My family is a family of foodies. We savor flavors, and love trying new ethnic cuisines. But as much as we love the adventure of trying new places, we definitely have favorite places or cuisine types that we fall back on time and again when we want to eat out. All of us love Indian food, but we’re not always all in the mood for it. We all love Italian, but again, we’re not always all up for it when we want to go out for dinner. Same with Ethiopian. But when we want to go out, and nothing’s invoking the same level of enthusiasm in everyone, there’s one thing that never has anyone object: Lebanese.
One of the best things about living in the Metro Detroit area is that we have readily available some of the best Lebanese food in this country (I have not been to Lebanon, but I am assuming the Lebanese food is pretty good there, as well). It’s simply delicious. The hummus, the tabbouleh, the fresh, deep green romaine salads with just enough tomatoes, cucumber and red onion to keep it interesting, tossed in salad dressing with lemon, olive oil and mint flavors peeking through – wow! Fresh smoothies made from strawberries, banana and a little mango juice. Grilled vegetables. Chicken shawarma – marinated and grilled shaved pieces of chicken, topped with a little garlic sauce. Sauteed cauliflower with caramelized onions. Vegetable ghallaba – julienne peppers, onions, mushrooms, garlic and carrots sauteed with an allspice-infused broth. Lentil soup, crushed or whole, with a squeeze of lemon over the top.
All of the above happily fits into the category of the “Mediterranean Diet” that is touted for its health benefits. But not everything in a Mediterranean restaurant fits into that “healthy” category. The deep-fried potatoes are not tops on the healthy list. Layers of phyllo dough and butter also do not top the list of good-for-you foods. The research showing the benefits of a Mediterranean diet does not assume an eating pattern heavy on lamb, beef, fried potatoes and baklava. To keep the it’ll-make-you-live-forever type benefits from what you order, stick to the vegetables and a little chicken or fish. Choose restaurants where they use olive oil rather than butter (or request that they use olive oil instead of butter when they prepare your meal).
Some of the foods in Lebanese restaurants can have a lot of sodium. Mediterranean countries are hot. When it’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and you don’t have air conditioning, most people’s bodies could use some extra salt. In more temperate climates, and when you are not away from air-conditioning for extended periods during the summer, the excess salt is not necessary, and can cause or exacerbate health issues in many people. (Note: speak to your doctor about how dietary sodium specifically affects you, considering your individual medical and health situation.) When in a Labanese or other Mediterranean restaurant (or any restaurant, for that matter), you can request that they make your dishes with less salt. Also, when you prepare this type of food at home, you have complete control over the salt content, as well as the type of oil, and you can use whole grains rather than white flour.
At our favorite local Lebanese places, there is a major not-necessarily-super-nutritious temptation: the fresh, oven-baked pita bread. I am well aware that it is not whole-grain, but it is so good that it’s worth an occasional splurge. As I’ve said before, if I’m going to splurge on something, it’s going to be really good. The pre-packaged, flat, white-flour pita from a plastic bag does not provide the taste bud tantalization for me to be worth eating, so I skip it. But a piece of the soft, hot, yeasty, puffy, fresh-baked stuff? Completely worth it. And after I have a piece of it, I switch to using pieces of red onion to dip into the rest of the hummus (red onion dipped in hummus is really good – you’ve got to try it). I have plans to someday try making my own pita with whole grain flour. It needs a really hot oven, so I think I’ll attempt it using my outdoor grill – I’ll let you know how it goes when I try it. And if you try it first, please pass along any advice.
So find a great Lebanese restaurant (you may have to try a few), and enjoy! And enjoy making the stuff at home, too!