Giant Beans with Spinach, Tomatoes and Olives

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 By now, you hopefully know the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. But what does the real Mediterranean diet look like? Learn all about it in today's post, as well as a recipe for giant beans stewed with tomatoes, spinach and olives. 

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again.  Diets just ain’t my thang.  As the saying goes, rules are meant to be broken.  If you decide to follow a diet with strict guidelines, more than likely, you’ll do a better job finding the loopholes than following the actual diet.  On  your fat free diet, you pass on French fries, only to binge on fat free cookies and jelly beans.  You decide to take the Atkins approach, until your portions of meat start to look like Fred Flintstones.  Okay, so it wasn’t the carbs, but rather the gluten.  Pretty soon, you're spending your life savings to fuel your addiction to gluten-free pretzels and gluten-free cookies, all made with refined gluten-free flour of course. 

Generally, I like to apply bits and pieces of various mainstream diets to my usual diet (and my clients) to see what works best.  One of the mainstream diets I draw pretty heavily from is the Mediterranean diet.   It received quite a bit of press recently when a large study reinforced its heart healthy benefits over other mainstream diets.  Earlier studies on the traditional Mediterranean diet have shown benefits for heart disease, cancer, diabetes prevention and longevity.   Most importantly, the food is delicious!
Please know the real Mediterranean diet is not the same thing as our Americanized, or the Olive Garden version, as I like to call it.  The Mediterranean diet encompasses the traditional diets of countries located on the Mediterranean coast.  Not just Italy and Greece but Spain, France, North Africa, Turkey, and Israel among others.   Their native dishes vary, but the one thing they have in common is a minimally processed diet with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, fish, olive oil, nuts & seeds.  Herbs and spices are frequently used for flavoring.  Dairy is typically consumed from cheese and yogurt, and in smaller amounts.  Sweets, red meats, and processed foods are rarely eaten, at the most a couple times a week.  The Mediterranean diet isn’t just about food – there is also an emphasis on the pleasure of eating and savoring meals with family and friends.  
Can you see why I’m such a fan?  Lets take a closer look at the components of the Mediterranean diet.    

 

Vegetables

Local, seasonal vegetables are the backbone of the Mediterranean diet.  Vegetables are often prepared very simply flavored with olive oil and lemon.  The most popular Mediterreanean vegetables tend to be strongly flavored ones, like eggplant, bitter greens, fennel, and artichokes.  Not only are these vegetables delicious, but the compounds that give them their strong flavor are healthy phytonutrients.   Pungent vegetables, like onions, leeks and garlic are used liberally, not just to flavor foods but as the vegetable dish itself.  Most commonly, vegetables are prepared simply with plenty of extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and lemon juice or stewed with a flavorful tomato sauce.  You won't find vegetables casseroled with condensed cream soups.  For a creamy fix, vegetables are tossed in a thick Greek yogurt and garlic sauce.   My favorite Mediterreanean vegetable dishes are stuffed vegetables, like peppers and eggplants, which are often filled with grains, beans, and more vegetables, or sometimes, small amounts of meat.  

Broiled Eggplant in Dill and Yogurt Sauce Chermoula Eggplant with Bulgar  Fiery Kale with Garlic and Olive Oil Greek Potato and Olive Stew   

Fruits
Common fruits in the Mediterranean diet include figs, oranges, pomegranates, pears, berries and cherries.  Fresh fruits are commonly consumed as dessert or snacks.  If they're feeling a little fancy, the fruit might be poached in wine or a light syrup, stewed in a compote or baked into a lightly sweetened pastry or cake.  Fruits, especially dried fruits, are incorporated into savory dishes, like grains or stews.

Red Grape, Olive Oil and Polenta Cake  Orange Spice Fruit Compote Blackberry Sangria Sorbet  Israeli Couscous Pilaf with Currants and Walnuts

Olive oil Always extra-virgin.  Used as both a cooking fat but also a flavoring ingredient.  Olive oil is often used as a substitute for butter in both baking and for dipping bread.    Flavored Olive Oil Rosemary Olive Oil Cake Spanish Mashed Potatoes with Olive Oil

Whole Grains The Olive Garden version of the Mediterranean diet may be based on white pasta and all you can eat breadsticks, but real Mediterranean cuisine is rich in whole grains.  Although now most bread and pasta is made from refined flours, traditionally, whole grain flour was used.  Despite the increase in refined flour, many other whole grains have a starring role in Mediterranean cuisine including faro, barley, brown rice, bulgur and polenta.  Whole grains are often tossed with other flavorful ingredients, like aromatic vegetables, spices, herbs, dried fruit, and of course, olive oil.  Grains are often served as a side dish, stuffed into peppers or eggplant, or in a stew. 

