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3 Recipes to Help You Stick to the Mediterranean Diet

Posted at 3:29 PM, Feb 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-04 17:29:02-05

Recently, US News & World Report ranked the Mediterranean diet as the "Best Overall Diet" for 2019 and it`s getting a lot of attention in the media and social media. What is the Mediterranean Diet and why is it getting attention?

(Scroll to the end for the 3 recipes.)

Brittany Bingeman, associate professor at Utah State University Extension and registered dietitian, stopped by to give us the following information:

The Mediterranean Diet is actually not anything new and it`s actually not a "diet." It is a pattern of eating that has been studied since the 1950's on the Greek Island of Crete. Studies have found that populations who follow this eating pattern - primarily in the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea - have less risk of certain chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and a longer life expectancy.

What foods are included in the Mediterranean Diet? There is variability among the types of spices and foods prepared in countries along the Mediterranean Sea which span from Italy to Northern Africa, but there are some commonalities. The eating pattern is primarily plant-based and includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and unrefined whole grains. These foods are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Olive oil is the main source of fat. Nuts, olives, and beans and lentils are also eaten frequently. Dairy, such as feta cheese and yogurt, are included daily in lower amounts, and fish, eggs, and poultry are included weekly. Red meat and sweetened desserts are eaten sparingly, perhaps only a couple of times a month. Foods are mostly cooked at home, meals are eaten socially with others, and foods are eaten mindfully and savored.

What kind of flavors will you find in Mediterranean eating? Again this varies by country, Mediterranean foods includes a variety of herbs and spices, which also contain antioxidants. Herbs and spices that we are more familiar with include cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, paprika, and allspice. More unusual spices include sumac, which has a sour, citrus flavor, and za'atar which is a blend of sumac, thyme, and toasted sesame seeds, and may include other spices such as oregano, marjoram, and cumin.

Stuffed Cabbage & Quinoa Rolls

1. This is an example of plant-based recipe that is primarily vegetables and whole grains, contains several herbs and spices, and uses a smaller amount of cheese for flavoring.
2. We have been simmering our tomato sauce for a few minutes. We used canned tomatoes since tomatoes are not in-season, but you could certainly use fresh tomatoes in the summer. We've added a little vinegar, sugar, salt and spices - oregano, nutmeg, and cinnamon. It needs to simmer about 8-10 minutes total.
3. While the tomatoes are cooking, we are going to make our filling. In this mixing bowl, I have 2 cups of quinoa. Quinoa isn`t really a traditional Mediterranean grain, but it is a great example of an unrefined, whole grain. It`s also higher in protein than most other grains and it is gluten free so it`s appropriate for people with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. You could use other grains like couscous, farro, or brown rice.
4. We are going to add ½ cup crumbled feta cheese, 3 Tbsp. chopped mint, and 3 Tbsp. chopped kalamata olives, which give it a Mediterranean flavor.
5. Over here we have some pre-steamed cabbage leaves. We heated about 2.5 cups of water in a large skillet to a boil, then added the leaves, covered and steamed them for about 5 minutes. Cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable that`s an excellent source of vitamin C and it contains fiber and antioxidants.
6. Now I`m going to add about ¼ cup of the quinoa mixture to each cabbage leaf and roll it to make a cabbage roll.
7. We will then add it to the pan of simmering tomatoes with the open end down and I`m going to cover it and simmer for another 5-7 minutes.
8. In this other pan, we have several cabbage rolls that are fully cooked and I`ll go ahead and place two on the plate to serve.
9. We have an example of how to pair this with a green salad with a balsamic/olive oil vinaigrette dressing and a healthy dessert.

