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Mambo Italiano!

It’s been awhile since I’ve visited this blog.  Life just gets ridiculously busy at times. Anyway, before I let this moment get away, I’d like to discuss polenta.

Italian’s have porridge too.  That’s right–it’s not just the English, and some like it hot; some like it cold, and some like it in the pot, but NEVER, NEVER nine days old.  Heck, good polenta doesn’t last a day in my house!  Haha!

Here’s a little trivia for you.  Polenta is not a modern food item, in fact it’s been around since Roman times, however it was a little different, especially since corn wasn’t even existent.  It was made from grain mush called puls or pulmentum…the Latin words for gruel or porridge.  The porridge was made from either farro, chestnut flour, millet, spelt or chickpeas.  Truthfully… it was probably healthier.

I wish I didn’t love polenta so much.  When my allergist told me that I was allergic to corn, I literally sunk in my seat and almost cried.  He said, “are you okay?”  I said, “No!  Oh — my– God… Please don’t take my polenta away from me!”  I was quite serious, but he actually laughed.  In all his 50 years of medical practice he’d never once had a patient get sad over being told they shouldn’t eat corn.  He said, “You know, people are usually livid when I tell them chocolate must be eliminated from their diet, not corn.”  lol

I am happy to report that Polenta is indeed NATIVE to Italy!  It originated in Friuli, a region in northeastern Italy.  It’s so refreshing to know this. When I found out that pasta really wasn’t native to Italy, I nearly threw in the towel… the cooking towel that is (wink)!

…back to polenta…

During the 1700’s, polenta was very popular, and it was more commonly eaten among peasants, probably because it was plentiful and cheap to make.  It was literally a dietary stable during those times.

In it’s basic form, polenta is fairly healthy, however without the added cheese, butter and seasonings, polenta by itself is a little on the bland side.   It is cooked by simmering in a water-based liquid, but there are literally a score of variations, depending on the region.

According to Wikipedia, “Cooked polenta can be shaped into balls, patties, or sticks, and then fried in oil, baked, or grilled until golden brown; fried polenta is called crostini di polenta or polenta fritta. This type of polenta became particularly popular in southern Brazil following northern Italian immigration.”

It’s hard to believe that polenta is a low carbohydrate food, but it is rich in Vitamin C and A.  Research studies have shown that corn can support the growth of friendly bacteria in our large intestine and can also be transformed by these bacteria into short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). These supply energy for our intestinal cells, which lowers the risk of colon cancer.  See more at: http://www.naturalhealth365.com/tag/polenta-health-benefits#sthash.njlaMvCr.dpuf

Basic polenta is as easy as making white rice.  You simmer it in water or broth until all the water is absorbed and the polenta is smooth. After the polenta is done, you can choose to add some butter, olive oil, various Italian cheeses, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, etc.

Often times, I transfer the cooked polenta into a baking dish and add pasta sauce, parmesan and Romano cheese, oregano, fresh basil, marjoram, and salt and pepper to taste.  Place it into a 350 degree oven and bake for 30-40 minutes.  Sprinkle finely grated parmesan cheese over the top and serve.  It’s delightful!

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Thanks for stopping in.  Now, I’m racing to mambo…not to the pizzeria, but to my massage therapist!

Arrivederci!!!

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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Vats of sauce, tiramisu, cannoli and pizzele’s: My food continuum

I don’t quite remember when my relationship with tomatoes began, but my earliest memories were around 4 or 5, watching my Italian aunt cook bucket-loads of sauce.  My aunt was the dearest soul on the planet–clearly a favorite aunt.  She was silly (every kid loved her), incredibly fun, generous, lively, and a great cook.  She never really seemed like an adult to me.  Perhaps it was the fact that she stood only 4′ 11″ tall.  However, as short as she was, she was near as wide.  If oompa loompa’s had been written about back then, I am sure that I would have assumed her to share their DNA.  What I didn’t know until I was in my late 40’s, is that my aunt had horrible food allergies.  In addition to obesity and food allergies, she also had a lot of rashes, which were also as a result of her food allergies.  Sadly, she never did deal with any of these issues.  It then was no surprise that she ended up with diabetes and lived in a continual down-hill health spiral until her death.

I frequently spent the night at her and my uncle’s house.  You name it, she had it, not only was her pantry filled to overflowing, they had a lot of money, no children (I was like her kid), and she didn’t seem to know the word, “No.” Oh yea, it was my favorite place to be!

The truth is, I learned how to cook Italian gravy (pasta sauce) and Italian desserts from my aunt.  While my father was an even better cook than her, she had that motherly patience to walk me through the process in the kitchen. Year after year, month after month I would hang out with my aunt and learn traditional Italian cooking–Chicago style.

Unlike my parents, my aunt was a queen at making famous Italian desserts like: Tiramisu, cannoli’s and pizzelle’s, and she made them frequently.  Tiramisu, also known as “Tuscan Trifle,” the dessert was initially created in Siena, in the northwestern Italian province of Tuscany. The occasion was a visit by Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici III, in whose honor the concoction was dubbed zuppa del duca (the “duke’s soup”). The former duke brought the dessert back with him to Florence. In the 19th Century, zuppa del duca became popular among the English intellectuals and artists who lived there Consequently, it is also known as zuppa Inglese. They took the dessert to England, where its popularity grew. Zuppa del duca eventually made its way to Treviso, just northwest of Venice, in the northeastern province of Veneto. Treviso is best know for its canals, frescoes and Tiramisu.  Of course, it gradually made its way to the United States via Italian immigrants.  Traditionally, Tiramisu is a pudding-like dessert, usually consisting of sponge cake (ladyfingers) dipped in a liqueur, then layered with grated chocolate and decadently rich custard.  Originally, the custard was somewhat loose, but it has changed over the years.  In fact, there are numerable variations on a theme.

