healthy eating

Eat Less Meat: Sure, But How Do You Get There from Here?

 
BY EATING THE TRADITIONAL MEDITERRANEAN WAY, of course. By now Mediterraneanista’s loyal readers know that the Mediterranean diet includes a lot less meat than many of us are used to. And we know it makes sense, this eating less meat, for all sorts of good health and environmental reasons. But what is less? And how do you get there from here?
 
I remember as a business editor one of the many managerial concepts that floated across my desk was “chunking”—a strategy for managing a big project by, well, breaking it into chunks. If you’re an enthusiastic meat eater who’s interested in moving in the direction of a more Mediterranean diet, “chunking” may be a concept worth reviving. Let’s face it, many of us have eating habits that were formed in households where the dinner menu was Meat Plus (you fill in the blanks, but it often involved potatoes). We may need a little aide-mémoire to adopt a different way.
 
 
So here are some chunks to get you closer to the Mediterranean way:
 
Meatless Monday, which I’ve written about here before, is a great example of a manageable chunk. You have six days to plan for one day of meatless eating. Since standard dietary recommendations call for no more than 18 oz. of meat a week, Meatless Monday works out perfectly. Three ounces a day, which is a portion or serving size, plus one day off. And you get the week off to a good start. (The Meatless Monday organization reports that “studies suggest that we are more likely to maintain behaviors begun on Monday throughout the week.”)
 
Learn to cook two or three meatless main dishes you love, so they become second nature, just the way the Meat-Plus concept once was. Most important, this flips the idea around from denying yourself meat to treating yourself to a different kind of delicious meal—a joy-of-eating concept Mediterraneanista likes a lot. I didn’t start out with the goal of “eating less meat.” I just became seduced by the adventure of discovering just how delicious and satisfying the traditional Mediterranean way of eating could be. Roast vegetables is one of my simplest favorites. If you enter “vegetarian” in the Mediterraneanista search box at right, you’ll find others.
 
Be a vegetarian before dinner. Over the long term, this is much easier to keep top of mind than tracking your meat intake meal by meal. (I don’t know about you, but I find the whole tracking thing gets tiresome pretty quickly, although it can be useful as a way to learn exactly what you are eating or spending now.) Cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has written about how a mostly-vegan until dinner approach works for him in Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. He’s never doctrinaire about it, and makes it seem doable and adaptable.
 
Chef Mario Batali, who offers vegetarian dishes for Meatless Monday at all his restaurants, recently surprised a few people when he said he was working on a vegetarian cookbook and is now “vegetarian all day until dinner, and I try to eat no meat whatsoever on Monday and Tuesday.” Perhaps that helps explain why there’s 45 pounds less of him—and counting. Actually, his cookbook Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking very much reflects a traditional Mediterranean table and includes a lot of fabulous meatless dishes in it already.
 
Make meat a secondary ingredient on your plate, not the centerpiece. That helps the portion size make a lot more sense. Because, yep, as I wrote yesterday, 3-4 oz. is actually the suggested serving of meat to be eaten at a meal. That’s a piece about the size of a pack of cards, a useful way to visualize it, I find, when I’m eyeballing meat purchases for a family dinner or dinner party. Some of you are probably thinking, 3 ounces of meat could look pretty lonely in the middle of a plate. True, if it’s at the center of that plate. Instead, think of a stir-fry, for instance, that’s three parts vegetables, one part meat. Or a whole-grain rice pilaf for four in which ½ pound of ground lamb adds fabulous meat flavor. Last week, I made a Turkish eggplant dish (more about that soon) that used ½ pound of lamb in the stuffing for four eggplants. Delicious!
 
Use legumes—beans, lentils—and grains like farro to give some of the textural and nutritional satisfaction of meat—they’re high in fiber and protein. Throw them in soup or salads or stews. I’ll write soon about how to make this super easy. I’m branching out from my favorite farro salad to learn more ways of incorporating this incredibly tasty grain into more meals, and I’ll keep you posted on that, too. 

Bon appetit—Mediterranean style! 

RECIPE: Baked Mediterranean Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes

 
Serves 4 to 6
 
2-3 skinless boneless chicken breasts (depending on weight; see note below) 
zest of one lemon 
1/3 cup pitted Niçoise olives 
1 tbs capers, rinsed
½ pint of cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
 
Preheat oven to 425°.
 
