Some people assume the word “diet” to mean a weight-loss program. But there’s much more to the word.

Share story

On Nutrition

Words may be letters on a page, but they have meaning, and that meaning can vary based on the lens you view it through. “Diet” is one of those words. A few weeks ago, I got involved in an online discussion about whether a new Mediterranean diet book was, in fact, a weight-loss diet book. I pointed out two things:

One, the book did not promote weight loss on the cover, which strongly suggested that it was not a weight-loss-oriented book (since, unfortunately, those kinds of books sell well). Two, the word “diet” can mean a number of things, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

• Food and drink regularly provided or consumed. (“A diet of fruits and vegetables” or “a vegetarian diet.”)

• Habitual nourishment. (”The links between diet and disease.”)

Most Read Life Stories

Unlimited Digital Access: $1 for 4 weeks

• The kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason. (“He was put on a low-sodium diet.”)

• A regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one’s weight. (“Going on a diet.”)

The origins of the word date back to the 13th century, when in Old French and medieval Latin it meant “regular food” or “daily food allowance.” In ancient Greek, the word meant “food” and “nourishment” as well as “way of life.”

Technically, everyone’s on a diet, because everyone eats. But being on a diet in the sense of “this is what I usually eat” is not the same as the restrictive “I start my diet on Monday” sense. A perfect example of this is the Oldways website (oldwayspt.org). Oldways’ mission is to “inspire good health through cultural food traditions,” and, in addition to the Mediterranean diet, they also offer a wealth of information on the African heritage diet, the Latin American diet, Asian diets, and vegetarian and vegan diets. The primary focus is on vibrant flavors and exploration of — and preservation of — traditional global cuisines.

I happened to be on the Amazon page for “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health,” by one of my favorite authors on Mediterranean cuisine, Nancy Harmon Jenkins. The book has a high rating, so I was curious about the 1- and 2-star reviews. While several reviewers complained that the book has no photos (unlike most of her other books), many reviewers had clearly been expecting a “diet” book.

For example: “Although the recipes are excellent, I think the word ‘diet’ is misleading. The recipes do not give dietary information … there is no weight loss information given. The book is simply a collection of recipes which are based on the Mediterranean way of eating.”

Exactly. The recipes are for delicious and nourishing food (as food should be), and the book offers a wealth of information about Mediterranean cuisine and tradition. Avoiding similar confusion is “The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook” by America’s Test Kitchen, which neatly sidesteps the word “diet.” This is another excellent cookbook, with something for everyone — at least I think so. As with Jenkins’ cookbooks, I crack open this book and start planning the delicious meals I want to make. Torn between two recipes using butternut squash, I created this hybrid, which uses elements of both. A few notes of interest:

• Freekeh is a hard wheat that’s common in Mediterranean and North African cuisine. It’s harvested when the plant is still green, then roasted and rubbed, which gives it a unique grassy, slightly smoky flavor. Freekeh is often sold cracked into smaller, quicker cooking pieces, similar to bulgur wheat.

• While you can certainly buy a whole butternut squash and peel it, seed it and cube it yourself, I recommend sparing yourself a headache — and possibly a finger — by purchasing pre-cubed butternut squash and cutting the generally large cubes into a smaller size.

• Fenugreek is a seed that is a little sweet, a little nutty, a little bitter, and works very well in this salad, but you could also substitute za’atar, which I wrote about two weeks ago.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Cauliflower Salad with Freekah, Walnuts and Parsley

Serves 6-8

1 ½ pounds pre-cubed butternut squash, cut smaller into ½-inch pieces (about 4 cups)

5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 small head cauliflower, cut into small florets

1 ½ cups freekeh, whole or cracked

1 small shallot, minced

2 tablespoons lemon juice, or more to taste

2 tablespoons honey

¾ cup fresh parsley leaves

1/3 cup walnuts

1. Adjust two oven racks in the middle and lower sections of the oven, and preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss squash with 1 tablespoon oil, ½ teaspoon of the fenugreek and some salt and pepper, then arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the cauliflower florets. Roast until the squash and cauliflower are both browned and tender, about 30-35 minutes, stirring about midway through. When done, allow to cool to room temperature.

2. If using cracked freekeh, bring 4 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil (increase water to 6 cups if cooking whole freekeh). Add the grain, stir, return to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer. Cracked freekeh will take about 15 minutes to cook; whole freekeh will take 30-45 minutes. When the grains are tender, drain excess water and transfer the freekeh to a large bowl. Let cool to room temperature

3. Whisk the minced shallot, lemon juice, honey and ½ teaspoon salt in a small bowl. While continuing to whisk, slowly add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil.

4. Add the squash, cauliflower, parsley and chopped walnuts to the bowl with the freekeh. Drizzle the dressing over the top and toss gently to combine. Taste, and add more salt, pepper or lemon juice if needed.