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Mediterranean-inspired meals

September 19, 2023 | Valerie Elwell
Mexican Green Shakshuka served in cast iron pan with baked tortilla chips on the side.
This healing green shakshuka will add some spice and Mexican food flare to your next breakfast or lunch. Photos by Jessica VanRoo.

You needn't live near the sunny shores of the Mediterranean Sea to reap the benefits of what is widely regarded as among the world's healthiest diets.

Created by studying the eating habits of people living in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and other southern European countries, the Mediterranean diet is rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, lean protein, seafood and heart-healthy fats that have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, including stroke and heart disease.

Rated the best overall diet for six years straight by U.S. News & World Report, it is also linked to the prevention of type 2 diabetes, may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and reduce the risk of dementia.

"The Mediterranean diet promotes healthy weight because it is high in dietary fiber that helps speed and improve digestion and aids in satiety, " says Katie Rankell, director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program. "It is also low in saturated fats that increase bad cholesterol levels."

These easy, colorful recipes — created by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health — give a great introduction to a Mediterranean-style eating plan.

Mexican Green Shakshuka

Mexican Green Shaksuka displayed on white plate with corn chips and a cast iron pan to the side.

Serves 4 (Total cost: $3.25/$0.81 per serving)
Calories: 371 per serving

Shakshuka (shahk-SHOO-ka) is a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast and lunch dish consisting of baked eggs and tomatoes, originating in Tunisia. This green shakshuka recipe combines a healthy, plant-based approach with a Mexican flare.

Tomatillos look like little green tomatoes but they are actually quite different. Native to Mexico but produced all around the world for their exquisite tangy, citrus flavor, they are a great source of dietary fiber, as well as vitamins A, C and K, niacin, potassium, manganese and magnesium. They're also high in lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene, which are essential for eye health.

Tomatillos super healing powers come from a group of compounds called withanolides, which are known for their antioxidant, antitumor and anti-neurodegenerative properties. Withanolides have anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to improve symptoms of osteoarthritis and other inflammatory diseases and they are being studied for their potential to kill cancer-causing cells.

The recipe also calls for jalapeños, whose spicy kick comes from capsaicin, which helps decrease inflammation. Add chopped, crushed or minced garlic and onions, and you release beneficial sulfur compounds such as allicin that help lower blood pressure as well as low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the bad cholesterol that can clog arteries.

The cruciferous vegetables such as the kale or spinach in this recipe are high in sulforaphanes, compounds known to protect against multiple cancers. To maximize absorption of these beneficial compounds, cut the vegetables and let them sit at least 10 to 15 minutes before eating or cooking.

The finishing touch, lime juice, not only adds the perfect citrus notes to bring out all the flavors, it also boosts the absorption of iron from the vegetables.


Quick-roasted tomatillo salsa:

  • 2 pounds tomatillos, husks removed      
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 jalapeños, stemmed
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • 3-5 tablespoons lime juice, to taste


  • 1 tablespoon avocado or extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup diced onion
  • 2½ cup tomatillo salsa, homemade or store-bought
  • 4 ounces baby spinach or kale, roughly chopped
  • 4 eggs
  • ⅓ cup crumbled cotija or feta cheese
  • 1 avocado, sliced for garnish
  • Baked tortilla chips


Tomatillo sauce:

  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Toss whole tomatillos with onion, garlic, jalapeños and oil, then pour onto baking sheet.
  • Roast until tomatillos begin to char, remove from oven and set aside to cool.
  • When cooled to room temperature, combine tomatillo mix with remaining ingredients in a blender.
  • Blend until smooth, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.


  • Heat large skillet over medium-high heat, add oil when hot and sauté onions until they begin to brown.
  • Add spinach or kale and cook until it wilts, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Add tomatillo salsa, stir well, bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to low.
  • Create four "holes" in the tomatillo mixture and gently crack a raw egg in each hole.
  • Cover pan and cook on low 5 to 7 minutes, depending on how well done you want your eggs.
  • Garnish with avocado and serve with tortilla chips.

Chickpea Pasta with Red Sauce

Chickpea pasta is served on a glass plate with a spray of basil and wooden spoon.

