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Turning Toward a Healthier Lifestyle Through Mindful Nutrition

By Mary Abitanto | Photography by the author

I am Jersey-born and raised and a true Jersey girl at heart. Growing up, I spent every summer on Long Beach Island at our shore house, only a stone’s throw away from the beach. One of my most cherished memories is shopping at the local farmers market in Viking Village located in Barnegat Light, a quaint little fishing town. The small farmers market there carries fresh-from-the-farm produce. My dad and I would pick the ripest tomatoes, corn, eggplant, and figs. The long-awaited first bite into a juicy, red-fleshed fig — oh how I love that taste. It’s a memory that will be forever etched in mind.

Now that summer is upon us, my family looks to our own vegetable garden for healthy meal planning inspiration. The plethora of local farmers markets can also serve to inspire our palates to eat more healthfully by choosing what’s fresh and in-season. Eating fresh and seasonal foods will provide us with the best nutritional profile for our foods. New Jersey’s summers are renowned for our vibrant produce. The array of fruit and vegetables is vast: strawberries, blueberries, ripe tomatoes, sweet corn, juicy peaches, and a selection of melons, as well as yellow, orange, red, and green peppers — to name just a few. New Jersey is of course known as the Garden State, a name derived from the abundance of farms, agricultural research laboratories, and fresh produce in our state, with a side of industrialization, as those of us who fly into Newark know. According to njdigitalhighway.org, the nickname suggests that agriculture remains the dominant characteristic of the state’s economy through the present day.

As a health, wellness, and fitness enthusiast, I am committed to living a healthy lifestyle through mindful nutrition. My eating style leans toward the Mediterranean lifestyle, which is something I discuss in my newest cookbook, Nourish — Celebrating Nature’s Harvest & A Healthy Lifestyle, which launched in the spring and is available on Amazon. According to Samara Kraft, MS, RDN, CDCES, a local area nutritionist (alphacise.com), “a Mediterranean-style diet includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grain breads and other grains, potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, olive oil, dairy products, eggs, fish, and poultry. We can enjoy small amounts of red meat and sweets in moderation.” Adaptations can be made to desserts by swapping unhealthy fats like butter for healthy fats like olive oil.

Choose organic fruits and vegetables, when possible, to avoid unnecessary chemicals and pesticides. The Dirty Dozen list is published every year and advises which conventional produce to avoid due to pesticides. Regardless, always wash fruit and vegetables. Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar diluted in water and allow fruits and vegetables to soak for 10 minutes. Scrubbing tough-skinned produce like apples or peppers is advisable.

*Note: The 80% rule, also know in Japan as “hara hachi bu,” means to stop eating when you are 80% full.

From the End Zone to the Blue Zone

These days, at least in my home, we talk a lot about the end zone (a little football reference), but have you heard of the blue zone? This is another popular, well-studied eating style that scores big health benefits. The original concept was coined by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic explorer and journalist after an expedition in Okinawa, Japan, in 2000, where he investigated the region noted for higher longevity. It was the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. He then furthered his exploration into blue zones by traveling the world in search of people with higher rates of longevity who were enjoying a better quality of life into their old age. They identified a few regional hot spots as blue zones, all of which shared specific lifestyle habits. Many of us who maintain a healthy lifestyle are likely incorporating some of these healthy habits into our life, but let’s delve further to identify the lifestyle markers.

Choose organic fruits and vegetables, when possible, to avoid unnecessary chemicals and pesticides. The Dirty Dozen list is published every year and advises which conventional produce to avoid due to pesticides. Regardless, always wash fruit and vegetables. Add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar diluted in water and allow fruits and vegetables to soak for 10 minutes. Scrubbing tough-skinned produce like apples or peppers is advisable.

The longest-lived people were identified as being from the mountainous territory of Barbagia in Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, a Greek Island in the Aegean Sea; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; Loma Linda, Calif.; and Okinawa, Japan. The common denominators they all share are shown in the chart below, most of which are self-explanatory.

Barbagia, Sardinia, has the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians, a rare population of individuals who reach 100 years or older. They experience delays in aging-related diseases and mortality which is indicative of a strong, high-functioning immune system. But even more importantly, residents of this area are geographically isolated. They maintain a traditional lifestyle consisting of hunting, fishing, and harvesting their own food. They remain close with friends and family throughout their lives. They laugh and drink wine together and have a strong sense of community.

