mediterranean diet

Eating Weeds, Yum, Yum (Really)

The farro salad I’m making also calls for purslane, although arugula is an acceptable substitute if you can’t find purslane. Purslane, I learn, is a succulent ground-crawling plant that I recognize as a weed I used to be constantly pulling up when I had a garden in Sullivan County, NY. It was a tough little sucker, always growing back where I least wanted it. Little did I know that we could have been eating it all along. 

Purslane has a slightly lemony taste and is the best plant source of omega-3 (fish oil is the best known source of this essential fatty acid), as well as vitamins A and C. It’s widely eaten in soups and salads in the Mediterranean. I ask a few farmers at Union Square Greenmarket if they have any and find out it will be available when the weather gets warmer. That’s because it only germinates when the ground reaches at least 60°F—and then it’s pretty much unstoppable.

This edible weed seems to be becoming more available commercially. Last summer, I asked about it at my neighborhood 97th Street Greenmarket. Sure, the manager told me, farmers have purslane all over their fields, but they don’t bring it to market. A couple of weeks later, though, I spotted a tangled mass in a bucket at the Amantai Farm stand and sure enough, it was purslane. I took home what really looked like the pile left over after weeding and wondered which parts, exactly, I should be putting into my salad. I decided to clip off the smaller branchlets of leaves and left the really thick stems. I probably left some of the vitamin C behind but the salad was delicious. Later on, I harvested purslane from the stone patio at my friends’ house in Dutchess County. We’ll see what this summer brings. 

Farro, Farro, Where Art Thou?

I’m hunting for farro—once I find out what it is. It’s the first item in a recipe for Panzanella di Farro, or Tuscan tomato salad with farro, in Olives and Oranges, by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox.
 
 
All I know is that it’s a grain—and not one found on my local grocers’ shelves. When I Google it, I find lots of contradictory information. It’s spelt, it’s not spelt. It takes an hour to cook, it takes 20 minutes. I go on with my research and when I’m deep in the weeds of scientific discussions about tetraploid wheats and taxonomy disputes I decide I’ve learned enough.
 
Farro scholars (I’m sure they’re out there) may split hairs but here’s what I, er, boil it down to: Farro (triticum dicoccum or emmer wheat) is an ancient grain, an unhybridized wheat with an intact husk that is the ancestor of modern durum wheat. (Spelt is triticum spelt, a close relative, but not exactly the same in taste and texture. Still, confusion reigns, because Triticum dicoccum, farro, is often translated into English by its Italian producers as “spelt.”)
 
I learn that farro was one of the earliest domesticated crops in the Fertile Crescent, known to archaeologists who explore ancient tombs and excavations. It was eaten by the Roman legions (it seems they were sometimes paid with a daily ration of farro). Farro’s backstory begins to read like a novel. In 1906 agronomist and botanist Aaron Aaronsohn found wild emmer growing in Rosh Pinah (Israel), and his discovery of the “mother” of wheat was said to have caused a sensation in the botanical world. Something about all this thrills me—call me a romantic, but part of the pleasure of Mediterranean eating, I am discovering, is this connection to peoples long gone and life in places far away.
 
Emmer survives in mountainous regions as what’s called a relict crop, one left over from the days when it was widely cultivated. Today it is mostly cultivated in Italy, in Umbria, and Tuscany, most famously in the region of Garfagnana, where it has the equivalent of an appellation controlée.
 
The farro I’ve located in New York is from Umbria and it’s semipearled, meaning the husk has been cracked and it takes only 20 minutes to cook. It has a wonderful nutty flavor and is full of nutrients, too—high in protein, vitamins B and E, and fiber. 
• Bartolini Emilio brand (500 g/$8) at Zabar’s, back behind the coffee to the left of the jams
• Roland brand (500 g/$5) at Fairway, on the shelf with rices. (The words Triticum dicoccum don’t appear on the Roland package but farro does and I’m going with it for now.)
• Rusticella d’Abruzzo brand at Market Hall Foods online (the bricks-and-mortar store is in Oakland, CA)
 
Zabar’s
2245 Broadway (at 80th Street)
New York, NY 10024
212-787-2000
 
Fairway
2312 12th Avenue (at 130th Street)
Manhattan
212-234-3883
 
2127 Broadway (at 74th Street)
Manhattan 
212-595-1888
 
480-500 Van Brunt Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn
718-694-6868

What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

It’s not a diet as in “regimen to lose weight.”

