mediterranean diet

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Meatless Monday—How About Vegetable Couscous?

INTERESTING PIECE ON NPR THIS MORNING about how meat played an important evolutionary role in making our brains bigger—and us smarter. (Cooking did, too, by breaking down nutrients so the body could absorb them more effectively.)
Of course, what was good for evolution isn’t necessarily good for us now, given that we have a vastly different lifestyle from early Homo sapiens. (Not much chasing down of wildebeest.) This far down the evolutionary road, we’ve gone a little overboard with the meat, eating on average half a pound a day, a quantity that’s not so healthy, studies show (especially if it’s red or processed meats)—and that well exceeds any protein needs we might have.
Eating less meat is part of what makes a traditional Mediterranean diet more healthy, of course. If it seems hard to get there from here, Meatless Monday is one way to take a step in the right direction. The public awareness campaign was created in 2003 by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a goal of reducing people’s meat consumption by 15% “in order to improve your personal health and the health of the planet.” Monday was chosen as a good day for setting a pattern for the whole week.
Food editors and bloggers jumped on board, providing recipes for meatless dishes in their various publications. Chefs have, too. Mario Batali, who’s been called “Meat’s Best Friend”—two of his restaurants are Bar Jamon and Carnevino—announced that all 14 of his restaurants would feature two meatless dishes every Monday. Wolfgang Puck launched Meatless Mondays at his Pizzeria & Cucina in Las Vegas. And less surprisingly, given the proven health benefits, hospitals and schools have signed on.
You can, too. The Meatless Monday website publishes new recipes every Monday. Or you can choose your own favorite meatless main dish.
Mediterraneanista’s Meatless Monday pick for today is a North African vegetable stew that’s a favorite in our family:
Couscous with Vegetables

Adapted from The Best Recipes in the World, by Mark Bittman
Serves 4

Takes 1 hour (with precooked or canned chickpeas)

4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

1 or 2 large onions, roughly chopped
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and roughly chopped

salt and black pepper to taste

1 tbs peeled and minced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp ground turmeric

1/8 tsp cayenne, or to taste

1 tsp ground coriander

3 cloves

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

4 medium carrots, roughly chopped

1 lb winter squash, like butternut or pumpkin, trimmed and cut into chunks

2 medium zucchini, cut into chunks

vegetable stock or water

2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
1/2 cup raisins
couscous, prepared according to directions

1. Prepare the ginger, turmeric, cayenne, coriander, cloves and cinnamon in a small prep bowl. Set aside. Put the olive oil in a large saucepan or flameproof casserole with a lid over medium heat. A minute or two later, add the onions and bell pepper, along with a couple of pinches of salt and 1/4 tsp black pepper (you should really taste the pepper in this dish). Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are quite tender, about 10 minutes. Add the spices and stir.

2. Add the carrots, winter squash and zucchini, along with a cup of stock. Turn the heat to low, cover and adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook until the carrots are tender, 20 to 30 minutes, checking and adding a bit more liquid if the mixture is drying out. Add the chickpeas and raisins and cook for another 10 minutes, adding liquid if the mixture is dry, raising the heat and boiling some of it off if the mixture seems too soupy (it should be like a stew).

3. Taste and adjust the seasoning; the flavors of black pepper and cayenne should be pronounced. Serve immediately over the couscous. 

Best Med Diet Dish at...Taberna [closed]