People in the blue zones eat a variety of seasonal garden vegetables, and then pickle or dry the excess to be enjoyed off-season. The top-tier longevity foods are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beets and turnip tops, starchy tubers, chard, and collard greens combined with seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans which dominate blue zone meals all year long. Olive oil is often used in the blue zones. Some evidence suggests that olive oil consumption increases good cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol.

The Blue Zones diet, unlike the Mediterranean diet, is 95 percent plant-based with the inclusion of animal-based foods like meat just 5 percent of the time, with two ounces or less about five times per month. Fish is limited to only three small servings per week, and dairy, including eggs, no more than three times per week. Those in the blue zones drink mostly water, up to seven cups a day, and drink wine in moderation. Beans are consumed daily, up to a half cup per day and reign supreme on blue zones diets. Beans are a consummate superfood. Beans are so versatile, especially chickpeas — you can use them to make hummus and dips, and add them to soups, salads, and cookies.

The Blue Zones diet limits sugar unless it is from fruit, where it occurs naturally. Milk tends to be avoided due to lactose intolerance. Nuts are great snack foods. Bread is enjoyed and only consumed if it’s sourdough or 100 percent whole grain (wheat, rye, or barley), not refined flour, something we can be mindful of as we choose flour to make bread or pizza. For more, visit bluezones.com/recipes/food-guidelines.

The Peacock Inn serves fresh sea scallops from the fish market located in Viking Village. Agricola Eatery offers Barnegat Bay scallops. Both menus are bursting with flavor and offer a great variety from which to choose. I love the Foie Gras Pâté at The Peacock Inn and the Wild Mushroom Pâté at Agricola.

Drink Up

People in the blue zones drink up to seven glasses of water per day. An interesting fact — Sardinians, Ikarians (Greece), and Nicoyans (Costa Rica) all drink copious amounts of coffee. Research has associated coffee drinking with lower rates of dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Green tea is enjoyed by all. Wine is enjoyed by people in the blue zones in moderation and mainly during social visits and meals.

Picking a Good Quality Olive Oil

According to Seasons Olive Oil and Vinegar Taproom, a New-Jersey based business that has stores in Pennsylvania and Maryland, the timing of the olive harvest makes a difference in flavor and quality. As olives ripen during the summer months, they begin to mature and soften and turn from a deep green color to more of a greenish-straw color — this is the perfect time to harvest them to produce premium quality oils that have the most flavor and polyphenol content.

Extra virgin olive oil is the highest grade and purest quality olive oil available. The best way to identify a good olive oil is to dip some bread into it and taste it. If there is no aftertaste, it will be good for cooking or finishing meals. It should taste fresh, fruity, and have some bitterness and pungency. Choose oils in glass jars so there is no reactivity, and the oil will maintain its quality. Use olive oil for cooking, adding to salads, and in baking in place of butter. I love olive oil cakes infused with orange or lemon essence. For more ideas, visit seasonstaproom.com.

I hope the following recipes inspire you to cultivate your own vegetable garden this summer. Gather with cherished friends and beloved family. Toss some pizzas on the grill, pour some vino, and sit around the table laughing and listening to songs by Zac Brown Band like “Grandma’s Garden,” a metaphor for life. With care and love we can cultivate a beautiful and bountiful garden. Cheers to a happy, healthy, and fun-filled summer enjoying nature’s bounty in all its glory.

For more cooking tips, check out my blog at marioochskitchen.com and follow me on Instagram @marioochcooks. Note: This article is not recommending specific diets, but is sharing dietary trends. Disease prevention is a multi-pronged approach. As always, consult with your medical provider regarding any medical concerns.

Pasta Nerano (Spaghetti alla Nerano)
By Chef Roseangela Atte
Serves 4 to 6

Chef Rosangela Atte, a professionally trained Italian chef, graciously offered this recipe to me to be featured in my cookbook Nourish — Celebrating Nature’s Harvest & A Healthy Lifestyle. We share Italian heritage, and love to cook and eat. This style of eating lends itself to Mediterranean cooking and using what’s fresh and in season, so use those zucchinis and the basil from your vegetable garden this summer!

Pasta Nerano, also known as Spaghetti alla Nerano, is a pasta dish invented in the Italian village of Nerano, on the Sorrento Peninsula where Rosangela spent many summers. The coastal road along the Amalfi coast is one of the marvels of Italian scenery. Citrus groves, vineyards, and olive groves cascade down the cliffs toward the sea, where curve after curve opens to incredible breathtaking views of the Gulf of Naples. Having visited there, I can attest to its beauty. It is one of the most enchanting and magical places in Italy. If you visit, bring your walking shoes.

