I am wrestling with the burning question, "Why Does Life in Italy Seem So Much Better?"
Is it because Italians value the little things, take pleasure in the slow and the delicious, live simply and large at the same time?
Maybe. I’m only on day 5 so I am just scratching the surface. I am hunkered down in the hills of Umbria for a month, tucked into a little farmhouse within a cluster of a few homes and barns which are part of a former tiny, ancient, Etruscan village near the Tuscan border.
Life in this area is slow-paced, far away from city air or noises and charmingly beautiful. A bread truck lumbers up the road once a week to deliver Tuscan loaves of any size, and farmers and neighbors who take the shortcut to the next village over putter up and down the hill at random during the day. The neighbor nonna walks slowly out to her garden daily to pick a head of lettuce for dinner and rinses it under the cistern faucet before returning to her kitchen.
From here I can see green hills where at least 10 different things or creatures are being grown or raised: olives, grapes, wheat, farro, lentils, canola, chestnuts, sheep, honey, and chickens. That’s about it for excitement, which is pretty exciting. It means not only do you get chestnuts but you get chestnut honey, not only do you get sheep but you get pecorino cheese, olive oil, etc. You get the picture, and it is pretty abundant.
So, I am enjoying being where I am and living in the question. In the meantime, I am keeping busy looking after the farmhouse and gardens, as well as writing, walking, painting, learning Italian and of course, cooking and eating. Healthy eating is simple when so many delicious vegetables are grown nearby, many raised from heirloom seeds which favor flavor over traveling ability, and sourced from the garden or the village vegetable store.
A quick chopped salad below is what I made to eat after the thunderstorm last night, along with a starter of pan-fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with homemade yogurt cheese and herbs. This is a nice main dish salad consisting of a little raw zucchini, which is sweet and crunchy when it is young and fresh, contrasted with a little bitter radicchio - a member of the chicory family and a beautiful purple-red - plus some sweet cherry tomatoes and chopped romaine. To truly taste the vegetables, you barely need any dressing - just some good sea salt and a little drizzle of excellent quality olive oil. And maybe a nice glass of Chianti for the full effect.
Zucchini and Radicchio Chop Salad for One
5 large cherry tomatoes or 8 small cherry tomatoes
1 small clove garlic, minced
large pinch sea salt (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 baby zucchini (no longer than 5 inches)
1 baby head radicchio (about 1 cup chopped)
2 inner leaves of romaine (1 cup chopped)
1-2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced herbs - I used lemon thyme, parsley and chives
Quarter the tomatoes and place in a small ceramic bowl that can hold 2 1/2 cups of chopped vegetables. Toss them with the minced garlic and sea salt and let that macerate while you chop the rest of the vegetables into small, bite-sized pieces. You’ll end up with a salad that looks like you can eat it with a spoon - and you can, if you like. As you chop each vegetable toss it in the bowl on top of the tomatoes but don’t stir until you’ve got it all done. Once everything is in the bowl and it has been about 5 minutes, give everything a stir. Taste it for salt - it should be nicely seasoned - and then drizzle with a little bit of excellent olive oil, about a teaspoon or so. If you have some herbs growing on a pot outside your door or on your balcony (hint: this is a really good idea, whether you’re in Italy or not) then pick a couple sprigs at random and tear them into the salad. Serve immediately, with or without the Chianti.
Heirloom zucchini, cherry tomatoes, fresh rosemary and radicchio. Photos © Anna Dvorak
Today on Earth Day I am cautiously dreaming about what I’ll plant in my new garden this year, what will go in my “foster” garden, and which clever new ways I can organize my herb pots so that they keep me supplied with cooking herbs throughout the summer.
All that, and I am also thinking about food, summer, and recipes - most specifically for my next e-cookbook, Nourish: Summer, which is due out June 1st.
One thing that has changed for me this past year has been paying greater attention what goes on in a typical kitchen for a family with school age children in my neck of the woods. Eleven women - most of them moms - and two men - both dads -have been my recipe testers for the three cookbooks I’ve written, and am writing, thus far. As I’ve received their feedback on the recipes, I’ve used it as a benchmark to write about cooking in a way that makes it so very practical and doable in a regular kitchen with the busy schedule that most families maintain.
