I shocked a friend last week by telling her that creamy Fettuccine Alfredo wasn’t really Italian. I had to point out that I don’t eat it every week (or at all actually!). It’s an Americanized version of an old Roman dish and it exemplifies just how much Italian food has changed through time and cultures. While she was taken aback, I was able to offer her more proof of “non-Italian, Italian” dishes. Recently, Panoram Italia, an Italian-Canadian publication, created an issue all about the Italian-Canadian diet: what’s typical, what’s changed, and how it differs from food in Italy. I had the opportunity to contribute the article “The Italian Paradox: Myths and reality about the Italian diet” to the magazine.
What I loved about writing this article was the opportunity to not only talk to people who had experience eating “Italian” in Italy and Canada and could describe the differences well, but also the opportunity to dive into scientific articles about why the Italian diet is healthy (or not, in some cases). In the end, I was able to see how the Italian diet has changed both in Italy and in Canada and I have a better sense myself of how I want change the way I eat. For me, it means more vegetables though that will get easier as the summer approaches and I get to plant my garden.
Here’s a snippet of the article, and you can continue on to Panoram Italia to read more….
Amazon.com offers 5,198 books about the Mediterranean diet. 118 of those books focus on Italian cooking and nearly all have a picture of olive oil on the cover.
It’s easy to see why there is such a demand for insight into what and how Italians eat: study after study shows Italians are healthier and live longer. Though Italians smoke more than other Europeans and spend less on healthcare, they have healthier weights and less diseases. And Italy is one of the top 10 countries in the world with the longest human longevity.
But go to an Italian chain restaurant in North America and you’ll be served heaping amounts of pasta coated with cheese, a far cry from what is considered “healthy.” Movie and TV images of traditional Italian Sunday meals suggest big portions of meat, a lot of wine and opulent desserts are the norm. How do pizza and pasta translate into a healthy diet?
“That’s not representative of Italian meals,” says Susan McKenna Grant, author of Piano, Piano, Pieno: Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm and owner/chef of La Petraia restaurant in Sienna. “[Italians eat] less junk food, less soda, less sugar, do more natural exercise like walking and have a better understanding of what good food is,” she says. She also confirms that olive oil is one of the best foods Italians consume. Fresh vegetables, and plenty of them, are the stars of meals, not just pasta.
A 1995 study of the Mediterranean diet “Italian Style” confirmed that Italians preferred a plant-based, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. This means a high intake of vegetables, beans, fruit and cereals; medium-to-high intake of fish and unsaturated fats (that’s where the olive oil comes in); and low intake of meats, saturated fats and dairy products. The study also tracked the physiological effects of this food and found the benefits abound. For example, tomatoes, broccoli, wine, unprocessed olive oil, garlic and certain spices offer antioxidant effects. The high intake of plant-based meals also provided protective roles for health. Spanish research published in Food Chemistry magazine found that tomato sauce – the olive oil, tomatoes and garlic cooked together particularly – is loaded with compounds that have been linked to the reduction of tumours and cardiovascular diseases.
As with many holidays, the demand for traditional recipes is high this time of the year. My post last week about Easter Ciambelle got a great response and my Easter Bread recipe from last year is also still very popular. This year, it was featured on news websites and newspapers all over Canada and the US as part of an interview I did on traditional Easter breads. But with these two recipes I’ve only scratched the surface of what Italian households might be prepping this weekend.
Still considering your Easter menu? I’ve rounded up some traditional Italian Easter recipes from around the web for you to try out. Did I miss a favourite recipe from your family – let me know in the comments and we can share it here next year.
Have fun baking and cooking up a storm! Happy Easter / Buona Pasqua everyone!