Combine lemon zest, olives, capers, tomatoes and olive oil in roasting pan large enough to fit chicken pieces.
 
Pound chicken to tenderize. Cut into single-serving-size pieces—i.e. each as big as a pack of cards, or about 3-4 oz. (Depending on the size of the chicken breasts, this could mean dividing them into halves or thirds.) Season with salt and pepper.
 
Put chicken pieces in pan, covering with a little of the tomato-olive-caper mixture.
 
Cook in oven for 10 minutes. Turn over chicken pieces. Cook for another 10 minutes, or until juices run clear. (Don’t overcook or the chicken will be dry.)
 
Serve with roasted root vegetables, or quinoa and sautéed greens or a green salad.

 

Sunday Dinner: Baked Mediterranean Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes

 
I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I never get tired of meals that involve cherry tomatoes. And I’m still finding boxes of them at the greenmarket—sweet, irresistible, without the thick skins that so many store-bought ones now seem to have. (On and off, after the local season has finished, I’m able to get really tasty hothouse champagne cherry tomatoes from Canada, sold loose in a box at Fairway. Champagne prices, too—$5/lb—but worth it.)
 
Tonight I’m using cherry tomatoes in a chicken dish that is full of Mediterranean flavors and a cinch to make. That’s another reason it’s a Lazy Mediterraneanista favorite. The key is to have the basic ingredients in your pantry or fridge, ready to go. Extra-virgin olive oil, yes, but lemons, olives and capers, too, are staples of so many Mediterranean dishes. I always keep a supply of pitted (!) Niçoise olives, which I find at Zabar’s, and capers (often from Fairway). That way, I can have this meal ready pretty quickly. I timed myself the last time I made it: 30 minutes flat, from prep start to table.
 
A note about portions: The recipe calls for 2 chicken breasts, which—if you’re taking the Mediterranean approach—will serve 4 to 6 people, depending on the weight of the chicken parts. Do I sense raised eyebrows? Well, I weighed the chicken I’m using today—believe it or not, each piece was anywhere from 8 oz. to 12 oz. (God knows what they’re feeding those chickens.) A half- or three-quarter pound chicken breast is definitely not a single serving of meat—more like 2 or 3 servings each, when you use the 3 oz. food pyramid portion size, or the well-known deck-of-cards measure. But in a Mediterranean meal, you will fill most of your plate with something other than meat. Or have a couple of other non-meat courses as well. So no chance of starving!
 
I often serve this dish with a heap of roasted root vegetables. Tonight we’re having quinoa and sautéed greens. I also like it with small steamed new potatoes and a green salad. I sometimes double the recipe because it’s good reheated, too—for a 10-minute dinner the next day.
 

Tomato Sauce—Yes!

 
Reader John writes:
At this time of year all over Toronto, a huge harvest of Roma tomatoes hits the streets. In all the Mediterranean neighbourhoods, every corner store has bushels and bushels (and bushels) of ripe, beautiful Roma tomatoes, filling the sidewalks and ready for processing. Having done a bit of this myself I can only marvel that people drive away with 2 or 3 bushels at a time. That’s factory work! My modest efforts, however, still provide me with a winter’s worth of great tasting tomato sauce for pasta. I learned how to make the sauce from a Sicilian friend while on holiday in London, not the likeliest place to discover these things. It’s more a method than a recipe and has served me well over the years.
 
Buy a small amount of tomatoes (20 to 30, depending on size). The idea is to avoid scaring yourself into inaction. Wash them and with a very sharp knife, dice them finely (1/4" or so). This makes it unnecessary to peel the tomatoes. Place them in a large pot and heat as slowly as possible, stirring until enough juice is released. Add finely chopped garlic, fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste. Add a finely chopped carrot or two (1/8" cubes) for taste and colour. Add a very generous dollop of your best extra-virgin olive oil. Stir gently and enjoy the aroma while cooking for a couple of hours at an extremely low temperature. Adjust the seasoning, perhaps adding a pinch of sugar if it tastes too sour.
 
After cooling I put them in small containers (like a single serve yogourt container) and freeze them. Perfect Friday night dinner! Thaw the sauce in a microwave, serve over pasta and enjoy with spinach or a salad. Fresh, pure and simple.
 