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A FAN of small plates and making a meal out of a succession of appetizers so it was good news when a new tapas bar—Taberna—opened on the Upper West Side this summer. Chef Jennifer Cole spent a dozen years or more working as a chef in Spain (including at Michelin-starred Balzac in Madrid) before returning to New York. Lucky us. The menu is full of little composed masterpieces of Mediterranean ingredients—seafood, vegetables, beans, olive oil. Specials change frequently, depending on what’s in season at the market. Earlier in July, I paid a visit.
Each of the four small dishes we ordered, which made a satisfying dinner for two, was full of complex flavors. As each plate was presented, I realized that what I like about this way of eating is that it is interesting—and I don’t mean that in the polite way we sometimes use the word when we really mean “less than great.” Each dish was an experience unto itself, an inducement to mindful eating that we could savor fully before going on to the next. A glass of Laxas Albariño 2009, a lovely crisp white wine with fruity aromas, from Galicia in northwestern Spain, was a perfect accompaniment.
The meal began with an amuse-bouche on two white ceramic spoons—salpicón de pulpo from Galicia, made from small dice of octopus, peppers, onions and tomatoes with a lemon vinaigrette. A promising start.
Next was marinated trout with white bean salad—what a wonderful contrast between the fish and the creamy white beans.
Pisto manchego (Spanish ratatouille) with quail egg, Serrano crisp, and parsley gel is a great example of the Mediterranean use of meat as condiment rather than plate-filler—in this case, a slice of dry-cured Spanish Serrano ham (similar to Italian prosciutto crudo or French jambon de Bayonne), sautéed briefly to make it crispy.
To finish up the meal….delicious baked goat cheese. 
Some other recent specials I’ve seen on the menu—mussel squid salad with heirloom tomatoes, Catalan croquetas with spinach, golden raisins and pine nuts—sound enticing. I’ll be back!
429 Amsterdam Avenue, nr. 81st St.
New York, NY 10024

Lunetta Chef Rides for Cancer—and You Get to Eat and Drink

Only 11 hours left to register for this deal over at Bloomspot. Lunetta, in Boerum Hill, with its great Italian-Mediterranean menu, will offer a Chef’s Selection: Formaggi and Salumi plate + 2 glasses of wine, for $21, instead of $41. All proceeds from the special offer will go to the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a bike-a-thon that Lunetta chef and owner Adam Shepard will ride in August to raise money for cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

At the Farmstand This Week

Mediterraneanista has been traveling so there’s not much cooking or food foraging to report in NYC—but plenty of summer sights and tastes to enjoy along the road. Cherries in season on the Niagara Peninsula, for one. All along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, fruit farms and vineyards stretch for miles. Even The Great One has found a place in the growing Ontario wine business: His No. 99 Wayne Gretsky Estates bottles have been getting good reviews and raising money for his foundation. Theater buffs have always flocked to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s annual Shaw Festival every summer. Now wine country gives them another reason to linger. (Next time passing this way Mediterraneanista will do more lingering herself. Sigh.)

The urban gardens of Toronto—a city where large immigrant groups from Mediterranean-area countries have brought with them their love of vegetable gardening, fresh produce markets (and World Cup soccer!)—were bursting out of small spaces.


Lunch Karma—It Was Mine!

So Mediterraneanista was into her second day of hard labor at The Storage Room, the extra room of our Manhattan apartment that we keep in Fort Lee, New Jersey. We were switching from a 10x10 to a 10x5—sorting, trashing, agonizing over (OMG, can you believe they actually wore this 8-inch-long shirt; read this poem, no really, he was only 6...) I was hot, hungry and had just done a face plant into a box, tripping over a cement pedestal for a garden statue (don’t ask) that I had put in my own way. It was definitely time for a lunch break, but where?
Well, miraculously, just a few steps down Main Street we see a sign: “Joeyness: All Natural Gourmet Mediterranean Foods.” Was my luck changing? Inside the small café and takeout place, we find three friendly people—chef/owner Joseph Ghazal and his mother and brother—serving made-from-scratch Lebanese specialities. We order falafel wrap sandwiches and tabouleh. While we wait, the Joeyness himself gives us a sample of the vegan lentil soup he’s just made. Delicious! Which is not surprising, since Ghazal, it turns out, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He opened the store three years ago, he tells us, after initially making Middle Eastern spreads for wholesale distribution. 
The falafel, made with chickpeas and favas, was fresh and soooo tasty; the tabouleh had just the right balance of green to grain and a wonderful lemony zest. I’m envious of the steady flow of customers who clearly come to Joeyness regularly. What a treat. There are so many other things on the menu I want to try: tabouleh made with lentils instead of bulgur, beef kafta, Mediterranean bean salad and, of course, the “old country hummus” and babaghanoush.
The café is that winning combination of high-quality ingredients, great cooking and, as you sit and eat at one of the small tables, the good company of the people who run the place. As one Yelp fan put it:
Joeyness is owned and run by the most delightful chef who is CIA trained, who has taken his love for his profession and combined it with his love for his mother’s home cooking.
Bike peeps: The café is only a mile from the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee so it’s the perfect place (and menu, including fair trade coffee) for refueling before heading up Route 9 or River Road, or at the end of your ride before you head back into NYC. That’s my plan, anyway.
515 Main Street
Fort Lee, NJ 07024

