Lets face it, for most Americans, a meal wouldn’t be a meal without some kind of meat on the plate, whether it’s beef, lamb, chicken or pork. We are carnivores and proud of it. I love meat, but what I’ve learned from my experiences in the Mediterranean is that I don’t need that much of it to be satisfied. Most cultures in the Mediterranean eat meat more as a luxury item, not as a pre-requisite to every meal. Some meals may be completely vegetarian, while others rely mostly on freshly caught seafood and fish. A hearty hunk of meat isn’t a frequent occurrance mostly because of cost. Most families just cannot afford to feed themselves meat at every meal. What’s more, most of them rely on the cuts you or I would never think to consume. Everything from organ meats to brains to hooves to trotters. These cultures have mastered the art of cooking these “off” cuts and making them intensely flavorful without much fanfare. And when meat is available, they don’t eat much of it. 4 oz is standard, where we notoriously order 10 to 24 oz steaks at a high end steak restaurant. In the cases where meat isn’t available at all, mediterranean cultures have gotten very clever about incorporating beans and other forms of proteins into their diets. I don’t think you could survive without chickpeas, fava beans or lentils in the Mediterranean. Not only are these pulses high in protein, but incredibly rich in fiber and flavor when cooked properly.
So, how to incorporate this into our western diets?? I don’t suggest you give up meat altogether. I know I love a good steak on occasion. But save it for a special occasion. Learn to cut back on your portions and start using alternative proteins when you are eating your daily meals. When possible, incorporate fish into your diet. Look for fish like salmon, which is high in omega 3 fatty acids shown to help lower bad cholesterol, and don’t forget to eat the skin. It is healthy, crispy and delicious. Tuna is also a great source of these nutrients and is cost-effective and versatile. Finally, don’t think that the only way you can possibly consume beans is in a bean salad or chili. These guys are versatile little power houses that can really add flavor and texture to almost any dish. I like to make a salad using cooked bulgur wheat (tabbouli), use 1 cup bulgur to 2 cups hot water and let sit to cook for an hour, and an assortment of beans, including kidney, cannelini and garbanzo or chickpeas. I add whatever kind of veggies I have on hand, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and spring onions, season with salt, pepper, cumin and paprika and add some freshly chopped parsley, cilantro and mint. Dress with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice to taste and voila. A delicious, healthy salad that will fill you up for lunch without the meat and it keeps wonderfully. Make a big batch at the beginning of the week and let it sit in the fridge. The longer it sits, the better the flavor. And, since it doesn’t use a mayo based dressing, it is great for parties. To spruce it up, just top it with some crumbled feta or goat cheese. Both cheeses are packed with flavor so a little goes a long way. And if you happen to be lactose intolerant, most of these people can handle goat cheese so load up. For a great gluten free option, substitute the bulgur wheat with quinoa, a delicious and super healthy relative to spinach and tumbleweed, which cooks just like rice and tastes wonderful. So what have we learned so far, use spices and herbs to spruce up the flavor of your dishes instead of fat, take advantage of locally available ingredients like farm fresh vegetables and eggs, and cut back on your meat intake, incorporating more fish and other foods high in protein like beans and other pulses. Now you are well on your way to eating the mediterranean way.