Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

pine nut biscuit cake

For my birthday this year I received a lovely book titled Cooking with Italian Grandmothers:  Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily by Jessica Theroux.  Since I was fortunate enough to have not just one, but two Italian Grandmothers, the title is endearing to me.  But whether they were Italian, Jewish, Irish or Polish (etc..) most of us have fond memories of our Grandmother's cooking: the nostalgia that old family recipes have and how they survive with each generation is priceless.

The author, Theroux, traveled throughout Italy for over a year and spent weeks with each of these fascinating Grandmothers, cooking in their kitchens, learning their secrets and creating with them their culinary specialties.  Each chapter focuses on one woman, the food she is "famous" for and the Italian region in which she lives.  Most of the women have lived in the same town and a few the same house all their life.  Some are farmers and one Grandma even grows and raises all the food she and her family needs save for salt, sugar and coffee. She even makes her own soap from "last year's olive oil."

The photos in the book are beautiful and the stories of the women and the land they love are heartwarming.  The theme that carries through the book is that the food they prepare, from local ingredients, and share with those they love does so much more than fill a hungry stomach.  It heals, nourishes and provides pleasure and of course conversation. 

One simple thing Theroux said that made all the difference in her cooking was, "Cooking with love.  It's a very interesting concept.  What I learned there was that...in the act of cooking, you're evoking the memory and thought of someone you love and transferring that to the food.  It sounds very simple, but more than any technique I have ever learned it profoundly changes the food."

So far, I have only tried one recipe from this book, but I've made it a few times.  It's the Pine Nut Biscuit Cake:  it's more cookie-like than cake, easily made from simple ingredients and it's delicious.  I love adding savory, fresh herbs to sweet concoctions, and this recipe does just that with the addition of fresh rosemary.  One centenarian Grandmother made this, a favorite dessert from her long-ago childhood, for Theroux when she was feeling a bit homesick.  How sweet.
I'm looking forward to trying more recipes from this wonderful book.

Pine Nut Biscuit Cake

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (this was my addition, not in original recipe)
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary ( I used 1 Tablespoon)
1 egg, separated, 1 egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup flour (I used 1 cup white flour and 1/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour)
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons pine nuts

1.)  Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Cream together the butter and 1/3 cup sugar in medium bowl;  stir in lemon zest, rosemary, 2 egg yolks, vanilla and salt.  Stir in flour and 1/2 cup pine nuts. (You many need to use your hands to form a workable dough.)  Using your knuckles, press dough as evenly as possible into a buttered and floured 9-inch round cake pan.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap; let dough rest 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 24 hours in refrigerator.

2.)  Just before baking, brush with egg white, sprinkle dough with remaining 2 Tablespoons pine nuts and 1 Tablespoon sugar.  Bake until the thin cake has turned a light nutty brown and pulls away from edges of the pan, about 40-45 minutes.  Set aside to cool; slice into thin wedges.  Enjoy!

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Everything you see I owe to Spaghetti."

Sophia Loren (photo courtesy of in.com.)

 I love this quote from the beautiful, ageless Sophia Loren:
"Everything you see I owe to Spaghetti." 
Born in Rome, Sophia grew up in poverty on the outskirts of Naples and had to eat pasta everyday to survive.  I doubt she still eats a lot of spaghetti today, but nonetheless, it's a great quote.
I love pasta and since I am Italian, it was a staple growing up.  Fortunately, we didn't have to eat it everyday to survive, but we had it about once a week and it continues to show up at family gatherings. 
These days I don't eat pasta as often as I'd like to - remember what happened to Elizabeth Gilbert in the EAT portion of her book Eat Pray Love? That's right, she had to go out and buy a larger pair of jeans while traveling in Italy.  Don't get me wrong, when I get to Italy I plan to eat my way through it as she did, but I'll just plan accordingly and pack some elastic waste-band pants.
 But seriously, there is definitely a place for spaghetti in my life even though the dreaded starchy, refined-white carbohydrates have gotten such a bad rap for a while now.  I do eat pasta, just occasionally and in smaller portions.  Also, I tend to eat the Barilla Plus pasta which is higher in fiber and protein than regular pasta, and is also enriched with the essential fatty acid ALA omega 3, making it a healthier option.  I find there isn't much difference in taste and texture to regular pasta, and I like it much better than whole-wheat pasta which tends to be too heavy and starchy. 
There are many different pasta alternatives out there to try, but you can always just stick with a smaller portion of the regular stuff and enjoy it.  When I do, De Cecco is my brand of choice.

My husband came across this recipe in Everyday Food a couple of years ago and it quickly became one of our favorites even though it calls for anchovies.  I've never been a fan of anchovies themselves: I do like anchovy paste in a Caesar salad, but when crushed in this simple spaghetti recipe, it's delicious -so much so that even my 7-year-old loves it.

Linguini with anchovies, garlic and breadcrumbs
1 pound linguini or spaghetti
6 to 10 anchovy fillets plus 2 tablespoons oil from anchovies
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
1/4 cup whole-grain breadcrumbs
2 Tablespoons of grated parmesan/reggiano cheese
fresh chopped parsley (for garnish)
red pepper flakes ( for garnish, optional)

1.)  In a large pot of boiling salted water cook pasta according to package instructions. In a small bowl, mix breadcrumbs and grated cheese and set aside.  When pasta is cooked, reserve 1 cup pasta water then drain. Return (empty) pasta pot to medium heat; add anchovy oil and garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2.)  Add anchovies and cook until they have almost dissolved, 30 seconds. Add pasta, lemon zest, and enough pasta water to create a sauce that coats pasta; season with salt and pepper. Serve topped with the breadcrumbs/cheese mixture and parsley.  Enjoy!

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Super Easy Homemade Granola Bars

I found this recipe for granola bars on the Food Network about five years ago and have been baking them ever since. I've changed the original recipe a bit by eliminating the powdered milk and adding in some "super" seeds - chia, sesame and flax.  They are super easy to make; you just throw everything into a food processor and then a baking pan to bake.  They taste great and are very healthy, but not too healthy.  I say this because whenever I’m experimenting with a recipe, trying to make a healthier version of the original, I’ll use my husband as my taste tester.  I know if he says my creation tastes “healthy”, I need to keep trying. 
I usually bake a batch every other week, wrap them in sets of two and store them in the freezer.  They are great for snacks or a quick breakfast.  My husband takes them when he travels for work so he doesn’t have to rely on overpriced airport food or be tempted by unhealthy food choices, at least some of the time…
I’ve made some changes to the original recipe;  this is a great one to customize to your own taste.

Super Easy Granola Bars
1 cup old-fashioned, rolled oats
½ cup raw, unsalted sunflower seeds
½ cup raw almonds
½ cup raw walnuts
½  cup ground, golden flax (golden flax has a much milder taste than regular ground flax)
¼ cup whole-wheat pastry flour (or almond flour)
½ cup dried apricots or golden raisins
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup pitted dried dates
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 Tablespoons chia seeds
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
¼ cup 100% pure maple syrup (can use honey)
2 large eggs
Zest of one lemon (optional)

1.)  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare a 9x13 inch baking pan with cooking spray (I use olive oil or coconut oil spray)
2.)  Place all dry ingredients except syrup, eggs, almond extract and lemon zest, into the food processor and pulse until the mixture is finely chopped.

3.)  Add eggs, syrup, almond extract and lemon zest, and pulse until the mixture is well combined.  You may have to scrape down the sides with a spatula and pulse again.  The mixture should resemble a coarse paste.

4.)  Transfer to the baking pan and spread evenly with wet hands.  Bake just until the edges start to brown, about 22 minutes.  Let cool and cut into 20 rectangles.  Can be stored at room temperature or in refrigerator for a couple of days, but they freeze well.  Enjoy!

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil

Monday, November 7, 2011

How do you know when to stop eating?

(photo courtesy of pleated-pants)
How many times have we heard that in order to prevent overeating that could lead to weight gain, we should stop eating before we feel full because it takes 20 minutes for your brain to recognize that your stomach is full.  And, if you keep eating until you physically feel full, it's probably too late and your stomach is already stretched out with too much food.  I think comedian Louis C.K. captured this conundrum best when he said, if I stub my toe, my brain knows immediately that it (expletive) hurts, so why does it take my stomach 20 minutes to let my brain know it's full?
According to Michael Pollan's Food Rules, there are many cultures that have this custom in place to avoid overeating.  The Japanese say to eat until you are 80% full,  the Ayurvedic Indian tradition says 75% full, and the Chinese say eat until you are 70% full.
This is great advice and if I had an internal monitor that could tell me how full I am getting while eating a meal, it wouldn't be so difficult, but I don't.  And if the food tastes really good, I don't want to stop eating especially if I come to the meal hungry. 
It's important to know that this custom, while paramount to our eating habits today, was developed years and years ago when people had to hunt, catch or grow their food themselves.  They learned out of necessity how to recognize when they've had enough to eat, so they didn't waste their food since they had to work really hard to get it.  But since we don't have to work as hard to get our food and we usually have more than enough, how can we learn to recognize when we've had enough to eat like our ancestors did years ago?
The most important and obvious advice is to eat slowly and chew your food well.  Not only does chewing your food well take time, it will help your body digest the food better.  Next, pay attention to the food you're eating when you're eating it.  And last, relax and enjoy your food. When you feel satisfied but not exactly full, stop eating and wait a few minutes. Honestly, I think this is the simplest and easiest way to listen to the internal cues that will prevent you from overeating. 
If anyone has any other ideas or words of advice on this - please let me know.

