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Mediterranean cuisine is full of exciting flavours, from fresh and peppery herbs, to tangy and salty cheeses. The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the world’s healthiest diets, and is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish and unsaturated fats like olive oil. Although the Mediterranean diet varies by country and region, here are the top 10 essential ingredients you’ll need.
Greek yoghurt is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, and most commonly found in the eastern Mediterranean. It differs from regular yoghurt in that it’s strained to remove all the whey, making it thicker and creamier in texture. It’s also a healthier option as it contains more protein and less sugar than regular yoghurt. Greek yoghurt isn’t just consumed at breakfast — it’s added to sauces, dips like tzatziki, and incorporated into main dishes. You can even mix things up in the morning with this recipe for Turkish eggs served with yoghurt.
Cheese is another dairy product that you’ll find in Mediterranean cooking. However, many of the traditional Mediterranean cheeses come from sheep or goats’ milk — these include feta, halloumi, manchego and ricotta. Cheese is used in pasta, in sauces, and crumbled over salads, just like the popular Greek salad — a medley of tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, onion and feta cheese. Halloumi is a popular choice as it has a unique rubbery texture which holds its shape when grilled, baked or fried. Try this recipe for fried halloumi with zahtar. Parmesan is another cheese native to the region. It’s lactose-free and rich in vitamins and minerals, making it a healthier option than other cheeses like brie.
Think Mediterranean food and olives almost certainly come to mind. They’re a cornerstone of Mediterranean cuisine, and these fruits come with impressive nutritional benefits. They’re a great source of vitamin E, antioxidants and boast healthy unsaturated fats. Green and black olives are the same thing, the difference being what stage of ripeness they’re picked at. Olives taste great right out of the jar, but you can also add them to salads and flatbreads, stirred into dips, added to marinades, turned into tapenades, placed on a charcuterie board, or added to this fish with black olives and harissa stew.
Olives aren’t just added to recipes — they’re also used for their oil. Olive oil is used extensively in Mediterranean cuisine and Italy, Spain and Greece are the top three producers in the world. The Mediterranean diet includes healthy fats, and olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat which lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. There are different types of olive oil, with the difference lying in how they’re processed. Learn about the different oils here. Use olive oil as you would other cooking oils — to fry, bake, drizzle over flatbreads, in marinades and salad dressings.
Tomatoes are dubbed Italy’s ‘red gold’ — and you’ll also find these fruits in all kinds of dishes across the Mediterranean region. They’re used in everything you could think of: sauces, stews, soups, dips, salads, pasta, topped on pizza and flatbread, or roasted in the oven. Tomatoes are common in Mediterranean breakfasts, where you’ll find dishes like menemen, a Turkish one-pan dish of scrambled eggs, tomato, green peppers and spices. It’s similar to strapatsada, a dish found in Greece and Cyprus. Spice things up in the morning and check out this guide on how to make your breakfast more Eastern Mediterranean.
Legumes are a pantry staple in the Mediterranean diet. You’ll particularly want to use chickpeas, cannellini, fava, kidney beans and lentils. Legumes are an inexpensive and nutrition-dense ingredient to add texture and substance to dishes like salads, stews, falafels and dips like hummus. Legumes are high in protein and fibre, and are linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, lower blood sugar levels and reduced cholesterol. Need more inspiration for cooking beans? Take a look at these 10 best recipes using a tin of beans.
No Mediterranean dish would be complete without herbs. Not only do they add flavour and aroma, but they’re also packed with health benefits like aiding digestion, lowering cholesterol and fighting off diseases. Additionally, using herbs reduces the need to add lots of salt. Some of the most popular herbs used in Mediterranean cuisine include oregano, parsley, mint, basil, thyme, dill weed, rosemary, sage and bay leaves.
As well as herbs, spices are also prominent in Mediterranean cuisine. In particular, you’ll find spices like smoked paprika, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, red pepper flakes, turmeric, allspice, nutmeg and sumac. Different parts of the Mediterranean also have their own spice blends, like Italian herb seasoning, Herbes de Provence and Quatre Épices. For a deeper dive into the exotic blends of the Med, take a look at our guide to Mediterranean spices.
Be nuts about nuts! Don’t be afraid of the fat content in nuts. Like olive oil, nuts contain poly- and mono-unsaturated fats, which are the healthy fats. They also contain protein and fibre, and this combination of fat, protein and fibre is what keeps you full for longer, your blood sugar stable, lowers your cholesterol and reduces inflammation. Nut trees are abundant across the Mediterranean, and walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, pistachios and sesame seeds are a daily snack. Throw a handful into your salad, blend into a pesto or dip, sprinkle onto vegetable dishes or fold into pastas.
Whole grains should be a part of any healthy diet. There are a wealth of options, and you may not even have heard of some of them. Couscous, quinoa, polenta, buckwheat, millet, farro, bulgur wheat, barley and brown and white rice are just some of the grains you should incorporate into your Mediterranean cooking. Bulgur wheat in particular pairs with most Mediterranean recipes. It’s also the main ingredient in tabbouleh, a Levantine salad with chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion and seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and sweet pepper.
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