Eat Like an Italian

Eat Like an Italian

When I feel a little heavy I have a tried and tested recipe for losing a few pounds. It’s nothing new, just cutting back on carbs and bumping up the fruit and salad. In our family, dinner is sacred so I have always saved myself for dinner. That means I get desperately hungry in the later afternoon but I hang on. It’s quite hard work but it’s especially hard work in Italy where pasta and pizza are constantly available along with wonderful breads and cakes from my local bakery.

I look around me at my Italian neighbours and there is no big weight problem going on here. There is less obesity than there is at home in Britain and that goes for children and adults. The shops still close (out of season) for four hours at lunch time and I guess that many Italians are still going home to eat pasta. Likewise many of my neighbours breakfast in the local bar with a delicious cappuccino and a croissant or little cake. I wondered how this was possible when I eat so little and put on a pound at the drop of a hat. Why isn’t that happening to them? I don’t know but when I’d been here a few weeks I thought I’d give it a try.

Usually a croissant is a treat for a weekend so it was counterintuitive ( and wonderful) to have carbs for breakfast – in the name of science I forced myself! I went to the bakers about eight when everything was fresh and chose my pastry. A few hours later I cooked pasta for lunch and I had a small glass of wine too. It felt like a holiday. For supper I have been sticking to fish or meat and vegetables (and more wine) with maybe a mouthful of bread or a small pudding but more often fruit and a mouthful of cheese. It is an absolute treat to have all this wonderful food.

Newsflash! Within a couple of days I lost the remaining two pounds that were troubling me and after two weeks of my new regime my weight is constant at the place I prefer it to be. But also I am never hungry. I am never desperate for food or a drink in the evening. It feels really balanced. I am also sleeping better and my digestion is great.

It’s not about bingeing. Just one croissant or a couple of pieces of toast with some fruit is easy for breakfast  if you know there is a decent lunch coming. After that I am full all day and ready for a proper dinner. I have not been controlling the olive oil either because it is so good for me and also brings out nutrients in fruit and vegetables which are not accessible without it.

The more I hear about nutrition the more it seems it is a matter of balancing many unknown factors as well as some we know about. It obviously varies from individual to individual and also from season to season and from one age to another. I’m sharing with you what is working for me right now because I was really surprised how well it worked. If you are tied up with a low-carb diet in an effort to maintain your ideal weight you might want to try it too. At least experiment – I have had to let go of many ideas I had and it has been well worth it. It feels really kind and in tune with my body and has reduced the stress of choosing what to eat by one hundred per cent. Recommend.

 

Uncertainty Soup

Uncertainty Soup

I hate waiting, don’t you? I like to know what’s what.

Do you spend your whole life trying to rule out uncertainty and pin everything and everyone down? Are you unhappy until you have all the information at your fingertips and you can plan? I know the feeling. But sometimes we can’t plan. Sometimes we are dependent on the will of others, or the gods and doesn’t that feel all wrong? Uncertainty is so uncomfortable for our minds to live with that they begin running round in circles trying to bring it to an end by anticipating. They try to imagine the future in all its outcomes and prepare us for each of them. They try to have the experience in advance to get it out of the way.

Does this work? Not really and often something actually happens that we haven’t thought of anyway. Trying to anticipate the future like this is exhausting and there are some things out of our control.  We cannot bring the uncertainty to an end by sheer force of mental effort. Then we are left with the horrible feelings, the mental anguish. What to do then? Aargh!

Usually we don’t feel the feelings. We get a whiff that they might be in the air and we spend all our energy running away or trying to fix the world so that we don’t have them. When we only glimpse feelings out of the corner of our mental eye, they appear enormous, overwhelming, fatal like being chased by a man with an axe.

Try doing the counter-intuitive thing. When we stop running away from them, come right up close and shake those feelings by the hand, they turn out to be smaller than you thought. Yep, they sure are ugly and they don’t feel good (fear, anger, panic, no-one signed up for those). Can’t deny that. But hang on. They are not actually killing you after all. They are just horrible and unpleasant. That’s it. That’s all that’s happening. They are horrible and unpleasant. Are they really huge up close? Not so much.

