Healthy Cook: Much ado about Mediterranean food

DIETS COME AND DIETS GO — South Beach, Grapefruit, Atkins, T-Factor, Cabbage Soup, Eat Just on Tuesdays in Months Without an R in Them — but one that works for health, and perhaps also for weight loss, has been around for thousands of years. The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating for millions of people living around the Mediterranean Sea, so the name makes sense.

Residents of Italy, Greece, France, and Spain all enjoy healthy oils, plenty of fish, lean meats, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. They walk a lot and exercise as part of their lives, not something they put special clothes on for, and drive to a gym so they can pace in place.

Many fish are high in Omega 3. Olive oil is also a good-for-you fat. Low-fat dairy products provide protein and, in the case of yogurt, probiotics.

You get protein from nuts, beans, and lentils, and plenty of vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables.

Grain-based foods should not be sparkling white. That’s processed. The more natural the food, the better, so whole grains beat out white bread and white pasta. Wine is good for you as long as it’s not so much that you don’t remember having had dinner. A glass or two — a wine glass, not a tumbler — is fine.

Red meat should be lean and enjoyed in small quantities. Chicken and fish are preferred. Think Italian, and you are thinking Mediterranean.

No one is perfect, though, and the Italians I grew up with ate white bread. The story goes that white bread was a sign of success, as in, you could afford better than whole grain. Now, it’s the other way around.

Start with good, old spaghetti and meatballs. Simple and healthy when made right. The pasta should be whole grain. The sauce should be basically tomatoes with herbs and a dash of sugar, if the tomatoes are too acidic.

Meatballs — ah, there’s the rub — they need to be lean and light to be healthy. Lean ground pork and lean ground beef can make heavy meatballs until you add plenty of bread crumbs soaked in milk. And garlic. And strong cheese. And don’t work the meat too much. What you use is up to you, but the secret is not overworking the meat.

Salads are typical on a Mediterranean diet. They are high in vegetables and low in fat. Don’t like salads because they are boring?

A few unusual ingredients, and some with strong flavors, shoot that argument. Use more than iceberg lettuce, too.

Look for black olives in jars. Canned black olives are usually bland and boring. Get some with a name that sounds Greek. With pits. To release the pits, hit the olives gently with the side of a knife or your hand. They will split and the pit is easily removed.

Feta or goat cheese makes your mouth wake up and you don’t need a lot to make it interesting.

A few sliced mildly hot or hot peppers go a long way. Walnuts are a different texture and have just a hint of astringency. If you have fresh herbs – even parsley – toss some in.

Leave bottled dressings on the shelf. Dress your salad with good olive oil and wine vinegar. Try red wine and white wine for varied flavor. Mix three times as much oil as vinegar and beat it in a cup or bowl with herbs.

Dessert is often fruit but no-fat ricotta cheese makes a super base for a low-fat treat. Whip a pound of ricotta, half a cup or so of sugar, orange zest, and vanilla until it’s light and fluffy. Separate into serving dishes and chill for 30 minutes. Drizzle with chocolate sauce, and enjoy, guilt-free.


1 pound lean ground beef or beef and pork
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup breadcrumbs soaked in milk and squeezed to remove milk
1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or
1/2 teaspoon oregano and
1/2 teaspoon minced basil
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients gently with hands. Form into golf-ball-sized meatballs. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Note: A little less Romano cheese can be used instead of Parmesan.

Simmer meatballs in no-fat tomato sauce for about 30 minutes. Serve with whole wheat pasta. Top with a little grated Asiago cheese.


article by TRENT ROWE, CFHN Food Editor

Posted May 20, 2016

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