A Day’s Worth of Meals on the Mediterranean Diet

A sustainable way of life

The Mediterranean diet is perennially at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Diets list, again topping the list in 2021. It’s nearly-universally endorsed by nutritionists and dietitians because it emphasizes wholesome foods, including whole grains, lean proteins, heart-healthy fats and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

So many experts back this diet because it’s more a lifestyle than most diets, which are often restrictive and difficult to sustain. The best diet is the one that you can make into a lifelong habit and, as such, millions of people who hail from the Mediterranean region have long shown that this approach to food and life is healthy, sustainable and delicious.

Growing demand and popularity

It’s also a diet that’s growing in popularity around the world, as evidenced by the growing demand for recipes that fit the protocol, says Jack Bishop, chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen in Brookline, Massachusetts.

ATK’s 2016 book, “The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook,” has been the company’s most popular book over the last five years. “The interesting thing about the Mediterranean book is that each year, it has sold better than the previous year,” a real rarity in the book publishing world.

“Usually your first year is your best year,” Bishop notes, but this thick volume’s popularity has only increased with each passing year. “This just tells me that the appetite for the diet continues to grow,” he says.

Nutritious, healthy, delicious food

One of the reasons why this diet is attracting so much attention lately is because the barrier to entry is relatively low. “The Mediterranean diet is accessible. It’s easy to start, and it’s not that complicated. There’s not a lot of math involved,” Bishop says, referencing other diets that require followers to track calories or precise ratios of macronutrients. You don’t have to do that with the Mediterranean diet.

What’s more, this lifestyle is “grounded in culture,” meaning it’s been time tested and works for lots of people, Bishop says.

A diverse and abundant diet that pulls from a variety of cuisines around the Mediterranean Sea — from Greek and Italian to Egyptian and Spanish fares — the Mediterranean diet is known for offering “big, bold flavors,” Bishop says. It also places an emphasis on spices, herbs and olive oil. “Those are all high-impact ingredients that deliver a lot of flavor.”

All-in-all, the Mediterranean diet is satisfying in ways that many diets — which can very quickly become monotonous — simply aren’t. This makes it sustainable for the long haul and a good choice for anyone wanting to improve their overall health and wellness, and particularly for those looking to reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.

A day’s worth of Mediterranean food

If you’re new to following the Mediterranean diet and want to get your bearings in this way of eating, you may be wondering where to start. In the following slides, America’s Test Kitchen shares a day’s worth of meals that adhere to the principles of the diet.

Breakfast: shakshuka

Why this recipe works:

Shakshuka is a Tunisian dish featuring eggs poached in a spiced tomato, onion and pepper sauce. The key to great shakshuka is balancing the piquancy, acidity, richness and sweetness of its ingredients, according to the chefs at ATK.

Choosing the right pepper to star in this dish makes all the difference. Piquillo peppers were a favorite for the Test Kitchen team, boasting spicy-sweet and vibrant flavors. These small red peppers from Spain, sold in jars or cans, have a subtle hint of smokiness from being roasted over a wood fire. Jarred roasted red peppers can be substituted for the piquillo peppers. You’ll need a 12-inch nonstick skillet with a tight-fitting lid for this recipe. Serve with pitas or crusty bread to mop up the sauce.

Serves: 4.

Ingredients:

— 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.

— 2 onions, chopped fine.

— 2 yellow bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into ¼-inch pieces.

— 4 garlic cloves, minced.

— 2 teaspoons tomato paste.

— Salt and pepper.

— 1 teaspoon ground cumin.

— 1 teaspoon ground turmeric.

— 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper.

— 1½ cups jarred piquillo peppers, chopped coarse.

— 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes.

— ¼ cup water.

— 2 bay leaves.

— 1/3

— cup chopped fresh cilantro.

— 4 large eggs.

— 2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (½ cup).

1. Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions and bell peppers and cook until softened and lightly browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, 1½ teaspoons salt, cumin, turmeric, ¼ teaspoon pepper and cayenne. Cook, stirring frequently, until tomato paste begins to darken, about 3 minutes.

2. Stir in piquillo peppers, tomatoes and their juice, water and bay leaves. Bring to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Off heat, discard bay leaves and stir in ¼ cup cilantro. Transfer 2 cups sauce to blender and process until smooth, about 60 seconds. Return puree to skillet and bring sauce to simmer over medium-low heat.

4. Off heat, make four shallow indentations (about 2 inches wide) in surface of sauce using back of spoon. Crack one egg into each indentation and season eggs with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until egg whites are just set and yolks are still runny, 4 to 6 minutes. Sprinkle with feta and remaining cilantro and serve immediately.

Lunch: Mediterranean chopped salad

Why this recipe works:

The appeal of a chopped salad is that all the ingredients are cut to a uniform size and tossed together, permitting a taste of everything in each bite. Virtually any ingredients may be used, yet most chopped salads are uninspired, laden with deli meats and cheeses and drowned in dressing. With a world of options, the team at ATK steered the salad in a Mediterranean direction, starting with escarole.

A member of the chicory family, this underutilized leafy green is loaded with vitamins and has a mild bitterness that pairs well with bold flavors. Next they added chopped cucumbers and grape tomatoes, salting them to remove excess moisture, and red onion. To make the salad hearty, instead of deli meat the ATK team incorporated nutty chickpeas. Kalamata olives added richness and walnuts brought crunch and healthy fats. Everything is tossed with a simple red wine vinaigrette to let the salad’s flavors shine through. Finally, not wanting to completely eliminate cheese from the salad, they sprinkled on 1/2 cup of briny feta to round out the flavors. Cherry tomatoes can be substituted for the grape tomatoes.

Serves: 6.

Ingredients:

— 1 cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into ½-inch pieces.

— 10 ounces grape tomatoes, quartered.

— 1 teaspoon table salt.

— 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar.

— 1 garlic clove, minced.

— 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil.

— 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed.

— ½ cup pitted kalamata olives, chopped.

— ½ small red onion, chopped fine.

— ½ cup chopped fresh parsley.

— 1 head escarole (1 pound), trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces.

— 2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (½ cup).

— ½ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped.

1. Toss cucumber and tomatoes with salt and let drain in colander for 15 minutes.

2. Whisk vinegar and garlic together in large bowl. Whisking constantly, drizzle in oil. Add drained cucumber-tomato mixture, chickpeas, olives, onion and parsley and toss to coat. Let sit for at least 5 minutes or up to 20 minutes.

3. Add escarole, feta and walnuts and toss gently to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.

Snack: marinated artichokes

Why this recipe works:

Marinated artichokes have so many uses that they should be considered a pantry staple; they’re perfect for everything from throwing on pizzas, to tossing into a salad or pasta, to eating on an antipasto platter. But store-bought versions tend to be mushy and bland — and expensive.

To get the best tender-yet-meaty texture and sweet, nutty artichoke flavor, the Test Kitchen team started with fresh baby artichokes. They simmered them gently in olive oil with strips of lemon zest, garlic, red pepper flakes and thyme, then let them sit off the heat until they were perfectly fork-tender and infused with the aromatic flavors. Then they stirred in fresh lemon juice and more zest, minced garlic and mint before transferring the artichokes to a bowl and topping them with the infused oil for serving and storage.

Serves: 6 to 8.

Ingredients:

— 2 lemons.

— 2½ cups extra-virgin olive oil.

— 3 pounds baby artichokes (2 to 4 ounces each).

— 8 garlic cloves, peeled; 6 cloves smashed, 2 cloves minced.

— ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes.

— 2 sprigs fresh thyme.

— Salt and pepper.

— 2 tablespoons minced fresh mint.

