Dieting the Mediterranean way

The Mediterranean diet is “a modern eating plan based on the traditional diet and lifestyle of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.”

‘Fruit cocktail’ with fresh pomegranate seeds, strawberries, orange juice and sugar. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
‘Fruit cocktail’ with fresh pomegranate seeds, strawberries, orange juice and sugar.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
In the Mediterranean diet, says Amy Riolo, the author of The Ultimate Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, “no food is forbidden; there are just some things you eat less of.”
In her new book, which she presented recently at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles, Riolo describes the Mediterranean diet as “a modern eating plan based on the traditional diet and lifestyle of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.” There are no special diet foods and “no formulas, exchanges or point systems to master....You don’t need a nutritional label to determine what fits into the lifestyle....Centered on healthful, whole foods eaten in moderation, sticking to the Mediterranean diet becomes second nature.”
We certainly didn’t feel like we were dieting when we lunched on Riolo’s pesto-dressed salad of green beans, potatoes and tomatoes and her quinoa salad with figs and arugula (see recipes), served alongside baked salmon with fennel cream. For dessert, there was raspberry clafoutis – a French baked pudding – and North African strawberry, orange and pomegranate fruit cocktail (see recipe).
Riolo first became interested in eating this way as a teenager. At age 15, she had to prepare the food for her family because her mother had diabetes. When she visited her family in Calabria, she noticed that her relatives in that southern Italian region were much healthier than those in the US.
“Very quickly I became converted to the Mediterranean diet,” she said.
Of course, she noted, “it’s more than just the food.” The most important part of the Mediterranean diet is the lifestyle aspect – to be physically active and to enjoy meals with others.
“Instead of organizing my book the usual way, by first courses, entrees and desserts,” said Riolo, “I dedicated each chapter to a tier of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.”
Our meals should be made mostly from plant-based ingredients – vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, grains and olive oil, she explained. This group of foods forms the lowest, and largest, food tier of the pyramid, and is the focus of the first, and biggest, chapter in the book. From one end of the Mediterranean to the other, grains and olive oil are treasured, and they appear together in several of Riolo’s recipes, such as cannellini bean, barley and tomato soup flavored with garlic sautéed in olive oil, plenty of parsley, and a bit of grated Pecorino Romano cheese for garnish.
Dietitians advise eating fish and seafood at least twice a week. A tempting, easy recipe from Riolo’s fish chapter calls for flavoring trout fillets with olive oil, garlic, sage, parsley, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper, and baking them in parchment paper. The dish is rich in herbs, which Riolo recommends using in generous amounts, because these “traditional medicines” contribute not only good flavor, but also nutritional benefits. Thyme, for example, is known in the Mediterranean region as being beneficial for the respiratory system and as a cough suppressant.
In addition to legumes and nuts, dairy foods are a source of daily protein in the Mediterranean diet. Riolo uses cheese in modest amounts in vegetable dishes like spaghetti squash pasta with zucchini, basil and tomatoes.
The chapter on dairy, eggs and poultry includes such dishes as Middle Eastern cottage cheese salad with diced tomato, cucumber, olives and parsley; Israeli shakshuka-style eggs, which she flavors with harissa sauce, tomato paste and smoked paprika; and Calabrian chicken stew with peppers, tomatoes and potatoes.
“What we should eat least of is meats and sweets,” the foods at the tip of the Pyramid, “so I called the final chapter in my book meats and sweets,” said Riolo. She noted that in the time-honored way of eating around the Mediterranean, these are the kinds of foods that are not for every day. Instead, people eat a meat dish and a dessert on their day of rest – Muslims on Friday, Jews on Saturday, and Christians on Sunday.
Riolo autographed our copy of her book using the Egyptian phrase for bon appétit – “with pleasure and health.”
“Mediterranean food traditions,” she said, “are all about how to achieve that balance between pleasure and health.”
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
For making the pesto, Amy Riolo recommends unfiltered olive oil because it contains microscopic particles of olives, which add flavor and health benefits. As a vegetable dish, this is an excellent accompaniment for grilled or roasted fish. To serve it at a kosher meal with poultry or meat, omit the cheese. A traditional way to use this mixture in Liguria, Italy, where pesto originated, is to toss it with twisted pasta called trofie.
Makes 4 servings
■ 680 gr. (1½ lbs.) baby yellow potatoes or larger yellow potatoes, washed and cut in 2.5-cm. (1-inch) chunks
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) green beans, trimmed and cut in half on the diagonal
■ ¼ cup (35 gr. or 1.2 oz.) pine nuts
■ 1 clove garlic
■ 3 cups (120 gr. or 4.2 oz.) lightly packed fresh basil leaves
■ ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, unfiltered if possible
■ ¼ cup (25 gr. or 1 oz.) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
■ 1 cup (150 gr. or 5.3 oz.) cherry tomatoes, halved
■ Salt and freshly ground pepper
Place potatoes in a large steamer basket fitted over a pot of boiling water. Cover and steam for 5 minutes or until nearly tender. Add green beans to potatoes in steamer, cover and continue to steam for another 4 minutes. Drain and immediately plunge into an ice bath to cool.
Make pesto by combining pine nuts, garlic, basil and olive oil in a food processor. Process until a smooth paste forms. Using a spatula, scoop pesto out of food processor and into a bowl. Stir in cheese.
Transfer vegetables to a large serving bowl and add cherry tomatoes. Add pesto and stir to coat evenly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Using quinoa instead of rice is a new trend in the Mediterranean region, writes Riolo. She points out that for gluten-free diets, quinoa is a good substitute for bulgur wheat, as in this French spin on tabbouleh. She comments that fresh figs are ounce for ounce the world’s most nutritious fruit.
Makes 4 main-course or 8 side-dish servings
■ 1 cup dry quinoa, rinsed
■ ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
■ Juice of 1 lemon
■ ¼ tsp. salt, preferably unrefined sea salt
■ Black pepper to taste
■ 225 gr. (8 oz.) fresh figs, quartered
■ 310 gr. (11 oz.) baby arugula
Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add quinoa, stir, reduce heat to low, and cover. Simmer until all liquid is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely.
Whisk olive oil, lemon juice, salt and black pepper together to make dressing.
Place quinoa in a large bowl and lightly fluff with a fork. Combine with dressing, adding enough to moisten. Gently stir in figs. Taste and adjust seasoning. Place arugula on a platter. Spoon quinoa mixture over arugula and serve.
Fresh fruit cocktail is popular at street-side fruit stands from Morocco to Egypt to Turkey, writes Riolo. “They offer some of the most delicious, but fortunately not guilty, pleasures to be had. Feel free to substitute your favorite fruit trio.”
When fresh strawberries are not in season, you can use frozen ones; if they are sweetened, use less sugar.
Makes 4 servings
■ 450 gr. (1 lb.) strawberries, cleaned and trimmed
■ ¼ cup (50 gr. or 1.8 oz.) sugar, or to taste
■ 1 cup fresh orange juice
■ 4 tsp. pomegranate syrup or other fruit syrup
■ 16 pomegranate arils (seeds) Chill 4 clear glasses.
Puree strawberries in a blender until frothy. Add sugar to taste and blend until combined. Divide strawberry mixture among the 4 glasses.
Holding the back of a spoon over the strawberry puree, pour the orange juice over the top of the spoon. (This prevents the two colors from mixing.) Repeat with the other 3 glasses.
Pour 1 tsp. pomegranate syrup on top of each glass and garnish each with a few pomegranate seeds. (They will sink.) Serve immediately.