Thursday, June 9, 2011

Learning from the Greeks

The streets smell of moussaka, pastichio, spanakopita, and dolmades.  Especially in the heat, the aroma of delicious Mediterranean food lingers and keeps me dreaming in food heaven.  I absolutely love all Greek cuisine.  Aside from tiny octopus legs, I do not think the Greeks got anything wrong.  This is one of the many reasons I am proud of my partial Greek heritage.  However, the magic of the Mediterranean is not limited to those with olive skin (I have pretty peachy skin).  Everyone can enjoy the magic!

In honor of the Greek Festival, which is taking place only a few blocks away from me, I have decided to post about all the reasons Greek cuisine staples should make it into your weekly diet.

First off, olives.  Olives have a long and rich history; they were mentioned in the bible, played a role in Greek mythology, and were even depicted in ancient Egyptian art.  They are estimated to have been cultivated as long as 7,000 years ago.  Whoa!  (Do you think they knew anything about trans or saturated fats back then?)  Today, the majority of the olives we eat come from the Mediterranean countries including Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Spain.  What they might not have known then, but we definitely know now, is that  olives are SO good for you!  One cup of olives is just over 150 calories, but has 24% of a daily value of Iron!  Olives also have 20% of our daily value of Vitamin E and 17% of our daily value of fiber and copper.  The fat that is found in olives is monounsaturated fats, which is stronger than polyunsaturated fats, keeping our fat-storing cells strong and better able to protection themselves.  Read more about olives, or just eat em!

Secondly, the oh so versatile, spinach!  Spinach's health benefits were widely known even before Pop-eye's massive forearms came to America.  Spinach is full of iron, but that's not even it's claim to fame.  The green leafy vegetable provides over 300% of our daily value of Vitamin A, 100% of Vitamin K, and 65% of our daily folate.  Its also jam packed with Vitamin B1, B2, B6, C, E, dietary fiber, protein, and calcium.  All together its pretty much a super food.  Spinach can be found in delicious meals like spanakopita, spinach and rice dishes, as well a many greek "casseroles."  Spinach is not alone, Greeks use many vegetables in their cooking including cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplants, and artichokes. If you are looking for a delicious eggplant recipe, searching for moussaka and enjoy!

Although I do not normally advocate for dairy, if you want to look for the healthiest yogurt, Greek yogurt is the way to go.  I went to Greece when I was younger and every morning we got a large bowl of fresh Greek yogurt (unsweetened, unflavored), topped with a bounty of fresh local fruits, and drizzled with delicious honey.  Everything was fresh and local and there could not have been a better breakfast.  If there was a way to make dairy sustainable and humane in the U.S. I may even go back to dairy just for the Greek-style yogurt.  It has triple the amount of protein than Activia, naturally more creamy, and low fat.  If you'd rather not have sweet yogurt, try making tzatziki sauce or if you are vegan just get the delicious taste of it by making this version. 

 Speaking of sweet Greek staples, baklava will hit the spot every time.  Its flaky, buttery phyllo is the perfect compliment to the sweetness of nuts and honey.  But the ever popular baklava is not the only Greek dessert that uses phyllo, nuts, and honey.  Not surprising, since its a total devilish combination of yum.  Lucky for us, almonds and walnuts are great for us.  Nuts provide healthy fats, protein, fiber, and antioxidants.  So eat away sweet-lovers!  (Well...until your tummy screams noooooo!)

There are plenty of other healthy staples in Greek cuisine, but right now I am going to sink my teeth into some tasty dolmades.  You are on your own to explore...

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