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Beyond Hummous: Living (and Chowhounding) on the Mediterranean Diet

Recently, my physician has placed me on the “Mediterranean Diet,” which, in the interests of staying alive, I’m doing my best to follow.

I don’t really know much about this diet, except what I’ve been able to find by Googling. Essentially, it involves cooking the cuisines or more accurately, just eating the diet of the residents of the coastal portions of countries surrounding the Mediterranean. You should end up eating a lot of vegetables and fruits, tomatoes, legumes, and whole grain carbs. Olives, olive oil and avocados, despite their fat, are great. Fish is the primary non-vegetarian protein (nothing is said about other forms of seafood). Meat should be eaten in moderation, whatever that means, and apparently nobody knows about chicken. Or cheese.

It’s been eight months, and I’ve eaten all the hummous I can stand. I’m semi-vegetarian at this point, eating chicken perhaps once a week and red meat only when there’s no other alternative (a job site meal, for example). What I’d like to know is:

1) Is there a way to “adapt” the cuisines of other countries to fit this diet? I crave not so much hunks of meat as tacos, Chinese food, pizza, etc.

2) You folks from the Mediterranean, do you REALLY eat all these whole grains that the American Heart Association imagines you do? Because traveling throughout Italy several years ago, I never once saw whole-grain bread or pasta. I don’t see it in authentic ethnic groceries or restaurants offering the cuisines of the region. I can live with a mix of whole-grain and refined breads, but I’ve never had or made edible whole wheat pasta. Is there something I’m missing?

3) Any favorite “Mediterranean Diet” recipes or cookbook recs?

My plaque-filled arteries and I thank you in advance.

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  1. Bob, interesting question(s). I am certainly not from the Mediterranean (I'm just an American), but I do eat a diet similar to what you've described simply because I like it (and like being healthy). I want to specifically address your other-ethnic-food cravings. I think you could make a pretty good fish taco - whole wheat tortilla, grilled fish with some lemon juice and oregano, some sliced olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, even some crumbled feta (which is a healthier cheese), or some Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. Not truly Mexican, I realize, but maybe a way to quell the craving? Also, I know a lot of people who simply dislike whole wheat pasta. I happen to love it because it's more filling. I think a nice "gateway" pasta might be a 50-50 whole wheat/regular pasta blend, tossed in a bold (maybe spicy) tomato sauce - lighter sauces that don't coat every pasta piece allow the whole-wheatiness to really come through. A strong tomato sauce could mask some of that. I also find that cooking whole wheat pasta for longer than you'd cook white pasta makes the texture more palatable. And as for pizza - maybe try making your own Mediterranean flatbread - whole wheat dough, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella (again, one of the better cheeses), and lots of veggies (I love spinach, broccoli, or just green herbs as toppings). Asian flavors might be harder to replicate in a Mediterranean way, but surely there's wiggle room in your diet for one Chinese meal every blue moon or so? One last thought: since olive oil is a huge part of eating this way, maybe invest in a really, really delicious, good quality olive oil for drizzling - I find that it makes healthy meals seem more indulgent - not to mention taste great. Best of luck on your new healthy journey!

    1. <3) Any favorite “Mediterranean Diet” recipes...?>

      Tabouleh. The basic ingredients are bulgur, greens, parsley, mint, onion, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. I make mine heavy on the greens (something with a kick to it, like watercress or arugula). You can make all kinds of grain salads, incorporating feta cheese or tomato or what have you.

      You can also make a hummus-like substance with legumes other than chick peas, for variety. Or falafel. Or baba ghanoush. And throw smoked paprika and/or sesame seeds on your food. Everything tastes better with smoked paprika and/or sesame seeds on it.

      ebeth00 gives good taco advice, to which I'll add that you can put green chiles and avocado and cactus and Mexican white cheese (which is similar to feta) in there, and make a crema-ish thing by thinning Greek yogurt with water.

      I've also never had a whole wheat pasta I thought was as good as regular pasta. Whole wheat pasta tastes like it's accusing me of something.

      1. What about a shrimp and veggie stir fry to satisfy the Chinese take out craving? You can make it healthy by first blanching the veggies before adding to the pan with the shrimp. Make a quick pan sauce with a little soy sauce, chile garlic paste, OJ, sweet rice vinegar, etc... and serve with a small portion of brown rice. Also do you eat steamed mussels? They are delicious and lend themselves to all sorts of flavor variations - thai, italian, etc... For the pizza craving, what about using a portabella mushroom as your "crust" and fill with sauce, veggies and maybe a little meat and mozarella cheese. I agree with you on the whole wheat pasta. I don't eat it very often, but when I do I have to have the real thing. Good luck.

        1. Nice ideas everyone, thanks. Ebeth's Mediterranean whole-grain flatbread pizza could definitely work for me. I agree with small h about smoked Spanish paprika (Penzey's) and the possibilities inherent in making hummous with non-garbanzo ingredients. Jenny H—I love steamed mussels, especially when garlic broth is involved. I should have mentioned, I'm not a good enough cook to make anything without a bona fide recipe, but these give me some ideas of what to look for.

          1. I suggest a couple of hours at your local library and flip through the Greek , Moroccan and Middle Eastern cookbooks, focusing on the veggies and side dishes, to get a good idea of the sorts of flavor combos and cooking methods that are predominant in those cuisines.

            Grilled vegetables with cucumber/yogurt/garlic dressing, fish simply prepared (grilled or pan sauteed, unbreaded, in a bit of olive oil) with just lemon, salt & pepper, maybe some chopped dill or basil to finish, breakfast of plain Greek yogurt with berries, honey and mint, things like that.