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How Arkansas Grown Fruits and Vegetables Can Provide a Taste of the Mediterranean

by Grace Brown | June 15, 2020 at 4:00 a.m.
A watermelon mint julep is shown on Thursday, May 28, 2020. - Photo by Grace Brown of The Sentinel-Record

The word "diet" is a four-letter word, but that does not mean it is a bad word. If you look at the definition of diet, the first part is "the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats." It is simple and sounds innocuous enough.

The second definition of "diet" is usually what gives us so much trouble -- "a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons." Typically, people do not like to be told what to do and we certainly don't like restrictions. But what if I told you that one type of "diet" is not about the restrictions? This diet is very straightforward with mindful healthy eating that promotes lifelong health and fits our Arkansas climate quite well. Would you consider it?

The Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle approach to good health that includes a balanced variety of foods and daily exercise. The diet is based on the foods and beverages traditionally consumed by people living in countries along the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the fruits and vegetables enjoyed in that region grow well here in Arkansas. Our home gardens and farmers markets can provide us with a bounty of fresh and tasty choices.

Sometimes we need a careful and restricted diet for medical reasons, but many medical conditions can be prevented with just a few simple modifications to our habitual eating. By using the Mediterranean diet to make a few modifications to how we prepare our Arkansas grown foods, we can have the tastes we love, but in a form that is proven to be healthier.

Characteristically, the Mediterranean diet relies on fresh rather than processed foods and is lower in saturated fats, salt and sugar. A heavy emphasis is placed on plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans and nuts. Butter is replaced with healthy fats such as olive oil and herbs and spices are used to add flavor. The bulk of the Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based foods, but key sources of protein such as fish, poultry, dairy and eggs are also consumed, just less frequently and in smaller portions.

While following the Mediterranean diet does not guarantee better health and increased life span, scientists believe that for many people it is a cost-effective way to improve health and prevent chronic disease. One of the reasons why this might be so is because it is not just about what is eaten. Mealtime is one of the most valued foundations of traditional Mediterranean culture. Building a sense of community with family and friends by sitting down without distractions allows you to slow down the pace and focus on what you are eating that can help prevent overeating.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes that activity is one of the secrets to happiness and long life. Physical activity provides a sense of physical and emotional well-being, especially when the experience is shared with family or friends. Walking more and driving less is part of the heart of the Mediterranean diet lifestyle.

In our recipes this month, we are offering a taste of the Mediterranean using some of our favorite Arkansas grown produce and herbs. Whether you need an easy and cool side dish or the refreshing coolness provided by our watermelon recipes you can avoid heating up your kitchen and provide tasty dishes for your family. If you would like more information or recipes using the Mediterranean diet visit our website at You can also check with our Garland County Extension office for upcoming cooking schools and classes related to the Mediterranean diet and other topics.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation's historic land grant education system.

For more information, contact the Garland County Extension office at 623-6841 or email [email protected] Follow us on Facebook @garlandcountyextension & @GarlandExtensionHomeLife.

Couscous with Herbs and Lemon

Makes 6 servings


⅓ cup of finely chopped fresh mint

½ cup of finely chopped fresh parsley

½ cup of finely chopped fresh basil

¾ cup of water

1 Tbsp of fresh lemon juice, or to taste

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1¼ cups of low-sodium chicken broth

1½ cups of couscous

2 Tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil


  1. Cook the onion in 1 Tbsp of oil in a two-to-three quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until it is golden. About 3 minutes.

  2. Add the garlic and cook, stirring for 30 seconds.

  3. Add the water and the broth and bring it to a boil.

  4. Stir in the couscous, then cover it and remove the saucepan from heat. Let the couscous stand, covered for 5 minutes. Then fluff with it a fork and stir in herbs, lemon juice, remaining Tbsp oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Nutritional Information: 235 kcal; Sodium 10% -- 299 mg.; Carbohydrates 15% -- 40 g.; Fiber 15% -- 4 g.; Protein total 8 g.; Sugars total 8 g.; Vitamin C 20%; Vitamin A 15%; Iron 15% Calcium 8%.

The recipe gives directions for Israeli couscous, but Mediterranean type couscous can be substituted using the preparation directions on the package.

Refreshing Watermelon Mint Julep

Watermelon Mint Syrup


¼ cup of water

¾ cup of pureed watermelon

1 cup of granulated sugar

1 cup of fresh mint leaves


  1. Combine the sugar, water, and pureed watermelon in a small saucepan.

  2. Muddle (crush) the mint leaves to extract the juice and add to the saucepan.

  3. Bring it to a boil, stirring often, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

  4. Let the mixture cool completely.



2 Tbsp Watermelon Mint Syrup

Lemon-lime soda, ginger ale or carbonated water

Crushed ice

Watermelon wedge

Sprigs of fresh mint leaves


  1. Pour 2 Tbsp Watermelon Mint Syrup into a glass, add crushed ice, and fill the glass with the beverage of choice.

  2. Lightly stir to combine.

  3. Garnish the glass with a wedge of watermelon and/or fresh mint leaves.

  4. For an adult twist, add 1½ ounces of your favorite bourbon

Nutrition Information Excluding Alcohol: 36 kcal per 2 tablespoons of syrup; Carbs 4%-9.19 g.; Vitamin A 8%; all others 1% or less.

Recipe based on Disneyland's Watermelon Mint Julep from Simply Inspired Meals.

Easy Watermelon Sorbet

Makes approximately 12 1/3 cup servings


¼ cup of lemon juice

½ cup of water

1 cup of granulated sugar

3-4 cups of cubed & seeded watermelon


  1. Combine lemon juice, sugar, and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook it down and stir until sugar is thoroughly dissolved. It takes about 5 minutes.

  2. Remove the saucepan from heat and refrigerate until cooled for about 30 minutes.

  3. Puree watermelon in a blender or food processor.

  4. Stir pureed watermelon into sugar mixture.

  5. Transfer watermelon mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions or freeze in the freezer, stirring every 10-15 minutes. It will not be as light and fluffy, freezing in the freezer, but it works!

Nutritional Information: 47 kcal; Protein 2% -.29 g.; Carbohydrates 5% -- 12.6 g.; Fiber 1% -- .2 g; Sugars total -- 11.06 g.

Recipe based on Simple Watermelon Sorbet by CookinFL on


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