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Celebrating World Pasta Day

NOT THAT I NEED AN EXCUSE to enjoy pasta, but next Monday, October 25, is World Pasta Day (did you know?), and I thought I’d get a head start with tonight’s dinner. Which, of course, was an excuse for another visit to Eataly, the Batali/Bastianich Italian food hall that opened this summer at 5th and 23rd. There, I found everything I needed to make a wonderful wild mushroom ragù with bucatini. (More on that in a minute.)
Pasta took some knocks when low-carb diets were popular. But eaten in reasonable portions (1 to 1½ cups cooked, say), pasta is part of a healthy Mediterranean diet—and a much beloved food. The complex carbs provide energy, of course, as any cyclist will tell you. Whole-wheat pasta is the most nutrient-rich, with at least three times the fiber of refined pasta. It’s also pretty tasty, which wasn’t always the case. Pasta made from refined durum wheat flour or durum semolina often gets a nutritional boost from being enriched with iron, folic acid and other B-vitamins. We eat some of both in our household.
Then there’s the sauce: Pasta is often referred to as an “efficient delivery system” for other healthy foods. I hate to think of any food on my plate being merely a delivery system—sounds so clinical. If you buy high-quality pasta (dried or fresh) it’s delicious in and of itself. But I know what they mean. Sauces full of vegetables and legumes are an easy and delicious way to incorporate those hard-to-get daily recommended servings of vegetables into your meals. But drown your pasta in sauce?! How gauche. Well, here’s cookbook author Mark Bittman’s take on the sauce-to-pasta ratio question. 
One of my favorite companions to pasta is fresh tomato sauce with cannellini beans and herbs. But today, I’m going for something different. With mushrooms popping up in the woods and in markets everywhere, it’s the perfect season to make this dish.





Oh, for Love of Farro

WENT ON A LONG BIKE RIDE last weekend, across the George Washington Bridge and onto River Road in New Jersey. We decided to go south this time and make a lunch stop at Mitsuwa, a Japanese grocery store that’s always fun to visit. (Mediterraneanista likes a change of pace from time to time.) Turns out the annual Hokkaido Food Festival was in full swing, so we lunched on crab, corn and pumpkin croquettes and finished off with a Hokkaido dessert—a fabulous strawberry cream puff from a bakery named Arles. (How did they know?)
After lunch, I went up and down the aisles and aisles of Japanese specialties—a hundred types of saki, sushi-grade tuna, pristinely fresh whole mackerel and pike, thinly sliced pork belly and beef. Then there were the items I wouldn’t even begin to know how to prepare.
So I came home from Mitsuwa with—a bag of farro. Yes, the store has an Italian section, with quite a selection of grains and beans and there it was, a bag of Bartolini farro at a price I couldn’t resist and compact and sturdy enough to carry home on a bike. (I suspect that cycling 25 miles for a bag of farro is not going to be an everyday thing, though.)
I’ve been on a bit of a farro kick these days; even did a guest blog post on it for Oldways, the nonprofit that convened a lot of the early scientific/culinary conferences on the Mediterranean diet and continues to raise public awareness of its benefits in really smart ways. I’m trying out different farro soups now that fall is here. I’ll keep you posted. 
Mitsuwa Marketplace
595 River Rd
Edgewater, NJ 

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. 


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