Southern Italian Food: Why You Need It In Your Kitchen Right Now



The multitudinous benefits of the “Mediterranean Diet” are pretty much well-known and documented these days, and there is no better example of this healthy way of living than the cuisines of Southern Italy. From the seafood-stocked shores of Campania to the olive grove-studded mountains of Abruzzi to the fertile meadows of Sicily, the inhabitants have for centuries enjoyed the benefits and satisfactions of cuisines derived directly from the land and sea around them.

This is the essence of “locavore” living, a trendy phrase on so many culinary pundits’ lips these days; but the Italians have been blithely embodying that concept through countless generations of farmers and fishermen and hunters. Each region has evolved its specific emphases in diet based upon what grows, lives, and thrives there, what can be raised and harvested and caught.

The linchpin for these southern regions is the golden green pressings of the fruit of the olive tree. Olive oil is present on every table, generously lavished on and in a multitude of dishes, and even used for beauty products and treatments. Exports of the oil provide a sound basis for local commerce. And many studies have suggested that the health benefits of this monounsaturated oil are central to the efficacy of the Mediterranean way of life.

But that perceived advantage is also the natural result of a balance and harmony that flows from the combinations of available foodstuffs that create each regional cuisine. Whole grains and vegetables and fruits predominate, embellished with proteins specific to each area and climate.


The mountainous interior regions, like Basilicata and Abruzzi, feature lamb and goat as their primary protein sources, as well as the glorious cheeses that accompany them. Coastal regions such as Puglia (the “heel” of the boot) and Calabria (the “toe”), with their extensive coastlines, rejoice in a plenitude of seafood – from red mullet and swordfish to mussels and squid. And throughout the countryside are flourishing crops of wheat for bread and pasta, vegetables such as eggplant and artichokes and fennel, and fruits and nuts like pistachios and citrus and grapes.


The philosophy of food here is clean and straightforward – simple combinations of fresh, high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. The cuisine is inextricably entwined with patterns of nature, and is dictated by seasonal offerings and daily life.

And this, I think, is the real lesson we can learn from this particular ethnic kitchen, and is indeed the pertinent aspect of the Mediterranean diet for those of us seeking to improve our health, our lives, and our world. First and foremost, source foodstuffs locally as much as possible. Then, seek out the freshest and best available; emphasize vegetables and grains and fruits, and allow proteins a co-starring role in our meals instead of placing them in the lead; and most importantly, just keep it simple.

You don’t have to live in the south of Italy to enjoy the benefits of their way of life. Just follow their centuries-old signposts to healthy living… And never stint on the olive oil!

Baked Halibut w/ Roast Cherry Tomatoes, Basil, & Pine Nuts

This quick & simple dish from the oven perfectly exemplifies the Mediterranean diet at its best…

1 1/2 lbs. halibut filet
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pint organic small cherry tomatoes (I use Sweet 100’s)
1/4 cup shredded basil leaves
1 tablespoon pine nuts
Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Cut halibut into four equal portions. Place on parchment-lined sheet pan and oil both sides of fish pieces with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake in oven until cooked through but not dry, anywhere from 14 to 18 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. Transfer to warm serving platter or individual plates.

On another foil-lined small sheet pan, place tomatoes and drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Roast in same oven for 15 minutes, until soft but still whole. Toss with basil and pine nuts and salt & pepper to taste; spoon over fish and serve.


Quinoa w/ White Corn, Sugar Snaps, & Italian Parsley

A perfect accompaniment to the halibut, or serve over greens for a light luncheon…

1/2 cup white quinoa
1 cup water
1 ear white corn, kernels cut off
1 cup sugar snap peas
1/4 cup roughly chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon Meyer lemon juice
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Bring water to boil in small saucepan, add quinoa, reduce heat and simmer until all water is absorbed, about 10-12 minutes.

Steam sugar snaps until just past crunchy, about 90 seconds; rinse in cold water, and cut them in half.

Toss together quinoa, corn, sugar snaps, & parsley with lemon juice & olive oil and salt & pepper. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

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