Dinner Tonight: Ratatouille Niçoise

Summer vegetables are just beginning to appear at the farmers’ market—red peppers, zucchini, onions—and so my thoughts turn to ratatouille niçoise. I brought back a recipe for the Provençal vegetable stew when I lived in France for a year right after high school—and I have been making it ever since. I’d faithfully copied down the recipe while a classmate prepared it for a gang of us one evening. We’d all met in the student pension where we lived, kitchen-less, but then our friend had moved out to a small apartment—the height of sophistication I thought at the time because she could have dinner parties and serve wine (cheap, Moroccan).
Ratatouille is a classic garden-to-table dish so typical of Mediterranean cooking: a few ingredients, big flavors and simplicity. In cooking circles over the years, I discover there’s been quite a bit of debate—and exchange of recipes—about the best method and perfect ingredients. Julia Child, in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for instance, advocates cooking the vegetables separately before layering them in a casserole “to partake of a brief communal simmer.” What a beautiful way to put it—and I gladly follow a lot of Julia’s advice—but in the case of this rustic dish, I tend more toward the philosophy of one online commenter: “I do find it amusing that people are using recipes for ratatouille.”
Imagine stepping out into your kitchen garden in the middle of summer when vegetables are ripening faster than you can pick them: Gather an eggplant, a few zucchini, some onions, a couple of peppers, 4 or 5 tomatoes and a handful of herbs—whatever looks good. Stew them all up with garlic and olive oil—et voilà. Few of us have vegetable gardens in New York City, but as I selected peppers and zucchini and herbs at the farmers’ market (no local eggplant yet), I felt as close to the spirit of cooking from a Provençal potager as I could.
Over the years, I’ve made ratatouille hundreds of time for family and friends. I’ve made it on a Coleman stove camping on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and in massive triple quantities for potluck dinners. At first, I usually made it as a side dish, but more and more now we like it as a main course, eaten alone or with couscous or high-protein quinoa. It’s great with grilled fish. And if I’m in the mood for meat, I fill my plate with ratatouille and grill a really fabulous tasty sausage as a side. (This week it was Bilinski’s Apple Chardonnay.) These are the proportions I like best now—meat as an accent rather than the main deal.
Here’s the translated recipe, which I more or less follow:
Ratatouille Niçoise
Yield: about 8 cups
1 large eggplant
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, (less, if you prefer)
4 zucchini
2 cloves of garlic
1 lb ripe tomatoes
3 medium onions
2 green or red bell peppers
Salt, pepper
Fresh herbs, up to ¼ cup—basil, thyme, Italian parsley, depending on the flavors you like (I add French tarragon—a teaspoon dried or the leaves from a couple of fresh sprigs) and what’s available
1. Peel the eggplant and onion and coarsely chop all the vegetables (Keep onions separate.) Mince or finely chop the garlic. Chop the herbs.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy saucepan (I use a 5½-quart Le Creuset French oven) over medium-high heat. Add onions first, then other vegetables, stirring to combine them (and so they don’t stick on the bottom).
3. Add garlic and herbs, plus the salt and pepper to taste.
4. Lower to medium heat, cover and cook for 45 minutes, stirring from time to time, especially at the beginning. Remove lid and cook for another 45 minutes so the liquid evaporates.
Ratatouille keeps well and tastes even better reheated. You can also eat it cold. 

It's All Greek to Me

When I visited Titan Foods in Astoria last week, I also stopped by United Brothers Fruit Market, a wonderful greengrocer (with great prices). Until you go, this will give you an authentic feel for the place. Really.

At the Market This Week

Purslane, peppers—and peas!