This is a three main ingredients meal, brought together with the starchy pasta water to create a light, creamy, and delicious dish reminiscent of the quaint and picturesque town of Nerano.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. zucchini, thinly sliced widthwise (about 3 medium zucchinis)
  • ½ lb. shredded Provolone Del Monaco (or half aged Pecorino Romano and half Caciocavallo)
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb. spaghetti (or gluten-free spaghetti)
  • Basil chiffonade or basil ribbons (or chopped fresh parsley)
  • 1 fresh garlic clove
  • Ground sea salt

Also needed:

  • Medium-sized non-stick pan
  • Tongs

Add half the olive oil to the pan and swirl it around to completely cover the bottom. Allow it to heat for 5 minutes on medium. Fry the zucchini slices in the olive oil until golden brown, add sea salt, then flip to the other side and cook until golden. Drain on a paper towel. Do this in batches.

Add the remaining olive oil to the pan. Smash a garlic clove and add it to the olive oil. Heat on medium until golden and discard. This will infuse some flavor into the oil.

Cook the pasta according to package directions until it is a few minutes away from al dente. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water.

Place the pan on the back burner to avoid splashing hot oil and add the pasta to the oil and stir continually. Then add the pasta water, most of the zucchini (reserve some for plating), and a few basil leaves.

Through the process of continually mixing the water and oil, two immiscible liquids (a little food science), the pasta will become luxuriously creamy. Once the pasta starts becoming creamy, turn the heat off and slowly start adding the cheese, stirring between every addition. Make sure the cheese emulsifies with the starchy pasta water and becomes creamy by continually stirring.

Note: If you cannot find Provolone Del Monaco, use a combination of aged Pecorino Romano and Caciocavallo cheeses.

Once all the cheese is fully incorporated, you are ready to plate. Garnish with the remaining zucchini slices and basil leaves.

Pizza on the Grill

Cooking on an open fire is reminiscent of rustic outdoor living and something you would do if living in a remote location where a stove or inside oven isn’t available. This pizza can be made on the grill and is a nod to rustic outdoor living. It is charred to perfection and the crust is crisp and delicious. It is truly a multi-sensory experience: the smell from the fire and fresh herbs; the crunch of the crust; the vibrant pizza; and the earthy, smoky, charred taste of each slice. It’s a symphony of flavors in one bite!

Quick-Rise Pizza Dough Ingredients:

  • Yields 3 small pizzas (allow 1 hour for dough to rise)
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour or whole wheat flour (or “00” flour made in Italy)
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons quick rise (or rapid rise) yeast
  • 1¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1¼ cup lowfat milk
  • 1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon or more extra virgin olive oil

Pizza Toppings:

  • 2 cups fresh mozzarella cheese, diced
  • 2-3 cups jarred (or homemade) tomato sauce
  • Turkey pepperoni, small slices (optional)
  • Seasonings: oregano, salt, red chili flakes
  • Hot honey (optional)

Other ideas for toppings include using a white bean puree, sliced red onions, and a shaving of Pecorino Romano cheese. Once cooked, load each slice with arugula and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I love the 18-year aged balsamic vinegar from Seasons Olive Oil and Vinegar Tap Room.

Other Essentials:

  • Clean dish towel
  • Clean, lightly floured work surface
  • Platter for raw pizzas
  • Large wood board for cooked pizzas
  • Stand mixer with hook attachment
  • Two spatulas
  • Small bowls for toppings and sauce

Prepare the Dough: Combine the dough in the stand mixer bowl with hook attachment. Mix for 5 minutes or need by hand for 10 minutes. Cover tightly and place in a warm spot to rise. Rise time will be roughly 45 minutes.

Note: Feel free to omit the dairy and substitute it with more water until the dough comes together and is no longer dry. Drizzling a little at a time is a good idea.

Grill Preparation: While the grill is off, brush the grill grates with olive oil or drench a paper towel in olive oil and rub onto grill grates using tongs. Be thorough, so pizza does not stick.

Next, heat the grill up to 450 degrees or higher — allow it to heat for 15 minutes.

Split the dough ball into three pieces. Press the dough out using your fingertips. It will be more of a flatbread-style pizza with a little crust edging. Transfer the formed pizza dough to a platter.

Once the grill is hot, transfer the pizza dough (top side down) onto the greased grill using two spatulas. Heat 2-4 minutes. Close the lid while it’s cooking. Next, flip the pizza (press out any air bubbles with the spatula), add the toppings, and heat an additional 4-5 minutes with the lid closed. Transfer the cooked pizza onto a wood board using clean spatulas. Serve the pizza right off the grill.

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