1. Using vegetable peeler, remove three 2-inch strips zest from one lemon. Grate ½ teaspoon zest from second lemon and set aside. Halve and juice lemons to yield ¼ cup juice, reserving spent lemon halves.

2. Combine oil and lemon zest strips in large saucepan. Working with one artichoke at a time, cut top quarter off each artichoke, snap off outer leaves and trim away dark parts. Peel and trim stem, then cut artichoke in half lengthwise (quarter artichoke if large). Rub each artichoke half with spent lemon half and place in saucepan.

3. Add smashed garlic, pepper flakes, thyme sprigs, 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper to saucepan and bring to rapid simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally to submerge all artichokes, until artichokes can be pierced with fork but are still firm, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let sit until artichokes are fork-tender and fully cooked, about 20 minutes.

4. Gently stir in ½ teaspoon reserved grated lemon zest, ¼ cup reserved lemon juice and minced garlic. Transfer artichokes and oil to serving bowl and let cool to room temperature. Season with salt to taste and sprinkle with mint. Serve. (Artichokes and oil can be refrigerated for up to four days.)

Dinner: pasta e fagioli with orange and fennel

Why this recipe works:

Though the precise ingredients for Italy’s famed pasta e fagioli vary from region to region, too many recipes have one thing in common: They turn out bland and mushy and take hours to prepare. For this ATK recipe, they wanted to find a silver bullet: a satisfying soup boasting great flavor and proper texture that didn’t take all afternoon to make.

The chefs at ATK established an Italian flavor profile with the help of some fennel seeds, orange zest, dried oregano, red pepper flakes and plenty of garlic. Minced anchovy fillets contributed a complex, meaty character void of any fishy aftertaste. Turning to canned diced tomatoes (instead of fresh) and sweet, creamy canned cannellini beans (instead of dried) cut hours out of prep time, and using the tomatoes to deglaze the aromatic base intensified the flavor of the soup.

For pasta, the ATK team looked to small shapes like ditalini, tubettini or, their top choice, orzo to complement rather than crowd out the other ingredients. Finally, parsley lent the necessary bright note to finish our soup. The Parmesan rind can be replaced with a 2-inch chunk of cheese. You can substitute ditalini or tubettini for the orzo (the cooking times may vary slightly).

Serves: 8 to 10.

Ingredients:

— 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving.

— 3 ounces pancetta, chopped fine.

— 1 onion, chopped fine.

— 1 fennel bulb, stalks discarded, bulb halved, cored and chopped fine.

— 1 celery rib, minced.

— 4 garlic cloves, minced.

— 3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and minced.

— 1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried.

— 2 teaspoons grated orange zest.

— ½ teaspoon fennel seeds.

— ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes.

— 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes.

— 1 Parmesan cheese rind, plus grated Parmesan for serving.

— 2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinsed.

— 3½ cups chicken broth.

— 2½ cups water.

— Salt and pepper.

— 1 cup orzo.

— ¼ cup minced fresh parsley.

1. Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in onion, fennel and celery and cook until vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic, anchovies, oregano, orange zest, fennel seeds and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

2. Stir in tomatoes and their juice, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in Parmesan rind and beans, bring to simmer and cook until flavors meld, about 10 minutes.

3. Stir in broth, water and 1 teaspoon salt. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Stir in pasta and cook until al dente, about 10 minutes. Off heat, discard Parmesan rind. Stir in parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, drizzling individual portions with extra oil and sprinkling with grated Parmesan.

A Mediterranean diet menu for a day:

— Breakfast: shakshuka.

— Lunch: Mediterranean chopped salad.

— Snack: marinated artichokes.

— Dinner: pasta e fagioli with orange and fennel.

More from U.S. News

Favorite Mediterranean Diet Recipes From America’s Test Kitchen

Tips How to Get Started on the Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet Snacks

A Day’s Worth of Meals on the Mediterranean Diet originally appeared on usnews.com

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