Recipes: Improve heart health with the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is a rigorously tested diet that has been proven to prevent heart disease and diabetes. Picture: Shutterstock
The Mediterranean diet is a rigorously tested diet that has been proven to prevent heart disease and diabetes. Picture: Shutterstock

Heart disease is the single leading cause of death in Australia. Every one of us either has or knows someone who has a common risk factor of heart disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

Diet is a key factor in preventing and reducing the risk factors of heart disease. Scientifically backed by decades of peer-reviewed research, the Mediterranean diet is a rigorously tested diet that has been proven to prevent heart disease and diabetes, help with weight management, and promote longevity.

Sustainable, satisfying and suitable for the whole family, this is a diet that is a proven pathway to better heart health as much as it promotes long-term good health and well-being.

The Heart Health Guide, by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos. Macmillan Australia, $34.99.

The Heart Health Guide, by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos. Macmillan Australia, $34.99.

The 10 key principles of a Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is a cuisine and a way of life, not a fad diet promising unrealistic weight loss or health benefits in one week. It is described as a plant-based diet - though it does include meat and fish; it has a plant to animal food ratio by weight of 4:1. In comparison, the typical Western diet has a plant to animal food ratio of 1:1.

1. Fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens and tomatoes, are consumed in abundance. And teas made from fresh herbs are also common, as is Greek mountain tea (tsai tou vounou*).

2. Fresh fruit every day and nuts, seeds and dried fruit as snacks between meals.

3. Lots of legumes, which are a key source of protein.

4. Dairy in moderation, though fermented dairy foods such as yoghurt and feta cheese are consumed most days.

5. Fish, especially small-fin fish such as sardines and anchovies are consumed often, especially in areas surrounded by sea.

6. Red meat is consumed less often, chicken and eggs in moderation, with game meats such as wild hare and free-roaming goats preferred.

7. Extra-virgin olive oil is the main added fat and is consumed in salads and all cooked and fried meals.

8. Wholegrain bread, preferably sourdough, to mop up juices from salads and casseroles.

9. Wine is consumed in moderation, and always with meals.

10. Sweets often made with nuts and honey, but only on special occasions.

*Also known as ironwort, this tea is a member of the Sideritis genus of plants, which translates to "he who is made of iron". It has anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Greeks drink it in the winter and use it as herbal medicine.

  • The Heart Health Guide, by Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos. Macmillan Australia, $34.99.
Cauliflower and broccoli with cannellini beans. Picture: Rob Palmer

Cauliflower and broccoli with cannellini beans. Picture: Rob Palmer

Cauliflower and broccoli with cannellini beans

Seasonal vegetables cooked in a rich tomato sauce with onion, garlic, herbs and extra-virgin olive oil are often called yiahni-style in Greek. This dish swaps out the common green beans for cruciferous vegetables and legumes to boost protein and fibre.

Ingredients

1/4 cup olive oil

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 small red chilli, halved, deseeded and finely sliced

300g cauliflower, cut into florets

300g broccoli, cut into florets

1 cup puréed tomato

3-4 fresh bay leaves

2-3 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 x 400g tin cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

2 cups boiling water, as needed

dried oregano

fresh herbs, if on hand

Method

1. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat and sauté the onion and chilli for one to two minutes, or until they start to soften.

2. Add the cauliflower and broccoli florets to the pan and sauté for five minutes. Add the tomato, bay leaves, parsley and garlic, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the cannellini beans and stir well.

3. Pour in enough boiling water to cover the vegetables and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked through.

4. Taste, and add the oregano to your liking. Adjust the seasonings if necessary and serve with the fresh herbs, if on hand.

Tip: Pair this dish with the sourdough bread to mop up the sauce, or a leafy green salad for a lower kilojoule option.

Serves 4.

Seasonal vegetable bake with goats feta. Pictue: Rob Palmer

Seasonal vegetable bake with goats feta. Pictue: Rob Palmer

Seasonal vegetable bake with goat's feta

On a recent trip to the Greek island of Zakynthos my husband, Savvas, and I rented a house. Our welcome basket included eggs and local extra-virgin olive oil as well as fresh vegetables from the garden: zucchini, eggplants, capsicums, onions, cherry tomatoes and herbs. I was inspired to whip up this seasonal vegetable bake and it tasted delicious! This dish can be baked in the oven or prepared in a casserole dish with a lid and cooked on the stovetop. Baking the vegetables for a longer time allows them to caramelise and produce a richer flavour.

Ingredients

2 red onions, quartered

200g baby zucchini, halved lengthways

200g baby eggplants, halved lengthways

100g long green chillies, deseeded and cut into 2cm pieces

100g green capsicum, deseeded and cut into 2cm pieces

1 small red chilli, halved, deseeded and finely sliced

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tomatoes, grated (see tip)

200g cherry tomatoes, halved if large

2 cups boiling water

1 tbsp oregano leaves

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

50g goat's feta, crumbled

fresh herbs, if on hand

Method

1. If you plan on baking this dish rather than cooking on the stovetop, preheat the oven to 180C.

2. Place the onion, zucchini, eggplant, green chilli, capsicum and red chilli in a large flameproof casserole or baking dish over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Sauté for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables start to soften.

3. Add the grated tomato and cherry tomatoes along with the boiling water to the dish. Season with the oregano and salt and pepper, then cook over a low heat for 30 minutes, or bake for 45 minutes.

4. Before serving, crumble the feta over the baked vegetables and garnish with the fresh herbs, if on hand.

Tip: Grating tomatoes: Adding beautiful ripe tomatoes to dishes not only improves the flavour of the dish. Just halve fresh tomatoes then carefully grate the cut side of each half.

Serves 4.

Kangaroo meatballs and spaghetti. Picture: Rob Palmer

Kangaroo meatballs and spaghetti. Picture: Rob Palmer

Kangaroo meatballs and spaghetti

This dish is a variation on the traditional Italian spaghetti and meatballs, but uses kangaroo mince for that Australian-Mediterranean twist. Kangaroo is a very lean meat, rich in iron and low in saturated fats. It's a great way to enjoy meat dishes using local free-range produce.

Ingredients

300g kangaroo mince or other lean mince such as veal

1 red onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tomato, grated

2-3 coriander sprigs, finely chopped

2-3 flat-leaf parsley sprigs, finely chopped

1 small green chilli, halved, deseeded and finely chopped, optional

1 tsp finely grated ginger

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 egg

3 tbsp gluten-free breadcrumbs

500g wholemeal spaghetti (or gluten-free if preferred)

finely grated parmesan cheese, to serve, optional

Sauce:

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 small red onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 cup puréed tomato

1 cup boiling water

1 fresh bay leaf

Method

1. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Place the mince in a bowl with the onion, garlic, tomato, herbs, chilli (if using), ginger, olive oil and salt and pepper. Mix well using clean hands. Add the egg and breadcrumbs and mix again until well combined.

2. Using lightly oiled hands, roll small portions of the mixture into walnut-sized balls. place on the baking tray, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to one hour.

3. When ready to cook, heat some extra olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Once hot, gently place the meatballs in the pan and fry until lightly golden on all sides. The meatballs can be partly cooked through as they will continue to cook in the sauce. Once golden, remove and place on a plate covered with kitchen paper to drain any excess oil.

4. To make the sauce, place a large saucepan over a medium heat and add the olive oil. Sauté the onion for a few minutes, then add the garlic, tomato, water and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for five minutes until piping hot. Add the meatballs to the pan and continue to simmer for 10 minutes. Add a little extra boiling water if the sauce appears too thick.

5. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add salt and a few drops of olive oil. Cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions, or until al dente, then drain.

6. Serve bowls of spaghetti with the meatballs and sauce on top. Sprinkle with the parmesan, if desired.

Serves 4.

Portokalopita: Greek orange cake. Picture: Rob Palmer

Portokalopita: Greek orange cake. Picture: Rob Palmer

Portokalopita: Greek orange cake

As I've grown older I've learned that cake is not only for birthdays. Especially this one, which is full of healthy Mediterranean ingredients: extra-virgin olive oil, yoghurt, citrus and aromatic spices.

Ingredients

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing

375g frozen filo pastry, thawed

1 1/3 cups golden caster sugar

1 cup hick Greek-style yoghurt

zest 2 oranges

300ml freshly squeezed orange juice

1 tsp vanilla extract

ground cinnamon

1 tbsp baking powder

Syrup:

zest 1 orange

juice 3 oranges (about 300 ml)

1 cup raw sugar

2 cups water

4-5 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

To serve, optional:

1 tbsp thick Greek-style yoghurt

fresh berries or fruit

icing sugar, for dusting

ground cinnamon, for dusting

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Oil the base and sides of a deep 20 x 20cm cake tin with olive oil. Set your filo pastry out on a clean benchtop so it can dry out while you are making the cake.

2. Combine all the syrup ingredients in a saucepan over a high heat. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

3. Meanwhile, pour the olive oil into a mixing bowl, add the golden caster sugar and beat with an electric mixer until the mixture is pale and the sugar is completely incorporated. Add the yoghurt, orange zest and juice, vanilla extract and a few pinches of cinnamon, and continue beating until the mixture is smooth. Add the baking powder and mix through.

4. Tear the filo pastry into small pieces and fold these into the batter before spooning into the oiled tin. Bake for 45 minutes. Pierce the centre of the cake with a skewer; if the skewer comes out clean, the cake is cooked, if not, cook for another few minutes and test again. When the cake is out of the oven, use the skewer to poke holes all over the cake. Pour over the cooled syrup and allow to cool completely.

5. Slice and serve the cake with the yoghurt, fresh fruit and a dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon, if you like.

Serves 12.

This story Improve heart health with the Mediterranean Diet first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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