This is why I get even more excited when I hear voices who command a much larger audience saying things like, “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself. People who cook eat a healthier diet without giving it a thought. It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.” That is from Michael Pollan, and it is the message at the forefront of the new book he has just written called “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”
Without Pollan knowing it, I consider myself part of a big team doing “work on the ground” in communities across America to implement a similar message, by educating about food and how to cook in front of groups 2 to 32 in size.
As a result, I’m pretty darn excited to go and hear Michael Pollan speak live in Minneapolis next week as part of the Inspiring Minds series at Beth El Synagogue, with proceeds to benefit an excellent organization in North Minneapolis called Appetite for Change.
I’m so excited, in fact, that I bought two tickets. So, if you’d like to join me next Thursday to get a taste of what inspires me and hopefully get a little inspired yourself,
(...read the rest of the blog HERE and get the full instructions!)
I’ve been writing my own recipes down since the mid-90s, just keeping little scrawled notes of what I had cooked using vegetables in my garden and especially good combinations of ingredients. The shift towards helping other people make healthier foods in their own kitchens began when I assembled a booklet of recipes for our friends Anne and Kelley six years ago because they wanted to start cooking healthier at home.
I also began shifting from just having my own little garden in my backyard, which I learned how to grow from my parents, to promoting local small farmers and thinking about larger food issues. I began learning about what farmers were doing about local food issues, and how much thought and effort they put into growing incredible foods for our tables.
As things have evolved, I still create new dishes for myself and my family, but now a big part of what I do is share what I’ve learned about food – in this blog, by teaching cooking classes, and by serving up the flavors with anyone who happens to come into my kitchen.
Now it’s all come together as I’ve published my first cookbook, an e-cookbook called nourish: winter, part of a series that I’ll release over the next year called nourish: cooking with love in four seasons. It couldn’t be more local, organic, seasonal or healthful. My whole goal is to continue to help people get back to cooking from scratch - making wholesome, delicious and healthful foods. I love sharing ideas and tools for healthy living, about knowing why good food matters, and how it's possible to do something about it at home. I truly believe that not only is good food important, it should taste really good at the same time – not just in my kitchen, but yours as well.
Here's a sample recipe and photograph from the cookbook. Enjoy!
Roasted Delicata Squash
Delicata squash have a light, delicate flavor and a firm texture. Maybe the best part about them is that you can eat them skin and all, saving time and fuss. Serve them as a side dish or atop a crisp green salad dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes
Yield: 2-4 servings
2 tablespoons coconut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
1 delicata squash
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375º. Wash squash thoroughly and dry. Slice into 1/2” rings and scoop seeds out of each slice. (You can also cut off each end and scrape out all of the seeds at once.) Rub all surfaces of each piece with oil – skin and cut edges – and place on an ungreased heavy baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast until soft and golden brown, about 20 minutes.
Photo credit: Mike Dvorak Photography
Most of us are really trying to do the right thing when it comes to our health. We try to cover the basics: making good choices for our families, eating the healthiest foods we know, getting some exercise, avoiding cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption.
But there are still a lot of things out of our control - including the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the methods under which our food is grown.
Maybe you’ve heard that California has a landmark measure on the ballot next month called Prop 37. It would require food labels on raw or processed food to state if the food is made from plants or animals that were raised with GMOs (genetically modified organisms). It will also prohibit the use of the word “natural” on any packaging.
It’s as simple as that.
We already have labels that state how many servings, calories, fat grams and sugars a food includes, plus an ingredients list so that we know what makes up the food we’re eating. Including GMO information on the labels would give us extra information as consumers to make an informed choice. Whether or not we will choose a certain food based on the label is not at the heart of the discussion.
It’s about having the freedom to make the choice. We may not be able to control how foods are grown, but we certainly have the right to know. Seeing the information on the label is the most consumer-friendly way to be able to make an informed decision about the foods we buy.
What happens in California does matter for the rest of us, because national food manufacturers will label food for the US market depending on those requirements. (Here's an illustration of what it might look like, as dreamt up by Mark Bittman writing for the NYTimes). Let’s hope that they can pass the ballot measure that will lead to all of us having the right to know about what’s in our food.
There are so many ways to get access to some of the spectacular foods in season at the peak of summer, which is right now. Maybe you’re lucky enough to be able to walk into your garden and pick what you need for dinner. Maybe tonight’s the night you pick up your CSA share to bring home and unpack. Or maybe you’ll visit a local farmer’s market this week or weekend (see photo above).
