Reimagining the Mediterranean diet

Published July 16, 2020, 11:56 AM

by Nina Daza-Puyat

Simple, practical ways to acquiring a healthy cooking and eating lifestyle.

Confronted with extremely stressful situations, most people react with either one of the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Since we cannot physically flee from the threat of Covid-19, and it would be unwise to simply ignore the danger, our best bet would be to “fight” the illness by staying healthy and boosting our immune system. 

I personally do not believe in subscribing to fad diets, but I have recently started the Mediterranean diet for my family, as it was hailed by the US News and World Report as the best overall diet in 2020 (for three years in a row since 2018). It is easy to follow, more sustainable, and beneficial for adults, especially those with diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. 

The Mediterranean diet is simply eating more plant-based food such as vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts, healthy fats, beans, and legumes. It also allows the consumption of fish, some chicken and lean red meat, and even an occasional glass of red wine. That doesn’t sound too restrictive, does it? 

ADAPTING THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET TO FILIPINO DISHES 

An “aha” moment for me was when I realized I could follow this prescribed way of eating using our local vegetables, heirloom rice, and seasonal fruits. I mistakenly thought that following this diet, one would be limited to Greek, Italian, or Spanish dishes. It dawned on me that some of our Pinoy dishes already have a high ratio of vegetables to meat or fish. Think pinakbet, dinengdeng, lumpiang sariwa, and even sinigang

GREEN SIDES For Filipinos, steamed vegetables with simple dressing and a squeeze of calamansi are the perfect partner for any fried dish

It is really the cook’s discretion on how much leafy greens to include in the family’s nilaga or pesa, or how much eggplant and ampalaya to top on paksiw na bangus. Fruits are mostly consumed at breakfast or after meals, but we do include potassium-rich saba bananas in puchero, pata estofado, and arroz ala cubana.  

Another way to include fruits and vegetables in our meals would be to offer more “atsara.” This summer, I have pickled mangoes, santol, and singkamas. Serve chilled, they provide a refreshing counterpoint to almost any main dish. I believe that green papaya atsara and mixed vegetable atsara should make a more frequent appearance on the dining table, and not just when serving Pinoy barbeque. 

We Filipinos love our vegetable “guisado” and I’ve since switched to sautéing with pure olive oil. Pure olive oil has a milder flavor compared to extra virgin, and it has a lower smoking point, which makes it perfect for frying, too. 

I had the opportunity of interviewing Chef Robby Goco of Cyma Greek restaurants many years ago, and I will always be grateful for this cooking tip he gave me. He suggested that I fry dalagang bukid (simply seasoned with rock salt) in olive oil. I never appreciated this everyday fish until then and now my husband loves it, too. We serve it with brown or red rice, a side salad of ensalada (kangkong or kamote tops), and a bowl of diced tomatoes with fish sauce. 

GUILT-FREE GOODNESS Fried dalagang bukid made healthy with Doña Elena olive oil

Another happy discovery during this ECQ was when I drizzled extra virgin olive oil over my side dish of tomatoes and patis. The fruitiness of the olive oil rounded out the saltiness of the fish sauce, bringing out the sweetness from the ripened tomatoes.

EXPANDING THE MENU WITH NEW RECIPES

Shopping in the palengke or wet markets is extremely important to a home cook like me, but I have not been brave enough to visit one since March. Whenever I need to buy fish or shrimps these days, my suki Rizza texts me the available catch of the day. We agree to meet at a specified time in front of Farmer’s Market, where she waits to drop my precious purchase inside an open styrofoam box at the trunk of our car. The quick and painless transaction–not unlike a covert exchange of contraband items–is over in one minute. 

My good friend Nini shared how in the first few days of lockdown, all they had access to was bangus and it was quite a challenge to cook it in various ways for one whole week! Sometimes we have to think out-of-the-box, and look for more creative, imaginative ways to prepare meals. Recently, I simmered chicken thighs in a Puttanesca-like sauce of canned tomatoes, black olives, and capers, and had plenty of sauce left over. I topped it over fried tilapia and voila!, a new, southern-European dish was born. 

