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SEASONAL PANTRY

Our Mediterranean way

Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 4, 2013 at 3:39 p.m.

The Mediterranean diet is in the news again, this time because a recent study suggests that a diet high in olive oil, tree nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and wine can reduce heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease. This uplifting news comes on the tail of disheartening reports that almost any amount of alcohol increases our chances of developing cancer.

The last time the Mediterranean way of eating enjoyed this much celebrity was in the early 1990s, when the Harvard School of Public Health, Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust and the World Health Organization teamed up to create “The Traditional Healthy Mediterranean Diet Pyramid” as an alternative to the USDA's food pyramid and the claims that it was compromised by various lobbying groups.

The first Mediterranean wave carried some great techniques and ingredients into the center of our culture, especially extra-virgin olive oil, all manner of bruschetta and jamon serrano, the Spanish version of prosciutto. At the same time, a lot of people took the favored status of bread and pasta as license to indulge in bountiful daily quantities.

What is important about all this? Two things, I think, in addition to the reaffirmation of the diet's overall positive impact.

First, when you look at the traditional diets of the 20 or so countries that ring the Mediterranean Sea, you find people eating a locally-based seasonal diet — as you found everywhere up until maybe a century ago. Olive trees, walnut and other nut trees and grapes thrive throughout this region, so it's not surprising to find olive oil, nuts and wine as part of the daily diet, nor is it at all unexpected that a seacoast results in people eating a lot of fish.

Cheese and, to a lesser degree, butter, are important, too, as are chicken, goat, lamb, pork and, in some countries, beef.

But there are other healthy populations in the world, the Maasai of Africa, for example. They are a nomadic people, so local and seasonal means something quite different; their food needs to travel with them. The Maasai exist primarily on raw meat, blood, milk and urine from their Watusi cattle, a diet that has yet to find mass appeal, despite the fact that the Maasai are considered among the healthiest people anywhere. No one ever asks, for example, if we'd like a shot of blood with that glass of milk, and it's unlikely anyone ever will.

The difference is obvious: The Mediterranean diet appeals to us. What's not to like about it?

Of equal importance to Californians is our climate, which resonates with the Mediterranean climate. The North Bay is at roughly the same latitude as Sicily. Recently, we've seen increased plantings of grape varietals that thrive through the Mediterranean instead of the cooler regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Other Mediterranean plants — artichokes, cardoons, walnuts, fennel and, of course, olives — thrive here, too.

Anyone who has visited the countryside of Tuscany and Provence, parts of Greece, Spain, Sicily, Morocco, Israel and Turkey understands, viscerally, the similarities we share. When we eat close to home, sourcing most of our foods from local farms, ranches and waters, the California diet naturally mirrors the Mediterranean diet in myriad ways. It's yet another reason to love this place we call home.

Of course, if we go back earlier, before Europeans arrived, we'd see something much different, but that's a story for another time.

For Mediterranean-inspired recipes from the Seasonal Pantry archives, visit Eat This Now at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

Writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who divides her time between Maine and Tuscany, wrote “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook” (Bantam, 1994) as the diet's first wave of popularity was cresting. A revised edition was published in 2008.

This recipe, which I've adapted slightly, is a classic example of the popular pasta dishes of the mid-1990s and, although we tend not to eat as much pasta as we did then, this is excellent in this season, when we have last fall's crop of walnuts and spring's sheep's-milk ricotta.

To resonate with 2013 inclinations, serve it with a radish salad (recipe follows) or as a side dish with roasted chicken or grilled fish and plenty of vegetable side dishes.

Spaghettini with Walnut Ricotta Sauce

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 pound walnuts, in their shells

2 to 3tablespoons extra virign olive oil, as needed

2 garlic cloves, minced

½ cup minced Italian parsley

— Kosher salt

1 pound spaghettini or other strand pasta

½ cup fresh local ricotta, preferably from sheep's milk

— Black pepper in a mill

½ cup (2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Vella Dry Jack or similar cheese

Shell the walnuts and pound them to a paste in a mortar or grind in a food processor. If using a food processor, add a tablespoon of water so that the walnuts do not become over-processed and begin to exude their oil. Set them aside.

Set a small saucepan over medium-low heat, add a tablespoon of the olive oil and saute the garlic until it is soft and fragrant; do not let it brown. Add the walnuts, parsley, remaining olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Stir and simmer very gently for 4 to 5 minutes; remove from the heat and set aside.

Fill a large pot two-thirds full with water, add a couple of generous tablespoons of salt and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the pasta and stir until the water returns to a boil. Reduce the heat as needed so that the water boils but does not boil over. Cook according to package directions until al dente.

When the pasta is nearly ready, add 3 tablespoons of the cooking water to the walnut and garlic mixture, return to low heat and stir in the ricotta. Taste, correct for salt, season generously with black pepper and remove from the heat when the ricotta is heated through.

Drain the pasta but do not rinse it. Put it into a large warmed bowl, add the sauce and half the cheese and toss thoroughly. Divide among individual bowls or soup plates, top with some of the remaining cheese and serve immediately.

Variation: I like to serve this over fresh arugula, especially in cold weather, when arugula is at its best. To do so, just put a generous handful or two into each bowl and then top it with the pasta.

This simple salad also is adapted from Jenkins' “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” It is easy, delicious, perfect at lunch and welcome at dinner, too.

Sliced Radishes with Herbs and Tuna

Makes 6 servings

1 pound young firm radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced

2 celery stalks, very thinly sliced

3 green onions, very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons minced Italian parsley

1 tablespoon minced cilantro

— Kosher salt

— Juice of ½ lemon, plus more to taste

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3½ ounce can of tuna, drained

12 olives, preferably Nicoise, pitted and halved

— Black pepper in a mill

6 large butter lettuce leaves or 2 or 3 handfuls of salad mix

Put the radishes into a medium bowl, add the celery and green onions. Season lightly with salt and add the juice of 1/2 lemon. Set aside for at least 5 and as long as 15 minutes.

Drain off all liquid.

Add the parsley, cilantro, olive oil, tuna and olives and toss gently.

Taste and if you'd like a bit more lemon flavor, add a squeeze or two of fresh juice, along with several turns of black pepper.

Divide the greens among individual salad plates, mound salad on top and serve immediately.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts “Mouthful” each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM.

E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

You'll find her blog, “Eat This Now,” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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