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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.

            1. Bob, I applaude your effort to change your food focus in order to eat more healthy and less fattening meals. I recommend 2 cookbooks that concentrate on food from countries which surround the Mediterranean Sea. Each is authored by Jacqueline Clark and Joanna Farrow. I've had the first book, "Mediterranean: Food Of The Sun", since it was published in 2003, cook from it regularly and refer to it frequently. The recipes are quite well presented, easy to prep and delicious to eat. The nice thing is there's a full page gorgeous color photograph facing the page with the recipe... so you can see the result you're trying to achieve. Everything I've cooked from this book has been wonderful. And, if the newer book is anything like the first, it also would be a great addition to a cookbook library. You might just find them in your library or local book store. BTW: They're both Big Books.
              Good luck...!

              http://www.amazon.com/Mediterranean-C...

              The new book (1/1/06), "The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook".
              http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Medite...
              "Over 150 mouthwatering, healthy and life-extending dishes from the sun-drenched shores of the Mediterranean, shown in 550 stunning photographs"

              2 Replies
              1. re: Gio

                Wow, the first book looks especially intriguing. I forgot that France is on the Mediterranean. I somehow didn't think French food would be punitive enough. This I am definitely checking out.

                1. re: BobtheBigPig

                  Yikes, "punitive" is definitely not the right way to look at it! I think Mediterranean food is one of the most delicious kinds of foods in the world. There are so many possibilities.

                  I agree with the above poster about fish tacos. You can probably make them taste more authentically Mexican too. Whip up some home-made pico de gallo or guacamole, shred some romaine letttuce and use those as toppings (with maybe just a tiny bit of shredded cheese or queso fresco). Seasonings like cumin, cilantro, and chiles are frequently found in Mexican food, so use those in your cooking if you're going for a Mexican flavor but don't necessarily want all the grease and piles of meat from a taqueria.

                  Also, on the subject of seafood, I think all kinds would be healthy. Oily fish, like trout, salmon, and mackerel are thought to be the healthiest because of their high omega-3 content, but all types of seafood, including shellfish, are lean, nutritious proteins. Clams, for example, are an excellent lean source of iron, which is good if you're not eating much red meat. Try some clams or mussels marinara. Or try pan frying some rainbow trout in olive oil and eating them, either with just a squeeze of lemon, or with a hearty home-made tomato sauce with olives and capers. And a side of sauteed greens. This is one of my favorite meals ever, and it's all healthy.

                  I'm with you on the whole-grain pasta. I much prefer traditional pasta and it's all I ever saw in Italy, where people seem to be pretty healthy. But I'd talk to your doctor about it. A good way to get whole grains, is to look for them elsewhere. One thing I really like doing is using oatmeal in savory dishes, like I would use polenta. Cook some up in a good stock and smother with braised greens, like swiss chard or kale. (You can't ever have too many greens.)

                  And one last piece of advice: I find that cured pork products, like prosciutto or pancetta are great as a flavoring for food, without having to use too much. A few ounces of diced prosciutto (I buy the prosciutto end cheap from my local Italian market and use that) in a minestrone or white bean and kale soup gives a wonderful depth of flavor to these low-calorie, veggie-filled dishes that makes them very satisfying. Using very small amounts of meat to good effect in healthy dishes is a good way to stave off cravings for those unhealthy ones. Ditto for aged, hard cheeses like romano or parmigiano. A little bit goes a long way.

              2. If your cardiologist is like my cardiologist, then "Mediterannean diet" simply means cutting way back on high cholesterol, artery clogging foods and eating a lot more veggies, whole greains, making olive oil your primary cooking oil, and a glass or two of red wine couldn't hurt either. Basically, what my cardiologist wants peope to do is start eating "healthy."

                Here are some things I've found out doing research that not a lot of "Mediterannean diet" programs tell you. First off, if you like seafood, eat scallops, NOT shirmp, because they are MUCH lower in cholesterol. Make sure your salmon is wild caught, and have some once a week. You can keep beef in your diet *IF* it is GRASS FED! The flesh of grass fed beef is as health and cholesterol friendly to your body as salmon. Corn fed beef is NOT...! Same with butter. Look for grass fed butter, and you can keep butter in your diet. I caonnot make a decent omelet with olive oil no matter how hard I try, so I pay a small fortune for grass fed butter.

                Those crusty artisan breads are so much better for you than gummy white bread, and dip them in olive oil that has some additional flavorings in it; maybe basil, maybe garlic, maybe a small amount of pecorino romano or such. And you can keep cheeses like mozerella, even goat cheese in moderation.

