Greek cuisine among world's healthiest

Cookbook on Greek food a manual for living a long, happy life

NPR's Morning Edition recently reported on a study published in The British Medical Journal that concluded that eating ultra-processed foods harms our health. The study, which was based on data compiled from more than 9 million people, found "consistent evidence" that people who consume high amounts of ultra-processed foods have an increased risk of anxiety, depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, colorectal cancer and premature death. This information should be a loud wake-up call, considering that more than 70% of the food supply in the U.S. is made up of ultra-processed foods and that manufactured foods comprise two-thirds of the food we feed our children and 60% of an adult's diet.

Ultra-processed foods are packaged foods and beverages that are made flavorful and enticing by the addition of chemically manipulated ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup, artificial emulsifiers and thickeners, artificial colors and flavors, saturated fats, protein isolates and preservatives. These so-called food products usually contain high amounts of salt and little real whole food. Ultra-processed foods exist because they are convenient, affordable and accessible to people who don't have the time or resources to prepare meals from scratch using fresh foods. And deplorably, they are aggressively marketed to children.

The dramatic rise in chronic diseases and the increasing pervasion of ultra-processed foods into our modern diets have prompted many to attempt to "find a way back" by studying ancestral (pre-industrialized) diets and examining the diets of people living in "Blue Zones." Blue Zones are regions in the world where people live much longer than the average. The name is derived from a demographic study in which the researchers used a blue pen to encircle areas on a map with the highest concentrations of people who have lived to at least 100.

One of the five Blue Zones is the Greek island of Ikaria, the subject of a new cookbook by Diane Kochilas, the host of the television series "My Greek Table." More than just a book of recipes, The Ikaria Way: 100 Delicious Plant-Based Recipes Inspired by My Homeland, the Greek Island of Longevity is a manual for living a long and happy life. It is believed that the longevity of Ikarian inhabitants (more than one-third live past 90) is due to strong social and family ties, exercise integrated into daily life, frequent napping, and, of course, the foods they eat.

Greek cuisine is considered one of the healthiest in the world. Kochilas explains that the traditional Greek diet is predominately plant-based, though most Greeks would not consider themselves vegetarians. Animal protein is consumed in smaller quantities and often plays a supporting role in a dish, rather than being the main ingredient. Red meat, especially lamb, tends to be eaten just a few times a month and on special occasions. Instead, Greeks eat more vegetables, fresh or dried fruits, nuts, and legumes such as fava beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas. They use olive oil instead of butter, honey rather than sugar, fermented dairy (cheese and yogurt) rather than milk, and sourdough bread rather than pasta. This way of eating has been shown to lower risk factors for health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure.

The recipes in The Ikaria Way are simple, almost entirely plant-based, and do not require any processed ingredients. Some of the dishes contain surprising pairings, such as the asparagus and strawberry salad, yogurt cucumber soup with walnuts, and orzo pilaf with pistachios and currants. I recommend The Ikaria Way for anyone interested in learning the longevity secrets of one of the world's healthiest and longest living cultures or for those that wish to incorporate more plant-based dishes into their diets.

Kochilas writes,"Food equals pleasure, and cooking is the vehicle for delivering that. In the spirit of Ikaria, that means sharing a plate or two with friends, drinking some wine, creating a ritual around the table that involves simply sitting down, taking a breath, and respecting the meal in front of us enough to put away our gadgets and focus on what we're eating."

The Ikaria Way's Chickpea stew
With Honey-roasted Cauliflower and Root Vegetables
Serves 6

Ingredients for the sheet-pan vegetables:
Fresh strained juice of 1 orange
½ cup extra-virgin Greek olive oil
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Greek pine honey, or more to taste
2 heaping teaspoons ground cumin
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 heaping teaspoon turmeric powder
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne or hot paprika, or more to taste
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into small florets
2 carrots, pared, halved lengthwise, and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 large red onions, peeled and quartered

Ingredients for the chickpeas:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin Greek olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 large red or yellow onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
4 cups cooked chickpeas (good-quality canned are fine), rinsed and drained
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
1 small seedless orange, preferably organic, cut into 4 wedges
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
2 to 4 cups hot vegetable broth or water, or more as needed
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar


Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the orange juice, olive oil, mustard, honey and all of the spices including the salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables in this mixture to coat evenly. Spread the vegetables in one layer onto the sheet pan. Roast until tender and lightly charred, about 20 minutes, removing vegetables as they cook to avoid burning them. Set aside to cool and then cut into smaller pieces, a little larger than the chickpeas.

In the meantime, prepare the chickpeas: Heat the olive oil in a large wide pot and sauté the onion until translucent. Stir in the garlic. Add the chickpeas and stir. Stir in the tomato paste. Squeeze the orange wedges into the chickpeas to get out their juice and add the wedges, peel and all, to the pot. Add the rosemary and 2 cups of hot broth or water. Season to taste with salt and pepper, partially cover the pot and cook the chickpeas on low for the flavors to meld – about 15 or 20 minutes. If you want the mixture to be thick and creamy, you can mash a handful of chickpeas against the side of the pot.

Add the root vegetables to chickpeas, heat all together for about 5 minutes, stir in the balsamic vinegar, and serve.

From The Ikaria Way, by Diane Kochilas. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.

Peter Glatz

After the passing of his wife, Julianne (former Illinois Times food columnist), Peter Glatz decided to retire from a 40-year career as a dentist to reinvent himself as a chef at the age of 66. In his short culinary career, he has worked at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Elizabeth Restaurant, Oklahoma City’s Nonesuch...

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