Category Archives: Vegetarian

Back to the drawing board

I’m definitely on a journey, and one with a big learning curve.  Just when I think, “I’ve got this,” one of life’s “suddenly” moments happens, and I’m back to square one.

My relationship with food has been turbulent, at times difficult, and revolutionary.  Turbulent because of the health issues that sprang up over the years after eating a diet that was carb, meat and dairy-driven; difficult because of my heritage as an American Italian (food is so much a part of the culture), and revolutionary because of the change I had  to commit to once I realized that my eating habits were compromising my health.

Even with all the health challenges I’ve developed over the years, and the knowledge I’ve acquired, I still falter and fumble.  It’s astounding to me how taste-influenced I am, and how bound to tradition I am.  What am I talking about?  The holidays.

Thanksgiving was a serious blow-out. I don’t think there was one ounce of food inhaled (with the exception of lemon water) that I was not allergic to, or that should have been off-limits to me.  YET, I not only participated in the feast, I cooked much of the food.  It was traditional with a hint of Italian on the side.  I made (by request) about a dozen calzones.  Granted, I made them as healthy as I could, but still.  I even made half of them vegetarian (they were delicious)!

I suppose I shouldn’t be amazed after eating mounds of holiday food, calzones made with regular pizza dough, filled with mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese, and then deep fried that my blood pressure spiked, my gout flared up, and my joints ached.  I consumed a day of acid-driven foods.

Why did I do it? Why do we do it?

What is it about the holidays that makes this kind of crazy eating so alluring?

Perhaps it has more to do with people coming together socially than actually the food.  I mean, a kitchen is frequently the gathering spot for many a group of people, and the holiday season seems to amplify that reality.  Add being Italian into the mix and it’s practically a lost cause — a guaranteed food frenzy.  It’s a month and a half eating whirlwind that seems to give everything fattening, rich and grossly unhealthy top billing.  Stats show that on average, Americans gain about one to two pounds during the holiday season.

What can one do?

I truly believe that the holidays don’t have to be a weight-gaining nightmare. There are some things you can do to avoid widening your waistline.

For one, you need to make sure you don’t eat more than one helping of anything! Also, don’t skip meals before the event.  Skipping meals only sets you up to completely overeat, and don’t skip breakfast– it’s the most important meal of the day.   Avoid eating second and third helpings (most people totally bypass this rule).  keep your portions small, and eat desserts in moderation.  You know, tasting one or two delicacies vs. piling every assortment on a salad plate and then some!  Eat more salad than anything else.  You can’t go wrong with greens! Lastly, take a walk with family or friends after dinner.  Exercise is always a good idea.

Buon-Natale

 

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What’s the deal with basil?

Basil has taken over the culinary world.  What on earth did we do before fresh basil was available?  I use it for everything!  Good old Ocimum basilicum (Genovese Basil)…the spicy, sweet, aromatic herb that is getting  top billing these days.

But, not all variations are Italian, and there are approximately 150 species of basil to choose from.  It’s actually in the “mint” family — go figure.  Even though basil is used across the globe, it’s origin goes back to Asia and India.  Here’s another little piece of trivia for you– in Italy today, basil is a symbol of amore (love), but in ancient Greece, it was a symbol of hatred.  My, how it’s evolved, right?

While basil is quite versatile (it’s great for sprucing up a flower garden), it’s undeniably perfection when it comes to using it in the kitchen.  I keep a plant in my window (make sure it has sun) in the kitchen, and take snips off whenever I can.  I’ve even been tempted to sleep with it under my pillow.  Heck, if the French can sleep with Lavender, why not basil?

vito-genovese-basil

Ocimum basilicum (Genovese Basil)

Basil leaves are only good for about 5 days in the refrigerator, so be certain you use it fairly soon after you purchase or pick it.  When rinsing basil, rinse lightly and place in a damp paper towel, and try not to bruise the tender leaves.  If bruised, the leaves will turn black.

I use basil in so many dishes — it really is invaluable.  For example, you can use it on top of pizza, in tomato sauce for pasta, and in fresh salads.  Insalata Caprese is a popular Italian salad, which consists of fresh mozzarella slices, sliced ripe tomatoes, fresh garlic and fresh basil doused with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper (incredible).  If you’re a chicken or lamb eater, it’s fabulous chopped and sprinkled over baked chicken or lamb.  However, one of the best ways to use basil is in Pesto sauce.  I frequently use it when I make Tuscan vegetable bean soup, and I use Pesto with pasta and on my gluten-free pizza with goat cheese, fresh tomatoes and Buffalo Mozzarella.  Try it mixed in with cut up golden potatoes, roasted — INCREDIBLE!  I also rinse and slice zucchini and rub pesto all over them and bake them at 375 until slightly browned — AMAZING!  If a recipe calls for dried basil, I almost always use fresh, but keep in mind that it’s stronger so you’ll probably want to cut the amount used in half.  It’s really a great thing to keep on hand, and it’s really healthy too (see below).  Pesto freezes wonderfully.  I frequently make a bigger batch, place the left-overs in ice trays, cover them and freeze them.  Then you can simply pop them out of the trays and use them at will!  Presto pesto!

Here’s a great recipe for Pesto! It’s ridiculously easy.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 cups packed fresh basil leaves, washed well
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted until golden, cooled
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • 3 large garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Have ready a bowl of ice and cold water. In a saucepan of boiling salted water blanch basil for ONLY 2 seconds, a handful at a time.  With a slotted spoon, remove the basil and place it into the ice water.  Drain and pat dry.

While the basil is drying, toast the pine nuts in your oven until golden brown.  Cool.

In a food processor purée basil with all the ingredients until smooth.  Add salt and pepper to taste. Pesto may be made 2 days ahead and chilled, but make sure you put it in an air-tight container and refrigerate it.

Voila!

Pesto

Buon Appetito!

* Here’s some great info about the health factors of using basil from the WHOLE FOODS site:

Research studies on basil have shown unique health-protecting effects in two basic areas: basil’s flavonoids and volatile oils.

DNA Protection Plus Anti-Bacterial Properties

The unique array of active constituents called flavonoids found in basil provide protection at the cellular level. Orientin and vicenin are two water-soluble flavonoids that have been of particular interest in basil, and in studies on human white blood cells; these components of basil protect cell structures as well as chromosomes from radiation and oxygen-based damage.

In addition, basil has been shown to provide protection against unwanted bacterial growth. These anti-bacterial properties of basil are not associated with its unique flavonoids, but instead with its volatile oils, which contain estragole, linalool, cineole, eugenol, sabinene, myrcene, and limonene. Lab studies show the effectiveness of basil in restricting growth of numerous bacteria, including : Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O:157:H7, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

Essential oil of basil, obtained from its leaves, has demonstrated the ability to inhibit several species of pathogenic bacteria that have become resistant to commonly used antibiotic drugs. In a study published in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of Microbiology Methods, essential oil of basil was even found to inhibit strains of bacteria from the genera Staphylococcus, Enterococcus and Pseudomonas, all of which are not only widespread, but now pose serious treatment difficulties because they have developed a high level of resistance to treatment with antibiotic drugs.(September 8, 2003)
Studies published in the February 2004 issue of Food Microbiology, have shown that washing produce in solution containing either basil or thyme essential oil at the very low concentration of just 1% resulted in dropping the number of Shigella, an infectious bacteria that triggers diarrhea and may cause significant intestinal damage, below the point at which it could be detected. While scientists use this research to try to develop natural food preservatives, it makes good sense to include basil and thyme in more of your recipes, particularly for foods that are not cooked such as salads. Adding fresh thyme and/or basil to your next vinaigrette will not only enhance the flavor of your fresh greens, but will help ensure that the fresh produce you consume is safe to eat. (March 25, 2004)

Anti-Inflammatory Effects

The eugenol component of basil’s volatile oils has been the subject of extensive study, since this substance can block the activity of an enzyme in the body called cyclooxygenase (COX). Many non-steriodal over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS), including aspirin and ibuprofen, as well as the commonly used medicine acetaminophen, work by inhibiting this same enzyme. (In the case of acetaminophen, this effect is somewhat controversial, and probably occurs to a much lesser degree than is the case with aspirin and ibuprofen). This enzyme-inhibiting effect of the eugenol in basil qualifies basil as an “anti-inflammatory” food that can provide important healing benefits along with symptomatic relief for individuals with inflammatory health problems like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions.