If there ever was a season to change up the shopping routine, this is definitely it. I cook and eat seasonally - it’s how I was raised - so this time of year I skip the usual suspects that are “year round” foods - the bananas, the spinach, the celery and the waxy cucumbers. This is the season when I do the bulk of my “shopping” from my CSA share, the farmer’s market and my little herb garden.
That means right now I am eating Colorado peaches, loving the white nectarines and the apricots, and making a weekly splurge on a carton of fresh blueberries. I can’t get enough of the perfectly ripe tomatoes - my latest favorites are Sungold cherry tomatoes - and I love the thin skinned “pickling” cucumbers, which taste so much more like a cucumber than those boomerangs from Mexico ever will. I get the freshest sweet corn I can find at the Saturday market - picked that same morning - and I eat it until I’m totally sick of it. But I’m not there yet.
The best of the season is still rolling in and I’ll happily avoid the grocery store as long as possible, only stopping for fruit and extras when needed. While I can, I’ll be grilling eggplant and peppers; throwing kale, chard, cukes, cabbage and mint into my green juices, and eating fruit so good I’ll want to cry. I’m freezing sweet corn and soup stock for winter, and brining pickles to eat daily from the crock. In a few weeks it will be time to can tomato sauce, make pesto and dry herbs. (I’ll be teaching a two-part Preserving, Canning and Freezing class next month if you’ve been wanting to try any of this).
So how will you enjoy these wonderful foods?
2 teaspoons coconut oil, butter or olive oil
3 organic eggs
1/2 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
big handful kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
1 little yellow summer squash, halved lengthwise and sliced into half-moons
8 cherry tomatoes, halved
several leaves of fresh basil, roughly chopped
small handful fresh parsley, roughly chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 oz chevre, crumbled into large (1/2”) pieces (preferably from Singing Hills Goat Dairy)
Heat a large, heavy skillet or cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add oil, onions, garlic, kale and squash when warm and sauté until golden, about 4 minutes. Crack eggs over kale mixture and let cook for a few minutes, then toss to scramble. Season with salt and turn eggs one more time. Remove to two plates, season with pepper, sprinkle with chopped tomatoes and herbs and dot with chevre. (Cheese is optional - there is really a ton of flavor in here already). Serve immediately.
I have lots of opinions about food. Things I love, things I wouldn’t touch, and things I want everyone to go out and enjoy, right now.
One of my very favorite things is the Mill City Farmer’s Market in downtown Minneapolis. Tucked behind the Mill Ruins along the Mississippi River, Mill City Farmer’s Market is what I’ve come to consider the jewel in the crown of metro area farmer’s markets. Of course I know that everyone has their favorites, but this happens to be mine. Here’s why:
1. I love the quality of food I can find there: the Market has chosen vendors who meet the highest standards of local and sustainably grown, pesticide-free and/or organic foods, plus quality goods.
2. I adore Brenda Langton. With her rich history in the metro food scene serving some of the most honest and responsibly-sourced food from early St. Paul days to Cafe Brenda and now Spoonriver, she has created an amazing food zone at the Market with passion, vision, and a whole lot of work. Mill City Market has become the new standard for organic, quality and innovative local market vendors in large part to her energy and commitment.
3. I love the variety: greens, cheeses, breads and pastries, handmade chocolates and crackers, herbs, wild-caught salmon, and perfect ice cream. I can shop here on Saturdays and stock my fridge for days.
Here are some of my very favorites:
But go, find more gems for yourself, and make sure to buy lots of fresh veggies so you can go home and put together a super-local and delicious summer meal that doesn’t take more than a little tossing in a salad bowl.
(P.S. I would be a big liar if I didn't mention that I get a bag of organic, cardamom-spiced mini donuts from the Chef Shack at least once a summer for utter donut perfection. Just make sure to eat extra salad later to make up for it.)
Super Simple Spinach Greek Salad for Two
two large handfuls fresh spinach (about 4 loose cups)
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
10 Kalamata olives
1/4 red onion, extremely thinly sliced
2 ounces Singing Hills Goat Dairy feta
2 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
juice from 1/2 fresh lemon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
large pinch sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Wash and spin dry the spinach. Tear into bite-sized pieces into a medium bowl. Top with tomatoes, olives, onion, and feta. Drizzle with the olive oil, lemon and sprinkle on the oregano, salt and black pepper. Toss well to combine and serve immediately.