Italian Easter Breads
Italian Easter Bread (from The Italian Dish)
Easter Dove Bread / La Colomba di Pascua (from Mother Earth)
Easter Bread Dolls / Pupi Con L’uova (from Mangia Bene Pasta)
Sweet Italian Easter Bread (from Laura in the Kitchen)
Easter Sunday Lamb
Roman Grilled Lamb Chops (from Delallo)
Easter Lamb with Peas (from Academia Barilla)
Basil Stuffed Lamb Roast (from Mangia Bene Pasta)
Italian Easter Leg of Lamb (from The Dolce Vita Diaries)
Torta di Pasqua (from BBC Food)
Easter Meat Pie (from Mamma’s Italian Recipes)
Stuffed Pizza / Pizza Chena (from Food.com)
Italian Easter Pie / Torta Pasqualina (from The Italian Dish)
Easter Grain Cake / La Pastiera (from Marcellina in Cucina)
Easter Wheat Pie (from Foodista)
Campania Ricotta Easter Pie (from Italy Revisited)
Easter cookie wreaths / knots / baskets (from Judy’s Culinaria)
With Easter around the corner, sweets to celebrate this holiday are in order. These chiambrelle are traditional for Easter and are a perfect recipe for springtime as they feature eggs heavily in the ingredients. If you are familiar with Italian, you’ll notice the odd spelling of “chiambrelle”: the word ciambelle is used to describe any manner of ring cake and the unique spelling you see here is a reflection of the Calabrese dialect and communities that this recipe comes from.
My mom remembers these as a child at her uncle’s wedding in Italy, as people traditionally got married in the spring. My mom prepared them for my own wedding as well and they are a must-have at Easter. In Italy they were baked in outdoor stone ovens.
This isn’t a super-sweet dessert, but rather a good accompaniment to an after-dinner coffee. This recipe has a icing sugar coating, but originally, when sugar wasn’t readily available, they would have been coated with stiff-beaten egg whites mixed with a bit of regular sugar.
Easter Ciambelle (or Chiambrelle)
2 ounces milk
2 ounces vegetable oil
1 teaspoon baking power
5-6 cups all purpose flour
6 ounces milk
2 tsp butter
4 cups of icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla or lemon zest
My grandfather’s process for making bread, or my favourite breadsticks, taralli, had one crucial step: get up early. When the sky was still dark blue, if not black, the dough would be formed and he could get in breakfast, a check in on the garden and maybe a nap while waiting for it to rise.
When my family and I insisted that we learn how to make taralli from him – and that meant really measuring out the ingredients and writing down the steps that were all in his head – he said “no.” I’d never be able to get up early enough he told me. We would start too late and the whole day would be lost. I made him promise to at least do the recipe on a Saturday, which he agreed to (and kept that promise, he was liable to just pick any day he felt like), and I did my best to surprise him by arriving on time. Even on time, we knocked on the door, our eyelids still heavy, and he was already done his second coffee for the day. Evidently, we were already behind.
As much as I may have surprised him by my dedication to get up early, when he took us down to the basement kitchen to start the process, we got our own surprise. We insisted on measuring the ingredients, not once but twice to be sure. If he said a “handful of fennel seeds” we made him fill his hand full then pour it into a measuring cup. When we asked how much flour, he said proudly that he does measure the flour. He pulled out his measuring cup. He used an empty margarine container to scoop out the flour! My mother and I looked at each other, each with the immediate thought: how many cups in a margarine container? And so the measuring, and re-measuring continued.
I get so many emails from readers saying how thrilled they are to see old recipes here on the blog and those still searching for recipes or trying to translate them from the Italian they remember. Nonno or Nonna might still be able to tell you a recipe or you may have inherited the scribbled, stained notebook from a kitchen. Either way you’ll most likely hear one of these:
un pizzico / a pinch
circa… / around…
nu pugnu / a handful
quanto ne prende / whatever it takes
Today I’m hoping for spring. The newscaster on the radio yesterday said that by this point in this crazy winter, we’ve shovelled more than 100cm of snow. And this weekend the big melt is on. There’s a puddle the size of an Olympic swimming pool at the end of my driveway, we nearly lost the dog in it.
While I don’t trust that winter is over, the water tells me spring is on the way and that means sunshine, more time outdoors and fresh spring vegetables. The best of those is peas, and while I prefer them raw, sweet and small right out of the pod, they are a great addition to meals as well, like in pasta piselli in bianco (pasta with peas in a “white” sauce).