Nutrients Essential for Cardiovascular Health

Want to enrich the taste and cardiovascular health benefits of your pasta sauce? Add a good helping of basil. Basil is a very good source of vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene). Called “pro-vitamin A,” since it can be converted into vitamin A, beta-carotene is a more powerful anti-oxidant than vitamin A and not only protects epithelial cells (the cells that form the lining of numerous body structures including the blood vessels) from free radical damage, but also helps prevent free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol in the blood stream. Only after it has been oxidized does cholesterol build up in blood vessel walls, initiating the development of atherosclerosis, whose end result can be a heart attack or stroke.

Free radical damage is a contributing factor in many other conditions as well, including asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The beta-carotene found in basil may help to lessen the progression of these conditions while protecting cells from further damage.

Basil is also a good source of magnesium, which promotes cardiovascular health by prompting muscles and blood vessels to relax, thus improving blood flow and lessening the risk of irregular heart rhythms or a spasming of the heart muscle or a blood vessel.

In addition to the health benefits and nutrients described above, basil also emerged from our food ranking system as a very good source of iron, and calcium, and a good source of potassium and vitamin C.

Read full article here:   http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=85

Tomatoes are not Italian

“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” – Lewis Grizzard

For an Italian, the tomato is nearly as important as the grape. In fact, I’m pretty sure they have equal billing.  While traveling through Italy, tomato’s are easy to come by.  Whether ordering a savory dish in one of the restaurante’s, or  wandering through an Italian marketplace, the tomato is pretty hard to avoid.

Without a doubt, there are a bazillion dishes where the tomato is one of the main ingredients, or in which it is used as the base for recipes. No doubt, between its color, flavor or versatility, the tomato is a main staple in Italy, and has been so for hundreds of years.

As much as us Italian’s would like to take credit for the tomato, we cannot.  Tomatoes made there way along side of potatoes, hot peppers (pepperocino) corn and the sweet potato during the voyages of Cristoforo Columbo, making their way into Spain at the beginning of the 1500’s; they originated with the Aztec’s.

The tomato plant was originally from Chile or Ecuador; where the climate is tropical, and tomatoes can produce year-round. Here in America, the production of the tomato is limited to annual growth, and in Italy, it’s much the same.

In an article written by Jackelin J. Jarvis, she says “The tomato comes form the plant family solanacee. Its cousin the eggplant, was in those times, the preferred fruit in the Arabic World. Today, with the exception of Italian (because the tomato is called pomodoro), the word “tomato” is similar in all other languages- seeing that is was derived from the Aztec word for the plant. The original plant that was imported into Europe was called xitomatl, but it actually referred to the ‘Tomatl.’ The Tomatl was another plant similar to the tomato, but smaller, and the fruits were a greenish-yellow color and today are called ‘Tomatillo.’ These tomatoes are still used in Central American cooking.(The Spanish call both tomate).”

Despite the historical origin of the tomato, somehow I would still like to believe that it has Italian roots.  Perhaps I am in a bit of food denial, but I’m sure it’s because of the relationship that Italian’s have with the tomato.  However, it is amusing to think that the tomato, which most of us think of as quintessentially Italian, evolved on a different continent in a different hemisphere. Even so, it’s very difficult to think of Italian cuisine without the use of the tomato, unless of course we are discussing tira misu or a bottle of Enzo Boglietti. The tomato has been a part of Italian culture for a very long time, and for that I am grateful!  Still, there is no doubt that Italian’s have a relationship with the tomato!

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Here’s another news-flash, Roma tomatoes, which are sometimes referred to as Italian tomatoes aren’t even grown in Italy!  Haha!  They are grown in the United States, Mexico, Great Britain and Australia!  Now, the San Marzano tomato is quite another thing.  According to Wikipedia, “The story goes that the first seed of hola the San Marzano tomato came to Campania in 1770, as a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples, and that it was planted in the area that corresponds to the present commune of San Marzano. They come from a small town of the same name near Naples, Italy, and were first grown in volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Compared to the Roma tomatoes with which most people are familiar, Marzano tomatoes are thinner and pointier in shape. The flesh is much thicker with fewer seeds, and the taste is much stronger, more sweet and less acidic. Many people[who?] describe the taste as bittersweet, like high-quality chocolate. Because of their high quality and origins near Naples, San Marzano tomatoes have been designated as the only tomatoes that can be used for Vera PizzaNapoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza).[2]

Image(San Marzano Tomatoes)

So, the moral of the story is:  Hmmm… Well, there is no moral, I really just wanted to talk about tomatoes.  Amo dei pomodori!