Next time you’re waiting for that magical person to call you back, for the waiter to bring the glass of wine, that train to arrive, that bell to go, why not have a dip into those feelings. It’s good practice for when we are waiting for the more difficult things (the diagnosis, the interview, the exam). Make friends with those feelings, look them in the eye. What’s so scary? Boredom, yes it’s dull but so far you haven’t died of boredom after all. (Your mother was right. Again.) Frustration (is a polite word for anger) and it’s an energy in the body that feels like you will burst but actually you won’t. Just feel the energy and see how that goes.

While you’re waiting you can make use of the time and get a lot done! Clean out the cupboards. File those papers. Go for a run. Practise the piano. In fact you can live your life while you’re waiting. Imagine that!

Here is some soup you can make which is super healthy and a fabulous colour, like molten lava. It is chock full of beetroot and fresh turmeric which give it the outstanding radioactive colour and you can throw in any other vegetables you have to hand. The beetroot and turmeric and non-negotiable. After that it’s up to you. Carrots, courgettes, parsnips, turnip, potatoes, celeriac. When it’s done add some lemon juice to brighten up the taste and some cream or yoghurt to bring out the colour and soften the texture. Do not eat this soup off your best tablecloth. It’s a killer.

Uncertainty Soup (because you don’t know what’s in it)

IMG_1929At least two beetroots, peeled and halved (or more)

Three or four pieces of fresh turmeric, peeled and cut in four (remember latex gloves will protect your hands when dealing with the astonishing colour of raw turmeric and beetroot)

A bunch of carrots, peeled and halved

Two onions, peeled and halved

Garlic and ginger peeled and chopped (to taste)

Other root vegetables you have going spare (potatoes will make it much more calorific). Save your spinach and broccoli for a green soup otherwise you will muddy the colour.

The juice from one lemon or a tablespoon of lemon juice from a bottle

A tablespoon of olive oil (more if you are not trying to control calories)

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Put all the prepared vegetables into a heavy roasting pan which you have brushed with olive oil and then brush the vegetables roughly with the rest of the olive oil. (If you’re trying to cut back on calories using a pastry brush is really helpful when dealing with olive oil). If calories are no concern then be generous with the olive oil.
  3. Season with salt and pepper
  4. Roast in the oven for an hour
  5. Let them cool and then liquidise with plenty of water. If you want a smooth soup you will need to be patient and do this in batches so you can add plenty of liquid.
  6. Pour back into the pan and check the seasoning.
  7. Add the lemon juice and check again
  8. Heat and serve with a dollop of Skyr, Greek yoghurt, sour cream or a drizzle of double cream

Life may be disappointing, soup never. And remember that every time you cook something for yourself from scratch you are building healthy self-esteem.

 

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

The Quiet Desire for a Boiled Egg

Everyone else in my autograph book was related to me or lived within walking distance but the highlights were shyly proffering it to Morecambe and Wise after the pantomime and Frankie Vaughan (you may well ask) when he opened the youth club. The smack of their living and breathing reality was a shock after the safe distance of the black and white TV screen. Their autographs were hot currency. Even adults wanted to look.

Back in the dark ages when an autograph book was something a child might have each adult was expected to have ready a little witticism or pebble of wisdom to add, in addition to a signature. Neighbours and relatives signed in copperplate Quink ink. The coalman, the milkman or the window cleaner for whom I had lain in wait behind the garage, visited from the exotic reaches of the outside world where you were allowed to sign in loopy biro. And so I accrued what passed for wisdom. ‘Look before you leap’, ‘Pride comes before a fall’, ‘A change is as good as a rest’ and other ‘I-told-you-so’ s. I got the picture even if I didn’t like it. The meanings were transparent.

But there were a couple of sayings that had me stumped. ‘Be good, sweet maid and let who will be clever’ was the injunction from the great aunt who had given me the book and kicked off the first page. This little homily defeated me at seven. ‘Let who will ...’ what did that mean? She had signed the page Elizabeth Hand as if she had forgotten her name was Aunty Cis. I didn’t know any maids except the ones in Upstairs Downstairs (forerunner of Downton Abbey). The whole thing was a mystery. and I was sure I was supposed to understand it so it never occurred to me to ask. When I eventually penetrated the grammar a few years later and the meaning was revealed I felt uneasy and then cross. I felt someone I had trusted was having a go. From the safe haven of old age my relative was sniping at youthful voyagers who might fall foul of Scylla and Charybdis or wanting to be right and wanting to impress. 

