As you stroll past the food stands, colorful vegetables, inviting cheese, nutritious nuts, fresh fish, juicy fruits, aromatic herbs, earth flavored olives, and much more. All seem to be asking you to take them home…
The Mediterranean golden elixir is indispensable in a well-stocked Mediterranean food pantry. Its color goes from golden to green. Its taste can be mild, fruity or pungent. Generally speaking, the darker it is, the stronger its taste.
Olive oil is widely consumed drizzled on bread and dressings. It is also regularly used in cooking techniques such as frying, sauteing, seasoning, marinating, stewing, and preserving.
I recommend that you use a mild or fruity extra-virgin olive oil. The Catalan arbequina olive oil is superb, but whatever its Mediterranean origin, don’t choose a dark green olive oil, you’ll probably find its flavor too strong and pungent.
If you find its taste too strong or too expensive, you have another option. Use extra-virgin from the first cold pressing when consuming it raw, and “refined” or “pure” olive oil, as they are called commercially, for cooking or frying.
Rice is a stellar Mediterranean food, but please, do not use precooked or instant rice for Mediterranean recipes. To spare ten minutes you’d sacrifice most of the rice flavor and texture. And the processing probably sacrifices the healthy virtues of the rice too.
For paella recipes and the myriad of Catalan rice dishes, use short-grain rice. There is a special short-grain rice for paella called bomba rice, but regular short-grain rice works fine too.
In Egypt, the Arabic Eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa, they use long-grain rice for their rice dishes. A typical example is rice with lentils known as kushary, mjadarah or mudardara.
For Northern Italy’s risottos you have the special arborio rice or the more select and expensive carnaroli or vialone nano. Risotto rice has more starch and absorbs more water.
For Arabic and Greek sweets like rice puddings, use medium-grain or, as second choice, short-grain rice.
For pilaf as prepared in Turkey, Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean the best is Indian basmati or patna rice, followed by long-grain rice.
For Greek and Turkish-style stuffings such as stuffed vine leaves or peppers, use long-grain rice.
When buying Italian fresh pasta, remember that it only keeps a few days, five at the most, in the refrigerator.
Regarding dry pasta, the sensible choice is Italian pasta, particularly from Southern Italy and Sicily.
Whatever the form of the pasta you choose, make sure you buy pasta made of hard durum wheat ï¿½this is very important. This is the pasta that will make delicious al dente pasta dishes and will not lose its form or become too sticky when cooking it.
Pasta made of hard durum wheat is the one that you can consider a healthy Mediterranean food. It digests slowly, as it should, and it gives you energy.
Bread and pastries
In the Mediterranean basin you find white bread and brown bread. If white bread is paper-white, it is probably too refined. Brown bread is never as dark as German or Danish bread, and it is lighter to digest. If you make your own bread, buy unbleached flour.
Although bread is a fundamental Mediterranean food, not all breads are created equal. A loaf of bread that is hand kneaded, allowed to rise for eight hours, and baked in a wooden oven in rural Morocco is very different from an industrial baguette cooked in a microwave oven. Common sense tells us that the first one is much more palatable and healthier.
Indeed, bread is a pillar of a healthy Mediterranean diet, but only if it’s real bread. Real bread means bread made with good quality flour and minimally processed. It also means that it doesn’t contain an excess of yeast to make it rise faster.
The same considerations are true for any kind of Mediterranean bread: flat pita bread, round-shaped, country-style or baguette-like bread, and also for the crusts of Italian pizza, Catalan homemade pizza-like coques, Lebanese manoushe breakfast pizza and other flour pastries and pies.
Grains, couscous, bulgur
The traditional couscous from North Africa is made from durum wheat semolina, sometimes corn or pearl millet. Like rice, it absorbs very well the flavors of the Mediterranean food you cook it with. If you buy precooked couscous choose one that is minimally processed.
Couscous comes in different grinds, the finer is ideal for traditional couscous. Serve it with vegetables, lamb meat or chicken.
Bulgur, also written bulghur or burghul, is cracked wheat that has been partially cooked. It is used in traditional Eastern Mediterranean dishes like Lebanese kibbeh or the tabouleh salad. It is a staple in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey.
Bulgur comes in different grinds, coarser and finer. For those two Arabic recipes use the finer bulgur. It is another healthy alternative to rice and pasta that you could integrate to add variety to your Mediterranean diet food.
There are other healthy grains like polenta consumed mostly in the North of Italy, and Italian or Catalan farro.
The key is to eat moderate amounts of a cereal combined with vegetables, fish or meat.