This book came at a perfect time for me. My family had been getting bored of my usual recipes, and I was looking for different, healthy recipes to expand our dinner repertoire. With Family Friendly Mediterranean-style Cooking by Dr. Arnold Slyper—a pediatric endocrinologist—I was not disappointed.
As the title promises, the recipes are family friendly, with simple instructions, quick preparation, and ingredients you’re likely to have in your home, for the most part. (I did, however, have trouble finding whole-grain jumbo pasta shells.) A few of the dishes have already become favorites. For instance, the first time I made the lentil base of the Turkey Meatballs, Lentils and Mint, it was devoured before I even had a chance to prepare the meatballs. (Note: make the meatballs first, as the recipe suggests!) Some recipes are perhaps a bit adventurous for me. For example, I would never have thought to microwave a banana, as in the Baked Banana in the desserts section. I also have to admit to having a little trouble with the whole-wheat crust used in many of the quiches—it came out crumbly and dry, and I had to add additional water and oil—but then again, pie crusts have never been my forte.
The book opens with a short description of the Mediterranean style of eating (a more in-depth explanation of the “Mediterranean Diet” comes later, after the recipes), which Dr. Slyper describes as meals that often consist of vegetables, starches and protein, all cooked or served together. This makes it easier to moderate intake of meats and other proteins, while simultaneously boosting intake of vegetables and whole grains. He includes recipes that are a bit surprising for a Mediterranean cookbook—like the Asian-inspired Chicken Stir Fry with Peanuts or the Burrito Grande—because they fit this meal profile as well. There is even a recipe for cholent! Nutrition analysis of nearly all the recipes—listing the carbohydrate, calories, fat, saturated fat, fiber and sodium per serving—is a nice bonus, something not typically found in cookbooks by frum authors. What is missing, however, are photos to accompany most recipes; only sixteen photos are included, and only in the center of the book.
The author steers readers away from low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets—discussing how these have contributed to the obesity epidemic—and directs them to increase their intake of fat.
Some sixty-odd pages following the recipes are devoted to explaining the Mediterranean diet and how to use it to improve your health. The “diet” is more of an eating pattern, common in Mediterranean countries, that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, whole grains and alcohol in moderation. I was surprised not to see more of an emphasis on fish, which is a prominent part of the Mediterranean diet, and such a healthful protein. While Dr. Slyper includes a section on fish and discusses it in relation to heart health, no fish dishes are included in the first “Mediterranean Style Eating” section.
Dr. Slyper clearly believes in this mode of eating and follows his own recommendations. In line with up-to-date guidelines, he steers readers away from low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets—discussing how these have contributed to the obesity epidemic—and directs them to increase their intake of fat. Enjoy eggs and whole milk again, he explains, reviewing current research on both cholesterol and high-fat dairy—the latter a topic on which he has authored a scientific paper. He is more liberal with saturated fat too, again based on scientific research that suggests it may not have the relationship we once thought it did with heart disease.
Dr. Slyper’s plan for weight loss is balanced. He advocates slow weight loss—which you’re more likely to maintain—while regulating intake of carbs, pushing for more fiber to further assist with weight control. Fiber is prominent in the recipes, via both whole grain and vegetable components. In an effort to be realistic, since whole-wheat pasta can be unpalatable to many who are used to refined pasta, he recommends starting with the pastas that are a blend of both white and whole grain.
However, fiber on its own does not transform a food into a health food. A number of the desserts are muffins and cakes “remade” with additions of whole-wheat flour and fruits or vegetables, boosting fiber and nutrient content—like the zucchini and sweet potato cake, which includes a cup of grated zucchini, a cup of grated sweet potato and a cup of chopped walnuts—along with one and a half cups of sugar. While the vegetables and nuts infuse a dose of nutrients into otherwise empty calories, it’s important to understand that it is still a dessert and should be consumed in moderation.
The section on carb regulation is well done. Many people struggle with overeating carbohydrates, so monitoring carb intake can be a realistic weight-control solution, as Dr. Slyper indicates. On the other hand, Dr. Slyper explains why low-carb dieting is not a solution for long-term weight loss. He offers a simple primer on carb counting for weight control (too basic for use for diabetes blood sugar control). As with any weight-loss program, consult your physician first, especially if you are considering Dr. Slyper’s pediatric recommendations for weight control.
A Mediterranean diet book would be incomplete without an examination of the cardiovascular benefits of the diet. He rounds out the discussion by covering antioxidants, different types of fats, fish, soda and salt. Readers will likely appreciate the specific brand names he lists for high and low glycemic foods, as well as the lists of carbohydrate content in a variety of different foods—a handy reference for anyone carb-counting. Finally, he provides pages and pages of scientific references to support the diet recommendations he makes.
Reading through all the chapters in one sitting could perhaps seem repetitive, as similar topics are covered in more than one chapter. The reading material in the book may be best used as a reference, as each chapter stands on its own, with clear sub-headers that make it easy to browse and read what looks interesting or relevant. Consider putting tabs into the sections with lists or references, so they’re easy to find.
Overall, this is a book that a home cook who is interested in health—and in knowing why specific ingredients or recipes are healthy—would enjoy.
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer in Memphis, Tennessee.