How to give your pantry a Mediterranean makeover
Stocking up on certain Mediterranean foods will help you take advantage of one of the healthiest diets in the world.
What's not to love about the Mediterranean diet? It's a celebration of fresh vegetables, protein-rich fish and lean legumes, and it's said to be one of the healthiest ways to eat. Science backs this up; studies over the years have shown links to lower risk for some cancers, heart disease and cognitive decline among people who follow a Mediterranean diet. There's also a new study that says high-fat foods can be incorporated into this diet without risk of undermining its benefits, as long as said foods are high in monounsaturated fats rather than the saturated fats found in donuts and other snacks associated with the Western diet.
All that sounds pretty swell, doesn't it? If you're thinking about making a change to incorporate this diet into your life, let's start with your kitchen. How about a Mediterranean makeover for your pantry (and fridge), to ensure that you can easily adhere to this diet and reap its benefits? Here's our conveniently arranged shopping list.
Olive oil: A 2015 study revealed that female adherents to the Mediterranean diet who supplemented with four tablespoons of olive oil per day reduced their risk of developing breast cancer by a stunning 68 percent compared to women who followed a standard low-fat diet. It's known as a "healthy fat," and some participants have cited anti-inflammatory properties as well. So drizzle away, guilt be gone.
Red wine: Next time you're wondering which type of wine to purchase, think of one word: resveratrol. It's a substance found in red wine that acts as an antioxidant, and is associated with a lower risk of heart disease (when consumed in moderation, of course). And though doctors are wary of encouraging anyone to drink more alcohol – especially those with a higher risk of alcohol abuse – a large body of research shows that one glass of wine in the evening, with dinner, can promote a healthier lifestyle. Cheers!
Tahini: This is an essential part of the cuisines of North Africa, Greece, Israel and the surrounding region, where the Mediterranean diet originated. It can be eaten on its own, used as a garnish and condiment, added to foods such as hummus and baba ghanoush, and used to make desserts such as halva, a crumbly treat made of nut butter and sugar, and cookies. And you can do it too, simply by picking out a jar at your local grocery or Mediterranean store. For a sweeter, Nutella-esque version, try Soom, a tahini company popular with the hipster set. And proceed to spread it on literally everything.
Chickpeas: There's a reason hummus and falafel are among the most sought-after foods in existence – they're made with chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans). But its uses don't end there. Add them to your salad or stew for a hearty dinner; stuff them into a pastry for a classic appetizer called sambusak; and roast them for a healthful, fun snack.
Cashews, almonds or pistachios: Instead of tearing open that noisy bag of Fritos when you get the urge to snack, go nuts instead. Your body will thank you. Let the energy snacking commence!
Unrefined grains: Bulgur, barley, quinoa, freekah. If you don't already know these unrefined grains, it's time to learn. You can buy them in bulk at specialty and upscale grocery stores, and they're a great alternative to carb-heavy pasta. Make a sensational tabbouleh drizzled with mint tahini sauce, try your hand at stuffed eggplant, and even use it to bake bread.
Flavorful kale. (Photo: Zigzag Mountain Art/Shutterstock)
Green, leafy veggies: Sticking to a diet isn't easy, but one of the pluses is that there are so many of them, and you're sure to find one that fits your lifestyle. To that end, any diet that doesn't include at least a moderate helping of green, leafy vegetables – like kale, spinach and arugula – probably isn't worth following. Luckily, since the Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based, you're encouraged to eat plenty of greens in whatever form you see fit. Try some easy recipes from our Israeli Kitchen, like salad, flatbread pizza and polenta, and enjoy experimenting with nature's greenest bounty.
Tomatoes: Get your vitamins here! Tomatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, biotin, molybdenum and vitamin K. They also contain lycopene, which is a powerful antioxidant. And luckily, tomatoes crop up in lots and lots of Mediterranean diet recipes – all manner of salads, soups, stuffed veggies and even muffins. So next time you're heading for the condiment aisle in search of ketchup, take a detour to the produce section, and pick a whole tomato to slice up and top your burger instead.
Avocados: Think healthy fat! Avocados are loaded with fiber, which makes you feel full longer; they're low in sugar, even though they're a fruit (a berry, actually!); they contain more potassium than a banana, and they have plenty of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. They're great for smoothies, dips (can't have guacamole without it!) and as a filling for burgers and wraps.
Pomegranates: They're often called the "jewel of the farmers market," because when you crack one open, its shiny reddish-pink seeds (also called arils) resemble jewels. But aside from their beauty, there's a lot to love about these fruits. They're credited with everything from lowering cholesterol to combating inflammation and inhibiting cancer. Sprinkle the arils on your salad, blend them into a martini or a margarita ... the uses are numerous.
Herbs and spices
Za'atar: Its name might sound more like the evil emperor in your kid's comic books than a spice blend, but za'atar is seriously good, and surprisingly versatile. You can mix it up with a little olive oil (see above) and serve in little bowls at the table. You can use it as a dip for crusty bread, and it's also widely known as a topping for pita or flatbread. You can also mix it into recipes like Jerry James Stone's delicious eggplant pizza.
Turmeric: This "golden spice" is derived from a perennial plant in the same family as ginger. It's also considered part of a category called functional foods, which means it has a number of uses that go beyond spicing up your soups, curries or tea. It's also associated with the treatment of everything from jaundice to cancer to smallpox.
Thyme is popular in egg, bean, and veggie dishes. (Photo: cookbookman/Flickr)
Thyme: Besides its lovely flavor, thyme is a powerful antioxidant and a natural anti-bacterial and anti-microbial agent. With its small leaves, it dries quickly and easily, so if you end up buying some fresh in the supermarket, you can always just dry it yourself by loosely bunching it together and hanging it upside down in the sunshine. It's especially popular in egg, bean and veggie dishes, so it's a key herb for vegetarians to keep in their spice racks.
Sage: Sage is probably most popularly used in British cuisine, where it's even found in cheese, and is a staple of Thanksgiving stuffing recipes in the U.S. But modern cooks have found plenty more uses for the peppery-flavored leaves, including pairing with white beans for a hummus-like dip, throwing whole into fresh pasta dishes, and infusing into honey.
So now that you've got the information you need to overhaul your kitchen Mediterranean-style, here's a convenient (editable and printable!) checklist for what's sure to be an epic grocery trip.
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Related Topics: Healthy eating