The benefits of the Mediterranean diet have long been known but are back in the news following a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The journal reported on a study that showed a link between those living in Mediterranean countries and a reduced rate of many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and even Alzheimer's. The diet focuses on consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, as well as monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocados.
Local food coach and registered dietitian Pamela Kelle is familiar with the diet's benefits, so I had a few questions to ask.
Q: What are the main foods in the Mediterranean diet, and why are they so good for you?
A: First, the Mediterranean "diet" is not a diet. Rather, it is a lifestyle and eating pattern that promotes the immune system and reduces inflammation. The main foods on this diet plan are plant-based and include a large variety of fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, avocados, squashes, apricots, eggplant and peppers. Research has shown time and time again the benefits of vegetables and fruits for reduction of heart disease, a reduced risk for certain cancers and the mortality of cancer. New studies are looking at Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's as well.
Q: What is it about olive oil that plays such an important part?
A: Olive oil is a plant fat that is monounsaturated, not saturated as animal fats are, which means there is less risk overall for cardiovascular disease. It may actually help lower the cholesterol type called LDL -- commonly known as the "bad" cholesterol compared to HDL, the "good" cholesterol. LDL typically is associated with the risk of heart disease.
Monounsaturated fats such as olive oil may also help increase HDL, which is known as a "protective" factor against cardiovascular disease and inflammation in general.
Q: How much olive oil should one consume?
A: I'm sure too much can be harmful, right? Olive oils can be used in salad dressings, instead of mayonnaise; as an accompaniment for breads, instead of butter; and in light sauté cooking, instead of other vegetable oils. But the servings contain the same calories as other fats, so moderation is the key because healthy does not mean calorie-free.
While on the subject of olive oils, did you know you can "adopt" your own olive tree growing in an Italian orchard? Four times a year, the grower will send you three 16.9-ounce tins of oil pressed from olives picked from your tree. That's 12 bottles annually of what would undoubtedly be the freshest olive oil available.
This program was started by Nudo, a family-run cooperative of 15 small olive producers in Le Marche, Italy. Members choose their own tree from a gallery of Nudo groves, learn about the grove's local farmer and pick an olive oil variety based on tasting notes from Nudo.
The Adopt-An-Olive-Tree program is $49 per quarter. The oils you will receive are:
• Spring: First cold-press extra-virgin olive oil from your tree.
• Summer: A rare monovarietal olive oil made from Piantone di Mogliano olives.
• Fall: A delicate extra-virgin olive oil from the finest Nudo groves.
• Winter: Freshly pressed and unfiltered olio nuovo, specially blended and stone-ground.
The price, which includes shipping, may sound steep, but have you priced high-quality olive oils lately? If so, you'll find that $49 for three large tins of oil is not out of line. For more information, log onto www.nudo-italia.com.
Here's a recipe from "From the Olive Grove," by Helen and Anastasia Koutalianos. It makes the most of both fresh summer vegetables and olive oil combined for a flavorful dip.
Fresh Eggplant Dip
1 large whole eggplant
2-3 garlic cloves
1 large tomato
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Sea salt, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Make 3 to 4 slits lengthwise in the eggplant, and insert garlic cloves into slits. Make some slits in the side of the tomato as well. Place the eggplant and whole tomato on a lightly oiled baking sheet, and bake until soft. The tomato may soften before the eggplant. Remove the tomato when soft, then let the eggplant become soft. Remove when done, about 45 minutes.
Remove baking pan from oven, and let eggplant cool. Remove and discard skins from the eggplant and tomato. In a food processor, blend the roasted eggplant and tomato, then add remaining ingredients and blend until smooth. Makes 2 cups.
And let's bring some much-anticipated restaurant news: The long-awaited opening of Ruth's Chris Steak House is just days away.
Mark your calendar for Monday evening and get ready for some of the best steaks in town. And don't forget to order the incredible sweet potato casserole as one of your sides.
If you're of a mind, the blue cheese dressing is out of this world, so go ahead and get a salad, too.
I can't wait. I was at Harrah's in Cherokee, N.C., a few weeks ago and walked into Ruth's Chris. The restaurant was packed, even on a Monday night, which isn't the top time for eating out.
Now that Ruth's Chris is opening in Chattanooga, we can go anytime we want without having to make the drive out of town.
Ruth's Chris is on the first level of the new Embassy Suites hotel at 2321 Lifestyle Way at the corner of Shallowford Road near Hamilton Place. Reservations are already being accepted, so call 602-5900 to get your name on the list.
If you haven't stopped by the local Krispy Kreme store at 5609 Brainerd Road lately, you're in for a treat. That is, if you love chocolate and caramel.
Through the first of September, Krispy Kreme will feature three varieties of hand-dipped and handcrafted doughnuts topped with smooth caramel, sweet chocolate and salted pretzels.
• Caramel Chocolate Chip Cake: These chocolate cake doughnuts are topped with Ghirardelli chocolate chips and caramel icing.
• Chocolate Caramel Pretzel: The doughnuts are filled with chocolate cream blended with Ghirardelli chocolate sauce, topped with caramel icing, salty pretzels and a caramel drizzle.
• Dark Chocolate Caramel Kreme Doughnut: These doughnut shells are filled with gooey cream blended with Ghirardelli caramel sauce. Topped with dark chocolate icing flavored with Ghirardelli cocoa and a caramel icing twirl.
Remember, get them through Sept. 1.
Email Anne Braly at email@example.com.