Med Diet 101

I’ll be the first to admit it, US News & World Report is not exactly a recognized diet and health authority, but their journalists and reporters are demon researchers and they usually know what they’re talking about. So you have to sit up and pay attention when they hail the Mediterranean diet (comparing it to other schemes from Weight Watchers to the DASH diet) as:

  • best for diabetes control             
  • best for healthy eating
  • best heart-healthy diet 
  • best plant-based diet 
  • easiest diet to follow
  • best over-all,

So what do they mean by “the Mediterranean diet?” Pretty much the same as the
Mediterranean Diet pyramid, introduced in the early 1990s and tweaked but not essentially changed ever since: a daily base of complex, full-grain carbohydrates, plus fruit, vegetables, and legumes, cheese and yogurt, and of course extra-virgin olive oil as the principle fat. On top of that, seafood and/or poultry a couple of times a week, and red meat just a few times monthly or more often in small quantities. 

One of the best things about the Med diet? It’s easy for most Americans to follow with no need for fancy gourmet shops or trips to ethnic conclaves in distant cities. The most expensive item is that extra-virgin olive oil and fortunately that can last a long time. Using a quarter-cup or so daily means a one-liter or one-quart bottle will last a couple of weeks, and a 3-liter tin, the most economical way to buy olive oil, will supply your kitchen for a month of more.

So why not get with the program, starting right now in January, with this gratin of cauliflower, guaranteed to convert the most ardent meat-eater to an occasional vegetarian meal. Admittedly, cauliflower is not the sexiest vegetable in the produce section but there’s lots of it available at this time of year, even up in the chilly Northeast, and adding a spicy, fragrant tomato sauce and a crunchy topping will boost the flavor impact enormously.

The recipe is quick and easy, with the added virtue that you can make the sauce and blanch the cauliflower ahead of time, then just combine them when you’re ready to finish the dish. And while you’re stirring those tomatoes, make yourself a promise to eat well, eat healthfully, eat with joy throughout 2019.

Tip: Double the quantities for the tomato sauce, omitting the lemon zest and herbs, then refrigerate or freeze half of it to use later to top pizza or pasta (yes, both can be healthy diet choices) or mix with another vegetable (green beans are a great choice).

Makes 4 servings as a main course, 6 to 8 as a side.

For the tomato sauce:

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped, to make about 1 cup
  • 3 or 4 anchovy fillets, chopped
  • 2 cups canned plum tomatoes, with their juice
  • Sea salt
  • Ground or crumbled dried red chili pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup + 2 tablespoons chopped basil, flat-leaf parsley or other green herb

For the cauliflower:

  • About 2 pounds cauliflower, trimmed and broken into small florets
  • ¼ cup dry bread crumbs
  •  ½ cup coarsely grated parmigiano reggiano or grana padano cheese
  • ¼ cup chopped nuts (blanched almonds are good) or whole pine nuts
  • Optional: a handful of pitted black olives; a small handful of coarsely 
  • chopped capers

You can make the tomato sauce well ahead and refrigerate until ready to use, heating it and adding the lemon zest and herbs before you add it to the cauliflower. 

Add a few glugs of oil to a skillet with the garlic and onion. Set over medium-low heat and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Stir in the anchovies and continue cooking, mashing the anchovies into the oil with a fork. Add the tomatoes, tearing them apart in your hands, along with their juice. Raise the heat to medium, cooking rapidly and further breaking up the tomatoes with a fork or spoon as they cook down. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the sauce is thick, then add salt, red chili pepper and cumin to taste. If you’re not using the sauce immediately, add the lemon zest and ½ cup of chopped herbs later

Set the oven on 425º.

Cook the cauliflower for 3 to 5 minutes in a saucepan of lightly salted, rapidly boiling water. Drain when the florets are just barely tender and toss them in a bowl with several spoons of tomato sauce to coat them all nicely.

Rub a tablespoon of oil over the bottom and sides of an oval gratin dish. Sprinkle a tablespoon of crumbs over the bottom, then arrange the florets in the dish. Tuck the olives and capers around the florets.

Spoon the remaining tomato sauce on top. Combine the grated cheese and nuts with the remaining crumbs and remaining chopped herbs and sprinkle the mixture over the top. Finally, dribble the remaining oil on top and transfer to the hot oven to bake for about 15 minutes, until the top is brown and the sauce is bubbling.

Serve immediately. Or if you prefer, let cool to just above room temperature. 

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