In a time where new diet fads seem to come and go daily, there is one constant that never seems to fade, namely the health benefits of the “Mediterranean” diet. For centuries civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean have survived on a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and olive oil. The rich soil and moderate climate of countries such as Spain, Morocco, Italy and France lends itself to the production of a myriad of fresh produce. People in these regions eat seasonally, taking advantage of whatever happens to be in the marketplace on any given day. But what makes the Mediterranean diet so healthy compared with other diets like Atkins, South Beach or the Zone?? The key is diversity.
Typically people within these countries don’t eat meat at every meal as it tends to be costly and most homes do not have refrigeration in which to store perishable items. Fruits and vegetables, however, are always abundant. The key to making the best use of these fruits and vegetables is the use of herbs and spices to enhance the flavors to their fullest potential. In Italy, basil, rosemary and oregano are used to make sauces fragrant and unique, while in Spain and North Africa, cilantro and parsley are added to almost every dish. Most of these cuisines are not spicy in so much as hot and spicy, but rather spicy as in flavorful. Paprika, cumin, ginger, cinnamon and saffron are carefully added to dishes in surprising new ways to make them pop.
So how can we adapt some of our own food habits to incorporate some of these healthy principles? We too live in an area where fresh seasonal produce is abundant. Why not try adding some flavor to basic vegetables by learning to use some of these herbs and spices. Lighten things up by using a high quality extra virgin olive oil to cook your next meal. Eating light and healthy is not difficult, nor does it have to be boring. Take the example of the Mediterranean diet and you’ll see that healthy doesn’t have to equal bland.
Homemade Tomato Sauce
3-4 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
2 lbs peeled and chopped roma tomatoes or 2-24 cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed
Pinch Salt and Pepper
¼ tsp crushed red pepper
3-4 Tbl chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 Tbl chopped fresh Oregano
1-2 tsps chopped fresh thyme
1-2 tsps chopped fresh rosemary
Handful torn fresh basil
1-2 Tbl Sugar
To peel tomatoes, boil a pot of water. Place tomatoes into the boiling water for approximately 30 seconds and remove. Allow to cool and the skins should slide right off. If you are not able to get fresh tomatoes, use a high quality canned tomato like San Marzano and crush the tomatoes by hand before using. In a large saucepan, heat olive oil. Saute onions until they soften and begin to turn slightly golden, approximately 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for one minute or until fragrant. Add carrot, celery, red pepper, salt and pepper. Continue cooking for about 10 mins or until the carrots and celery begin to soften. Add tomatoes. Bring mixture to a boil. Add fresh parsley, thyme, oregano and rosemary. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook uncovered, stirring frequently, for approximately 45 minutes to an hour or until the sauce has thickened and most of the liquid has evaporated. Add fresh torn basil and sugar to taste. Puree sauce in a blender or use an immersion blender to puree the sauce in the pot. Note: Allow the mixture to cool before using a blender to puree or it will explode and you could burn yourself.
** Immersion blenders are available at almost any retailer and they are a fantastic tool for use with pureeing sauces or soups.