I am always inspired by my travels in and around Italy…all of the Med, really, but Italy is where my heart lives. I feel my best there, the most natural, the most…me.
In America, Italian food has the reputation of being heavy, oily and smothered in cheese…and nothing could be further from the truth. Italian cuisine is light, seasonal and fresh in many cases. And while they do eat meat and cheese (okay, nobody’s perfect…), they usually match these heavy foods with lots of veggies and whole grains.
So when I read that chefs are “lightening up” Italian food, I imagine they are simply cooking more authentically!
And while Italians are certainly grappling with the influence of modern junk food on some level, there seems to be a…reverence, if you will, for food and the art of cooking that is sadly being lost in our modern culture. We love to watch cooking, ironically, but the actual cooking of food often takes a back seat to other things in life.
And I get it. We’re busy. We work hard, have family obligations, community work and we’d like some time to chill after all that. For many of us, ‘chilling’ doesn’t involve the art of cooking, but it should. In our busy lives and in uncertain times, we need to be strong and vital. We need to be clear-minded and sure of what we’re doing. Cooking real food can help us achieve our goals with energy to spare.
So as the weather warms and we dream of La Dolce Vita, let’s take a page from the Italians with lighten up our cooking (and make it easier in the process).
Here are some of my favorite recipes!
Pasta with Spring Pea Pesto
Pesto in Italian simply means ‘paste’ so we can create as we desire. And since it’s not quite fresh basil season yet, why not employ some of spring’s sweetest ingredients to make a light and satisfying pasta dinner?
Makes 3-4 servings
½ pound farro tagliatelle (you can use semolina or whole wheat pasta as well)
1/2 cup fresh/frozen petite peas (thawed if using frozen)
2 cups packed flatleaf parsley
1/3 cup pignoli (pine nuts)
2 teaspoons white miso
1 teaspoon brown rice syrup
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Zest of ½ fresh organic lemon
Bring a medium-large pot of water to the boil and add a generous pinch of sea salt. When the water boils, cook the pasta ‘al dente’ about 7-8 minutes.
While the pasta cooks, make the pesto. Place peas, parsley, pine nuts, miso, rice syrup, olive oil and lemon zest in a food processer and pulse to create a creamy, but still chunky pesto.
When the pasta is cooked, drain well (but do not rinse), reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Transfer the cooking liquid to a skillet with the pesto and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until the pesto is thick and creamy. Add cooked pasta, turn off heat and stir to coat the pasta with the pesto. Stir in a light seasoning of lemon juice, if desired and transfer to a serving platter. Serve immediately.
Sicilian Bean Salad
My husband is deeply connected to his Sicilian heritage and I love honoring that for him with recipes gleaned from his past. This bean salad is richly flavored but lands light on our hips.
Makes 3-4 servings
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon stoneground mustard
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh orange juice
1 cup cooked/canned cannellini beans
½ cup cooked/canned fava beans
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
½ small red onion, very thin half-moon slices
2 cups blanched cauliflower florets
½ cup flatleaf parsley, coarsely chopped
½ cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup pignoli (pine nuts), lightly pan toasted
Make the dressing and adjust seasoning to your taste. Set aside so the flavors can develop.
Combine the ingredients for the salad, except the pine nuts. Toss the salad ingredients with the dressing to coat. To serve, sprinkle the pine nuts over top the salad just before serving (to preserve their ‘crunch’).
COOK’S TIP: To pan toast pine nuts, simply heat a skillet over medium-low heat and cook the pine nuts, stirring constantly, until fragrant and lightly browned. Take care here as they burn easily.
I won’t lie to you. This dish is a bit of work but it’s so delicious and so perfect for a lazy Sunday when you’re prepping the garden that I just had to share it. I have found it gets the fussiest eaters to the table. It has lots of root veggies in it for sweetness…and to keep us warm during the volatile days of spring when it goes from sunny and warm to bone-chilling in the space of mere hours!
Makes 4 servings
2 parsnips, diced (about 1 cup)
2 carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves removed, minced
3 cloves fresh garlic, smashed
Extra virgin olive oil
Crushed red chili flakes
Spring or filtered water
1 pound extra firm tofu, crumbled
Zest of ½ fresh lemon
1 cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped lacinata kale
1 cup coarsely chopped broccoli florets
½ cup panko bread crumbs
1 large sweet potato, very thinly sliced lengthwise
Preheat oven to 400o. Mix carrots, parsnips, rosemary and garlic with 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt and chili flakes to taste. Spread evenly on a baking sheet and bake, uncovered, for about 25 minutes, until just tender. Transfer vegetables to a food processer and pulse to form a creamy sauce, slowly adding water to thin, if needed. Take care not to make the sauce too thin. You want a thick, creamy sauce.
Mix the tofu with lemon zest, ½ teaspoon salt, chopped basil and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Set aside.
Coarsely chop the kale and broccoli and mist with panko bread crumbs. Season lightly with salt and mix well. Take care not to over-salt, as panko can be salty.
Finally, thinly slice the sweet potato. I use a mandolin for this step, but you can do it with a sharp knife.
To assemble, lightly oil an 8 x 8-inch casserole dish. Spread a thin layer of pureed veggie sauce on the bottom of the dish. Layer sweet potato slices on top. Spread half the tofu mixture over the sweet potatoes. Lay another layer of sweet potatoes on top of the tofu, followed by a layer of sauce and the other half of the tofu mixture. Finally, lay the balance of sweet potatoes on top. Spread sauce over the sweet potatoes. Top with panko and vegetable mixture, covering completely. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.
Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and bake until the topping is browned and crisp, about 15 minutes. Allow to stand for about 10 minutes before cutting into quarters to serve.