Sunday, 2 August 2015

Amy Riolo - Ultimate Mediterranean Diet Cookbook - Review

Amy Riolo will be better known to readers in the USA than in the UK, because of her many appearances on Fox TV, CBS TV and The Travel Channel. The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook is her fifth published title. Educated at Cornell University, Riolo is a restaurant consultant with a passion for food and cooking. She speaks many languages and has immersed herself in the food and culture around the Med by living and working in Italy and the Med’s other surrounding countries. In fact, one of her books centres on the cooking of Egypt and the Nile. Food stylist, food writer, tutor, guest speaker for noted organisations like Les Dames d’Escoffier and The Smithsonian Institution, she is much more than your average “celebrity chef”.

I was eager to see how her Mediterranean Diet Cookbook would measure up. Some diet cook books are preachy, overly keen to convert you to a “philosophy”. Others feature bland recipes which lead you to call out for a cheeky take away. Then there are the diet cookbooks so extreme in their bid to feature healthy recipes, you head for the fridge, still hungry, ready to eat anything that may be left there…..

Riolo does have a philosophy, but she describes it with a lightness of touch. Her main point is that what you eat can have an enormous effect on your mood and your health. As a result, one’s overall sense of well being (physically, mentally, spiritually) can begin with food. She is realistic about most people’s relationship with food; that we tend to love what isn’t good for us. So she does not chide us for our preferences. She simply suggests a balance where we strive to eat healthily as often as possible, saving the “bad stuff” for an occasional treat.

Riolo notes three key factors which differentiate the societies of the Mediterranean. Firstly, she says “food is treated like medicine”. Secondly, “moderation is key”. Finally, “an active physical and social lifestyle is mandatory”. In relation to that third factor, Amy suggests meals are eaten as a family, at the dinner table with no distractions.

Although Riolo suggests that seafood and poultry should be eaten more frequently than meat, the three recipes I tried from the book were all meat based. My husband, Him Indoors, is a confirmed meat lover, and if the meals were intended to be eaten at the table, then his tastes needed to be catered for! However, I will be exploring the other recipes in the book in due course.

The Libyan lamb couscous from page 34 of the book was the first dish I tested from the book. The lamb was stewed  in tomatoes with chick peas, and chunky carrots and courgettes. 

The turmeric and cayenne brought spice and colour to the dish. Because the carrots and courgettes were left in large cubes, they did not soften too much in the cooking time, retaining much of their nutrients. 

The chick peas provided texture to the dish and much needed fibre as most of us do not get enough in our diet. The tomato base was rich in vitamins and nutrients, such as lycopene. The recipe was uncomplicated, involving simple cooking techniques, although is rather time consuming. A dish for weekends rather than weeknight cooking. 

The indulgent couscous gives a luxurious touch. This dish was a definite hit; the lamb came out tender and aromatic, and the overall flavours melded together well. I will be making this one again, for sure.

Next I tried the Greek cinnamon scented lamb meatballs from page 170 of the book.  The accents of cumin and cinnamon gave them delicate flavour, lifting them from being bland workaday meatballs. These tapered Greek style meatballs are called “keftedes” and were cooked by grilling, rather than frying, keeping the fat content down. 

They were browned all over before being cooked in tomato sauce. I found the sauce, flavoured with cinnamon and garlic, was very easy to make. 

The Keftedes of minced lamb was a simple and achieveable recipe, well within the capabilities of the novice cook. We enjoyed this recipe, and believe that if you made extra for a second meal, it would taste even better the next day.

Corsican garlic laced beef (as found on page 169 of the book) is a one plate wonder of pasta and beef, although lamb or goat meat could be substituted (which would lower the fat content of the dish overall). 

This dish does not look as good in my photos as it tasted. Although garlic is used generously as an ingredient, it does not overpower. The dish has influences of both France and Italy, as you would expect from a Corsican dish. The use of fresh tomatoes rather than passata or tinned keeps the flavour light and summery. 

Served with a spelt Maccheroni, this dish was healthy, simple to cook but big on flavour. I loved this dish.

I get the feeling from this cookbook that a lot of time and care has been taken over the recipes and its creation overall. I say this because of the small details. The ingredients list is set out clearly and cleanly. I particularly like that amounts are precisely defined. Where they need to be divided and used twice, that is stated. There are indications on preparation of the ingredients, especially the sizes the vegetables should be cut to. These simple details mean that the cooking times work. There is nothing worse than not knowing how large to cube your potato pieces and then having to greatly increase the cooking time as they are still rock hard! 

I also approve of the indications on seasoning. Recipes too often suggest adding seasoning, with no assistance on the amount. Similarly, the instructions are precise and well expressed. 

Riolo’s exceptional attention to detail is something all cook book authors should aspire to achieve. There once was a cookery title I found where an ingredient was mentioned in the title of the recipe, but after that, never again; not in the ingredients or the method. The name has been withheld to protect the truly guilty party who did not proof read their recipes properly! Although an extreme example, such errors can creep into cookbooks which are rushed through the publication process.

What strikes me about this book is that if you exclusively cooked from it, you would not feel like you are on a diet at all. The word “diet” could be omitted from the title, and you’d have a perfectly wonderful and varied collection of recipes from the Med. It doesn’t feel like denial, grumbling hunger gnawing away at you in the background. Him Indoors can’t abide by “low fat” cookery and loves big flavours, and enjoyed all of the recipes we tried. There are a hundred recipes in all in the book, and I will enjoy trying out other recipes in the weeks and months to come.

Snigdha was sent a copy of The Ultimate Mediterranean Diet Cookbook to review. She has received no payment or incentive for posting this review.


  1. Replies
    1. Hello Lisa!
      Many thanks for reading my post and commenting!
      I do think the book is worth checking out. It covers so many different countries around the Med, it is very varied and versatile.