Healthy Basics For Your International Kitchen.
Sometimes stuff that tastes good can be good for you too. Such is the case with the Mediterranean diet, which has garnered attention and praise from doctors, journalists and lay people alike for its tastiness and health benefits. A German medical journal said as much, calling the Mediterranean cuisine “healthful, but still delicious,” a rather exuberant comment for a usually staid publication.
The author in question reached the “healthful” part of the conclusion from studies showing lower than average rates of cancer, heart disease and other ailments in places like Spain, Greece, Italy and the Middle East. For this reason, many Northern Europeans and North Americans are attempting to incorporate elements of the Mediterranean cuisine into their diets. They often feel, though, that the only means of doing so is either to consult a cookbook and spend hours preparing a fancy meal or go to an expensive (and frequently overpriced) restaurant.
But there are ways to reap the benefits of the Mediterranean diet without spending an exorbitant amount of time or money. The key lies not in going for the sum of its parts (i.e. a meal) but for each part individually: the ingredients, that is. Using a few staples of the Mediterranean cuisine, you can make your diet healthier and more delicious.
Probably the closest Italian equivalent to the English expression “bread and butter” would be “bread and olive oil,” which Italians (and other Mediterraneans) use in great abundance. Whereas Anglo-Saxons sink their knife into the butter, Italians reach for the olive oil bottle. I myself use olive oil to fry eggs, poach fish, and “butter” everything from vegetables to pasta to bread. Anything that butter can do, olive oil can as well. (Note: virgin oil olive has no nutritional advantage over light olive oil, though it tastes better.)
Vampires aren’t the only thing garlic’s good at keeping at bay. According to a plethora of medical research, garlic helps lower cholesterol levels, fight high blood pressure and reduce the risk of stomach cancer. What stops many people from including garlic in their diet, however, is its somewhat strong flavor. The secret is to use a little bit of it at a time while cooking. For example, try crushing a half clove of garlic and mixing it in with a bowl of pasta and olive oil, sneaking it into some tomato sauce, or adding it to the salad dressing. That way you can enjoy the flavor – and health benefits – of garlic without the overpowering taste and odor.
Peppers have shown themselves to be a potent tool in the battle against heart disease. This is due to their carotenoids, naturally occurring substances that give them their red, green or yellow color. Perhaps the best way to take advantage of their nutritional properties is to buy an actual pepper and proceed to deseed and cut it up. For those who like me find this process time-consuming and tedious (not to mention potentially dangerous; I’ve cut myself many times while slicing vegetables!), pre-crushed peppers in a jar come in handy. They’re delicious as a spread on eggs or bread and as a salsa on burritos or tacos. My father taught me to make a very tasty pasta sauce consisting of a tablespoon of crushed red peppers, a clove of garlic, a dab of olive oil, and half a can of tuna – five healthful elements (together with the pasta itself) of the Mediterranean cuisine.
Another big player in the fight against heart disease is the small and rather unassuming chickpea. It’s delicious in the form of humus, a crushed chickpea spread popular throughout the eastern Mediterranean. You can make your own humus by mixing chickpeas, parsley, tahini (sesame seed paste), lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and water in a blender (search under “humus” on the Internet for specific instructions or variations on this recipe) or by checking out the nearest health food or Middle Eastern store for humus mix, a powder to which water is added. Humus makes a delicious spread on bread of all kinds.
And the list goes on. Anyone who wants to reap the benefits of Mediterranean cooking shouldn’t neglect the grains, such as pasta, couscous (a North African dish of steamed semolina customarily served with meat, chicken or fish), and whole wheat breads like pita, which can serve as a substitute for pizza dough. Also, don’t forget to include more fruits, vegetables and fish in your diet. By making these little changes, you can enjoy the Mediterranean diet and its gustatory and nutritional properties to the fullest.