Tag Archives: food

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!!!

La Famiglia: The food and feast continuum

I suppose there is no real definition of “normal” when it comes to family.  No two people do anything the same, so family dynamics are certainly no different.  However, if I were to bring the “Normal” label into my family adventures, I would dare say that I grew up far from normal.

First of all, both of my parents were highly educated, trained classical musician.  My father was drama-driven–by that I mean he had the combination plate of sensitive musician and being Italian.  Nothing was ever simple; nothing was ever laid back or calm, and most everything had the potential of being catastrophic, especially if the sauce cooked too long, or he had glitches while composing, working on music or working with other singers and musicians.  Of course, his drama was familiar to us kids, so we chuckled at it for the most part.

Being raised by classical musicians was certainly different.  Whenever my parents had string quartet rehearsals, opera rehearsals (which were often times weekly), or just the continual stream of piano and violin students that rolled into our home, it was not only loud, but a topic of conversation throughout the neighborhood.  There was a family of 12 that lived next door to us, and several of the 10 kids used to call my father “The crazy Russian.”  I am uncertain where the “Russian” thing came into play, but that was his nickname among the kids in the neighborhood. The best I can come up with is that my father always wore black turtlenecks (even in 100 degree weather), he had semi-long wavy black and graying hair, and sported a goatee.  Even though he taught high school orchestra for many years, he was not your typical business suit kinda guy.

With these kind of dynamics, being raised in an Italian household only added more color to the already fully-loaded palette, and as serious as my father was about his music, he was equally so regarding his food.

I suppose I should share that my mother was not Italian.  She was predominantly Welsh and French, but had to pretty much learn the “Italian way.”  I think that’s the case for most non-Italian’s marrying into an Italian family.  Sort of, “My way or the highway” theory.  She was an exceptional cook–a gourmet by every standard, in fact, some of her varied sauces for pasta were actually better than all of my Italian aunts put together.  She could cook rings around most.  Well, all except my father.  Truthfully, no one could top him.  I still don’t know if I’ve ever tasted anyone’s Italian food that comes close to my father’s creations.

Every single day was a new adventure in the kitchen with my dad.  The only time he didn’t have his hands in dough, grating cheese, stirring sauce,crushing piles of garlic (the house reeked), or squishing tomatoes with his bare hands, was because he was either at work, conducting, running rehearsing or out of town.

There is no way I can discuss my growing up years without mentioning Calzone’s. While my father’s are certainly off-the-charts, mine became legendary as well.

A calzone is basically a pizza folded in two. Like pizza, it has ancient origins and can be traced back to the beginnings of flat breads, which were already present in Ancient Egypt. In fact, flat bread covered with herbs were served at birthday celebrations for the Pharaoh.

While there are mentions of dishes similar to pizza through the history of the the Mediteranean cultures, the pizza that we know today, and what is referred to as “real pizza”, was created in Naples.

At the beginning, pizza was made with a type of bread dough, flattened with your hands and covered with cheese or lard and cooked in a very hot wood-burning oven.

Only in the 18th century, and more precisely in 1730, did someone think to add tomato as a topping, giving life to the pizza marinara. This is how the pizza we know today came into being. It was then exported to America with Neapolitan emigrants and from there to the rest of the world.

Like pizza, there are a variety of calzones circling around the globe.  Our calzones are not just about the dough, but the sauce, the cheese, and often we deep-fried them as compared to some who merely bake them like pizza.  In a nut-shell… they’re seriously calorie-laden, and totally unhealthy.

Getting both pizza and calzones out of my diet has not been easy, and I cannot honestly say that I will never have another slice of pizza.  To exclude everything familiar from your life is not realistic, but I do believe in living a very balanced and controlled lifestyle.  That being said, “If” I choose to make pizza or calzones, which is rare, I use or make a gluten-free dough.  Instead of a meat and heavy cheese-filling, I use veggies and a small amount of organic goats cheese (if any).  Instead of deep-frying calzones, I bake them.  Using everything organic and fresh for the inside.  Believe it or not, making these kind of adjustments really do make a difference.