PS. You say “tomaahto, I say pomodoro!

*Recommended book on the history of the tomato in Italy:

Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy, by David Gentilcore

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What do you mean I can’t eat polenta?

Imagine my surprise, to find out that 80% or more of what I had been eating all of my life, I was allergic to…The doctor laughed at me after I got upset over being allergic to corn.  He said, “Most people cry when they find out they can’t have chocolate.  You were upset over polenta!”

Of course, as time went on, and I began to research corn a bit, I discovered that it isn’t just the allergy factor.  Corn, because of the way it’s been genetically modified poses a problem.  Corn is cheap to reproduce, and it’s in EVERYTHING!  Our cattle, chickens, hogs, and even our cats and dogs eat it… and in the form of corn syrup, it’s actually cheaper to use that sugar.

However…cheaper is not always better.  Perhaps the old saying, “You get what you pay for” is true.  Nutritionists claim that obesity, which is currently a rising epidemic in the U.S. has been affected by corn and all of its modifications.  By the way… it’s also affecting the quality of the meat; it’s become fattier.

According to Time Magazine, “From 1972 to 2002, the amount of sugar and syrup produced annually per American grew 21%, from 104 lbs. to 126 lbs., according to the Department of Agriculture. In that same time period, the percentage of syrup sweetener in that total grew from less than 1% to nearly 50%.”

Ouch!

Dr. Mercola would have to agree.  He says, “Pundit George Will has joined the ranks of those who have noticed that the U.S. government’s treatment of corn is wrecking the health of Americans…Rates of chronic diseases like cancer and Type 2 diabetes are much higher today than they were in 1900. Type 2 diabetes is a $100 billion a year consequence of, among other things, obesity related to a corn-based diet. Four of the top 10 causes of American deaths — coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – have well-established links to diet as well.”

Of course, since I am allergic to corn, this should have no barring on me… Yet, it’s taken years for me to “try” and wean myself off of corn, and to be truthful, I still have not completely accomplished this, but I am working on it, and I have lowered my intake of corn products radically.  The greatest offender is corn tortillas. I live in Southern, California, and they’re hard to avoid. However, I do not eat any product that has high fructose corn syrup, especially with the absolute understanding that this ingredient is wrecking the health in America.

Think about it:  We are eating products that raise our insulin levels at every meal.  When I was eating “Italian,” even though “sugar” was not a common part of my everyday diet, so many things that I ate became sugar when broken down in my body.  For example:  pasta, bread, cereals, rice, polenta, potatoes, etc.  The carbs in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) are easily broken down and cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly.  The foods to avoid are mainly empty carbohydrates including all white flour breads, pasta, white rice, anything made with white sugar, corn syrup, or high fructose, processed foods like boxed or prepackaged foods, foods with no or low fiber, fruit juice with added sugar, condiments with added sugar, sugary cereals and regular soda. The two vegetables that have the highest glycemic index are potatoes and corn. Most foods that are packaged like frozen dinners and canned foods have fillers like corn starch, sugar and carbohydrate-based preservatives.

It’s interesting that for the past few years, health practitioners have been encouraging people to eat according to the Glycemic index, which measures the effect that carbohydrate consumption has on blood sugar levels.

After reviewing my eating habits for most of my life, it is no small wonder as to why I’ve developed some health issues, beginning with food allergies.  In an recent article on WebMD, it says, “A food allergy occurs when your immune system responds defensively to a specific food protein that is not harmful to the body…The first time you eat the offending food, your immune system responds by creating specific disease-fighting antibodies (called immunoglobulin E or IgE). When you eat the food again, the IgE antibodies spring into action, releasing large amounts of histamine in an effort to expel the “foreign invader” from your body. Histamine is a powerful chemical that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system.”

So, essentially, I compromised my immune system with the foods that I grew up eating, and it’s no wonder that I’m currently rethinking Italian!
“He who enjoys good health is rich, though he knows it not.” Italian Proverb –OH THE IRONY!