Serves 4 (Total cost: $8.33/$2.08 per serving)
Calories: 563 per serving

Whole or in pasta, chickpeas — also known as garbanzo beans — are prized for their ability to reduce levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood. CRP is a sign of inflammation due to a variety of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease. Chickpeas are also an excellent source of protein and they are high folic acid, iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium, all of which support the immune system.

Combine with fresh tomatoes, which are rich in vitamins C and K, potassium, folate and beta carotene, as well as lycopene, an antioxidant that gives this fruit its red hue. Studies have shown lycopene's ability to reduce inflammation and other markers of oxidative stress as well as protect the inner layer of blood vessels. Clinical trials also suggest that lycopene may help lower LDLcholesterol and have other protective effects on the heart.

The roasted red peppers and garlic in this dish add another strong layer of anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting ingredients. Red peppers provide 200% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C as well as the antioxidants capsanthin, violaxanthin, lutein, quercetin and luteolin.

Include nuts to provide protein that is rich in both antioxidants and healthy fats that also can lower LDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation and improve blood vessel function for better heart health. Top with Parmesan cheese, which is high in calcium but low in lactose for those who are sensitive.

This pasta is great hot, warm or cold so you can pack it for lunch to enjoy even when there is no heating source available.


Red sauce:

  • ½ cup toasted nuts of choice (almonds,
    walnuts, pecans, cashews, etc.)
  • 2 roasted red bell peppers
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, more to taste
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil


  • 8 ounces chickpea pasta, cooked to package directions
    and drained
  • ½ cup fresh basil leaves, roughly torn
  • ½ pound ripe tomatoes, chopped into bite-size pieces
  • ½ cup cooked chickpeas
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast,
    as needed


  • Combine nuts, bell peppers, lemon zest, juice and garlic in food processor.
  • Blend until smooth, drizzle in olive oil, add salt and pepper to taste, and blend well.
  • Combine pasta, basil, tomatoes, chickpeas and cheese (or yeast) and toss with half the sauce.
  • Add more sauce as desired.
  • Serve at room temperature, cold or heat until warm.

One-pan Turmeric Chicken

One pan turmeric chicken shown in cast iron skillet and also plated in the background.

Serves 4 (Total cost: $7.64/$1.91 per serving)
Calories: 314 per serving

Who doesn't love an easy, one-pan meal at the end of a full day?

Turmeric is the star ingredient of this recipe — containing curcumin, which is well known for its ability to reduce inflammation, boost immunity and lower blood pressure and blood sugars. The spice blend also provides an array of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that protect our bodies from free radicals and disease.

Skinless chicken thighs are both flavorful and full of protein. They also contain the amino acid tryptophan, which is linked to higher levels of serotonin — the “feel good” hormone — and are rich in many nutrients, including selenium, a trace mineral needed for proper immune function, thyroid health and fertility.

This dish calls for edamame, whole immature soy beans that form short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) during digestion. They are thought to improve gut health and, not incidentally, reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Sweet potatoes add fiber and antioxidants, which protect your body from free-radical damage and promote a healthy gut and brain. They’re also incredibly rich in beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A, an essential nutrient to support good vision and the immune system.

This rich array of vegetables makes for a visually appealing dish that demonstrates the power of eating fresh, unprocessed foods.


  • 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
  • 1 tablespoon avocado or extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced (about 3 cloves)
  • 1 large sweet potato, diced
  • 1¼ cups long-grain brown rice, rinsed well and soaked at least 20 minutes
  • 2½ cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth, more as needed
  • 1 cup frozen edamame or peas, defrosted


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Combine spices in small bowl and mix well.
  • Coat chicken with spices and set aside.
  • Heat oven-safe pot over medium-high heat, add oil when hot and swirl pot to coat the bottom.
  • Add chicken, browning lightly on both sides, then remove and set aside.
  • Add onions and garlic to pot and brown.
  • Add sweet potato, rice and stock, stir well then nestle chicken pieces in the rice.
  • Cover pot, place in oven and bake 60 minutes.
  • Remove cover, continue baking 15 minutes or until rice is tender. (If liquid is absorbed before rice is tender, add ⅓ cup water and continue baking.)
  • Remove pot from oven, set chicken aside, fluff rice then fold in peas,.
  • Top rice mixture with chicken and serve.

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