Embracing the Mediterranean lifestyle

By Courtney Leeper Girgis September 2023

Building healthy habits in Oklahoma’s heartland

Man and woman take selfie in front of Mediterranean Sea
Author Courtney Leeper Girgis and her husband share personal experience incorporating egyptian food in Oklahoma | Photos by Courtney Leeper Girgis

Few smells take me back to childhood more than flour-and-egg battered chicken sizzling in an electric skillet. My grandma was known in our rural Missouri community for her fried chicken, and when I moved to Oklahoma for a job after college, I knew I was in good company. A work outing brought me to my ideal buffet: fried chicken, chicken fried steak, fried okra — all my favorite foods.

Then, I met my Egyptian — at church in Ardmore, Oklahoma, no less.

I will always love fried chicken, but I quickly realized Egyptian food was the food my soul was missing. It’s also part of an eating pattern — and lifestyle — that has blessed my health.

The Mediterranean diet

graphic of Africa and pin flag marking location of EgyptEgypt sits on the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and its food shares features of Greece, Italy, Turkey and Israel. It emphasizes fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, legumes like fava beans and lentils and whole grains, frequently through whole-grain pita bread (eish, the Egyptian Arabic word for bread, translates as “life”). Olive oil is a primary source of fat, along with nuts and seeds.

You may have heard of the Mediterranean diet. My own doctor recommended it to me, to address inflammation. What I appreciate most about the Mediterranean diet is that it is not just a “diet.” It is founded on the principles of enjoying your food and life. It’s slowing down, connecting to your food’s source and savoring meals with friends and family. It’s moving in ways that are enjoyable to you, maybe through gardening, walking in nature or playing with your children. It offers benefits, to your mental, emotional and physical health, too.Bringing it to Oklahoma

Though Oklahoma is more than 6,000 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, we can learn from the lifestyle. Here’s what my Egyptian family has taught me:

1. Eat (and play) outside when you can. Oklahoma’s weather is not temperate, like in the Mediterranean, but we still take our meals outside as much as possible. My father-in-law keeps a patio table and chairs in his backyard, and I enjoy breakfast and tea on our porch. We also enjoy grilling at the lake.

2. Pile on the vegetables. While some may tell you to “limit” your red meat consumption as part of the Mediterranean diet, the better guidance, in my opinion, is to pair your meat with lots of vegetables. The Oklahoma prairie ecosystem depends on grazing and animal impact, and since the Mediterranean ethos involves eating foods available from your region, it makes sense for us to eat beef, lamb, bison, pork and poultry. While we eat beef almost daily at our house, we often cook it in a tomato sauce with vegetables and serve another vegetable (or two) on the side.

3. Pickle everything. While you might say Oklahomans fry everything, Egyptians pickle everything —
cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, radishes, peppers, onions, etc. Pickles and olives accompany most Mediterranean meals.

4. Snack on nuts, seeds and fruits. Instead of reaching for something sweet or packaged, my husband loves to snack on fruits, nuts and seeds. Choose what you like and explore all Oklahoma has to offer. Some of our favorites include peaches, plums, watermelon, sunflower seeds and pecans.

5. Choose whole grains. I didn’t prefer whole grains, like brown rice and whole-grain or multi-grain bread, at first. After a few months of the switch, I found my tastebuds had changed.

6. Enjoy. Above all, don’t worry too much about what you are or aren’t eating. Bake, sauté or roast instead of frying. Add fruits and vegetables. Eat the dessert and the fried chicken when you crave them, but as you incorporate more whole foods, you might find you’re satisfied with new favorites. And above all, cherish life with your loved ones.

Try a taste test

plate of Bamia (okra stew)

Bamia (Okra Stew)

  • 2-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 pound meat (optional, but reduce cooking times if not using; I prefer beef stew meat, 1-inch pieces of lamb shoulder or chicken thighs)
  • 1 12-ounce bag frozen, cut okra (or pick fresh, baby okra from your garden)
  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • Water, as needed

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven or large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook onion in the oil until translucent. Add meat, salt and pepper. Sear sides of meat and brown if using pieces or cook ground meat until nearly done, about 5-10 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce and enough water to cover meat. Bring mixture to a boil then reduce heat to low. Simmer until meat is tender, at least 30-45 minutes. Add water and stir as needed. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir okra into the meat and tomato sauce and add more water if needed. Bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper. Bake in the preheated oven until okra is tender, about 30-45 minutes. If using a Dutch oven, simply cover with lid. If using a sauté pan, transfer mixture to a 2-quart baking dish and cover with foil before placing in the oven. Uncover for the last 10 minutes of baking. Serve with rice and salad

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