Food & Drink

Mediterranean diet is healthy, but is it Mediterranean?

Andalucian Asparagus
Andalucian Asparagus TNS

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).

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!

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!

How did it taste? Let’s just say the French would call it superbe.

MARINATED OLIVES AND FETA

Yield: 6 servings

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

ANDALUCIAN ASPARAGUS

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 pounds young asparagus

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

4 garlic cloves, peeled

12 almonds, blanched, see note

1 (2-inch) slice crusty country-style bread, crusts removed, cut into cubes

1 tablespoon very good quality sherry vinegar

1 / 2 teaspoon sea salt

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.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove and discard the bottom few inches from each spear of asparagus, rinse the remainder and set aside.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, almonds and bread, and saute, 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.

3. 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.

4. 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

Recipe from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” by Nancy Harmon-Jenkins

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