Mediterranean Inspiration – a chat with cookbook author Amy Riolo

Last Friday I wrote about cooking a Mediterranean Thanksgiving with friends using recipes from The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook. It made me want to learn more about Mediterranean food and culture – and the reasons author Amy Riolo wrote this book. As a food historian, Amy has researched what was eaten by royalty in history and then used her findings to create menus for dignitaries across the globe. Perhaps that’s why her food makes me feel so special – like royalty – when I tried her recipes!

What inspired you to write a Mediterranean cookbook geared toward people with diabetes?

My mother was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when I was in high school. I was in charge of cooking for the family. When she came home with her list of “forbidden foods” from the doctor, I immediately made a new list of “permissible” foods that she liked. Then I reviewed scores of cookbooks and family recipes for inspiration. I made her a meal plan based on her lifestyle and began cooking for our whole family that way.  It’s hard to believe that The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook was already in the works 20 years ago!  If I could do this at age 15, anyone can do it.

Do you have to have diabetes in order to enjoy these recipes?

Definitely not! This is the way I like to eat at home. I call it “healthy by accident.” Each of the recipes has a nutritional profile that will explain dietary exchanges and portion sizes for people with diabetes. Those who do not have diabetes can adjust portion sizes and mix dishes as they best see fit. I realize that most people struggle to get homemade meals on the table today. It is completely unrealistic to expect that someone would cook one way for themselves and a different way for their family. I set out to make these recipes pleasurable for the whole family to prepare and eat together.

What are some of the main Mediterranean ingredients? If someone is just starting to eat Mediterranean foods, how should they stock their pantry?

Main Mediterranean ingredients are always based around seasonal produce – fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. Local availability determined what people ate and people usually shop at open air markets or got produce from their own farms.

Pantries were developed as a method to supplement the fresh produce with grains, legumes and preserved foods that would be stored through the winter. The truth of the matter is that a well-stocked pantry can save you time, money, and stress and encourage you to eat healthfully.  The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook includes a section called “Starting a Mediterranean Pantry” with lists of basic items and tips for building and keeping a well-stocked pantry.

What are the benefits of Mediterranean food to people with diabetes?

In the Mediterranean region, food is viewed as a traditional medicine and a blessing. It is all about incorporating a healthful lifestyle and approach to food along with healthful cuisine. In our culture today, food is viewed as an evil temptation and a curse. This sets people up for failure.  Many of the foods which are plentiful in the Mediterranean, like fresh seasonal produce, seafood, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats are beneficial to most diets.

What advice would you give to people who are wary of new foods and flavor combinations?

The great thing about Mediterranean cuisine is that Americans are already familiar with most of the flavor profiles thanks to the popularity of Italian, French, Spanish and Middle Eastern cuisine today. When people need to change their diets, the first thing that occurs to them is that they will miss a lot of their favorite foods which no longer fit into their dietary needs. This is where we have to re-educate ourselves and research the foods we like that also happen to be good for us. By seeking out new (healthful) flavors, people get to satisfy their adventurous sides while finding dishes that satisfy their dietary requirements. Often times they may like them even better than the old ones – and they are happy with the changes.

What’s your favorite spice/food/flavor?

That’s a really tough question – like asking an artist to pick a favorite color.  I go through yearly phases.  One year it’s pure Egyptian cinnamon, another it will be freshly crushed cardamom or anise or z’ataar (Middle Eastern wild thyme).  I love spices because of their historical component. I think my current phase is cloves. I love them in desserts with fruits, chocolate, and coffee…and also in savory spice mixes.

My favorite food is pasta. At the end of the day there is nothing more satisfying to me-usually I top it with fresh herbs and seasonal produce, nothing fancy, just whatever I feel like and have on hand.

My favorite flavor is coffee. For me coffee, Turkish coffee and espresso should be their own separate food groups. I still remember the day my grandmother let me have my first sip… I felt like such an adult, as if I were part of an elusive club. Even though I drink it each day, there is always something special and ceremonious about it.

What foods and meals do you remember from when you were growing up?  Did anything change after your mother’s diagnosis with type 2 diabetes?

The meals that I remember most from my youth were large, Italian American and Greek American holiday dishes.  My grandmother’s Easter bread.  Roasted lamb with potatoes in tomato sauce.  My mother’s meatballs and lasagna. Most of the dishes I remember are Sunday or “holiday” dishes – not things we splurged on every day.

Most of the “ethnic” dishes that Americans eat (especially in restaurants) tend to be the more fattening holiday foods. That’s because they taste the best and are the most famous. Many of the ethnic cookbooks contain these recipes as well because they are what people remember from year to year and they are important demonstrations of culture.

With The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook I took a completely different approach. I wanted to familiarize my audience with what people in the region eat for regular meals during the week. In addition to tasting great, these dishes are quick to prepare.

You’ve been called “Cook to the Kings” – certainly not an easy name to come by! For whom have you cooked?

Yes, I got that title from a Cairo newspaper called “Ain” or “Eye.” It’s kind of like a People magazine that does profiles on celebs. At the time I had just published my first cookbook Arabian Delights: Recipes and Princely Entertaining Ideas from the Arabian Peninsula. I wrote that book after being a guest of The Royal Protocol in Saudi Arabia so I got to stay in a lot of guest palaces. I wrote about my experiences there, and people were really intrigued by how lavishly royalty entertains there.

I have created menus for ambassadors, presidents, royalty, politicians, and leading business people.  A lot of protocol goes into these types of events. You have to make sure that guests are honored and that menus are always lavish, unique, and appropriate to the occasion.

At the end of the day, however, you have to remember that it is taste that people really remember. If a certain person really loves grilled cheese, you’ve got to find a way to make the world’s best -tasting gourmet grilled cheese please them.

My favorite thing to do is to recreate the historically important royal dishes for my family and friends.  Just before we sit down to a meal I say, “This dish was created for Sultan Murad IV in Turkey… and now I’ve made it for you!”

If you could tell the world one thing about diabetes, what would it be?

That people with diabetes can enjoy the pleasures of the palette and a healthful lifestyle.

Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us, Amy!

Don’t forget – you can get 20% off The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook if you use promotion code BLOG20 before November 21st (taxes, shipping and other discounts excluded).

As the Egyptians say, “Bil hanna wi shefa! [With pleasure and health!]”

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