Ciao Amici!!!

August 13, 2015

As I traveled in Italy for the month of July, it occurred to me just how easy and delicious it was to eat well and stay healthy…even when you’re on holiday. Vacations aren’t an excuse to abandon all commitment to health while you lose your mind (or wellness) eating and drinking to excess. But don’t worry, it certainly doesn’t have to be deprived either.
See, living a healthy life is not a fad. You choose it. And once you have made the choice and have reaped the benefits, it becomes the way you live. It’s not a diet or a ‘thing’ you’re into at the moment. So the idea of abandoning the way you live doesn’t even occur to you because you take your life with you wherever you go. Your goal is not an extra gelato or two more glasses of wine; it’s not about ‘cheating’ or falling off the wagon (there is no wagon to fall off…) but the way you feel each and every day…not achy, bloated, lethargic, cranky and out of sorts…but fabulous, filled with vitality. 
Our Italian adventure took us to three regions of this glorious country in pursuit of fun, fabulous food and a healthy holiday. We began in sunny Gallipolli in the deep southern region of Puglia at the wedding of friends. A working trip with a group of guests (who quickly became like family) took us to luscious Tuscany where the group toured daily while my crew and I cooked fabulous feasts for their return. From soups to salads, we cooked from the freshest ingredients to create healthy versions of Italian classic recipes.



Ribollita Tuscan Soup

This hearty soup is like having Tuscany in a cup. Chunky, richly flavored and thick with bread, this soup will give you energy to burn.

Makes 4-5 servings

extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 small yellow onion, diced
sea salt
1 carrot, diced
1-2 small turnips, diced
1/4 head green cabbage, diced
1 cup white wine
½ loaf whole grain, sourdough bread, crumbled
3-4 cups spring or filtered water
2 teaspoons sweet white miso
3-4 sprigs flatleaf parsley, finely minced, for garnish

Place 1-2 tablespoons oil, garlic and onion in a small soup pot and turn heat to medium-high. When the vegetables begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Stir in carrots and turnips, a pinch of salt and sauté for 1-2 minutes. Finally stir in cabbage and sauté until limp, about 2 minutes. Pour in white wine and top with bread. Add water, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook soup until vegetables and bread are quite tender, about 25-35 minutes. Remove a small amount of broth and puree miso. Stir into soup and simmer, uncovered, for 3-4 minutes. Serve garnished with fresh parsley and a drizzle of fruity olive oil.

COOK’S TIP: You may add cooked lentils or chickpeas to this soup for added energy and protein.


Pasta with Tomatoes and Basil

Ah, pasta and summer. This oh so perfect main course is so light and fresh, so summery that you will want to serve it al fresco all summer long.

Makes 4-6 servings

extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, thinly sliced
1 red onion, diced
sea salt
1 red bell pepper, roasted over an open flame, peeled, seeded, diced
3 tablespoons capers, drained
½ cup dry white wine
10 ounces medium-sized farfalle (bowtie) pasta
2 ripe tomatoes, diced, do not peel or seed
3-4 sprigs fresh basil, leaves removed from stems, finely minced

Place a generous amount of oil, garlic and onion in a deep skillet and turn heat to medium. When the onions begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in roasted pepper, capers and wine. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes.

While the vegetables cook, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook farfalle al dente, 11-12 minutes. Drain well, but do not rinse.

When the vegetables are ready, adjust seasoning and stir in tomatoes and basil. Finally, fold in cooked pasta and transfer to a serving platter.

Cook’s Tip: If you prefer to cook without wine, simply substitute sparkling apple juice for the wine.

After a week of cooking and work with our group, we headed off to Ragusa in the south of Sicily for fourteen days of fun and food with friends and family. After settling into our ‘home’ for the next two weeks, we set to work cooking our first feast.


Polenta con Ciambotta con Carcioffi

More than just an Italian tradition, this stew is loaded with complex B vitamins in the corn, and the stew contains artichokes, one of the most antioxidant-rich veggies we know. Along with the rest of the nutrient-dense veggies, this dish is more than just sexy…it’s good for your heart!

Makes 4-5 Servings

1 cup fine corn grits
5 cups spring or filtered water
Pinch sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
Unsweetened almond, soy or oat milk

Ciambotta con Carcioffi:
1/2 pound eggplant, unpeeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
5 large cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
Large handful of fresh basil, stems removed, chopped
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3/4 pound new potatoes, or any waxy potato, scrubbed and cut into 1 x 2-inch pieces
1/2 pound canned artichoke hearts (in water, not oil)
3 zucchini, large dice
1 large or 2 small sweet red or yellow peppers, seeded and cut into 1 x 2-inch strips
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make the polenta: Place all ingredients except oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until it boils. Reduce heat to low and cook, whisking frequently until the center of the polenta bubbles or heaves, about 25 minutes. Stir in a drizzle of oil and almond milk and spoon into a bowl. Keep warm so the polenta stays soft. Serve immediately for a soft polenta.