Foraging for Olives and Feta in Astoria—and Coming Home with Way More

I went on a field trip to explore Greek Astoria this week. I’d been hearing for ages about Titan Foods—“America’s Largest Greek Specialty Food Store.” I’d even taken a virtual tour of its olive and cheese counters with Michael Psilakis, founding chef at haute Greek pioneer restaurant Anthos (and chef/owner of Kefi, Gus & Gabriel Gastropub—will Williamsburg be next?)
You can take the tour, too:

Now that I get that it’s tee-TAN foods—to rhyme with Han, as in Han Dynasty—and not tī-tn, as in “tighten,” I think I’m ready. More to the point, I have a queue of Med recipes waiting for olives and/or feta before they can be made.
With all the talk of how huge Titan was, I guess I’d imagined a Walmart-size Greek grocery store. Well it’s not—and that’s good thing. But with a Greek flag flying from the roof of the white stucco building and a mural of Greek monuments (think Parthenon) overlooking the small parking lot, it certainly has a presence.
Inside, the grocery store aisles transport you straight to the Mediterranean: rows of different olive oils in tins, grains, beans, packages of cereal with Greek labels, dried fruits, nuts, a cooler full of, well, yes, Greek yogurt. Almost none of the products here can be found at my regular NY supermarket. Even the pasta is different. The olive section doesn’t disappoint. I select some dark ones from Cyprus and Morocco—just because I haven’t tried them before.
At the cheese counter (above), which in Greece, as Psilakis points out, is really all about feta, I decide on the Arahova, a sheep’s milk feta. The EC, after some dispute, gave the Greek brine-cured cheese a P.D.O. (protected designation of origin), which means all feta must come from Greece. I learn later that Greeks apparently eat more cheese per capita than any other nation (yes, even France)—75% of it feta.
Also in my basket: dried apricots, orange blossom water (from Lebanon), gigante dried beans, orzo and olive oil soap. The staff I talk to are all very helpful: One man valiantly tries to explain what mastiha is—and I get that it is sweet—but I still had to look it up when I got home. I discover that the Chios Mastiha Growers Association has a whole store of mastiha products, including a cookbook, in the East Village. Clearly I’m behind the curve here; I’ll have to drop by next time I’m in the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll even be a brave taster, as my sons’ nursery school teacher used to say, and bring home a jar from Titan next time I go. Maybe.
Titan Foods doesn’t sell fresh produce. For that, I walk along 30th Avenue. The stretch between 31st Street and Steinway reminds me of the Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods in Toronto where the produce stands of small green grocers spill right out onto the sidewalk.
At United Brothers Fruit Market, I find red swiss chard—crisp and beautiful—for $1/pound; at Elliniki Agora a couple of doors down, fresh fava beans. Tinned sardines from Croatia at Cyprus Deli and I’m done. A small but satisfying haul, with a shopping list already started for my next visit.
Getting there: N train to Astoria Blvd or 30 Av
Titan Foods
25-56 31st Street
United Brothers Fruit Market
3224 30th Ave.
Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable
32-12 30th Ave. 

Cyprus Deli
3410 30th Ave.

At the Market This Week

Strawberries, summer squash...


The strawberries barely made it home from the market they were so tasty, but I still have the zucchini to work with so I plan to make Quinoa with Corn and Zucchini, one of many favorite recipes from Martha Rose Shulman, the author of Mediterranean Harvest who writes a column for the New York Times.

This is a good example of how eating the Mediterranean diet doesn’t always literally mean eating Mediterranean dishes. Quinoa (keen-wah) is an ancient grain native to the Andes. But the combination of a whole grain, vegetables and a small amount of cheese fits the bill perfectly.
There’s no local corn in sight yet, of course, so I’m substituting ¾ cup of frozen white corn from Trader Joe’s. I think it’s hard to distinguish from fresh-off-the-cob. (Do I hear gasps?) I only use 2 cups of liquid in this recipe; for some reason, the quinoa always ends up soggy when I use 3. And since I just made an excursion to Greek Queens (more about that soon), I have wonderful arahova feta to crumble on top.
Lazy Mediterraneanista sometimes makes a meal of this dish. Quinoa is a complete protein, and the different favors and textures—the salt of the creamy feta, the sweet corn, the juicy crunch of the zucchini, the nutty bite of quinoa—make it very satisfying.
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