Pizzocheri (Italian Buckwheat Pasta) Mediterranean Farro Salad Greek Greens and Polenta Pie Beef and Bulgur Pilaf

Fish Naturally, being located on the Mediterranean sea, fish and other seafood is consumed regularly in Mediterrean cuisine, at least twice a week.  Oily fish, with their higher omega 3 content, are preferred.  Most frequently, fish is grilled, stewed or roasted.  If they fry it, generally it's a light pan fry with a thin, flour crust. 

Moroccan Sardine Balls in Spicy Tomato Sauce Tuna Nicoise Recipe Chorizo Crusted Cod and Beans with Arugula Pesto Pan Fried Greek Fish

Nuts & Seeds Nuts are seeds may be used as a snack, but more commonly, as an ingredient in cooking.  Nuts may be mixed into pilaf or salads.  Nuts are also used to thicken sauces.  The most popular nuts in the Mediterranean diet are pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and pistachios. 

Beans Bean are a daily staple, not only as a side dish but also as the protein food in meals.  Common beans include chickpeas, cannellini beans, lentils and my personal favorite, gigantes beans, which I know my brother wants to bring me back a huge bag of from Italy for my Christmas stocking (hint hint).  Beans are often pureed into dips, like hummus or cooked with other vegetables in a casserole, stew or soup, as in the recipe I'm sharing today.
Wine
No, I’m not encouraging you to become a lush.  But wine in moderation does have it’s health benefits, especially red wine.  Enjoy a small glass or two sipped slowly over dinner.  If you struggle with the whole moderation thing, splurge on a bottle that's a little more expensive than you would normally purchase.  Not only will you enjoy it more, but you'll find it easier to slow yourself down.  Obviously, if you are taking any medications that interact with alcohol, your doctor has told you not to drink for medical reasons or you cannot control your intake, don't drink.  You can get health benefits elsewhere. 

Giant Beans with Spinach, Tomatoes and Olives
Author: Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE
Serves: Serves 4 as a main, 6 as a side dish
I found giant lima beans at Whole Foods in the bulk section. In the past, I've had a difficult time finding them. You could substitute regular lima beans or even cannelini beans, but the cooking times will change. Adapted from [url href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/health/giant-beans-with-spinach-tomatoes-and-feta-recipes-for-health.html"]the New York TImes. [/url]
Ingredients
  • 1/2 lb (a rounded cup) dried giant lima beans
  • 
1 1/2 quarts water (10 cups for those of you who can never remember conversions, aka me)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 
1 onion, peeled and halved
4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 10-ounce bags frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed of excess water
  • 3 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 leek, white and light green part only, halved lengthwise and sliced
  • 1 bunch scallions, trimmed and chopped
  • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/2 cup chopped dill
  • 1 28-ounce can tomato puree
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup chopped kalamata olives
Instructions
  1. Combine the beans, water, bay leaf, onion, and garlic in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes. Add salt, and simmer about 15 more minutes until al dente - tender, but firm in the middle. Remove from heat. Using tongs, remove the bay leaf and onion. Leave the garlic in. Place a strainer over a large bowl and drain the beans, collecting the bean broth in the bowl.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof pot. Add the leek and scallions, cooking until tender, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in the spinach, parsley, dill, half the tomato puree, 2 cups of bean broth and half of the olives. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in another tablespoon of olive oil. Spread the remaining tomato puree over the top and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and the remaining olives. Cover and place in the oven.
  3. Bake 1-2 hours (I baked mine about an hour and fifteen minutes) until creamy, but not falling apart. Add a little more bean broth if it dries out too much - you want it casseroley not soupy or stewy.
  4. Remove from oven and serve with a crusty, whole grain bread for wiping the bowl clean.