The Mediterranean Diet?
I thought about my family’s ancestral cooking while gazing for the umpteenth time at the now familiar-to-most Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. The chart was assembled by the nonprofit Oldways and a few other groups in 1993 based on studies from the 1960s. Atop its tiny peak sit “meats and sweets,” to be eaten less than weekly; beneath that are poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt (daily to weekly), then fish and seafood (at least twice a week), and finally fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, olive oil and so on (the basis of every meal). The cooking I grew up with was imported from a little town on the Campania-Puglia border and from Sicily. Those areas, along with the rest of Southern Italy, plus Greece and Crete, made up the study. This time I really looked at this pyramid, and it didn’t look quite right. With all I know about Southern Italian food, it struck me as off. I found it lower in fat than I’ve experienced traveling through the region and on my own family’s table. I also saw a problem with its emphasis on whole grains.
Olive oil is in the eat-every-day base of the pyramid, which is correct, but things like olives, anchovies, cured pork, cheese, and fatty end cuts of meats used for flavoring are not. Those are things Southern Italians actually do eat every day. The meals I shared with my grandmother’s cousin in Castelfranco in Miscano always began the same way: chunks of caciocavallo, slivers of salami, hard-as-hell taralli, salted anchovies, olives, and sharp, cloudy red wine (homemade, and I’m not sure you could buy anything tasting as weird). Then a very small portion of pasta (about a pound for six people) with a vegetable sauce (home-bottled tomatoes or broccoli rabe when I was there) often flavored with some odds and ends of fatty pork, olives, or anchovies, and finished with fresh olive oil and a hard caciocavallo. Next, if available, a slow-cooked meat made from a cheap cut, pounded, stretched, and filled with breadcrumbs, herbs, onion, nuts. Or, instead, a fresh sausage studded with fat, or sometimes a cooked vegetable, such as roasted peppers with tomatoes and anchovies or prosciutto end. Southern Italy was and still is a place that uses the whole hog. I also noticed big cans of sunflower oil in my relatives’ house. Olive oil is expensive, even in Italy, so you need a backup. I think they mixed the two for cooking. After the main course, my cousin Tony served raw fennel and celery, just the way my grandmother had in Port Chester, New York. He offered pears once. Almonds, too. No pastries. Those were reserved for holidays. Fried food, which is popular all over the South, is what you eat on the street or in restaurants, not in homes (and boy is it good).
And what’s with whole grains as something to eat every day? They’re supposed to make up a big percentage of the daily diet in those parts. I’ve never been offered a whole grain bread anywhere in Southern Italy, and believe me, I’ve been around. The bread is either ground durum wheat, the same used for dried pasta, or soft wheat, as in pizza flour. Sesame or fennel seeds are often scattered over the top, especially in Sicily. But dark, dense loaves studded with whole grains are not part of the culture. And in my experience you’re not expected to eat much bread. “Don’t fill up on bread” is a command I’ve heard from my family both here and in Italy. It’s considered bad manners.
There’s no whole wheat pasta either. Wheat berries show up in special occasion foods, like pastiera, the Easter ricotta cake, or cuccia, a porridge served for the feast of Saint Lucy. The wheat berries are included mostly for symbolic purposes, signifying the abundance of the earth.
What are part of the culture, for certain, are small portions of local seasonal food, whether a fresh orange just grabbed from a tree or a hot, oily arancini that oozes mozzarella, bought on a Palermo Street.
So let’s face it, Mediterranean is an excellent way to eat—maybe better than the pyramid suggests.
Orecchiette with Baby Zucchini, Soppressata, and Mint
(Serves 4 as a first course)
¾ pound orecchiette pasta
Extra-virgin olive oil
6 or 7 tiny early summer zucchini, cut into small cubes
About 5 not-paper-thin slices soppressata, chopped (try to find one that’s not too dry)
1 large shallot, chopped
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh red peperoncino, seeded and minced
A splash of dry vermouth
½ cup chicken broth
A small handful of fresh mint leaves, lightly chopped
A small handful of flat leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of pecorino Toscana cheese for grating
Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, and drop in the orecchiette.
In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. When the oil is hot, add the zucchini and the shallot. Add a little salt, and sauté until the zucchini is tender and just starting to turn golden, about 4 minutes or so. Now add the garlic and the soppressata, and sauté about 2 minutes longer. Add the vermouth, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and turn off the heat.
When the orecchiette is al dente, drain it, and add it to the pan. Toss well over low heat until everything is well mixed, about a minute. Add a little more broth if it seems dry. Transfer to a warmed serving bowl, and add the thyme, the mint, the parsley, and a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil. Toss gently. Taste for seasoning. Serve with grated pecorino Toscana.