Full of lean proteins, fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and, of course, olive oil, the Mediterranean diet has long been a healthy eating favorite. For obvious reasons. The popular diet has been proven to cut the risk of diabetes by more than 50 percent and is a heart-healthy champion thanks to its plant-based ingredients and abundance of healthy fats.
When it comes to mastering the diet, few have done it better than the Ikarians.
The small Greek island of Ikaria is located in the Aegean Sea and is home to some of the longest-living people on Earth. Yes, you read that correctly: Longest-living. The 8,000-some residents are some of the healthiest people on the planet. One of the biggest secrets to their longevity? The Mediterranean diet.
Diane Kochilas, author of Ikaria—a cookbook that highlights the island's love of food and life—has explored the Ikarians' lifestyle and assembled a collection of their most tried and true recipes.
Ready to get started? Here are seven Mediterranean diet recipes, adapted from Ikaria, that'll get you going on that Ikarian way of living.
On the island, taro root is still one of the main sources of starch, particularly in the winter. It's served alongside beans, pork, or on top of salads, and because of its nutritional benefits, it's a popular addition to many meals. It has roughly three times as much fiber than a potato, and a single one-cup serving has approximately 11 percent of your daily intake of vitamin C, and 22 percent of daily vitamin B6. Add it to some hearty vegetables and herbs, and you have a heart-healthy appetizer.
Taro Root Salad
(Makes 6 to 8 servings)
4 pounds (2 kg) taro root, peeled
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 red onion, halved and chopped (about 1 cup)
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or dill
10 kalamata olives
1/2 cup Greek extra virgin olive oil, or more, as needed
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar (to taste)
1. Scrub the taro roots under cold running water. Peel the roots with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Cut off the stem end. Cut the taro roots into 2-inch (5-cm) cubes.
2. Place in a pot with cold salted water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until fork tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and rinse the taro pieces in a colander.
3. Add the onion, celery, parsley (or dill), olives, olive oil, lemon juice (or vinegar), and salt and pepper to taste. Toss carefully. Serve either warm or at room temperature.
Since the Mediterranean diet is highly focused on vegetable-based meals, it's not uncommon to see meatless and high-protein dishes. Collard greens, especially, are a popular ingredient, and just one cup of the leafy vegetable contains more than 35 percent of your daily vitamin A, and more than 21 percent of your daily vitamin C. Pairing it with a bowl of olives, a few specks of home-cured cheese, and bread or rusks, is the Ikarian tradition. Check out this recipe for collard greens and potatoes to stay vegetarian and healthy.
While poultry isn't often the go-to dish of choice for the Ikarians, it's long been a holiday favorite. Roosters, especially, have been scare on the island, but are loved for their dark meat and hearty flavor, so when it comes to Christmas or New Year's celebrations, it's always on the table. Extra bonus: The Ikarians use every part of the bird, so find out how to make your own wine-cooked rooster and rooster broth with rice for the holidays, or any day of the week.
While the Ikarians love their rooster dishes, goat is the meat of choice throughout the island. It's no surprise why. The red meat has about half as much fat as beef, and 40 percent less saturated fat than chicken. The best part: With a population of about 8,000 Ikarians on the island, there are nearly three to five times as many goats as people! Check out Kochilas' recipe for goat stew with grape molasses, which uses the sweetness of the molasses (called petimezi) to add a different flavor to the herb-loaded dish.
Rich in calcium (from the rice) and inulin (from the spinach), spanakorizo has tons of bone-strengthening qualities. This spinach rice is still one of the classic dishes on any Greek table.
Spanakorizo (Spinach Rice)
(Makes 4 servings)
4 tablespoons Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped red onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 cup long-grain rice
8 cups chopped fresh spinach, about 1 pound (450 g), stems removed, cleaned well
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup chopped wild fennel fronds or dill
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 2 lemons, strained
1. In a large heavy skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook stirring frequently, until soft, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon over medium-low heat for 3 minutes.
2. Add the spinach, cover, and cook until the spinach loses most of its volume. Add the water, fennel (or dill), and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked and very tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Add more water as needed if you think it is necessary to achieve a creamy consistency. You can do so about halfway into cooking the mixture. Add the lemon juice 3 minutes before the end.
Zucchini, the classic summer vegetable, can be found in countless traditional Ikarian dishes. Large zucchini are often shredded and made into pie fillings; medium ones are perfect for stuffing, and are blended with carrots and mint to create yemista, or stuffed peppers and tomatoes.
Loukoumades are a special-occasion dessersr, are enjoyed at monasteries throughout the island, and contain an Ikarian all-time favorite: Honey. The island's honey comes from bees that feed on many different plants, and because of that, they produce varying types like pine honey, thyme honey, and heather honey. Add just a tablespoon of it to these honeyed dough puffs for a sweet kick.
Loukoumades (Honeyed Dough Puffs)
(Makes 8 to 10 servings)
4 to 6 cups all-purpose flour, or more as needed
1 scant teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon instant dry yeast
1 tablespoon honey
2 cups warm water, or more as needed
Olive or other oil, for deep-frying
1 to 2 cups ikarian pine honey or Greek thyme honey, for drizzling
Coarsely ground walnuts
1. In a large stainless steel bowl, mix 4 1/2 cups of the flour and the salt. Dissolve the yeast, honey, and 1 tablespoon of flour in 1/2 cup warm water.
2. Make a well in the center of the bowl of flour and pour in the yeast mixture. Add the remaining 1 1/2 cups water. Either by hand (wear thin rubber gloves because the dough is very sticky) or with a large wooden spoon, gradually work enough flour into the liquid to form a thick, viscous, sticky, loose mass. Add more water in 1/4-cup increments if necessary to achieve this texture. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place a large kitchen towel over it. Let stand in a warm, draft-free place for about 2 hours, or until doubled in bulk.
3. Fill a large, deep pot halfway with olive or other oil and heat to 375°F (180°C).
4. To shape the loukoumades traditionally: Lightly oil your hands with olive oil. Take up a handful of the dough about the size of a tennis ball; the dough will be loose, elastic, stringy, and yeasty. Clench your fist around it loosely. Have a cup of olive oil nearby to dip a tablespoon in. Squeeze out a knob of the batter between your curled-up index finger and thumb, scoop it up with the oiled tablespoon, then drop it carefully in the hot oil. Repeat with several more.
5. To shape the loukoumades with 2 tablespoons: Oil 2 spoons. Lift a little bit of dough up on one and push it off the spoon and into the hot oil with the other oiled spoon. Drop several balls at a time into the oil. Don’t overcrowd.
6. As soon as the dough puffs rise to the top and are light golden brown, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat until all the dough is fried. Replenish the oil if necessary.
7. Plate about 10 loukoumades and drizzle with honey. Sprinkle with cinnamon and walnuts. Serve.