                There's nothing wrong with the occasional corn tortilla or five. So you can have tacos. Just don't fry them in deep fat, and if you can do soft tacos, even better. Grass fed beef tacos, with lettuce, tomato, sliced onion (if you like that sort of thing), and a hint of a hard grated Italian cheese is a good thing!

                Make your own pizza dough -- check out recipes on the web and look for one with the least amount of oil in it -- and then you're in business! But if pepperoni is your fave, go very light and not very often. But the rest of the time you can have lots of pizza. For a quick pizza fix, I use an English muffin or a pita round, slather it with low fat store bought spaghetti sauce, then a light touch of chees and maybe some diced tomatoes with a little extra basil or oregano. Bake or nuke. There are even some "lazy day" pizza crust mixes that are pretty healthy and low fat, but you MUST read the labels before buying! But they make "fairly dencent_ pizza dough, or a quick focaccia bread. Nothing wrong with that. And you DO know I'm blowing my image as a "from scratch" cook for you, don't you? '-)

                Chinese food is a walk in the park.... *IF* it isn't take-out! Use peanut oil in your wok, measure it out grudgingly by the teaspoon, and don't be afraid to use chicken stock instead of peanut oil. The key is lots of veggies and a good selection of Chinese sauces, wines, and spices in your cabinet. Use sesame oil lightly, bui it's an important flavor. And for fried rice or egg fu yong, I use egg beaters instead of whole eggs. Cuts WAY back on the cholesterol. AND the calories. 4 grams of fat per egg, 0 grams of fat for a whole quart of Egg beaters!

                And if you like Japanese food, generally speaking it is much lower in calories and cholesterol than Chinese food. But that's a broad generalization. And for the record, did you know that duck and goose fat is MUCH healther and better for you than chicken? It has more good cholesterols and frewer bad than chicken. It's still pretty high calorie, but I now eat duck with a perfectly clear conscience!

                Despite what many would hae you believe, making sushi does NOT require a gazillion years of apprenticeship under the Yoda of Rice to come up with quite enjoyable versions. Pick up a book on how to, then make sure you ALWAYS roast your nori just before using and eat it right away. And use the right rice! Critical. And sushi does NOT require raw fish! Or in some cases, any fish at all. And it's low fat and Mediterannean sympatico.

                And probably most imprtant of all, DO NOT think of this whole adventure as a "diet." Think of it as a new and better way of life, and there is absolutely no reason why you can't have flavorful delicious and fully satisfying food. Including tacos, Chinese food, and pizza! Good luck!

                4 Replies
                1. re: Caroline1

                  Great post Caroline and I agree with 99.5 % of it. The exception: store bought tomato sauce. So easy, so quick and so much more healthy to make your own, And you control the salt and oil. Another point is to use as few processed foods as possible. Buy fresh, seasonal and try to buy local as well.

                  1. re: Gio

                    No, no, no, Gio! NOT tomato sauce! I have a jar of SPAGHETTI SAUCE in the refrig right now -- I think it''s Bertoli Italian Sausage -- good for 30 second pizza! Slather a Tbs or so on an English muffin, top with a bit of mozerella and sprinkle with a pinch of this and apinch of that, then under my halogen lamps to melt and brown. Small portion, low fat, tastes pretty damned good and NO temptation to eat "just one more slice" of a delivery pizza! Or a home made big guy. As the Greeks said, "Know thyself." I know me. I'd eat more...! '-)

                  2. re: Caroline1

                    Thanks for all your wonderful ideas presented here. So far, I've been using Canola oil to make Chinese food, with the understanding that it's a "good" fat. The other components of a Chinese sauce: Xiaoxiang rice wine, hoisin, black bean sauce, soy sauce, etc.—who knows. I figure it probably can't be TOO bad since you don't need much.

                    1. re: BobtheBigPig

                      I thought I had responded here, but maybe the phone rang and I closed the page without hitting "post?" Anyway... Canola is a curious oil. I don't use it specifically because SOME people (me among them) find it has an unpleasant fishy taste. Yet others claim it is absolutely tasteless and swear by it. So for that reason, I just don't use it.

                      Chinese restaurants in the USA have been using peanut oil for ages. High smoke point, I've never met anyone who objects to its flavor, and it's reasonbably priced.

                  3. Look at any French Provencal recipes and they will fill your gullet with good Mediterranean foods that your doctor would subscribe to.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: igorm

                      Good suggestion. Try to get your hands on a copy of "The Cuisine of the Sun" by Mireille Johnson. http://www.amazon.com/CUISINE-SUN-CLA...

                    2. Bob, a few years ago I was told the same thing by my physician after discovering that I had a 98% blocked artery. Being a longtime chowhound, I was dismayed at first - but soon learned to adjust my cooking style to create heart-healthy food that was still adventurous and satisfying. I don't eat any cheese or red meat, and don't feel deprived at all.