Each year I make 2 or 3 small batches within several weeks, partly not to get intimidated by the work and partly to vary the taste slightly. It’s easy and very rewarding, both during the cooking and during the eating.         
I’m inspired!  John’s sauce sounds delicious and I like his anti-intimidation tactics. Get me some tomatoes! I haven’t found reasonably priced Romas in bushel basket quantities in NYC, but I’m sure I must just be looking in the wrong places. Anyone know where to buy? 
 
My (English) mom and (Polish) dad used to bottle Roma tomatoes, especially after we kids left home, when they had more time for such things. They usually broke up the work over a few days, my mom was telling me recently, working in a two-person assembly line, peeling the tomatoes and bottling them whole, ready to use in all sorts of recipes. The supply lasted through the winter, and I was the beneficiary of a few jars whenever I went home or they came to visit. I still remember the summer-ripe taste.
 
I was reminded of this recently when my son Chris, who spent the summer doing moving jobs in Toronto, told us how he was feelin’ the pain because so many of the Italian households he was moving had cold storage rooms in the basement (as in, the level reached by a long, steep, narrow staircase)—filled with the vital supplies of a Mediterranean kitchen: preserved tomatoes (how about 10 boxes, each filled with 12 Mason jars?), massive tins of imported olive oil, big glass containers of wine at various stages of production. Even a curing ham hanging from the rafters in one place (more interesting than heavy, especially since the owner offered the movers samples before they left). Ah, Italia.

RECIPE: Spicy Turkish-Style Yogurt Sauce (Açili Esme)

 
THIS SPICY YOGURT SAUCE is great over lentils, sautéed greens, beans, grains, fish or grilled meat. And it makes a delicious dip, too.
 
1 tsp sea salt
2-4 fresh garlic cloves, peeled
¾ cup high quality full-fat yogurt
6 tbs strained yogurt (Labna or Greek-style)
½ tsp cayenne pepper (I use a scant ½ tsp)
1 tsp chopped dill weed
extra-virgin olive oil
 
Pound the salt and garlic together in a mortar until mushy, or mince the garlic cloves in a press and then mix thoroughly with the salt.
 
Blend with the yogurt, labna, cayenne and dill. Turn it into a bowl and swirl olive oil over the surface.
 
Adapted from The Mediterranean Feast, by Clifford A. Wright. 

Running Late? This Sauce Could Save the Day

WHEN I SEE THE TWO NAMES Deborah Madison and Clifford Wright mentioned together, I sit up and pay attention. I still remember being swept off my feet by the first real gourmet vegetarian meal I’d ever eaten—it was at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, where Madison was founding chef. In the years since then, I’ve cooked some unforgettable dishes and meals from her cookbooks. (It will soon be the season for roasted squash, pear and ginger soup again!) Clifford Wright is a scholar of Mediterranean food and culinary history—and a wonderful writer (see his column at Zester Daily) and book author.
 
This afternoon, thanks to an article that caught my eye at food website Culinate, my plan for the day has been tossed aside and here I am suddenly making “Cliff Wright’s Yogurt Sauce”—at Deborah Madison’s suggestion.
 
 
I ate the yogurt sauce over lentils, because Madison’s description was irresistible:
I had gone to visit my friend, the cook and historian Clifford Wright, and I was ravenous when I got to his place. I knew I had to eat a little something, even though the hour was not an eating hour; it was 4 o’clock, and a wonderful dinner would be coming soon.
 
But Cliff, who is a world traveler, understood that travel takes its toll on appetites and their timing, so with no fuss at all, he served up a dish of lentils and set it down before me, along with a bowl of yogurt sauce.
 
I spooned the yogurt into the lentils, inhaled, then dove in. At that moment, those lentils and that yogurt were the most delicious foods I had ever eaten.
They were delicious in the middle of my workday, too, when all of a sudden it was afternoon and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet.
 
I’ll be making sure I have some of this sauce around (or at least the ingredients for making it) because I believe it when Madison says it works with everything: drizzle it on pita sandwiches, add it to a plate of beans or grains or sautéed greens or vegetables or grilled fish. Sounds perfect for when hungry Mediterraneanista is feeling lazy or has suddenly noticed it’s time for dinner. Oops, just saw the time—might be eating yogurt sauce twice today.