‘Enough is as good as a feast’ was another one that left me blank. As a young person with unlimited appetite and, of course, the incomparable bounty of being immortal, it was a conundrum. Back then there was nothing like enough of things I wanted, let alone a feast. Things look different now. These particular sayings, the ones I couldn’t make head or tail of were (of course!) the very ones with something to teach me.

I am not a girl for holding back or abstinence even today as you will have observed, but the quiet and urgent desire for a boiled egg is creeping up on me after the feasting of Christmas and God help us it is only Boxing Day. (NB ‘Enough is as good as a feast’ does not claim that enough is better than feast.) A spot of brown bread and butter and a boiled egg would be just as good as the several more days of feasting to come, beginning tomorrow and stretching ahead to New Year’s Eve.

Next year, no really, I will plan it differently and serve some plainer food in the days leading up to Christmas. Fewer cakes might be a kindness. Fewer bottles of wine. Start later in the season and finish a little earlier maybe? Enough is as good as a feast but what is enough for a feast? Maybe that’s the tricky bit.

Meanwhile … I am recycling my Christmas tips because I’ve just benefitted all over again from implementing them.

Christmas Tips from a pro.

  1. Hire an extra fridge if you can find an undercover spot outside to house it.
  2. Hire a hot cupboard if you have room.
  3. Make the gravy ahead of time and freeze it. This is a new one. It has changed my Christmas dinner experience from frantic to festive.

The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are not going poison anyone with left-overs that have gone off for want of fridge space is well worth the price of an extra turkey which is what 4 days’ hire of the fridge cost me. The hot cupboard gives you much more leeway with cooking times and similarly relieves the brain. The gravy is a no-brainer but it has taken me forty years to get it.

Julia Child

Not a good time to start delving into traditional classic French cookery when you’re up to your eyes in a war over mince pies.  (Buy? make? make from scratch? use bought pastry? Me and my super ego are having a head to head over this.) Thing is I found I hadn’t yet got to grips with Julia Child’s cookbooks that I was given last Christmas and shame overwhelmed me. More presents coming my way any day now and I haven’t … oh you know. Fill in the gaps. So I read her autobiography in the Autumn and now I am delightfully sucked into the two volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia Child, an American living in France just after the war made it her life’s work to translate into a working English-language cookbook all she learned at the Cordon Bleu school and much more besides. Here are the master recipes for the whole of French cuisine and if you feel like it you can still see her demonstrate on Youtube.

I started simple. I was certain that using these books, bursting with French culinary wisdom of centuries, I could learn to cook poached eggs which I adore. I have wasted the labours of countless hens by failing to cook them well and I was sure, this time it would be different! With Julia’s help I failed once more but in a time-consuming way. Brilliant. And still not a mince pie in sight and it’s the 20th December. I mean, come on! But nil desperandum . I am now in the grip of French cuisine and I moved on to Julia’s matchless instructions for a remoulade of celeriac in an eye-watering mustard sauce-cum-mayonnaise – one of my favourite dishes as a student in Paris when it often constituted dinner along with a stick of French bread. It was staggeringly satisfying.

But we’re not done yet.  Tonight Julia really comes into her own : an absolute triumph of a Blanc de Poulet. Well it’s chicken in a white sauce to you and me but if you do it properly I can tell you every pan and spoon in the kitchen is employed; the tiny onions added at the end are poached in their own special stock with their own bouquet garni for heaven’s sake. Vermouth, cream, egg yolks and a decent slug of Cognac are also in the frame. And by gosh what a difference they make! As food has improved beyond measure in England and France has suffered from the spread of universal cuisine the gap between them has shrunk. I had in fact forgotten what France used to taste like and now here it is nestling in a big casserole waiting for me to arrange it on some rice (white rice, thank you, none of your self-flagellating will this ever cook brown) with a few slim whole carrots and maybe a little chard. It brings back to me early trips to France when the flavours and textures were such as simply did not exist back home.

Now I can’t eat like this every day with impunity so I shall soon be back on the fruit salad and white fish but it is fun to read recipes that have no shortcuts, no alternative ingredients, just clear and imperious instructions. Salad dressing? Don’t even think about shaking stuff in a jar a la Jamie, get out your special sized whisk and beat the oil into the vinegar, lemon juice, salt and mustard one drop at a time. It actually makes an entirely different fluid, a true emulsion that coats each leaf as a dressing should.

