Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

The Flavors of the Mediterranean


English: Olives in olive oil.

English: Olives in olive oil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Mediterranean region offers some of the most varied cuisines in our world. Much is written about this diet’s health benefits that has been supported by a plethora of research studies. There is no one Mediterranean diet but its origins arise from the olive-growing countries adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea and has been evolving for centuries. I prefer to call it a “cuisine”.

Most often, the cuisines of southern France, Italy, Spain and Greece are featured in the diet’s characteristics. This blog has written extensively about this cuisine as reported HERE.

Henry Blackburn, M.D. of the University of Minnesota Division of Epidemiology best described the typical consumer of the traditional cuisine in this way: “He is a shepherd or small farmer a beekeeper or fisherman, or a tender of olives or vines. He walks to work daily and labors in the soft light of his Greek isle….

His midday main meal is of eggplant, with large livery mushrooms, crisp vegetables and country bread dipped in the nectar that is golden Cretan olive oil. One a week, there is a bit of lamb, naturally spiced from sheep grazing in thyme-filled pastures.” This depiction contrasts the fast-food-eating patron that grabs a Big Mac or its counterparts from the drive-in window of the local fast food establishments where cars line up daily to pick up their breakfast, lunches, or dinners.

As one might expect, a significant percentage of the calories of the traditional Mediterranean cuisine comes from fat – around 30 percent in Italy to an excess of 42 percent on the Greek Island of Crete. Yet, historically, the rates of heart disease in these countries have been as much as 90 percent lower than the rates in the United States.

The science has been discussed in previous posts – search the Mediterranean diet on this blog. What foods and characteristics compose the traditional Mediterranean cuisine?

  • Whole minimally processed grains
  • Abundant plant foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, potatoes
  • Nuts, beans, legumes and seeds which provide the protein in many dishes.
  • Olive and olive oil are the main fat source.
  • Milk, cheese and yogurt
  • Fish and shellfish such as tuna, herring, sardines, salmon, mussels, clams, shrimp
  • Eggs often replace meats but limited to about four a week.
  • Meats are eaten infrequently and used as condiments instead of the whole meal.
  • Sweets are eaten infrequently and in small amounts
  • Wine is consumed in moderation and with meals – no happy hours!!
  • Daily physical activity is part of every day.
  • Meals are enjoyed with others.
  • The use of spices and herbs are used liberally to enhance flavor of all foods.

How do we emulate the cuisine of the healthy Mediterranean? It is a way of life and a way of eating that is foreign to us. The Italians call this cuisine la cucina genuina or cuisine of the poor. This is the diet of those cultures that traditionally work the land and use seasonal ingredients grown in small gardens. Most of us do not fit that lifestyle. It is a back to basics cuisine. Lying roughly between the thirtieth and fortieth parallels of latitude, the Mediterranean enjoys a climate that is generally mild, giving crops in most of the region a long growing season. By keeping it simple, we can enjoy the flavors that are the essence of Mediterranean cooking. We should be able to purchase these ingredients and stock our pantries using the very ingredients that make up the foods and meals of this cuisine.

Keep them in the pantry and search for recipes that use them. Look for a good Mediterranean cookbook and search the Internet for recipes and meal plans to get you started with this healthier way to eat. What herbs, spices and ingredients give the Mediterranean cuisine its wonderful flavors?


SALT: anchovies, prosciutto, capers, olives, roasted salted nuts, some cheeses.

ACID: Citrus zest and juice, vinegar, wine, tomatoes

SMOKE: smoked paprika, cumin, pancetta, smoked meats

HEAT: hot chiles, red pepper flakes, spicy sausage

AROMATIC: Cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, coriander, saffron, fennel, paprika, allspice, nutmeg, garlic, onion, ginger

SWEET: sugar, dried fruits, pomegranage, sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin

PUNGENT: garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric

One thing people get nervous about when eating less meat in their diets is where do you get enough protein? Red meats are consumed only occasionally and eggs, poultry, and fish are recommended only a few times a week? Here is where the beans and lentils come in, which are a staple in this diet. They are relatively inexpensive and can provide an adequate amount of protein. Beans are also an excellent source of soluble fiber and provide a decent amount of folate and iron. For example just one cup of black bean soup provides 9 grams of fiber, about one-third of a day’s fiber quota.

If you are inspired to increase your intake of beans:

  • Opt for the lentil or split pea soup instead of the usual mushroom, tomato, or chicken noodle soup.
  • Serve black bean dip or hummus as an appetizer.
  • Toss a can of black or white beans to any soup or casserole.
  • Add chickpeas (garbonzo) to your salad.
  • Serve herbed beans salads or pureed beans as a side dish as an alternative to potatoes.

Bon appétit


2 thoughts on “The Flavors of the Mediterranean

  1. Pingback: Roasted Cauliflower Recipe - Just Yum Yum

  2. Pingback: Cooking with Sophie: Roasted cauliflower with potatoes and onion | Food Magazine

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