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.

 

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.

 

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.

Loving What Is

Loving What Is

People who come to psychotherapy largely fall into two groups. They are people in crisis who have finally decided that some outside help would not go amiss or they are people who are interested in growth and discovering more about themselves. People in crisis are, of course, much easier to help because things can only get better for them. This is where listening really is the most helpful thing to do. Just being there and giving permission whilst they let the confusion or the grief or the rage pour out seems to make a difference. Eventually we both come up for air and see what the world looks like now.

Sometimes, once people are over the worst they begin to get interested in the process itself, just like the second group. Then it all gets more complicated.  So often these are great people, fascinating people, intelligent and kind people and all they need to do is relax and enjoy being themselves and that is just what they are unable to do. The urge to improve oneself, to make the planet a better place tends to get in the way. What is more it can lead to all kinds of plans for improving others too. Often my work with them is all about killing the urge to improve. Lie down until it passes, is my advice.

When I first went into therapy myself I was diagnosed as a picture-straightener and that was pretty fair comment at the time. My eye goes straight to the place where a little tweak would make everything just that bit tidier and boy, is that an unrestful experience.  Today I have learned to relax a little and I have stumbled upon a simple truth. Our work here on earth is to love what is at a very deep level. Love is the medium of change and the more we can surround ourselves with it, the more a natural unfolding can happen. This is a million miles away from that mean little voice which criticises us and tells us we should be in the gym when we’re walking on the beach or on the beach when we’re in the gym. (Have you noticed it is literally never content with us?)

The Buddhists talk about ‘accepting what is’ and ‘gratitude’ is also a big seller but for me, even acceptance and gratitude come with a big, unattractive ‘should’ attached. Immediately I feel negative and ungrateful. Loving what is feels different and more possible. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean we have to like what is. Loving life is a very different ball-game from liking the details. When we think about eating more healthily or reading more or taking up swimming or volunteering with sick animals, we can do it from a place of love or we can do it from a place of ‘trying to be a better person’. I bring you a shocking thought which will change your life today. What if you don’t need to be a better person? What if you’re fine just as you are?

The sunshine breakfast in the picture is a shining example of how easy it is to love things. You can make a smiley face with yours. You can arrange your fruit on porridge or you can stew it and eat it with ice-cream and biscuits. IT’S ALL GOOD. You can do it your way and won’t that be great?

Gut Feeling

Do you ever wake up feeling like a bad person, full of nameless dread and no idea why? If this happens to you and you are of an enquiring sort, interested in your body and the meaning of life, you may mull over what these feelings mean and get nowhere. If, God help you, you are of a psychological bent, you can spend a lot of time on this and still find out nothing much. Imagine my delight then to read the following passage in a very jolly book by Dr Giulia Enders called Gut, the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ.

‘It is now generally accepted in scientific circles that people with certain digestive problems often suffer from nervous disorders of the gut. Their gut then sends signals to the part of the brain that processes negative feelings, although they have done nothing bad. Such patients feel uneasy but have no idea why.’

So, let’s take it slowly. This doctor is telling us that our brain cannot distinguish between bad feelings that come from malfunctioning digestion and bad feelings that come from having done something we consider morally bad. Signals of uneasiness, the urge to make amends, even the terrible urge we seem to have to punish ourselves, may be a consequence of indigestion! Now you are aware of that, maybe you, like me, can ignore those feelings when they arise. Just say to yourself, ‘I probably ate too much‘ or ‘That midnight cheese sandwich was a mistake‘ and give it no more thought. You may need to take better care of your gut and what you put into it. (Are you drinking enough water? Do fresh fruit and vegetables figure prominently enough etc etc.) But you don’t need me to tell you what is good to eat because every magazine, newspaper and TV programme seems to be full of it. You may need help disentangling the confusion which links what kind of person you are with what you eat and what you look like. You see gut feelings can be very misleading!

Guts

Giulia Enders book was brought to my attention by a friend suffering from diverticulitis (ouch!) and it proves to be extremely entertaining with cartoons drawn by her sister and a determined attempt to demystify the gut and to do away with embarrassment about poo that gets in the way of our health. She tackles insensitivities and allergies and draws attention to the far reaching effects of ignoring your digestion. It’s a great read.

