April 13, 2018   - Vol. X No. 8
Back to Basics: Mediterranean Staples
The Mediterranean Diet is not about fancy or hard-to-find ingredients. Born of necessity, dictated by whatever was available within a particular region, climate, and season, it has always been a frugal but genius way of making the most of what nature has to offer. Mediterranean cooking is based on simple, humble, yet high-quality ingredients cooked using herbs, spices, and plenty of olive oil, resulting in flavorful, hearty dishes.

Traditionally, people around the Mediterranean have subsisted primarily on plant-based foods—fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and beans—as well as fermented dairy products like yogurt and cheese. Fish and seafood are consumed, especially by those living near the sea, while meat makes only infrequent appearances, in small quantities.

What’s nice (and convenient) about the Mediterranean Diet is that you don’t need to relocate to a Mediterranean country to adopt it and reap its benefits. Stock your pantry with affordable Mediterranean staples like these, and you can quickly put meals on the table for just a few dollars per serving:

  • Fruits and vegetables: The cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet is fruits and vegetables, often grown in backyard gardens, or harvested wild. Shop for locally-grown tomatoes, greens, squashes, berries, and more when possible—but turn to your pantry too. Canned tomatoes, dried fruit, olives, capers, and preserved lemons sit ready on your shelves, while frozen vegetables and fruits stand by in the freezer.

  • Legumes: Beans, peas, and lentils (fresh, dried, or canned) are packed with protein and are an essential pantry staple of Mediterranean cuisine. Stock up on fava beans (for Ful Medames), kidney beans, white beans (for Italian pasta fagioli soup), pinto beans, lentils, giant lima beans (for Greek gigantes), yellow split peas (for Greek fava) and, of course, chickpeas, the foundation of hummus. Here are 12 ways to get started.

  • Whole grains: Wheat, especially ancient varieties such as spelt, einkorn, emmer, freekeh (roasted green wheat), bulgur, and rye have long been part of the Mediterranean Diet, along with buckwheat (which, despite its name, is not a form of wheat), corn (in the form of polenta), barley, millet, and oats. Grains are the original pantry food, storing all their nutrients in a natural package until needed. Choose whole grains, since refining grains strips much of their valuable nutrients, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Learn more about whole grains here.

  • Nuts and seeds: As you wander around open-air farmers’ markets throughout the Mediterranean you’ll notice an abundance of nuts and seeds. Mounds of brilliant green pistachios, almonds, chestnuts, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, and sesame seeds are a common sight. They can be enjoyed raw or roasted as a healthy snack. They also find their way into any number of dishes and sauces, such as pesto and romesco, a Spanish sauce made with toasted almonds.

  • Herbs and spices: Fresh or dried, herbs and spices add depth of flavor and complexity to any dish. Stock your pantry with basil, dill, thyme, rosemary oregano, mint, tarragon, sage, cumin, coriander, and dried chili powders.

  • Fish/seafood: Frozen or canned fish and seafood belong in every Mediterranean pantry. Oily fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel, and wild salmon, are readily available in non-perishable cans and pouches.

  • Cheese: Many of the Mediterranean’s signature cheeses, including Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino, and Manchego—can have a fairly long life in your refrigerator. Even feta can keep fresh for weeks if submerged in its brine. Throw any leftover cheese rinds in the freezer, then add them to simmering bean soups for extra flavor.

  • Olive oil: Olive oil is of course used extensively in the Mediterranean Diet and finds its way into a variety of dishes as a cooking agent, dressing, or drizzled over a finished dish. Look for extra-virgin oils and check the bottle for its harvest date. Olive oils range in pungency, fruitiness, and bitterness, with something to suit everyone’s taste buds.

  • Wine: Wine, particularly red wine, has been shown to have cardiovascular health benefits and, when consumed in moderation, is an enjoyable part of the Mediterranean Diet. Even if you don’t drink, wine is often used as a flavor ingredient in Mediterranean dishes (most of the alcohol cooks off). 

For inspiration in using Mediterranean pantry staples, check out the recipes below, or visit our website for quick and easy Mediterranean recipes.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

Nothing is better on a cold day than a hearty soup. Check out this recipe for Fasolada, a traditional Greek soup made with white beans. This recipe is full of olive oil goodness and also high in fiber, vegan, and gluten free. You can make it on the stovetop, in a slow cooker, or an Instant Pot/electric pressure cooker.

Recipe courtesy of  North American Olive Oil Association ; a Shutterstock photo.

This super easy Italian pasta dish is a quick meal for a busy night! The broccoli and white beans keep it healthy and the garlic and lemon make it extra tasty.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Barilla .

One of the most striking differences between Mediterranean seafood dishes and American seafood dishes is the Mediterranean’s creative use of little fish, like sardines. Fish that are lower on the foodchain, like sardines, are also a more sustainable choice than larger fish.

An Oldways recipe and photo, by Kelly Toups.
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.