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil

Thursday, November 3, 2011

For the Love of Pizza

New York Pizzeria - Trumansburg, NY

I love pizza.  And, while I'm pretty sure it will never happen in this lifetime, if I'm ever on death row, my last meal will be pizza.  I will admit that over the years I have become what some may call a pizza snob, or at least very particular about the pizza I will put in my mouth.  As I'm sure you're aware of, there is A LOT of pizza out there, so one can be choosy. 
Pizza is something that is very personal; we all have our opinions on what is the best kind of pizza.  And that's great.  Everyone is unique, so why not their taste in pizza?  The most popular arguments I've come across are "deep dish vs. thin crust" or "New York style vs. Chicago."  I grew up in the Midwest where it is common to have your pizza cut up in little squares - a thin, cracker crust with mounds of mozzarella cheese, instead of a large pizza slice.  As an adult, I lived in Chicago for many years and ate a lot of great thin-crust pizza.  After being introduced to New York style pizza though, I have to say, my pizza tastes changed thanks in part to what is called a high-gluten flour.  I definitely prefer a thin, crispy crust, but New York pizza is thin, crispy and chewy all at once.  Chewy is not something you get from a cracker thin crust - which is delicious in its own right - but if I can have it all in one slice, I'll take it.  I don't order take-out pizza very often, instead I make my own pizza at home.  I've found a local, Italian bakery that sells the high-gluten pizza dough and it's fantastic.  If I felt that making the dough myself from scratch would enhance my homemade pizza, I would do it...but it doesn't.
As far as being healthy, pizza really can be good for you...as long as it has tomato sauce and you go easy on the cheese.  Cooked tomatoes have the powerful antioxidant lycopene which helps prevent prostate cancer, may also prevent heart disease and can also protect your skin from sun damage.  Of course you can get these benefits from eating cooked tomatoes alone or tomato sauce, but according to the book 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People, author Sally Beare writes, "Pizza appeared to be the most protective; this is thought to be because lycopene is a fat-soluble antioxidant, and the oil and cheese in pizza help transport it to our cells." 
Works for me!
This is my first entry on pizza, but hardly the last...more posts on really great pizza to come. 
Please tell me about your favorite pizza!

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Joy that is Greek Yogurt

Growing up I ate a lot of yogurt but it was the runny, sugary kind that kids love.  It wasn't until 2005 when I read the book, French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano, that I discovered Greek yogurt and all its glory.  In the book, one of the things Mireille says is that French women eat two cups of plain Greek yogurt a day, and that it's thick, creamy and delicious.  I knew I had to try it.  Even though I have not yet traveled to France, I know the allure of French women is that they are sexy and chic.  And, I've seen plenty of French films which all depict them as nothing less than gorgeous, cigarettes and all!  Nonetheless, I was hooked on the stuff.  Whether or not it was going to make me sexy and chic, or keep me from getting fat like it does the French, I knew Greek yogurt was in my life for good.
Greek yogurt is triple-strained which removes most of the water, making it thick, creamy and dense.  It is loaded with protein and low in calories.  The live bacteria in yogurt aids in digestion and helps protect you against other harmful bacteria. I prefer the taste of the 2% over the non-fat version and I always buy it plain and add fruit, nuts and a drizzle of honey.  This makes for an excellent breakfast.  My favorite is with raspberries, walnuts, and golden flax.  I tend to favor FAGE and Chobani, but there are many other good ones on the market: Yoplait Greek, Oikos by Dannon and Athenos - to name a few.  It's really a matter of personal preference.
Greek yogurt can be used in a variety of ways; it can be incorporated into baked goods, desserts and savory dishes as it's the perfect substitute for sour cream.  I will explore all of its glorious uses throughout the life of this blog.  I LOVE Greek yogurt! 

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

my first blog 11-1-11

Grapes growing on the vine, The Finger Lakes - Western New York Sate
I'm starting this blog because I love food.  Good food.  However, I'm also passionate about health and anything to do with anti-aging.  Actually, I'm not a fan of "anti" anything so maybe I should say "pro-youthing"?  As Mother Teresa famously said, "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said, as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there."
So who knows, maybe "pro-youthing" will catch on. 
I'm not a registered dietitian or nutritionist, I'm just a regular person who wants to live a happy and healthy life.  I'm not perfect with my eating, but I try to be, 90% of the time.  I'm always on the look out for the next great super-food or herbal supplement that will take my wrinkles away and give me that super-youthful glow, but it always seems to be the same (good) information just repeating itself:  unprocessed whole foods, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, wild-caught fish, grass-fed beef, organic eggs and tons of pure water. 
Of course being healthy means you want to be at a "healthy" weight for your body type and frame.  As far as weight loss goes, there seems to be a lot of conflicting information: "calories count!" "calories don't count, it's the type of calories you eat!"  "Don't eat carbohydrates, eat all the fat you want as long as it's the GOOD fat!"  It can be overwhelming, but honestly, I think you have to find what works best for you.  I believe BALANCE and MODERATION are key, not just in the food you eat, but in all areas of your life.  I hope you'll check back in a few days or so when I post recipes and food tips/suggestions for youthful eating.  I am committed to the quest to figure it all out and I hope you will join me.  And remember:  "The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil