for baking daily breads.
Couscous (made from wheat flour), is a popular staple. Be sure to try my recipe below for Spicy Chickpea and Vegetable Couscous.
Pulses, especially chickpeas, are eaten regularly, along with beans, lentils, and fresh homemade whole wheat pastas.
Nuts, especially walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, and Brazil nuts, as well as sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds are a very popular nibble in Mediterranean countries, and are often sprinkled on salads and used in sauces. Choose unsalted nuts and seeds for both cooking and snacking, and eat in small amounts if counting calories.
Fish and Seafood Dish Up Omega-3s
The Mediterranean Diet includes moderate amounts of fish and seafood, and the Mediterranean Sea dishes up many species of fish, some of which we’ve probably never heard of in North America. We, too, can ‘fish’ up our diets using catch that is readily available (look for sustainably caught ‘Sea Choice’ brands) at local fish markets.
Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, proven to lower cholesterol. Trout is very healthy, too. Halibut, cod, and other white fleshed fish also dish up omega-3, as do prawns and other types of seafood. They are a rich source of protein, and thus can take the place of red (and other types of meat) that North American folks are so accustomed to eating as a main source of protein.
Fish should be worked into the diet at least once or twice a week. Grilled or poached fish is healthier than fried fish, but if you do choose to fry it, use olive oil in place of butter or other fat.
According to the Greeks, there’s only one drink that makes a proper toast to good health and well-being, and that is red wine! One or two glasses of (organic) red wine a day can help lower cholesterol and prevent blood clotting, while reducing risk of certain kinds of cancers.
My grandmother, who (like me) made her own wines out of organically-grown fruits, vegetables, and flowers from the backyard gardens, vouched that a glass of red wine with a meal helps the stomach digest foods, especially those containing fats.
Red wine is a rich source of antioxidants (especially resveratrol), so it can help the body ward off various invaders. But, heed Grandmother’s old warning about “the harms of having too much of a good thing…”
Herbs and Spices
Since some traditional condiments of Mediterranean countries are high in salt, such as salt-cured olives, salt-cured cheeses, canned or salt-dried anchovies, capers, and salted fish roe, Mediterranean cooks use less salt in cooking, and more herbs and spices. If you are on a low- or no-salt diet, these salt preserved condiments should be limited or omitted altogether.
Basil is one of the most commonly called for herbs in Mediterranean recipes, not only used in its fresh and dried state as a cooking herb, but also added generously as a fresh herb to the salad bowl. Chervil, chives, fennel, coriander, marjoram, dill, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme, and tarragon are used liberally in place of salt in the cooking pot.
Mint is the oldest and most widely used herb for flavouring vegetables, fish, and yogurt, as well as for steeping into soothing teas that aid digestion. They are also made into iced drinks that take the summer heat off the body.
Cardamom pods, dried chilies, cinnamon, cumin and coriander seeds, nutmeg, saffron, and pepper are also commonly used spices.
Roasted Pepper Antipasto
Here’s a popular Mediterranean appetizer that disappears in a flash. Serve with crusty bread for a quick and delicious luncheon dish, or with whole wheat crackers as an appetizer. Or try the variation mentioned at the bottom of the recipe for the full meal deal. (Serves 6 as lunch, 8 as appetizer, and leftovers will save up to a week in the fridge.)
- 3 sweet red peppers (or use a mixture of red, green and yellow peppers for extra colour)
- 2 or 3 jalapeño or other hot peppers
- 4 peeled cloves garlic
- 4 chopped ripe tomatoes
- 1 minced onion
- Mash garlic with a fork; add to tomato and onion mixture.
- 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Black pepper to taste
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- ½ tsp whole coriander seeds (omit if you don’t like the exciting pop of biting into a seed as I do!)
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp chopped fennel or fresh basil leaves
1) Lightly oil a baking sheet with olive oil.
2) Cut all peppers in half and remove seeds.
3) Place on the sheet along with the whole garlic cloves and place under broiler at 400ºF for about 15 minutes, or until peppers begin to char and garlic is soft.
4) Remove from oven, cover with a dish towel, and let sweat for 5 minutes.
5) Put tomatoes, onion, and artichokes into a bowl.
6) Mash garlic with a fork; add to tomato and onion mixture.
7) Slice peppers (some chefs peel and discard the skin but I don’t), add to the bowl.
8) Blend remaining ingredients and pour over the pepper mixture, mix well, and let stand in fridge for at least an hour before serving.
9) Variation: Add 1 cup of leftover cooked fish, lean cooked chicken, or other lean cooked meat strips to the above mixture. Divvy up on whole wheat pitas, top with chopped spinach, Swiss chard, lettuce, or other leafy greens and grated cheese. Roll up and you’ve got the full meal deal. (Enough filling for about 8 rolls.)
Spicy Chickpea and Vegetable Couscous
Here is a delicious and hearty meal that is sure to become a family favourite. Have fun using different combinations of whatever vegetables you have on hand and, if it’s a meat night, thin strips of skinned chicken breast go great in the pan. Find couscous in health food stores and supermarkets. I love couscous, not only because it is tasty but also because it is so fast and easy to make. It’s great for any hurry-up supper when appetites are big and time is short.
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large minced onion
- 4 cloves minced garlic
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- crushed chili peppers to taste
- 2 cups cauliflower florets
- 2 cups whole baby carrots
- 2 chopped red or green sweet peppers
- 1 sliced zucchini
- 3 large chopped tomatoes
- ¼ cup chickpea broth (or water)
- 3 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
1) Heat olive oil in wok or large skillet, sauté onion and garlic until soft.
2) Add spices, cook until absorbed. Add the vegetables and broth. Stir-fry until vegetables are just tender. Add chickpeas.
3) Simmer for 10 minutes or until sauce is thick. Meantime, cook couscous.
Mediterranean Bean and Spinach Soup
This thick, hearty soup is a meal in itself. All you need to round off the meal is a crusty loaf of whole wheat bread, and a fresh fruit salad for dessert. This makes a big pot of soup, so look forward to leftovers for the next day’s lunch.
- 4 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 chopped onions
- 4 cloves minced garlic
- 3 sliced carrots
- 1 cup thinly sliced celery
- 1 fennel bulb, chopped fine
- 2 sliced zucchinis
- 1 diced sweet pepper
- 4 cups canned, chopped tomatoes with juice (I can my own tomatoes but you can use store-bought canned tomatoes)
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups of washed, mixed dried beans (cannellini, kidney, navy, Lima, black, pintos, chickpeas and/or other beans of choice)
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 Tbsp fresh minced basil
- 1 Tbsp fresh minced parsley
- 1 Tbsp fresh chopped oregano
- 4 cups chopped spinach
1) Heat olive oil in soup pot. Sauté the vegetables until they are soft.
2) Add tomatoes, water, beans, and remaining ingredients, except spinach.
3) Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 2 to 3 hours, adding more water if needed, until the largest bean in the pot is tender.
4) Add the chopped spinach and cook 1 minute further. Taste and adjust seasoning before transferring to a soup tureen.
5) Variation: Use a mixture of canned beans and you can drastically cut the cooking time which makes this a super fast supper soup.
6) Tip: On a day when you have some time to spare, cook a large pot of mixed beans until tender. Cool and divvy them up, along with their cooking juice, into freezer bags and freeze. When you get a craving for this soup, just add the frozen beans to the pot, cutting down on cooking time.
Poached Fish with Sesame Seed Sauce
This is a very tasty way to serve fish filets or steaks – try it with cod or other white fish filets as below, or with salmon steaks. Whole radishes, crisp baby carrots, chopped green onions, and additional roasted sesame seeds (put unsalted seeds in heavy cast iron skillet and shake over high heat until toasted) make delightful accompaniments. (Serves 2, but can be doubled)
- 2 serving-sized filets of white fleshed fish
- 2 cups water
- ½ cup white cooking wine
- 1 sliced lemon
- ¼ tsp peppercorns
- Sprig fresh parsley
1) Combine water, wine, lemon, and peppercorns into a fish poacher or deep skillet that will accommodate fish in a single layer.
2) Bring to a boil. Slide fish into the liquid. If fish is not covered, add enough boiling water to cover.
3) Reduce heat, simmer gently for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on thickness of fish or until it flakes when tested with a fork.
4) When done, remove with a slotted spoon and discard cooking water. Put on heated plate and serve with Sesame Seed Sauce.
5) Sesame Seed Sauce: Break 1 slice of stale whole wheat bread into small pieces. Sprinkle the bread with 4 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar. Transfer to blender or food processor, add 3 cloves peeled garlic and chop fine. Add 1 teaspoon honey and ¼ cup roasted sesame seeds. Gradually, add ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, a little at a time, processing until smooth. Leftover sauce can be used as vegetable or cracker dip. It’ll save up to a week in fridge. Variation: Use pine nuts, walnuts, or other nuts or seeds, or mixture of nuts and seeds for unique sauces every time.
This makes a nice summer salad or appetizer for a hot weather meal. (Serves 4)
- 4 large juicy oranges
- Freshly grated black pepper
- ½ cup canned black pitted olives, sliced thin
- 3 green onions sliced thin
- ½ cup roasted pine nuts (roast in the same manner as sesame seeds above)
- 4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- Fresh chopped fennel or basil leaves to garnish
1) Peel oranges, removing pith and seeds.
2) Slice thin and place on a platter, grate black pepper over top.
3) Scatter with olives, onion, and nuts.
4) Drizzle olive oil over top and garnish.
Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.