It’s a diet in the sense of a customary pattern of eating—in this case, the traditional eating patterns of people living around the Mediterranean Sea.

Documented in the famous Seven Countries Study led by Ancel Keys, MD, in the 1960s, these eating habits (particularly in Crete) were found to have all sorts of health benefits that have been confirmed and expanded on in many subsequent scientific studies. (More about that later).

The word diet, in fact, comes from Greek diaita—literally, manner of living. That sums up the Mediterranean diet perfectly. The food pyramid devised by Oldways, a culinary think-tank that has played a central role in bringing the Med diet mainstream in this country, tells the story. 

Moving up from the base of the pyramid, here are the basics:  

Sit down to meals with others. Linger over them with friends and family. Dance a little (or a lot). Or walk, run, cycle…
 
Bring fresh vegetables to the center of your plate. Eat an abundance of plants—vegetables, fruits, grains (mostly whole), pulses (legumes like beans and lentils), nuts, seeds, fruit as daily dessert.
 
Substitute olive oil for other fats (margarine, butter) as your major fat.
 
Eat fish, seafood, poultry a couple of times a week (especially fish).
 
Add some every-other-day-or-so eggs, cheese and yogurt.
 
Eat red meat less often (a few times a month).
 
Drink wine with meals (in moderation—one or two glasses for men, one for women), unless it puts you at risk, of course.

You’ll find more details about the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid here.

 
Choose your flavor. If you take a look at a map of the Mediterranean—and the 15-plus countries along its shores—it’s not surprising that the Med diet expresses itself in all sorts of flavors and cuisines. 
 
 
 
The common patterns are there, yes, but they take on the character of many different lands and cultures—North African tagines and couscous, taboulleh and falafel from Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Greek mezes, Italian risotto, Provençal ratatouille and bouillabaisse, Catalan chickpea and chorizo stew. Clearly, the Mediterranean diet is no one set of dishes, but rather an approach to eating, adaptable to many different tastes and local produce—especially your own. That’s why your local farmers’ market is a good place to start!
 
One of the best introductions you could get to the Med diet is The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, first published in 1994. I have the revised and updated 2009 edition, which has a foreword by nutrition professor Marion Nestle and an appendix by two longtime researchers on the link between diet and health. Jenkins is a great storyteller and cook. She’s lived and worked in Mediterranean countries for years, and so she brings to life the culture—and shares the recipes—of this world. But her common-sense approach makes it work for this North American cook, too. 

 

Mediterraneanista Explains Herself

I live in New York City and eat (mostly) a Mediterranean diet. I’m an amateur, as in “lover of,” the Mediterranean way, not a foodie or a chef. (I wish!) A Mediterraneanista sharing, via this blog, my explorations and discoveries as I shop, cook, learn about and eat Mediterranean in the five boroughs.
 
I wish I could tell you that the inspiration for this way of eating came from deep family roots and traditions or from a childhood spent moving from diplomatic post to diplomatic post around the Mediterranean. But no, it had more plain beginnings in my work as an editor. About a year ago, a study on the effect of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive health caught my attention for the brain health column I edited. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I’d launched a 13-article series on the Mediterranean diet, complete with food pyramid charts and recipe contributions from famous chefs and cookbook authors. And I was hooked on this new (for me) way of eating. Long after the articles had moved to the archives, I was still cooking and eating this food with family and friends—and exploring my city to find the right ingredients. So I thought I’d share what I discover—when there’s time left over for blogging after exploring, cooking and eating, that is. 
Syndicate content