Italian-Americans don't really eat a proper Mediterranean Diet. They do eat lots of vegetables and olive oil, but the diet has too much cheese and pasta. A big plate of baked ziti with a side of iceberg lettuce is not proper Italian food. Over the years, we've tossed out some bad habits from the Bronx Italian days and gone back to old school cooking.
Here are some tips:
1. In order to concentrate on cooking lots of vegetables, I simplify the meat dish. I make something that takes ten minutes to heat up, like sausage, some ham or a piece of fish that only needs salt and pepper. Or I'll buy a rotisserie chicken.
2. Buy the gallons of olive oil and store it in a dispenser like this one. Do not get one of those mister oil dispensers. They get all gummed up and you really need more oil than a mist. Never use vegetable oil or butter.
3. Always have garlic at home and store it in a special jar in your cabinet, like this one. Own a garlic press, but don't be afraid to simply slice up the garlic in slabs and fry them up before you add your vegetables.
4. An essential pantry: dried red pepper flakes, cumin, curry, oregano, bay leaves, various pre-mixed FRESH spice combos (not McCormick crap), garlic powder, tons of cans of Italian (not Hunt's) tomatoes, jars of red peppers, jars of artichoke hearts, jars of sun dried tomatoes, cans of beans, boxes of chicken and beef broth, pasta, rices (not Uncle Ben's or any bleached white stuff), couscous, tuna.
5. I always have the following items in the fridge: onions, peppers, carrots, celery, lettuce, olives, and potatoes. Then I fill up the fridge with whatever fruits and vegetables and fresh herbs look happy in the supermarket. Right now, everything looks a little sad, so I drive to Whole Foods and get their frozen versions of vegetables. I especially love their frozen kale and collard greens, because it's already cleaned and chopped.
6. OK, back to the cooking part. Let's talk about the carbs. I always have a side of carbs (pasta, rice, couscous, or potato), but they are never stand-alone dishes. I mix them heavily with herbs, spices, and/or vegetables.
For example, I'll make a box of plain couscous. Maybe I'll throw in half a brick of bullion to add a little flavor. I'll serve the plain stuff to the kids with a little parm cheese. Then I'll saute onion and garlic in olive oil, add zucchini, add spices, add a can of beans, and then mix the rest of the couscous with that.
Another example. I'll peel a potato, chop it into big chunks, and then boil it. I'll add a little butter and some parsley to half of the potatoes for the kids. Then I'll spice and vegetable up a version for Steve and myself.
7. Always have a salad and a cooked vegetable. My mom did that. I do that.
8. This is very time consuming stuff, but that's the way it is supposed to be. Dinner is about more than shoving fuel down the gullet. It's family time. There are no shortcuts.
9. One of my biggest changes in the past few years is the types of cheese that we consume. I stopped buying mozzarella, except for the hand-made stuff as a treat. I stopped buying cheddar and swiss. I go for little nuggets of highly flavorful stuff like blue cheese or feta. I sprinkle that stuff liberally on salads, vegetables, and carbs. I'm not making foods where the primary component is cheese, like lasagna or Mexican stuff.
10. I buy desserts for the kids that I don't like. Ice-cream doesn't do anything for me, so that's what the kids get after dinner. If I remember. Mostly, we forget to give the kids any dessert.
11. Learn how to cook vegetables. I think most people hate vegetables, because they cook them badly. They are too droopy or under seasoned. By doing easy meats and carbs, I've concentrated my efforts on the vegetables. Thanks to my CSA, I was forced to learned how to deal with the beet this summer. Now we love them.
Anyway, we eat like this, because it tastes good, not because we're on a diet or anything.
It is very time consuming, and I certainly couldn't do this if I was getting home at 8 every night. I suppose it is a luxury in this day and age. But I am home at the moment. I've got the kids doing homework in the kitchen, so I'm cooking and doing homework assistance at the same time. Working friends cook like this by spending an entire Sunday preparing meals for the week.