Filipinos love anything fried and crispy, and for this we turn to smaller fish like dilis or what is passed off in the market as tawilis (which are small tamban). Lightly coated in seasoned flour and deep fried until crisp, these are best served with a squeeze of lemon, some spicy vinegar, or if you want something more special, with a garlic-lemon mayo dip. 

I’ve also just discovered Ladolemono, a Greek dressing and marinade made by combining freshly squeezed lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, grated garlic, dried oregano, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. It’s wonderful as a salad dressing and sauce. I have not tried it as a marinade yet, but I heard it is quite versatile and delicious when roasting fish, chicken, lamb, and even vegetables. 

SHOW ME SOME BEANS

Followers of the Mediterranean diet subscribe to eating more beans and legumes. According to Healthline, “Beans and legumes are some of the most underrated food. They are excellent sources of dietary fiber, protein, B vitamins, other vitamins, and minerals. They can help reduce blood sugar, improve cholesterol levels, and help maintain a healthy gut.”

Unfortunately, Pinoys do not eat much of beans and legumes except in monggo guisado and monggo soup, or perhaps pork and beans from a can. It’s baffling to me because there are many types of dried beans available in our wet markets. Apparently, the demand for beans comes from cooks who prepare regional specialties like the Ilonggo kadyos, langka, at baboy, or the Ilocano pinablad a pusi (pork stew with black eyed peas). Chickpeas (garbanzos) can be added in dishes like puchero and menudo, but its role is more of an extender and not a main source of protein. 

For special occasions, older Filipino families turn to Spanish specialties like fabada or lentejas (lentil soup). I remember how my Dad would drizzle his bowl of lentils with a simple dressing of olive oil and vinegar, a habit my own family has now acquired when we have lentil soup or lamb stewed with chorizo and white beans. 

VERSATILITY OF THE FILIPINO PALATE 

One good thing about the Filipino palate is that it is used to a wide range of flavor profiles, thanks to the Chinese, Southeast Asian, American, and Spanish influences in our cuisine. A Filipino cook can easily switch from seasoning with soy sauce, vinegar, and fish sauce to cooking with butter, olive oil, and cream; and that is why adapting the healthy Mediterranean diet to the Filipino kitchen would be a cinch. It’s truly a matter of selecting ingredients more carefully, cooking more mindfully, and eating more purposefully. 

FRIED TILAPIA WITH MEDITERRANEAN SAUCE

Ingredients:

For the Mediterranean sauce:

3 tbsps. pure olive oil, for sautéing

1 whole head garlic, peeled and chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

2 to 3 strips anchovies, mashed

1 (400g) can diced tomatoes

¼ cup sliced black olives

1 tbsp. capers, halved

1 tsp. sugar 

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For fried tilapia:

2 large tilapia, scaled and gutted 

2 tsps. rock salt

¼ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup pomace olive oil, for frying 

Procedure:

  1. Make Mediterranean Sauce. Heat pure olive oil in a small frying pan. Toss in garlic and stir for one minute. Next, add onions and cook until soft and fragrant.
  2. Add mashed anchovies, diced tomatoes, olives, and capers. Bring to a simmer and cover pan with a lid. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Season with sugar, salt, and freshly ground black pepper. 
  3. While the sauce is simmering, cook the fish. Rinse tilapia and pat dry with paper towels. Rub rock salt on both sides of fish and set aside. When ready to fry, dredge fish with flour on both sides. Shake off excess flour.
  4. Pour pomace olive oil into a frying pan and bring up to frying temperature over medium heat. Fry fish until crisp on both sides. Set fish upright on a colander lined with paper-towels. 
  5. Arrange fried fish on a platter. Pour Mediterranean Sauce over fried tilapia and serve immediately.
 
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