Toss the eggplant cubes in a colander with 2 teaspoons salt. Let it sit in the sink until it starts to sweat out the bitter juices. Rinse them, drain, them and pat the eggplant dry, squeezing a little.

In a large pot, heat the oil. Add the onion, garlic, and celery. Add a pinch of salt and sauté over high heat for about 5 minutes, adding a little water as necessary to prevent sticking and burning.

Add the basil and sauté for 2 minutes; then add the tomatoes. When it comes to a simmer, add the eggplant, potatoes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir, bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.

Add the artichoke, zucchini and peppers and simmer 15 minutes more, or until all of the vegetables are tender. Taste for salt and pepper, transfer to a warm serving bowl, and allow to stand 15 minutes before serving.

To serve, spoon polenta into individual bowls with stew mounded on top.

COOK’S TIP: You can make this spicy by adding crushed red chili flakes when sautéing the onions and garlic.


Walking through an ancient town in Sicily one day, we came across this gorgeous Ducati and I just could not resist pretending it was mine!

One evening, Robert’s Sicilian family (not that kind!) joined us for a feast that included this very special traditional Sicilian recipe:

Stuffed Zucchini

Traveling to Sicily opened my eyes to a lot of foods I had discounted as not that interesting. Zucchini is one of them. Considered to be easy to grow but not that flavorful, this recipe proved me wrong.

Makes 4 main course servings or 8 side dish servings

2 large zucchini, split lengthwise, flesh scooped out, mashed and reserved
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced
1 yellow onion, small dice
Small pinch crushed red pepper flakes
Sea salt
2 stalks celery, small dice
½ cup vegan mozzarella substitute, tiny dice
Whole wheat bread crumbs
2 cups tomato sauce

Preheat oven to 375o and lightly oil a shallow baking dish that will accommodate the zucchini halves laying side by side.

Place a small amount of oil, garlic and onion in a small skillet over medium heat. When the onions begin to sizzle, sauté with a pinch of salt and red pepper flakes for 3-4 minutes. In another skillet, place a small amount of oil, celery and mashed zucchini flesh over medium heat. When the vegetables begin to sizzle, add a pinch of salt and sauté for about 2 minutes. Stir in sautéed onion and garlic, season to taste and stir to combine. Remove from heat and stir in vegan cheese. Fold in enough bread crumbs to hold the mixture together as a stuffing (as little as one half cup, as much as one cup).

Lay the zucchini halves, cut side up, in the baking dish. Spoon filling abundantly into each half. Spoon tomato sauce generously over top the stuffed zucchini and bake until the filling is set, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

Cook’s Tip: You can make your own tomato sauce or purchase an unsweetened version in any supermarket. Just read the labels carefully so you know what you’re getting.


Our final feast after four weeks of feasting, touring, drinking espresso and loving life with friends and family, this was our dessert…a Tuscan recipe that brought all our cooking and recipes full circle.

Tuscan Focaccia with Grapes

A classic Tuscan peasant desert made with the best of the harvest. A bit of work, this delicious delicate focaccia-like pastry is a true symbol of the autumn harvest.

Makes 8-10 servings

2 ½ teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast
3 tablespoons Chianti wine
1 tablespoon brown rice syrup
¾ cup warm spring or filtered water
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup semolina flour
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
3-4 cups Concord or wine grapes
½ cup coconut sugar granules

Stir together yeast, wine, rice syrup and warm water in a large bowl until the yeast is dissolved. Let stand about 10 minutes, until the yeast is bubbly.

Mix flours together. Stir in one cup of flour (the mixture will be lumpy), cover bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 40 minutes.

Stir in oil, 1 ½ cups of flour and sea salt and mix until a sticky dough forms. Flour a dry work surface and knead dough (gradually adding up to one half cup more flour to keep dough from sticking) until dough is elastic, but still soft, 8-10 minutes.

Transfer the dough to a large, oiled bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise until doubled in size, about an hour.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead briefly to release any air trapped in the dough. Cut the dough in half. Roll out one half of the dough, (keeping the other half covered) with a lightly floured rolling pin into a rough 10-x 12-inch rectangle. Transfer dough to a lightly oiled 10 x 15-inch baking sheet with sides and gently stretch dough to cover as much of the pan as possible. Scatter the dough with half the grapes and sprinkle with ¼ cup of the coconut sugar granules.

Roll out remaining piece of dough to match the first and lay it on top of the grapes, stretching to cover them. Scatter remaining grapes over the top and sprinkle with remaining coconut sugar granules. Press grapes gently into dough. Cover pan with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise in a warm place for about an hour.

Preheat oven to 400o. Bake the focaccia on the middle oven rack until well-browned and firm in the middle, about 45 minutes. After baking, loosen the sides with a spatula and transfer from the pan to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature.

On our Italian adventure, we ate well, drank great wine and beer and lots of espresso (fair trade, of course). We cooked, ate well, both in fabulous restaurants, in our villa and at wineries. We ran, walked and swam daily for fitness. And all of it…all of it, felt like we were living our own little slice of La Dolce Vita without compromise to our health.