If you don’t feel like cooking you can always watch the peerless Meryl Streep playing Julia in the film Julie and Julia. Or maybe, unlike me, you can poach yourself an egg.

 

Long Time No See

Long Time No See

Oh my gosh, where has the time gone? I can only apologise for the long silence but such a lot has been happening. So for now just a little catch up on this summer.

Over the summer I was enjoying the beach in Italy and the Venice Film Festival where I caught Some Like It Hot on the big screen. There was a trip to Sicily and !!FLASHING LIGHTS!! the temples at Agrigento. Do not die without going to Agrigento. In fact, go now! This is one of the most blessed spots in the world. I have been there three times : at twenty something, at forty something and now at sixty something. Maybe the next visit needs to be a little sooner … So I lingered in the baking heat with the setting sun turning the temples bright gold and lizards hanging out under the olive trees and the sea as blue as a promise in the distance. I clambered over stones that were trodden by those ancient Greeks who very sensibly made their home in Sicily. In 1980 there was no fence around the temples, no ticketing system, no nothing, just the temples themselves standing neglected in the valley half an hour’s walk from the town. I went at daybreak and at sunset, entranced by the ancient stones and the freedom with which I was allowed to walk, sit and climb on them. A few German tourists came and went but mostly you could pretend you were a few thousand years ago. All that changed and it got very tacky with tickets and barbed wire. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and as you would expect it has been done with no expense spared and extremely tastefully. Shady paths wind between the temples and discreet wooden barriers prevent the hordes (for there are now hordes) climbing on the temples themselves. They have planted a wonderful orange and lemon grove down near the river where they grow bergamot lemons and sell marmalade of the same. The combination of taste and perfume is intoxicating.

Sicily has roads that haven’t been mended since the last little earthquake so it was an interesting drive around the island with quite a lot of reversing out of impassable situations and a certain amount of bickering between driver and map reader. But the food was out of this world. We had the best ever breakfasts in a fabulous little B & B Raffo (agriturismo) about forty minutes outside Agrigento. The owner drove to the local town each morning to buy croissants and tiny, deep-fried envelopes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and blitzed pistacchio nuts. They were so fresh they practically shook hands. Ricotta and pistacchio nuts are BIG in Sicily and we never got tired of them.

In Taormina with a huge silvery moon gazing down on our little table by the sea we ate the delicately flavoured pasta with pistacchio pesto and prawns that had been mooching about in the sea earlier in the day. Further along the coast in Menfi at Da Vittorio’s we ate an indecent amount of astonishing pasta with seafood and spices as we watched the sea lapping nearby. Near Menfi we stayed at a rather grand winery called La Foresteria where the food was delicious and the wine had travelled all the way from the vineyard outside. As you see, the theme that’s emerging is local food. Local food is such a buzz term now but in Italy it is just what they eat. Some of it was grand. Some of it was very unassuming. It was all melt in the mouth and yes, I came back two sizes larger.

But a major thing has happened this summer which I tell you about in due course – I have begun to fly again, having had a gap of many years. It has been a big journey and one with psychological implications well worth the telling. For now, mix yourself a Campari Spritz, enjoy the photos of Agrigento and remember the hot hot summer.

IMG_1691IMG_1719

Goodness me.

Goodness me.

When we start being kinder to ourselves a virtuous circle is created. We begin to feel our own goodness just as we are … and that makes it easier to be kind … and that makes us feel good. Being good to yourself makes you feel good and it makes you feel much less aggravated by other people too.

Letting yourself alone, just appreciating yourself as you are without trying to change a thing allows you to sense your own goodness. In not trying to change a thing, space arises for change to happen naturally.* The more we nag at ourselves the more we rebel. Try easing off and see what happens.

*I’m not talking about those of us in a place where we need specialist help with an addiction or an eating disorder that is harming our health. Today I’m just talking to the averagely dissatisfied amongst us.

