There is the Mediterranean Diet. And then there is the Mediterranean Diet.
The Mediterranean Diet is said to be one of the most healthful in the world. It emphasizes fruit and vegetables while minimizing red meat. It features plenty of fish, along with poultry. It uses oil instead of butter, and herbs and spices instead of salt. It encourages exercise, along with long meals with family and friends.
The Mediterranean Diet, on the other hand, is what is eaten by people who live around the Mediterranean Sea.
There are plenty of similarities, of course — the Mediterranean Diet was begun by looking at what people ate around the Mediterranean Sea. And here it should be noted that it is mainly focused on the northern and eastern parts of the Mediterranean. You won’t find many foods on it from, say, Algeria (the researchers who first publicized it, Ancel and Margaret Keys, focused on foods from Greece, Crete and southern Italy).
But there are also differences.
For instance, the Mediterranean Diet specifically recommends fatty fish, such as salmon, and the use of canola oil. But salmon is a cold-water fish, native to the Northern Atlantic and Northern Pacific — neither of which is particularly close to the Mediterranean Sea.
And canola oil comes primarily from Canada (the “can” in “canola” is for “Canada”). It is also produced in China, India and northern Europe. In other words, nowhere near the Mediterranean Sea.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean Diet features a lot of lamb and goat meat. You’ll find scant mention of either one in references to the Mediterranean Diet. And in northern Italy they use far more butter than olive oil.
So my goal in taking a healthful dip into these foods was to find that happy intersection where the Mediterranean Diet meets the Mediterranean Diet. To see where the healthy benefits of the diet are actually enjoyed by the people for whom it is named.
I began with an appetizer that couldn’t be more Mediterranean if it surrounded Italy on three sides: Marinated Olives and Feta. This is a simple dish, but it creates an explosion of flavor.
Or rather, flavors. Everything that is so great about Mediterranean cooking is combined in one chunky dip: olives, feta cheese, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, fresh rosemary and crushed red pepper. It’s like going to a Mediterranean food store and buying everything on the shelves.
I marinated mine overnight to allow the flavors to blend, and served it on top of crusty bread and crackers. As the Greeks would say, Nóstimo!
Next up was a dish that was, as hard as it may be to believe, even easier to make. Date Wraps are like a slightly healthier and more elegant version of perhaps the best hors d’oeuvre in the world, dates wrapped in bacon.
This time, the dates are wrapped in prosciutto. The rich flavor of the cured meat plays beautifully off the sweetness of the dates, and the saltiness means you can dispense with the Parmesan cheese that is an important part of the bacon version.
A twist of black pepper on top provides just the right amount of spice to make it interesting. As the Italians would say, Delizioso!
For a side dish, I turned to perhaps my favorite vegetable, asparagus. In Andalusia — the southern area of Spain that borders the Mediterranean Sea — they cook it in an astonishingly good way.
First, they sauté the asparagus spears in olive oil, which is a truly auspicious way to start anything. But then they go a step further by baking the asparagus with a topping made from blanched almonds, garlic and bread crumbs that are sautéd in olive oil — auspiciously — and then all ground together.
It’s not the garlic that goes so magnificently with the asparagus, or the almonds or even the bread crumbs. It is the combination of all three. As the Spanish would say, Excelente!
And for a main course, I made fish, of course. Both versions of the Mediterranean Diet involve eating a lot of fish.
I used one of the most popular fish in the region, swordfish, and topped it with an abundance of Mediterranean ingredients: olives, capers, tomatoes and olive oil.
How did it taste? Let’s just say the French would call it superbe.