I honestly did not have a favorite of these desserts, but the pizzele is probably the least rich and least fattening, since it doesn’t have any custard or creme filling.

Cannoli are actually a traditional Sicilian dessert, originating in Palermo.  My family is not Sicilian, but  hails from Campobasso, which is located in the Molise region of the Italy.  At one time Compobasso was a part of two mountainous regions (Abruzzi and Molise) that were joined as an administrative district under the name Abruzzi e Molise but now separated, extend from high in the Apennines to the Adriatic coast.  However, cannoli’s have become a very popular Italian dessert.  These little deep-fried shells, filled with a mixture of eggs, sugar, ricotta cheese and chocolate were a temptation to all who tasted them.

Pizzele’s (Italian wafers) were a common mainstay in my aunts cookie jar.  The name comes from the Italian word, “Pizze,” which means round and flat.  In some parts of Italy, especially among the upper class, the irons would be made with the family crest on them, and would be passed down to each generation.  While I don’t have an iron with our family crest on it, I did get my grandmother’s iron, and made these on special occasions and holiday’s for my own children, family and friends.

Pizzele
So…whenever I stayed with my aunt and uncle, my aunt and I primarily hung-out in the kitchen making vats of tomato sauce for a wide array of Italian pasta dishes and baking rich Italian desserts.  Julia Child wrote about “The Joy of Cooking,” but my aunt was Julia Child x 100!
Keep in mind, I was (as I am now) allergic to wheat, corn, dairy, etc. According to my allergist, you never really grow out of chronic food allergies.  So, once again, the foods I consumed were setting the stage for weight gain, rashes, immune system issues, and hormone imbalance.  “If only” I Knew then what I know now…things would have been played out MUCH differently.
I recently came across an article online called, “Are Your Food Allergies Making You Fat?  It described so many of the things that I’ve gone through to a T.  Dr. Mark Hyman reveals that food allergies and inflammation cause obesity.  Food allergies cause digestive disorders and inflammation.  It’s a vicious cycle. He suggests the following three steps:
  1. Try an elimination diet for 3 weeks. Cut out the most common food allergens, including gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, yeast, and peanuts. Some people are sensitive to soy, so you can also cut that out.
  2. Eat a whole-foods, plant-based, high-fiber diet. This is essential to feed the good bugs in your gut and to provide the nutrients you need to functional optimally.
  3. Take probiotics daily to boost the healthy bacteria in your gut. Look for those that contain 10 billion CFU of bifidobacteria species and lactobacillus species. Choose from reputable brands.
Essentially, this is precisely what I did when I first found out that I had chronic food allergies.  I eliminated the foods not just for 3 weeks, but for a full year.  Because I went through allergy testing, I knew what I was allergic to, so there was no guessing game.
Hence, my Italian diet was a culprit for ill-health.  It’s not hard to know that desserts like:  Tiramisu, cannoli’s and/or pizzele’s are not healthy, but pasta?  Tomato sauce? Steak?  Cheese?  Bread?  The list seemed endless.
Tiramisu
Of course, the big question in my mind was, “What in heck do I replace all of this good-tasting food with?  What was left?  My journey had only began… Now 10 years later, I am still on the road to redemption.

“One should eat to live, not live to eat.” – Moliere

Cannoli


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

Spiked punch

As I previously mentioned, my father was an opera conductor.  I’ll never forget one of the after-party’s following the closing of  a production of Madame Butterfly.  There must have been 200 people crammed in our house.  Everyone was still dressed in either evening attire, tuxedoes or black evening gowns, and as always, there were literally tables of food scattered everywhere, an open bar in the living room and a table with a large bowl, filled with spiked punch, various cheeses, meats and assorted appetizers.  Naturally, my father and mother prepared the main course, which was usually lasagna or manicotti’s.  In short, the place was filled with stuffed food and stuffed people!

My younger brother was a bit of a prankster, and was never very enthused with the yuppity party’s that my parents threw.  So, you can well imagine that mischief was always lurking around the corner.  On this particular night, he was bored as usual and my father was in a jovial mood.  The truth be known, one of my parents musician friends had definitely been dipping into the spiked punch one too many times.  Actually, he was probably hitting the open bar, and using the spiked punch as a chaser for the food.  In short, he was plowed.  So, my brother decided to practice his pitch (he was a left-handed baseball pitcher) using strawberries as the ball and the back of this guys bald head as the target.  Fire 1, fire 2, fire 3…he never knew what hit him.  It got worse.  Instead of my father scolding my brother, he was laughing and saying…”What in the heck are you doing?  He looks like a strawberry shortcake!”  So, my brother proceeded to go to the refrigerator, pull-out a can of whipped cream, and he walked over to this guy, hugged him and while they were having a chat, he sprayed the whip cream in his tuxedo pocket without this guy ever even knowing.  🙂 About five minutes later, the man put his hands in his pockets and yelled out,  “Good God!  What is this?”  I won’t begin to tell you how much my father, brother, sister and I laughed over this.  Since the man was so intoxicated, he never did put the pieces together, and we all had a good laugh looking at this human strawberry shortcake.

Back to the FOOD:

So, while this was a special event, once again, I was eating foods that were high in fat, carb-driven, loaded with dairy, and undoubtedly not gluten-free or sugar-free.  Since I didn’t normally gravitate toward the dessert table, I was under the impression that I was eating healthy.  I couldn’t have been more mislead.

Once again, I am more convinced than ever that my lifestyle growing up helped pave the way for some of the health issues that I’ve been dealing with off an on for the last 20 years.  It’s been a long road.  I’ve not always wanted to surrender what’s been familiar to me, but after changing my ways and eating organic, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free, I’m feeling so much better.  It’s no wonder that I’m rethinking Italian!