ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If buttery pasta defeats your efforts to steer yourself to more healthy Mediterranean diet options, two local, celebrated chefs recommend healthy choices from their menus and share recipes to keep you on track.
Local cardiologist Barry Ramo says he recommends the Mediterranean diet for heart health because of its emphasis on flavor, fresh vegetables, seafood and lean meat. And, of course, there’s the benefit of olive oil for its healthy fat and flavor.
“There’s nothing really magical about the Mediterranean diet. Restricting carbohydrates means you have a better chance of losing weight. It’s about keeping full and eating a lot of vegetables is a good way to do that,” he says.
But if the scales aren’t tipping too heavy, then a little pasta or polenta is OK, now and then, he says.
Ramo loves the salads at M’tucci’s and compliments co-owner Jeff Spiegel for his fresh plant-based menu. But Ramo also enjoys the pappardelle pasta with bolognese sauce. “At Jeff’s place you have choices,” he says.
Spiegel ran more than 10 successful eateries in New York City before returning to Albuquerque, his hometown, he says. “We are offering some of the most interesting versions of traditional dishes found anywhere.”
M’tucci’s executive chef and a founding partner, John Haas, has revised his menu at the Montaño and Coors restaurant to include more flavor and nutrition.
There are mussels in coconut-saffron broth, pan-seared pork chops with pickled fennel and arugula salad and a new kale salad with Parma prosciutto, cranberry, green apple, local feta and pomegranate molasses vinaigrette to keep you taste buds and your tummy happy, while keeping your waistline in check.
The menu revision, the 10th since the restaurant opened in 2013, came from the entire chef team headed by Haas: “It was inspired by honoring the roots of our cuisine, but incorporating a few unexpected elements and improving what we already had.”
Haas suggested his grilled Caesar and mixed grilled vegetables, or grigliata mista, as healthy delicious choices to make when you spark up the grill this spring. Haas recommends an accompanying piece of grilled salmon or chicken to round out a healthy meal.
He says home cooks can create more flavor at home if they keep a few well prepared items in their pantry. For example, tomato paste made from San Marzano tomatoes, from a region in Italy, adds sweetness to marinara and other tomato-based sauces. He also recommends items from the deli, like pickled peppers or other marinades and marinated vegetables to liven up a weeknight plate.
Less is more and fewer spices and herbs can lend a fresh taste to home dishes, he says. “Start out with two or three flavors you like and add slowly, then you have nice clean flavor. Keep it simple. I use really basic ingredients and mostly season with salt and pepper.”
Ramo says across town at Scalo Northern Italian Grill on Central and Carlisle, flavor and nutrition are also respected.
“You can have a good meal there and really taste your food,” he says.
Scalo’s executive chef Garrick Mendoza says his menu has some carbohydrate temptations, but healthy options, too.
“All our food is fresh, we use no preservatives. It’s all home cooking,” he says. “We do have buttery pastas on the menu. I think the salmon dish is one of the healthiest.”
That dish features grilled salmon served with puréed parsnips, watercress, blanched green beans and a creamy yogurt and dill sauce.
Owner Steve Paternoster says he appreciates the talent of his cooking staff, especially Mendoza who studied and trained under some of the world’s best chefs. “I eat here three times a day,” he adds.
Paternoster, whose heritage is northern Italian, says for him the Mediterranean diet he ate growing up featured food that was grown, traded, foraged, hunted or fished.
“The only thing my grandmother bought was milk,” he says. “It all begins with fresh ingredients. We have a great menu, but you can order anything you want, and we’ll make it for you. This is food forward restaurant. We want the flavors to explode in your mouth.”
GRILLED CAESAR SALAD
1 head of romaine hearts, tip trimmed off and quartered into 4 wedges
1 ounce fresh grana Padano, thinly shaved
1 tablespoon grated pecorino cheese
2 ounces Caesar dressing or more
Extra virgin Arbequina olive oil
Fresh cracked black pepper
Salt to taste
4 ¼-inch slices of fresh baguette or ciabatta. Choose a denser, crustier one.
Drizzle the romaine with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. On a preheated grill at medium-high heat, grill the romaine on two sides, the cut edges, not the third side that was originally the outside of the heart, until lightly charred but not cooked.
Only let the heat permeate the outside of the heart, if you cook it too long it’ll become soft and rubbery.
Repeat the procedure with the baguette, grill until it’s a little toasty on both sides of the bread. Stack the grilled romaine crisscrossed and garnish with 1 ounce of dressing on each plate. Neatly tuck the grilled bread next to or under the romaine. Sprinkle the pecorino, shaved grana Padano, drizzle with olive oil, and crack a little black pepper on top of the salad.
Serves 1 or 2
1 cooked whole artichoke heart with stem attached, split in half
1 portabella mushroom. (Toss with your favorite vinaigrette and roast for 12-15 minutes at 400 degrees or until tender but not overcooked)
2 ounces asparagus (trimmed of stems, blanched for 30 seconds and shocked in ice water to stop cooking)
4 ounces polenta (prepare your own if possible, add ingredients like herbs, cheese, butter, etc. to heighten the flavor)
1 ounce fresh roasted red pepper (marinate with a little red wine vinegar, garlic and olive oil)
1 ounce pesto aioli (prepare a simple aioli recipe and mix in a little fresh pesto to give more depth)
Extra virgin Arbequina olive oil
Salt and pepper
Season your artichokes and asparagus with a little olive oil and salt and pepper. On a lightly greased preheated grill, place your portabella, artichoke, asparagus and polenta. Grill for about 2 minutes, make a quarter-turn to create a diamond pattern, cook another 2 minutes. Flip over and repeat the procedure on the other side. Varying temperatures on grills can cause fluctuations in cooking time, so adjust accordingly. The asparagus and artichoke will cook quite a bit faster then the mushroom and polenta, so you’ll want to remove them a little earlier then the remaining items. On a plate, place your polenta toward the top center, drizzle your pesto aioli on the bottom half of the plate. Neatly place the remaining ingredients on the plate in your preferred arrangement.
– John Haas, executive chef at M’tucci’s
PUR É ED PARSNIPS
2 pounds parsnips, cut into chunks
½ onion, chopped
Olive oil, about a tablespoon
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large, covered sauté pan sweat the onions with olive oil. Cook low and slow to avoid browning.
Add parsnips and cover with water, simmer until parsnips are tender.
Drain and place in blender and purée with additional olive oil, salt and pepper to taste.
BLANCHED GREEN BEANS
1 pound fresh green beans, cleaned, top stem removed
Butter, salt and pepper to taste
Blanch in boiling water until al dente, crisp, but chewable.
Immerse in cold water to stop cooking. Toss with a little butter, salt and pepper.
24 ounces salmon
Salt and pepper to taste
Brush salmon with olive oil.
Grill each side on medium heat about four minutes.
LEMON, DILL AND YOGURT
2 cups yogurt
3 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
½-ounce fresh dill
1 teaspoon lemon zest
Mix ingredients and allow to sit in refrigerator at least an hour before serving.
To serve the meal Scalo’s style, layer puréed parsnips, follow with green beans and fresh watercress, then stack the salmon on top. Dress generously with the lemon, dill and yogurt sauce.
– Scalo Executive Chef Garrick Mendoza