The Mediterranean Diet has nothing to do with weight loss. Instead, it is an approach to eating that focuses on healthful traditional food from countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.
To sample all the different cuisines, you’d need to visit (by private yacht would be nice!) coastal Spain, southern France, Sardinia, Italy, Sicily, Albania, Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Amazingly enough, much of the appetizing food you’d find along the way is naturally gluten-free.
Although these countries differ widely in race, religion and culture, they do share a more or less similar climate. So it follows that they also grow many of the same crops, such as olives and grapes, two of the three items that are basics in most Mediterranean kitchens in the form of olive oil and wine. The third is wheat.
Wheat has been grown in western Mediterranean countries for about 10,000 years and is central in the production of bread, bakery items, pasta, cous cous and filo dough. (Bread, cakes and pasta can be made successfully using gluten-free flours, but filo dough is another matter!)
The next most important grain crop, rice, forms the basis for Spanish paellas, Italian risottos, Turkish pilafs and countless Middle Eastern rice dishes.
Other than the soil and climate, wars and conquests have played a huge role in forming Mediterranean cuisine. Greek food has been influenced by Turkish domination in the past, and the seductively sweet desserts of Sicily owe much to the Arabic conquest of that beautiful island more than 1,000 years ago. A few hundred years later, completely new foods like tomatoes, peppers, corn, kidney beans and chocolate were introduced to the Mediterranean larder via the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru.
Kind to your wallet & waistline
At its basic best, a Mediterranean diet is supremely healthy and affordable, and it doesn’t take much tweaking to make it gluten-free. This diet builds on a firm base of vegetables, fruits, grains (in our case, choose from quinoa, corn, teff, sorghum, buckwheat and a rainbow of rice varieties), beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, plus herbs and spices.
The next level includes fish and seafood, followed by poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt. At the tip of the Mediterranean pyramid sit small portions of meats and sweets. You can download an illustrated copy of this food pyramid, courtesy of the Mediterranean Foods Alliance, at oldwayspt.org.
Mediterranean food is attractive. Even children will devour oven-roasted, caramelized veggies like onion or fennel wedges, tiny tomatoes, bell peppers, and butternut squash. And I’ve yet to have anyone turn up their nose at a feather-light lemon cake made with almond meal or fresh egg pasta made from rice flour. It’s all about good nutrition and thinking out of the box. Literally.
Of course, if the box happens to be a large one containing an assortment of fresh produce delivered to your door from a local farm, that would be a good thing. Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is rapidly becoming a popular, very convenient way to buy fresh, seasonal, organic produce direct from the grower. This produce works beautifully in many Mediterranean recipes.
You can usually order a box designed to serve two to four people weekly, every other week, or monthly, and exclude items you don’t want. The boxes are always full of delicious surprises and offer a compelling way to widen your culinary horizons.
Now that summer’s nearly here, the salad options are fabulous. When the heirloom tomato season gets going, I never tire of quick but flavorful Greek salads with tomatoes, oil-cured olives and feta cheese, or the classic Italian duo of sliced ripe tomatoes with fresh mozzarella. And of course the seasonal baby greens and fresh fruit available direct from farmers are far more desirable than those you can find at the supermarket. To find a CSA farm in your area, search for “Community Supported Agriculture in (your city)” on the Internet.
I believe that gluten-free food should not have to come with a side order of apologies. Those of us who must avoid wheat don’t live in a vacuum. We still have to get food on the table every day, both for ourselves and the people we care about. It’s important to be able to present quick, healthful meals — or weekend pancakes, or a special cake — that everyone sitting at the table will love, whether gluten free or not.
Happily, the majority of casual, Mediterranean-style recipes can be prepped and on the table in short order. Most of the time, I prepare weeknight dinners in minutes (but enjoy them at a leisured pace with a glass of wine), and bake now and then when it’s convenient. Gluten-free breads, cakes and cookies all freeze well.
Cooking from scratch is so much kinder to your health, your wallet and your waistline, not to mention the environment. In fact, the so-called Mediterranean diet is not so much a diet as an ideal way of life!
Mediterranean Recipes to Try at Home
- Turkish Roasted Pepper & Tuna Appetizer
- Quick Walnut Bread
- Sicilian Caponata
- Riviera-style Rice Salad with Shrimp
- Provençal Green Lentil Salad
- Quinoa & Chickpea Salad with Feta
- Stuffed Eggplant
- Braised Chicken with Mini Bell Peppers
- Walnut Cake with Olive Oil
The author of more than a dozen cookbooks, Jackie Mallorca’s most recent titles include The Wheat-Free Cook and Gluten-Free Italian. For more information, tips and recipes, go to GlutenFreeExpert.com.