When I was a kid, I could make myself sick on raw peas. Early on a Saturday morning, my mom and grandparents would disappear for a few hours and come back with bushels of peas in their bright green pods. We would sit in the shade of the front porch, metal bowls in our laps, shellling the pods one by one and listening to the peas hit the bowl with a satisfying “ping, ping, ping.” At first I would be excited to help: I was usually eating more raw peas than were making it into the bowl. But an hour into it, the conversation waned, my stomach was full and my fingernails were lined with green. I would squirm in my seat, hoping to be excused. No such luck – this was a family affair, through and through. When we were finally done, we would freeze the peas and have them for the whole year – there was nothing better.
These days, I go to a nearby farm where they do the shelling for you and flash freeze the sweet peas. A few weeks ago, I shared a pasta piselli recipe that was traditional to my family, using tomato sauce. Now, here’s another common recipe also employed by parents and grandparents as a quick dish that kids generally love: pasta piselli in bianco. “In bianco” means “in white”, or in a white sauce, without tomatoes. While you can use frozen peas, fresh peas are always the best. The recipe is quick, easy and fresh: to be served in the bright sunshine of spring.
Pasta Piselli in Bianco
200g mini shell dry pasta (100g per person)
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1 medium onion, chopped
50g pancetta (or bacon. Use however much you have around.)
Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
L’amore domina senza regole.
Love rules without rules.
The thing about writing about Italian traditions is that they are so ingrained that sometimes, we don’t even know the original reason as to why they developed or why they’ve continued. Not that we love the traditions any less – usually they mean we get to spend time with family and friends and celebrate. Who needs an excuse for that? But Valentine’s Day, or in Italian Il giorno della festa degli innamorati, certainly must come from an Italian Saint right, San Valentino perhaps?
I started looking up why Valentine’s Day started and there’s a mix of stories about Italian saints in jail, saints marrying couples in secret, Italian spring festivals, the day when birds pair up for mating, and so on. None of them really hold up, since clearly this isn’t even remotely a religious festival anymore. In the end, despite its’ supposed saintly origins, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Italy just as much the same as it is celebrated here in North America – heart-shaped boxes of candy, gifts and treating the one you love to a really good meal.
One of the more recent traditions in Italy to declare your love does have a clear origin though. People have taken to locking padlocks to bridges, railings and lamp posts. These are called Lucchetti dell’Amore or “Locks of Love.” This tradition started eight years ago after the release of a best-selling book, and subsequent movie, “Ho voglio di te” (I want you). In the story the main couple, trying to symbolize that they will be together forever, tie a chain and a padlock around a lamppost on the north side of Rome’s Ponte Milvio (a bridge) and inscribe their names on it, lock it and throw the key into the Tiber River.
Spread throughout Italy, and now Europe and North America, scads of locks have appeared on bridges in many cities (in fact, the picture above is from a bridge I found in Helsinki, Finland). Though most cities will eventually remove the locks or ban them all together for ruining the aesthetic of the city, people continue to add locks to new and interesting places to declare their love, as permanently as they can. By 2007, that same lamppost from the inspiring movie reportedly collapsed due to the weight of the locks attached to it (see the picture below!).
In a way, the locks don’t surprise me. One Italian “tradition” is to always be open, honest and loud about your love. Love for family, your partner, food, life, you name it. So this Valentine’s Day join me in just being full of Italian love, no matter who (or what!) you declare it to. You may want to put a padlock on your favourite park bench or bridge or you may just want to yell it from the rooftops. Here’s a few key Italian phrases to use this love-filled weekend:
Pizzica e basa non fannu pertusa.
Little pinches and kisses don’t make holes (or do any harm).
Il primo amore non si scorda mia.
You never forget your first love.
Quella destinata per te, nessuno la prendera. (Dialect)
No one will take the one who is destined for you. (Meaning: True love waits)
Chi te vole bene te fa chiagne, chi te vole male te fa ride. (Dialect)
The one who loves you makes you cry, the one who wishes you ill makes you laugh.