                      You asked the question about whole grains. I definitely eat more than the amount recommended by the American Heart Association! The key is to vary the grains. Barley and quinoa are really great, and you need to try many different brands of whole wheat pasta to find the one you like best. Similarly, whole grain breads vary hugely. Plus, you need to vary your protein - fish can get a little boring. Become a dried bean lover - go to the Rancho Gordo site and you'll get hooked. I often eat varous combinations of beans, greens and whole wheat pasta. Seitan is very useful in stews and chilis, as is tempeh - you can make a mean bolognese sauce with that. Of course, there's certainly nothing wrong with eating chicken breast, without the skin.

                      Eating a Mediterranean diet does not mean eating only Mediterranean style food. As someoene else pointed out, it means eating healthy fats instead of saturated fats, eating lots of vegetables, whole grains, etc. The other night I was craving Mexican food and made tacos with sweet potatoes and swiss chard, which were amazing. When I want something hearty, I make a shepherd's pie with seitan that would satisfy any shepherd! I even make pies with a heart-healthy crust - and no one can believe there is no butter. So it is definitely possible to eat very well.

                      Don't want this to come off like I'm just promoting my blog, but Bob, I think you in particular would really benefit from some of my recipes, since I've gone through the same dietary evolution that you are. I also post many of them on chowhound, so you can also search my posts here.

                      Cathy

                      1. Oh also - nuts and avocados are very good for your heart, and are great in salads, etc. And I agree that a super high quality olive oil makes an enormous difference. Look for unfiltered, first cold-pressed olive oils that carry the date they were processed, not just the expiration date. The newer, the better.

                        1. I think that I have plugged Rose Shulman's column in the NY Times, "Recipes for Health" before. They are not all wonderful, but some are, and she has given me many good recipes and ideas for different ways to cook beans and tofu with healthy fats, grains and vegetables. Rose picks an ingredient for the week and gives 4 daily recipes. Here is a link.

                          http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/hea...

                          1. I start from the premise that there is no such thing as the Mediterranean diet. It is too diverse a region.

                            But what's usually intended by the phrase in diet terms is lower fat, reduced animal protein, simple carbs, more fruit & veg.

                            It's a diet I find very easy to follow in Northern Europe (when I can be arsed to follow it). Chinese food (and other east asian) lends itself very easily to cooking in this style, upping the rice and veg and using meat more as a flavouring than the "main event". Bought-in Chinese sauces can be tricky as they tend to be high in both calories and salt - the only way round this to my mind is simply use less.

                            Wholegrain, as such, isnt any part of the so-called Med Diet but it's generally regarded as more healthy than refined products.

                            1. www.oldwayspt.org is an interesting website to investigate. You might like to check out the Portfolio Diet that apparently is equally effective as statins.

                              1. Nothing wrong with mexican!! home made salsa and guacamole are good for you. Just put them on grilled chicken. Say no to tortillas and yes to taco salad. Yum!!

                                also
                                rub veggies with pesto and grill them. now grill a piece of fish and dump all the veggies on top. I love that. Sometimes I put parmesan or bocconcini on top and melt it. Decadent.

                                1. There's no reason you need to be eating hummus every day. There are gazillions of satisfying dishes that are based on olive and other vegetable oils, legumes, and rice. If you cook from Claudia Roden's the New Book of Middle Eastern Food, you'll be on the right track. Also try southern Italian.

                                  Ignore the doctor's advice about whole grain carbs. That's extremely limiting and not a core part of any culture's cuisine that I'm aware of.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: aventinus

                                    Frankly, I agree about the carbs. I really don't think it's necessary for every single carb you put in your body to be totally unrefined, as long as you are eating SOME whole grains. Most of the problems associated with refined carbs, like lower nutritional value and higher glycemic index are mitigated simply by including them in a healthy, varied diet and in complex dishes that include things like fiber and protein to slow digestion and keep your blood sugar steady. A meal of cheese puffs and coke is not the same thing as a meal of white pasta tossed with sauteed vegetables or seafood or a homemade marinara sauce. (Especially not if you cook the pasta al dente.) If you really don't like whole wheat pasta, don't get it. Have a bowl of oatmeal or some whole grain toast in the morning and then cook yourself a meal with whatever kind of pasta you want in the evening.

                                    1. re: aventinus

                                      I wouldn't tell anyone to ignore their doctor's advice (unless I was a doctor, too!) Whole grains are definitely healthier, there is no question - so the more you stick to the, the better. But even I confess to eating a hunk of crusty white bread on occasion!