RECIPE: Fresh Cherry Tomatoes with Pasta

Serves 4 (unless you’re carbo-loading for a bike ride and then all bets are off)
 
WHAT COULD BE SIMPLER than a dish that requires no cooking except boiling pasta? With a raw sauce like this, the key is to choose the best ingredients—tomatoes at their absolute ripest and sweetest, fresh-picked tangy arugula and herbs. Chopping the greens (and other ingredients) helps make sure they’ll be evenly distributed throughout the dish. Small pasta shapes, such as orrechiette and fusilli, seem to work best. 
  
1 pint ripe cherry tomatoes
2 garlic cloves (or 1 large), minced
4 tbs basil leaves, chopped or slivered
1 packed cup wild arugula, roughly chopped
sea salt
3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar (optional)
¾ lb pasta (I particularly like orrechiette, which like wild arugula, is typical of Puglia)
¼ cup grated Parmesan (or more)
 
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half (cool time-saving trick here) and put in a beautiful bowl (yes, that's part of the recipe) big enough to hold the vegetables and pasta. Add the minced garlic cloves, basil leaves, wild arugula and olive oil. Mix and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes or more. Taste and adjust seasonings.
 
Cook pasta al dente, drain and toss with the tomato mixture. Sprinkle cheese on top.
 
Variations:
Add 1/4 cup of olives cut in half.
Add 4 scallions chopped thinly.
Use mint instead of basil.
And so on...
 
Adapted from The Very Best of Recipes for Health, by Martha Rose Shulman. 

Cherry Tomato Love

 
When you grow cherry tomatoes in the garden, very few ever seem to make it into the kitchen for a meal, so tempting are they to eat straight from the bush. Somehow, though, when I buy them at the farmers’ market, I have a little better luck, and so I’ve been enjoying some great meals with cherry tomatoes as the star. 
 
One favorite dish is a cherry tomato salad that doubles as an uncooked “sauce” for pasta. I put sauce in quotes because this really is more salad than fluid sauce.  I like adding wild arugula, too, Puglia style. Puglia is the region of Italy in the heel of the boot, where traditionally wild greens have been used extensively in everyday cooking. Wild arugula is peppery, with deep-cut leaves, and it’s now possible to buy cultivated wild arugula (a bit of a strange concept I admit). I especially like a local organic one from Satur Farms, grown on the North Fork of Long Island by Paulette Satur and her husband Eberhard Müller, former chef of Le Bernardin and Lutèce. (I buy it at Whole Foods or FreshDirect.)
 
 
I will be eating a plate of this summer pasta tonight, in preparation for tomorrow’s NYC Century Bike Ride—at least that’s my excuse. Too bad the ride isn’t through Puglia, where we could pick our own arugula and learn to make homemade pasta along the way. (Yes, such a cycling tour exists!)
 

Cookbooks I Like: The Very Best of Recipes for Health

A couple of years ago when I first got interested in the traditional Mediterranean diet, I began experimenting with dinners composed of several smaller vegetable or grain dishes, rather than the meat+sides approach that I was used to. I liked a lot of vegetables just straight up, but was looking for ideas to give these meals some pizzazz.
 
My earliest inspiration for these Mediterranean menu adventures came from Martha Rose Shulman, whose “Recipes for Health” column at NYTimes.com always seemed to have a good answer to “What’s for dinner?”—flavor-packed suggestions for dishes using that week’s farm produce. In fact, I remember the exact menu that made my husband and I look at each other at the end of the meal and say, ‘wow, this really is a delicious way to eat, let’s do more of this.’ And we have.
 
That night, in what now reads like an Ode to Yogurt, I’d made Mediterranean Beets and Yogurt SaladMiddle Eastern Spinach With Spices and Yogurt, and, because I had leeks, and because it’s delicious, Julia Child’s braised leeks, which, I confess, involves a very un-Mediterranean quantity of butter. We ate the dishes one by one (with the leeks in between the two yogurt dishes as I recall), savoring the sweet of the beets paired with the garlicky yogurt, the velvety leeks, the spinach and its Middle Eastern spices. It was a culinary trip to faraway places, all at our own dinner table.
 
Since then, I’ve cooked dozens of Shulman’s recipes, for family dinners or to impress guests. They’re low-fuss and high-impact. Along the way I’ve built up quite a collection of spattered printouts from the column, which I stuff in a binder and have never gotten around to organizing. Now I’m delighted that the organizing has been done for me: Shulman has collected 250 of her favorites in a book, The Very Best of Recipes for Health, just out from Rodale Books, with beautiful photos by Andrew Scrivani, who also photographs the Times column.
 
