The heart and soul of the Mediterranean Diet is whole plant foods, that is, an assortment of splendid, seasonal fruits and vegetables alongside pulses, grains, herbs and spices, nuts and seeds, and olives, and olive oil. With such rich and ﬂavorful plant foods at the ready, it may come as no surprise that many of the Mediterranean’s most acclaimed dishes are actually plant-based.
Eating seasonally may be in vogue today. Historically, however, families had few other options, as family gardens and local farms supplied much of the available food. What makes the Mediterranean diet a true culinary masterpiece is how these accessible, inexpensive plant-based ingredients are prepared in ways that maximize ﬂavor and highlight produce at its peak of season and freshness. For instance, tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, squash, and zucchini can serve as the foundation for a plethora of salads and vegetable-focused main dishes. Mediterranean salads possess depth and ﬂavor, such as tabbouleh (a vegetarian salad made of ﬁnely chopped parsley, with tomatoes, mint, onion, bulgur, and seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice); fattoush (toasted/fried pieces of bread/pita referred to as khubz combined with mixed greens and other vegetables, such as cucumbers, radish, and tomatoes); Greek or horiatiki salata (a salad of feta, tomatoes and cucumbers); and the classic Italian tomato, mozzarella and basil Caprese salad.
The French Provencal ratatouille and Greek briam are the epitome of simple, ﬂavorful, healthy Mediterranean cooking; common seasonal ingredients are used in ways that bring out their inherent sweetness and ﬂavor. Throughout the Mediterranean, vegetables are consumed and celebrated in all their glorious forms. For instance, baba ganoush (a subtly smoky mash of cooked eggplant mixed with tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice); punchy sweet and sour Sicilian caponata (chopped fried eggplant, celery and capers seasoned with sweetened vinegar); spanakopita (crispy phyllo triangles stuﬀed with spinach or other leafy greens); vegetable tortes and tarts ﬁlled with any number of vegetables (e.g., artichokes, fennel, leeks); and stuﬀed items (e.g., grape leaves, tomatoes, and bell peppers).
Dry beans and legumes—cannellini beans, chickpeas, fava beans, green beans, kidney beans, lentils, split peas—may be among the humblest of ingredients, yet with just a little care and attention are readily transformed into some of the Mediterranean’s most ﬂavorful creations. Further, legumes were an important source of shelf-stable plant protein, in a time when animal proteins were not always easy to come by. Classic, utterly smooth and creamy chickpea hummus; Greek fava (pureed yellow split peas); Greek gigandes plaki or baked giant white beans cooked in a tomato-based sauce; ful medames (a hearty Egyptian stew of warmed fava beans stirred with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic—usually enjoyed for breakfast); Italian pasta e ceci (or pasta and chickpeas) and pasta fagioli (a simple peasant soup composed of modest ingredients, including white cannellini beans, pasta, vegetables, and tomatoes) are just a handful of this region’s delightful legume-based dishes.
Nuts and seeds—almonds, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunﬂower seeds, and walnuts—are essential members of the Mediterranean pantry. For example, ground sesame seeds are the main constituent of tahini and tahini-based sauces common to Israel and Eastern Mediterranean cuisine. Nuts and seeds ﬁnd themselves into many Mediterranean dishes, from toasted pine nuts, a common addition to the classic Italian (i.e., basil-centric) pesto; Sicilian pesto alla Trapanese, an almond-based pesto served tossed with pasta and tomatoes; Spanish romesco, a mixture of roasted tomatoes and garlic, along with toasted almonds or hazelnuts, olive oil, and nyora peppers; and Catalan picada, a pounded paste of fried bread, nuts, typically almonds, garlic, and olive oil stirred into stews to add ﬂavor, thickness, and texture.
Whole grains—amaranth, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, farro, freekeh, Einkorn, emmer, spelt, kamut, and corn/polenta, rice—are the basis for Mediterranean breads, pastas, and porridges. While corn is commonly formed into porridge or polenta, other grains, for instance, farro, barley, and rice (risotto) make for tasty porridges. Farro, freekeh, spelt, and Kamut® can be combined with vegetables to form hearty and healthy grain-based salads. While Italy is the birthplace of pizza, vegetarian ﬂatbreads topped with colorful vegetables can be found throughout the Mediterranean, such as onion ﬂatbreads (pissaladiere in France); man’oushe, a Lebanese ﬂatbread topped with a za’atar spice blend and olive oil; and Turkish pide ﬁlled with spinach and cheese or eggplant and tomatoes.
In order to improve the health of both people and the planet, nutrition and sustainability experts recommend eating more meatless meals. If you’re unsure how to venture into vegetarian territory, let the Mediterranean Diet be your guide. Between sweet, juicy tomatoes, smoky roasted eggplant, creamy winter squash, and fruity olive oil, you won’t even miss the meat.
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