Starting or staying on the gold medal-winning Mediterranean diet? Then you’ll need a shopping resource you can use to stock your pantry with Mediterranean meal essentials — and continue to use on a weekly basis to restock and purchase fresh, frozen and canned vegetables, fruits, and more.
Extra-virgin olive oil
What’s first on the list for a Mediterranean pantry? You guessed it — extra-virgin olive oil, fondly called EVOO by many chefs. It’s the basis of all Greek cooking, and Greeks love it so much that when they think someone’s gone a bit off their rocker they say “He’s losing oil.”
Greece was a key focus of early 1950s research into the diet’s health benefits. Today, studies show adhering to the Mediterranean style of eating will help you fight off high cholesterol, heart disease and dementia, all while losing weight!
Could that be partly due to the heart-healthy benefits of olive oil? A 2013 study of over 7,000 people, one of the largest ever done, found people who followed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil for five years had a 30% lower risk of heart attack or stroke. They also showed a slower rate of cognitive decline and were better able to control their weight.
Why extra-virgin? A 2018 Australian study found that extra-virgin olive oil (but not regular olive oil) produced the lowest levels of trans fats and other potentially harmful by-products when heated to high temperatures. Coconut oil took second place, while canola oil flunked, creating over twice as many harmful compounds as extra-virgin olive oil.
Greek yogurt and feta
Here’s another mainstay of the Mediterranean kitchen — rich, creamy Greek yogurt. If you haven’t tried it, do — it’s made by straining the whey and other liquids from regular yogurt and has a solid consistency. You’ll want to buy it plain, which eliminates extra sugars and gives you a platform for the many sweet fruits, crunchy nuts and grains you may add.
Greeks are also quite proud of the many varieties of golden honey they produce, and enjoy a drizzle on their yogurt or fresh fruit. Not too much!
While you’re in the dairy aisle, pick up some large whole chunks of feta. There’s no skimpy sprinkle of feta on true Greek salads in the islands. Instead chunks of cucumber and ripe tomatoes, joined by some sliced red onion and bell peppers, are topped with a slab of feta before being doused with olive oil and vinegar.
Make sure to add balsamic vinegar to your list. The tangy sweetness is great on salads, veggies and fruits.
Fruits and veggies
Next, fill your fridge with as many different colors of fruits and vegetables as you can find. Eating the rainbow assures you get a variety of antioxidants, minerals and vitamins.
Vegetables are the basis of most Mediterranean meals, so prepare to stock up on eggplants, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, asparagus, artichokes, beets, bell peppers, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, mushrooms, squash and zucchini (that’s a mouthful)!
Add garlic, white, yellow and red onions, spring onions, shallots and leeks to your list, along with fresh herbs. Think chives, basil, bay leaves, cilantro, mint, parsley, oregano, rosemary, dill, fennel, marjoram, sage, savory, tarragon and thyme. They add flavor and a beautiful garnish that makes a dish pop.
Leafy dark greens, such as kale, spinach, mustard greens and Swiss chard, are frequently sautéed as side dishes. And of course you’ll need tomatoes — fresh, canned and sauced.
Processed sweets are not traditional in the Mediterranean. Instead, you’ll use fruits and berries to sweeten your breakfast cereals and yogurt, to munch on as midday snacks and as the sweet ending to a filling Mediterranean dinner.
Fresh is best for flavor and texture, but if that’s not an option, stock up on frozen versions. Picked at the height of their freshness, then blanched and flash-frozen, frozen fruits and veggies contain the same nutrients as fresh, studies have found.
Many Mediterranean dishes incorporate whole grains, often sporting names that have been around for centuries. Ancient grains such as farro, kamut, teff, wheatberries, barley, bulgur, couscous, polenta, quinoa and freekeh are often used to stuff vegetables, add fiber to salads and thicken soups.
Many can be made ahead and frozen in small batches to pull out and add to a recipe, or as the basis of a tummy-warming breakfast.
Whole-grain and whole-wheat pita breads are staples as well. How do you know if what you are buying is a “whole grain?” Check for a black and gold “whole grains stamp” created by the Oldways Whole Grains Council, which lists the amount of whole grains in that product. Use the council’s search tool to find a product that meets your needs.
Whole grains are so good for you. Keeping the grain whole increases dietary fiber, filling you up and reducing calorie intake, studies find. All the magnesium, potassium and antioxidants seem to help lower blood pressure and keep blood sugars in check.
Legumes, nuts, seeds and more
Because the Mediterranean style of eating is heavily plant-based, legumes become a key way to add healthy protein. You can buy canned or dried, and because they last so long in the pantry you can easily stock up when they are on sale.
Think chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans); black, red and green lentils; and black, pinto, and white, or cannellini, beans. Don’t forget peas, best bought fresh or frozen.
Nuts and seeds are also frequently used in Mediterranean cooking. Stock up on walnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts and pistachios — you can always separate into smaller bags and freeze to keep them fresh.
Seeds choices include amaranth, chia, flax, hemp, pine nuts, poppy, pumpkin (pepitas), sesame and sunflower seeds.
Don’t forget olives! A small bowl of olives at the beginning of a meal is de rigueur at many Mediterranean restaurants, so why not copy that tradition at home?
Experiment with different varieties: Greek kalamata and konservolia; Italian konservolia, Ligurian and Gaeta; Spanish arbequina, gordal and manzanilla; Turkish gemlike; Moroccan beldi; and French Niçoise and Nyons.
Seafood and meat
Finally, we’ve reached the meat section of the menu! That’s OK, because the Mediterranean style of eating uses red meat sparingly. Instead, fish is a staple, consumed at least twice a week.
Look for omega-3 fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, lake trout and tuna — including water-packed canned tuna, and white fish such as bass, haddock, tilapia, flounder, sole and cod.
Shellfish such as crab, shrimp, lobster, prawns and crayfish are popular choices in Mediterranean cooking (often with their heads on), as are mollusks such as clams, mussels, snails, scallops, oysters, octopus and squid.
Chicken and lean meats like pork are also OK, but they are not often the star of the show.
Don’t forget the spices
What may be the most fun about the Mediterranean manner of eating? Experimenting with all the spice blends that have originated from the region.
Take the Moroccan spice mix charmoula, which can be used as marinade, seasoning rub, side sauce or condiment. The spicy dry rub is made of allspice, cayenne, chili powder, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, paprika and turmeric. Add olive oil and lemon juice to turn it into a paste for marinades. Add more to turn it into a vinaigrette for veggies or salads.
Za’atar, a Middle Eastern mix of spices, is savory, tangy and woodsy all at once. It’s often added to baked bread, but can also brighten up fresh tomatoes, roast chicken, sweet potato fries, hummus, baked eggs and more.
Ras el hanout, or “top of the shop” is a peppery yet sweet Moroccan spice blend that traditionally used 20 to 40 of the best spices a merchant would sell.
So much to eat and enjoy! Bon appétit! Buon appetito! Buen provecho! Sahten!