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!)
Oh January in Minnesota, how well you succeed in every attempt to dissuade, punish and intimidate all of our healthy new year resolve! You are dark, you are cold, you are dreary.
The only way to survive these cold days and nights without escaping to the tropics is to focus on something wonderful (to eat, in my case). And the best way to beat the pants off of flu and cold germs is to make that something garlicky and wonderful.
Which brings me to kale, garlic, onions, red peppers and sweet potatoes. Prepared and served in a comforting way, these colorful, seasonal foods deliver all of the warmth that is so desperately needed with the nutrition that will help us defy the worst of January weather.
What you have in these five foods is a powerhouse of immune-boosting, nutrient-packing and inflammation-reducing super-goodness. Antioxidents abound in every single vegetable this combo, plus vitamins A, C, K, as well as the minerals calcium, potassium, manganese and phosphorus.
Eat them because they are delicious, naturally sweet and will add to your health. Bake them so that you will feel nourished and warm from the inside. Try them so that you, too, will be able to scoff in the face of January. Or just have something really garlicky and wonderful to eat.
Garlicky Kale-Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Serves 2 (with leftovers)
2 medium organic Garnet or Jewel yams (orange flesh sweet potatoes)
1 bunch organic kale, stems discarded and leaves chopped
1 tablespoon coconut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, sliced lengthwise into 1/8” strips
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1/2 red pepper, seeded and diced
organic goat cheese or feta, optional for garnish (my favorite is Singing Hills Dairy from Nerstrand, MN)
Heat oven to 400º. Scrub the sweet potatoes, prick several times on all sides with the tines of a fork and place on a metal baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake in the middle of the oven for 35 minutes or until soft when squeezed in the middle. Remove from the oven and set aside.
Meanwhile, warm a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the oil and the onion and sauté until the onion turns very tender and sweet, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 3 minutes longer, then stir in the chopped kale. Raise the heat to medium and sauté, stirring to toss, for 3-5 minutes or until the kale turns dark green and tender-crisp. Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper and remove the pan from the heat.
Slice each roasted sweet potato lengthwise and squeeze apart to open. Mash the flesh of each sweet potato lightly with a fork, lightly drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, then stuff with half of the kale mixture. Garnish with fresh parsley and the diced red pepper. Eat immediately, or keep for up to two hours at room temperature of up to two days, refrigerated. To serve prepared dish, return to the oven and bake until warmed through, about 15 minutes (depending on whether or not they were refrigerated). Serve along with a crisp green salad and a small portion of the protein of your choice.
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.