The truth is, you cannot live isolated from everything, but if you value your health and make a quality decision to eat healthy about 90% of the time, saving the small 10% for those moments you might want to have something like pizza or calzones, then you are still better off.

Because I have so many food allergies, wheat sensitivity, and gout, both calzones and pizza should be avoided.

Sometimes, it’s a bitch.  Food is alluring and just tastes so darn good, and especially good Italian food… You know?

Mamma Mia!

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!

Stuffed and puffy

“The wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings. Let food be your medicine.” – Hippocrates

When I was around 36, I began to have a lot of hormone-related issues, in fact, I skipped my menstrual cycle for 6 months–the doctor thought it might be a false pregnancy. Instead of giving birth after 9 months, I had gained nearly 90 lbs, and suffered from serious edema.  My diet was not any different.  I was still having an “Italian” moment, eating predominately pastas, salads, and beef, lamb, chicken or fish.  Somehow, I had figured out that bread was probably not a good idea for me, so I didn’t eat much bread, but pasta was a popular mainstay.  Not only in my diet, but it was being pushed in the health/diet industry at that time.  All of the health-gurus seemed to be on a pasta agenda, which only furthered my idea that I was eating healthy.  I walked about 4 times a week, yet I continued to blow up like a balloon.  It wasn’t just weight gain either; I didn’t have the typical sagging, ripply cellulite fat, but I looked stuffed and puffy.  My traditional doctor offered a hard-hit of progesterone, which contributed largely to my weight gain.  At that time, I didn’t realize that it is basically a steroid. In addition, I was tired all the time, which didn’t work well since I had 2 children that had very active schedules.  I felt like I was slipping down a slippery slope quickly, and I knew something had to be done.

My mother came to visit and she hadn’t seen me in about 7 or 8 months.  When she saw how much weight I had gained, how puffy I looked, and got a glimpse of the skin rashes I was dealing with, she insisted that I find a specialist.  I found an alternative doctor who was truly genius, and his influence was pivotal in opening my eyes to the things we eat.  He began his medical journey as a research psychiatrist, and found himself more interested in body chemistry as related to weight gain and allergy issues, so he went back to medical school and became an allergist.  After completing his training, he worked in the field for a brief time, but returned to school to study nutrition and holistic health.  It’s no secret that medical school students are not required to take more than one class on nutrition.  He shared with me that he felt incompetent as an allergist with little to no “real” knowledge of nutrition and the foods we eat.” So, in short, this physician was extremely well-rounded.  He was qualified as an M.D., but also as a nutritionist and holistic doctor.

On my first visit with Dr. Philip Taylor, he sat me down, took out a notepad and literally interviewed me for an hour.  He asked me questions about my childhood, what we ate, about my cravings, my marriage (I thought, “How odd…”), my current symptoms, and just about anything you could imagine. After an hour, he put his pen down, looked up at me and said.  “You’re a mess, and you also have chronic food allergies.”  I remember sitting there thinking, “Who is this guy?  I mean he didn’t even examine me.” He then asked me to step into his exam room, where we would begin food allergy testing.  He said, “I don’t believe in doing scratch tests for food allergies. Those work wonders if you have environmental allergies, but since food is ingested, I like to inject a little of the food under your skin to see what happens.”  Oh great.  I heard the word, “Inject,” and knew this was not going to be fun.  I’m not a fan of needles. Nearly everything he tested me for I reacted to, and wheat and dairy were the worst.  I didn’t just have a skin reaction, my arm blew up and I developed a migraine within about 20 minutes.  NOT a good sign.

The entire process took about 3 months, but at the end I was told about all of the things I could no longer eat.  In some respects I was relieved, but also a bit pissed off.  I felt somewhat cursed.  Imagine being an Italian with the food heritage I’ve had, only to find out that 90% of what I ate growing up contributed to my health issues. I couldn’t just go on a diet, avoid them for a season and then go back to eating the same foods.  Dr. Taylor opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to accept a permanent lifestyle change or I would continue to have these kinds of issues if I didn’t, and they would only get worse.  Change was imminent.

…Yet still…the road has not been easy.

“What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others”
– Lucretius. 95-55 B. C.