Sources:  http://www.ehow.com/about_4603110_foods-diabetic-should-avoid.html

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/04/corn-is-making-the-us-unhealthy.aspx

http://www.webmd.com/allergies/food-allergies

New Beginnings

I need another blog like I need a hole in my head, however…  I am Italian and I want to talk about food–the two seem to go hand-in-hand!

I am an American Italian woman in my mid-fifties who loves to cook.  My father’s family are all from Italy.  Worse still, my father owned an Italian restaurant, which only added more calories into the mix.  That being said, you can well-imagine our meals at home when I was growing up.  It went something like this:

Breakfast:  Italian eggs (loose scrambled eggs, leftover homemade pasta sauce, crushed garlic, fresh basil, fresh oregano and fennel seed, grated provolone cheese, grated romano cheese, and salt and pepper), sour bread toast, milk or orange juice, fresh fruit.  Occasionally we would have cereal, but not that often.

Lunch:  Varied somewhere between pasta, pizza or Italian sub sandwiches, with a tall glass of milk (of course it was for our “bones”).

Dinner:  Don’t even get me started… Sirloin or Filet Minion (stuffed with prosciutto, crushed garlic, mushrooms, oregano, provolone cheese, and various seasonings, then rubbed with fresh garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper), pasta (the pasta was our potato), garlic bread, green salad, and fruit for dessert.  There were also the lasagna or homemade pizza and ravioli moments, and my father’s famous deep fried calzones covered with sauce, and fresh grated romano cheese.

I was very active growing up, in fact, I danced ballet for 22 years, played on a woman’s tennis league, swam almost daily during the summer months, and enjoyed snow skiing and hiking on a regular basis.  Whatever crazy calories I consumed at home, I burned off because of my active lifestyle.

Once I was married and began a family of my own, I carried on the cooking tradition with my own family.  My children’s friends always wanted to spend the night at our house, and it’s clear why:  There was always a huge pot of homemade sauce on the stove, cookies in the oven, and a fully loaded refrigerator and pantry.  In short, we ate well…very, very well.

By the time I hit my late thirties, I began to have some health issues.  Weight gain (gee, I wonder why), chronic rashes, that would go away for a season and then return with a greater vengeance. Finally in my mid-forties, I developed Wilson’s Thyroid Syndrome, which is a quirky thyroid disorder that affects the T-3, and  eventually controls your ability to burn food.  Hence, to my horror,  my weight began to accelerate.

I was never an over-eater per say, but my diet was meat and carb-driven.  In addition, I was never a big dessert lover.  In fact, growing up we only ate desserts during the holiday’s, at special events, or for someone’s birthday.  Yet, with the combination of thyroid issues, and the rashes (which turned out to be related to food allergies), I began to blow-up like a balloon.  I wasn’t eating sugar, but my diet was primarily carb-driven, which ultimately turns into sugar.

…and I thought we ate so healthy…

Over the years, this began to worsen, and finally when I was just turning 50, I sought out alternative medical help, because traditional medicine was providing no “real” solutions.  I was given new diets, diet drinks (loaded with sugar), hormones, prednisone for the rashes, but only continued in a yo-yo cycle of ill-health and weight gain.  My new doctor started with food allergy testing.  It was quite a blow to find out that I am allergic to: wheat, rye, corn, sugar cane, chocolate, coffee bean, all dairy (except goat’s milk), MSG.(that was no loss), beef and brewer’s yeast.  Naturally, my response to all of this was, “What the heck is left for me to eat?”

That question began a journey that I am still on. I have had to re-think and re-learn eating, and cooking while being open to change.  It’s not easy for a woman my age to do, especially with my heritage and my connection to gourmet Italian foods.

However… I am doing it, little-by-little, step by step, and I am learning how to prepare healthy, organic, vegetable-based foods, that taste AMAZING! Who says healthy has to taste bad?  Just because it’s vegan or vegetarian, doesn’t mean you should feel like mooing after sitting down to dinner.

So, here I am…writing another blog, talking about food and sharing my journey.  As an Italian food aficionada–who loves and embraces life, I invite you to join me!

“Laugh as much as you breathe and love as long as you live!” Quest’ la vita il gioire ~ This is the life and the joy. ♥