Benefits of making a salad dressing from scratch:
1. This is a simple homemade dressing made from balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Olive oil is the primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet. Extra virgin olive oil is rich in antioxidants and it is a monounsaturated fat which helps promote healthy cholesterol levels is associated with heart disease prevention.
2. To make a homemade dressing, you can start with an acid base - vinegar or vinegar plus lemon juice, add herbs or spices - we've added minced garlic - a little salt, some mustard to help bind the ingredients, and a little honey for a sweetener. Then you whisk in the olive oil. The traditional ratio is 1 part acid to 3 parts oil, but I find that using equal parts oil and vinegar is still delicious and it reduces the calories. Making a salad dressing from scratch is easy, free of preservatives, and it`s often less expensive than store bought dressing.

1. In the Mediterranean diet, sugary sweets are rarely eaten for dessert. Instead, fruit is commonly eaten as dessert - it could be fresh, grilled, poached, or baked. Here we just have some plain berries and we've topped them with a delicious lemon ricotta cream. You simply take part-skim ricotta cheese, add lemon juice lemon zest, vanilla extract, and honey and process it in the food processor and it makes a delicious whipped topping.

For more information and recipes visit the Utah State University Extension website. The mission of Utah State University Extension is to bring research-based information from the University to every county in Utah to improve lives of citizens. We teach community classes on a variety of topics including gardening, cooking, nutrition, healthy relationships, family finance, and food preservation. For information about USU Extension and to find classes near you, visit or


Mediterranean Quinoa Cabbage Rolls
Recipe adapted from Eating Well:
Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 10 MINUTES
Cook Time: 30 MINUTES
Total Time: 40 MINUTES

8 large cabbage leaves (green or savoy)
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup quinoa (dry)
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup minced onion (about ½ onion)
3-15 oz. cans diced tomatoes, low sodium
2 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
3 Tbsp. Kalamata olives, chopped
3 Tbsp. chopped mint, plus more for garnish

Bring 2½ cups water to a boil in a large skillet. Add 4 cabbage leaves, cover, reduce heat to medium-high and simmer until softened, about 5 minutes. Carefully remove cabbage leaves with tongs and transfer to a clean plate. Repeat with remaining 4 cabbage leaves.

While the cabbage is cooking, rinse quinoa thoroughly under cool running water. Bring quinoa and 1 1/3 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 15-20 minutes until quinoa is done.

Transfer the second batch of cabbage leaves to the plate with the first batch. Pour water out of the skillet and dry the pan. Heat oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté 3 minutes until onion starts to turn translucent. Add garlic and cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add canned tomatoes with juice, vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, salt, and 2 Tbsp. water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile stir feta, olives, and 3 tablespoons mint into the quinoa. Spoon about ¼ cup of the quinoa mixture into each cabbage leaf. Roll into a bundle, tucking in the sides. When the tomato sauce is ready, add the cabbage rolls, open side down. Cover and cook until the rolls are hot all the way through and the cabbage is tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Serve the cabbage rolls topped with the sauce. Garnish with mint, if desired.

Homemade Balsamic Vinaigrette

Yield: 6 servings
Prep Time: 10 MINUTES
Total Time: 10 MINUTES

¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 small garlic clove, minced
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
¼ cup olive oil

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together balsamic vinegar, minced garlic, Dijon mustard, honey, salt, and black pepper until combined. Gradually pour in the olive oil and whisk until combined.

Whipped Lemon Ricotta
Recipe adapted from A Thought For Food:
Yield: 6 servings
Prep Time: 10 MINUTES
Total Time: 10 MINUTES

2 cups part-skim ricotta
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of half a lemon
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 cups mixed berries


Add ricotta, honey, vanilla extract, lemon zest, lemon juice and salt to the bowl of a food processor. Process until ricotta is smooth and 'whipped.' Serve on top of berries.

1. Dennett, C. (2016, May). Key ingredients in the Mediterranean diet - the nutritious sum of delicious parts. Today`s Dietitian, 18(5), 28. Retrieved from
2. Ferraro, S. (2018). The Weeknight Mediterranean Kitchen. Salem, MA: Page Street Publishing.
3. Toups, K. (n.d.). The Mediterranean diet. Today`s Dietitian: Learning Library. Retrieved from