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While the phrase “Mediterranean cooking” probably immediately makes you think of the Mediterranean diet, it’s important to point out that there is no one “Mediterranean diet.” Rather, it’s a term that refers to the diverse group of countries and cuisines that exist within the Mediterranean region. As Suzy Karadsheh, founder of TheMediterraneanDish.com and author of The Mediterranean Dish cookbook, explains, “People who live in that part of the world and eat the Mediterranean way actually don’t have the word ‘diet’ so much in their vocabulary.
Karadsheh, who grew up in Egypt and creates recipes that cover many of the cuisines of the Mediterranean, suggests thinking about this approach as a different way to build a meal. “Eating the Mediterranean way is a very sensible, balanced way to eat and relies heavily on vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, and of course, the ever-present extra-virgin olive oil,” she says.
But Mediterranean cooking and eating isn’t restrictive. Karadsheh explains further: “If you’re familiar with the Mediterranean diet pyramid, those food groups make the base of the pyramid. [They’re] what you should be eating more of. We’re eating everything, but in certain patterns. So, we do more of the vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, lean protein from fish and poultry. Then, at the very top of the pyramid, the very tiny tip, is where you have red meat and heavier things that one should still enjoy, but not in huge amounts.”
Most importantly, “it’s not a fad. It’s not asking you to give up flavor, and it’s not asking you to give up entire food groups that your body needs,” Karadsheh points out. “It’s just a sensible way to eat, and the focus is never on restriction. It’s always on the joy and the sensibility and enjoying what we were given.”
So, what goes into a delicious Mediterranean meal? Below, Karadsheh shares her essentials and pantry staples – and you may already have many sitting in your kitchen.
In-Season Fruits and Vegetables
If you stock your fruit bowl and fridge with fresh fruits and veggies, great news: You’ve already got plenty of ingredients for Mediterranean-inspired cooking!
“I always stock my fridge with whatever is in season, fruits or vegetables,” Karadsheh says. Fresh fruits and vegetables are two of most-used ingredients in Mediterranean cooking, whether you’re whipping up a simple pasta or building a nutrient-dense salad bowl.
Karadsheh particularly likes to keep citrus fruits on hand. “I always have plenty of lemons, limes, and oranges, because it’s a great way to add flavor along with fresh herbs,” she says.
Beans, Legumes, and Grains
“I always [have] essential grains such as farro, bulgur, [and] couscous, which is not necessarily a grain but a pasta,” Karadsheh says. No matter your favorite kind of grain, you can easily take these ingredients and use them to expand a simple meal into one that’s extra-filling.
“You’re able to use these grains to bulk up a soup, for example, or to throw together a salad that is satisfying and delicious at the same time,” Karadsheh explains.
And don’t forget about dry or canned beans and legumes, either. These shelf-stable ingredients also add protein, fiber, and flavor. Plus, they’re often budget-friendly and easy to transform.
And chickpeas are one of Karadsheh’s favorites. “Chickpeas are a big deal in the way that I eat and also very affordable,” she says. “A can of chickpeas can turn into dinner with very little effort.”
A Broad Range of Spices
If you’re working with a well-stocked spice rack, you have plenty of options when it comes to adding flavor to dishes from throughout the Mediterranean region. But there are a few that are go-tos for creating distinct flavor profiles.
“I do have a select few spices that I reach for often, because I love to play with flavors from all over the Mediterranean,” Karadsheh says. “For example, one of my favorites – which is not a spice but a spice and herb – is za’atar. Everything is now kind of starting to get on board with it, and za’atar is just a great flavor maker made of toasted sesame seeds, wild thyme, and a dash of sumac.”
Sumac is another of Karadsheh’s staples, along with Aleppo pepper. “It gives you that tang and that depth without killing the meal. Aleppo-style pepper is not too hot but has just a little hint of sweetness that’s akin to dried tomatoes,” she says.
But you shouldn’t shy away from other common spices, either. Karadsheh also finds herself using allspice, cumin, and coriander often. They may be familiar, but as she explains, “use them in different ways and play them up the Mediterranean way, and it’s really amazing what you can do. That will allow you to build flavor simply, without adding too much salt.”
Try two of Karadsheh’s recipes from her cookbook, The Mediterranean Dish, and put these must-have ingredients to use: