When organic vegetables are ripe and in season, or
cooked to perfection—with their natural sugars coaxed
out of them and combined with other savory ingredi-
ents—eating healthfully becomes a labor of love.
It’s one of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet is
Agrarian festivals were celebrated in many parts of
the region since antiquity. In Italy, those festivals are
called sagre, or “sacred,” and they are still held today.
Originally held in honor of the gods, they now com-
memorate the harvest of a particular food and may
be combined with a patron saint; other times they are
celebrated specifically for their culinary attributes. In
ancient Rome, there were 182 sacred days, many of
them with their own foods.
Today there are hundreds of sagre for garlic, wild as-
paragus, fennel, prickly pears, chile peppers, white truf-
fles, cheese, tomatoes, onions, and more. During the
festivals, farmers, chefs, housewives, artisan producers,
and entertainers provide their services for members of
the community. Whole families gather for what have
become some of the most important social events on
the calendar. Children growing up in an environment
such as this are fortunate because, just by attending
a sagre, they are exposed to vegetables prepared in
countless ways—and they receive a valuable culinary
education at a very young age.
Italy, however, is not alone in its ingenious use of vege-
tables. The art of being able to prepare a single vegeta-
ble in numerous ways is prized throughout the region.
In Turkey, for example, there is a legend surrounding
the dish Imam Biyaldi or “The Imam Fainted.” Legend
has it that once upon a time an honorable Imam who
was also an eligible bachelor wanted to choose a wife.
The single women of the town lined up to meet him.
Each woman who stood before the Imam, known to
be a fan of eggplant, was asked to prepare as many
eggplant dishes as she could. One of the women
prepared forty, including the Imam Biyaldi—which was
apparently so intoxicating that it made the Imam faint.
Whether the story is true is up for discussion, but it
does drive home the point that versatility with vegeta-
bles makes a better spouse.
Mediterranean cooks are masters at vegetables, and for
good reason. Meals are not planned around protein,
as in the United States and western Europe. Cooks in
the Mediterranean begin planning a meal based on the
produce that is in season. Meat, fish, seafood, poul-
try, and dairy are thought of as accompaniments, and
produce is the foundation of an entire meal.
Home cooks and professional chefs in all regions of the
world can take inspiration from their Mediterranean
counterparts by first considering which vegetables to
prepare. This shift in mindset alone will encourage
vegetable intake. In addition to experiencing their great
tastes and textures, eating a wide variety of vegetables
ensures maximum vitamin and mineral intake, as well
as more fiber and less fat in the diet.
The average American eats only 57 percent of the
recommended amount of vegetables daily, and only
6 percent eat the amount that they should. This is a
shame because eating vegetables is one of the easiest
ways to stay healthy and in shape. We should be
consuming four to five different types of fresh vegeta-
bles daily, preferably of different colors, to ensure the
widest range of nutrients.
Vegetables naturally have high levels of water, making
them virtually fat free and low in calories. Consuming
vegetables helps to maintain blood pressure levels as
well as the digestive, skeletal, and excretory systems.
The antioxidants in vegetables help keep cancer,
cardiovascular problems and strokes at bay; vegetables
deliver vitamins, including folate, vitamin A, vitamin K,
and vitamin B 6 , as well as antioxidant carotenoids such
as beta carotene from carrots, zeaxanthin from greens,
and lutein from spinach and collard greens.
Different-colored vegetables provide different nutrients
and benefits. Green leafy vegetables, for example, are
high in magnesium and a have a low glycemic index,
making them especially important for those with type II
diabetes. In fact, eating just one serving of green leafy
vegetables each day has been shown to lower the risks
associated with diabetes.
Vegetables also contain minerals and phenolic fla-
vonoid antioxidants. A deficiency in these particular
nutrients can lead to problems with vital organs,
bones, and teeth. Quercetin is a bioflavanoid that
produces anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory powers
Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli
have a high content of indoles and isothiocyanates.
These components have protective properties against
colon cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, and other
types of cancers. Vegetables are also great options for
consuming dietary fiber, which makes you feel fuller for
longer, preventing overeating and helping to maintain
a healthy weight.