Italy is a great place for learning this lesson as Italians seem to have a natural gift for appreciating their own beautiful country and the huge pleasure of being alive. The photo above is of a large campo in Venice called Santa Maria Formosa and this is the church. In the photo below you see a lovely scene unfolding opposite the church one Italian morning. A young man is stripping off like Michelangelo’s David. He has come with all his kit to mend the pavement  but that doesn’t stop him giving directions to the tourists that ask him for help or performing a little for the ladies shopping at the vegetable stall. He is Italian after all. He wasn’t actually singing Mozart as well but it was touch and go.

stall

Beneath this photo again is a breakfast I prepared recently for a bunch of young people staying with us. They were such fun to feed, so full of life and enthusiasm, such beautiful creatures to have around and they devoured this spread with vigour. I think the goodness of the food, most of it raw local fruit, fresh bread and cheese can be seen from the photo. The little black grapes are called fragole because they taste of strawberries.

fruitbread and cheesecaponataIn this last photo you can just see next to the local sheep’s cheese a dish of caponata and this is the recipe I’d like to share today. Quite like a French ratatouille, the Italian caponata has the added sweet and sour agrodolce taste that speaks of a multicultural heritage.

 

Caponata

2 x aubergines cut into small cubes

2 sticks celery cut into small cubes

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 large red pepper, deseeded and cubed

A bottle of good passata or fresh tomato sauce

balsamic vinegar

red wine vinegar

2 tsps sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

10 black olives, stoned

a handful of capers (ideally the ones that come salted)

 

Cutting the vegetables into cubes is worth doing carefully so that they are reasonably small and of a uniform size. It makes a better finished product.

First salt the aubergine cubes in a colander and leave to drain for at least half an hour. Wash and pat dry before frying in a good plug of olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry until the water is all gone (the sizzling stops) and the aubergine cubes have browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add more oil to the pan and add the celery, pepper and onions. Cook over a low heat until they have softened (quicker with a lid) and then add the passata. and simmer for 15 minutes. Put the aubergines back in. Add the two vinegars , the sugar, the capers and the olives. Start with a tablespoon of each vinegar and 2 tsps of sugar and then taste. See whether it needs more acid (lemon juice or vinegar) or more sugar. A drop of red wine might not go amiss. It will need salt and pepper as well. Cook another ten minutes and then cool. Serve at room temperature.

I made a large quantity of this and served it one evening on tiny bruschetta before dinner, then in this breakfast buffet and finally (when the guests had gone) on pasta with some good Parmesan. A dish with sufficient flavour for a vegetarian main course. It is also fabulous with anchovies on the side but the is very little, I find, that isn’t improved by a few anchovies.

Hot hot hot

Hot hot hot

The heat wave continues in the UK and I wanted to share one of my all-time favourite hot weather recipes, good for lunch or dinner at the table, on the terrace or in picnic form. It is my version of Coronation Chicken and fair to say I have never had it anywhere else since I pinched the recipe from a friend back in 1982 so unless Annie’s coming to supper you will take your guests by surprise. It is a sure-fire winner and the left-overs are possibly even better next day.

 

Chicken and Almond Salad

1 chicken breast fillet per person or maybe 3 between 3, remove the skin and slice into generous slices.

A small handful of toasted whole almonds (for 2) or more to taste

A small handful of raisins soaked in hot water and drained.

A mayonnaise sauce made from mayonnaise itself (I use Hellman’s) and reduced fat sour cream (or yoghurt, or fromage frais or double cream depending on your taste and waistline). Proportions about half and half.

Cos lettuce or your favourite crispy lettuce.

Method

Toast the whole blanched almonds in a dry frying pan until they are toasty golden brown at least in places.

Poach the chicken slices in water with peppercorns, fresh herbs if you have them, half a carrot and a little salt. When the chicken goes white it is cooked through and you can turn the heat off.

Soak and drain the raisins to plump them up.

Cool the chicken and remove from the water. Cut the slices into chunks.

In a large bowl combine the chicken chunks, almonds and raisins. Add the chilled mayonnaise and grate a little raw onion on top. Add black pepper and combine all gently. Keep in a tupperware in the fridge until needed. It keeps well for 48 hours.

When the salad is needed arrange the lettuce leaves beautifully on a large white plate or in a large white bowl and then tip the chicken mixture on top leaving much of the lovely green lettuce leaves showing around the edge. The picture below is only in a picnic box but it can look rather elegant!

chicken and almondIf you don’t eat chicken you can make quite a nice Waldorf salad with walnuts and apple and if you want to bulk it out add some cooked vegetables of chunks of raw courgette or newly podded broad beans.