NO MATTER HOW MUCH ADVICE you’ve heard about how to eat better, no dietary prevention or food-as-medicine plan will work unless you want to eat as prescribed. You may know that a Mediterranean diet will help keep your brain sharp, but that knowledge needs to take the whole route from plate to mouth before doing its work on your cortex and cognitive function.
Tastes That Excite. Big flavors and simplicity are the secrets behind actually following an eating plan—and the Mediterranean diet is big on both. Healthy food doesn't need to have the dusty-mouth feel of the last aisle of the natural food store or the apothecary aftertaste of nutrient-enhanced franken-foods. Tastes that wake your tongue and excite your palate are the only ones that should be on your plate. And
Eating well doesn’t have to involve meal-making marathons or Olympic-style feats of culinary acrobatics, either. The Mediterranean diet is no fancy plan. It’s a tradition of enjoying good food—fresh local fruits and vegetables, grains and beans, and olive oil in its most pure form. Northern California has the same idea, so if you would rather look somewhere closer for inspiration, just look to the West. Early European NoCal settlers brought their SoMed cuisine—olives, citrus, vegetables, and herbs—and settled near the 39th parallel, which runs through Sicily and Calabria in Italy, Athens in Greece, Valencia in Spain, and Izmir in Turkey. But it’s not just the latitude that the NoCal wine country cooks have adopted. It’s the attitude toward ingredients. Fresh farm flavors make the meal.
High Quality, Fresh Ingredients Have the Flavor Built In. So it’s no trouble to make them taste good. You don’t need to make over, fake, or cover up anything when your ingredients are doing the work. A peak-of-season perfectly ripe tomato needs nothing more than a drizzle of oil and a pinch of salt. A sweet summer peach doesn’t even need a plate. Freshly dug carrots, peeled and roasted in nothing more than olive oil at high heat, are sweet-savory perfection.
Sadly, summer is just a few short months, and farmers’ markets may not always be close at hand. But you can still focus on great flavor year round. Your supermarket search for freshness shouldn’t be tough. Look for what seems most alive. Perky leaves on greens, fish that’s firm and smells clean like the sea, and grains and beans from stores that sell enough to regularly turn their stock.
Get the best you can, then season simply with no-fuss flavor boosters. Quality ingredients only need a quick hit of help. Try these tips:
Add Herbs. Mild herbs such as parsley, chives, and cilantro can be chopped and tossed by the fistful into salads and soups. Strong herbs, like thyme, oregano, sage, and rosemary should be minced and sprinkled pinch-by-pinch in any dish. Just be prudent and use less in a dish that’s going to be cooked, as the flavor will increase with time and heat.
Use Spices. Throw away the bottles that have been on the shelf since the turn of the millennium. They might not have an expiration date for safety, but the flavor starts dissipating the moment a spice is ground. Buy a new batch (ideally from a high-quality seller—try Kalustyan's or Penzeys online, for example) and sprinkle some on fish and poultry before cooking, or onto your salad, grains, or any legume.
Just Say Zest. You can get an easy twist of fresh flavor any time from the zest—the grated outer rind—of an orange or lemon. It wakes up the taste of salads and veggies, grains, or beans—nearly any dish. Just be sure when grating, you get only the colored part and no white pith, which is bitter.
Master a simple recipe, get the best ingredients you can find, and experiment with different versions. Here are two recipes to try (see links in sidebar above left). Remember: The only flavor that’s right is the flavor you like.
Joanne Weir: Crisp Salmon with Green Herb and Caper Sauce. From Wine Country Cooking (Ten Speed Press), by cookbook author and host of the PBS TV show Joanne Weir’s Cooking Class and Weir Cooking in the Wine Country, this recipe demonstrates an ideal way to add fresh herb flavor to any simple dish. The herb, garlic, and caper sauce is not just for fish. You can drizzle it over chicken, meat, vegetables, or beans, too.
Mark Bittman: Rice Pilaf. This is one of the wonders from New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, the master of the flavor-swap recipe. In his award-winning How to Cook Everything, Tenth Anniversary Edition (Wiley, 2008) he gives us an easy-to-make rice dish with 7 variations and 15 extra flavor add-ins. Start simply by learning the basic recipe. Then have some good healthy fun with all the different flavor boosters.
Tamara Holt is a writer, editor, and educator with special expertise in consumer food choices, organic and natural products, and creating an easy, fun, healthy lifestyle. She has produced dozens of food stories as the food editor of Redbook and Jewish Living magazines.