I like the way the book is organized around themes such as breakfast, vegetarian main courses, salads, and pasta and risotto. A dietary index conveniently cross-references recipes under topics like gluten-free, low-calorie, or high in omega-3s, while a general index makes it easy to find recipes by ingredient. Shulman includes a useful section on the well-stocked pantry—I’ve found that putting together a Mediterranean pantry of my own (more on that later) is part of what makes it easy and pleasurable for me to keep exploring this new way of eating. 
 
To celebrate this Meatless Monday, here’s one of my favorite recipes from Shulman’s new book:
 
 
Corn and Vegetable Gratin with Cumin
By Martha Rose Shulman
 
Serves 6
 
1 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
Salt
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 lb zucchini, thinly sliced or diced
Freshly ground pepper
Kernels from 2 ears sweet corn (about 2 cups)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup 1% milk
1 tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted and coarsely ground in a spice mill, or slightly crushed in a mortar and pestle
1/2 cup (2 oz) grated Gruyère cheese
 
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 2-quart gratin or baking dish. Set aside the kernels from one of the ears of corn. Heat the olive oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the bell pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onions and peppers are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and zucchini, stir together, and add another generous pinch of salt and some pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the zucchini is just beginning to look bright green and some of the slices are translucent. Stir in half of the corn kernels. Stir together for 1 or 2 minutes, and remove from the heat. Scrape into a large bowl.
 
2. Place the eggs, milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and remaining corn kernels in a blender. Blend until smooth. Pour into the bowl with the vegetables. Add the cumin and the cheese, and stir everything together. Scrape into the gratin dish.
 
3. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is browned and the gratin is firm to the touch. Serve hot or warm.

Advance preparation: The vegetable filling can be prepared a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator.
 
From The Very Best of Recipes for Health: 250 Recipes and More from the Popular Feature on NYTimes.com © 2010 by Martha Rose Shulman, published by Rodale Books.

RECIPE: Watermelon and Tomato Salad

I WAS SORRY TO HAVE MISSED NEW AMSTERDAM MARKET in NYC this Sunday. The only consolation was that I was actually in farm country enjoying the harvest firsthand. 
 
 
A visit to Millbrook Market in Dutchess County is always a great way to while away a Saturday morning, tasting and chatting and filling your bags. This week, we found lots of heirloom tomatoes and had a great talk about them (and Italy) with grower Gino Ianucci. Breezy Hill Orchard (coincidentally, also a vendor at New Amsterdam Market) had perfect white and yellow peaches, and there were lovely small round watermelons (and more tomatoes) from Sol Flower Farm.
 
We also managed to nab the last peach tart from Art of the Tart—made with fabulously buttery puff pastry in true French rustic style. I’d made the mistake once before of circling the market before buying one of these confections. This time I knew to take immediate decisive action the minute I set eyes on it. 
 
Most of what we bought was devoured in recipe-free eating—tomato slices on prosciutto sandwiches, peaches any time we wanted. But I’d been hearing about watermelon and tomato salad for a while, and now I had the ideal fresh-picked ingredients. So I decided to make one.
 
 
When I first heard about the pairing I thought it sounded unlikely. All summer when I was growing up, we ate watermelon just chopped off in lovely half rounds, which would get you soaked up to the ears. (Preferably, it was eaten outdoors so you could shoot the seeds off  “to plant another watermelon” or bop your brother.)
 
But the more I thought about the textures and tastes of tomatoes and watermelons, the more I liked the sound of it. The taste didn’t disappoint—sweet and tart, crisp and juicy, all combined to make a delicious salad. Here’s how I made it. I didn’t have any feta around, but next time I’d crumble it over the salad for a nice salty zest.
 
Watermelon and Tomato Salad
 
1 cup watermelon chunks
3 medium tomatoes, cut into similar size chunks
2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar
salt to taste
 
Combine the watermelon and tomato chunks.
 
Whisk together 2 tbs olive oil and 1 tsp balsamic or red wine vinegar. Pour dressing over watermelon and tomatoes. Toss lightly. Salt to taste. Crumble feta cheese over salad.
 
Happy Meatless Monday!
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