But now we come to Sunday Tomato Eggs which I found in the Financial Times Weekend magazine some months ago and which is attributed to Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a killer when you have weekend guests or when you just want to pamper yourself with a different kind of Sunday lunch/brunch. You can nearly make it with the contents of your store cupboard if your store cupboard contains that minced or chopped chorizo you can buy in airtight packets and which lasts for months in the fridge. Don’t worry about the celery if you have the other ingredients. You will hardly miss it but it is nice if you are shopping specially for this recipe.

Sunday Tomato Eggs

serves 4

115g cooking chorizo chopped

1 onion finely chopped

2 tbs celery finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

400g passata or tinned chopped tomatoes which you have simmered for 10 minutes with some olive oil, salt and pepper

1 tbsp capers

5 black olives chopped

1 chipotle finely chopped or chilli flakes to taste (I recommend 1 level tbsp)

60ml water

1.5 tbsp horseradish (freshly grated or out of a jar)

8 large eggs

 

To serve: 4 slices country bread toasted, formal frais or burrata, basil leave

Saute the chorizo, celery, onion and garlic in olive oil in a large pan until the onion softens. Add the water passata, chilli, olives and capers and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes until the sauce is quite thick. Stir in the horseradish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust the chilli. You can now leave this mixture until you need it.

When you’re ready to eat just heat it up and crack your eggs into it. Cook over a medium heat with a lid on until the eggs are set how you like them, then serve on the toast and add a spoonful of burrata or fromage frais or thick yoghurt to each dish and a few torn basil leaves.

If you don’t eat meat you can add avocado to the toast before you put the burrata on. Surely this will make you feel good to your core.

 

Damsons and Foregiveness

A few days ago Summer was fondly kissing us goodbye. Today a powerful wind and the threat of rain are thrusting towards me like Autumn with an outstretched hand and I rush down the garden to pick the wild plums or damsons before they are lost. Here they are having a wash in my sink and when they were clean I rustled up some damson jam which is my favourite. There’s no easy way to stone damsons but they are worth it.

damsons 2

Here’s the lovely syrupy mess they become after a short while in a pan with two thirds their own weight in sugar. For me the stones never float to the top so I resort to ladling the jam from one pan to another via a shallow dish where I can scrutinise each spoonful and fish out the stones. With ordinary plums it helps to count the plums first and then you have a target for the number of stone. With damsons I usually have over 400 and invariably lose count at some point.

This ended up in seven lovely pots and in time would all disappear onto people’s toast but good damson jam is such a great treat IMO that I decided it should furnish an old fashioned jam tart for supper.

My mother was a Pastry Queen and I resolutely did not learn to make pastry for the first thirty five years of my life because I wanted to be different from her. In fact I was in a giant sulk or tantrum, truth be told, which I should probably have chucked in when I was about seven but I dug my heels in because I had been hurt and because my will power (or wilfulness as she called it) was second to none. Of course I achieved my purpose of hurting her but I see now I hurt myself much more. Since then there has been reconciliation and forgiveness although much of it only after she died. Death is never an obstacle to forgiveness luckily but if you have an opportunity, dive in and do it sooner.

Anyway … my mother used to make wonderful individual jam tarts, lemon curd tarts, treacle tarts, all in miniature so that they appeared out of the oven in all their colourful loveliness and I didn’t know which to eat first. (My tantrum extended to not making pastry but it didn’t stop me eating hers!)

So here is the recipe for Damson Jam Tart but I guess you could use any really delicious jam and needless to say the finished article is good with Ice-cream, cream, fromage frais or any other unsweetened dairy. damson tart

Sadly I am not a pastry queen but I can at last do an acceptable shortcrust. It is heavy on the fat which means it remains very soft and breaks easily when you pick it up to line the tin. But it also means you can just squidge it in in pieces with your fingers and it all sticks together well.

I get my best results with Stork margarine rather than butter but others disagree. So this tart was simply

115 g Stork soft margarine

165 g plain flour

a pinch of salt and enough cold water to bring everything together.

Roll out as far as possible and line a greased loose-bottomed tart tin approx. 15 inches or 40 cms in diameter. Heat the oven to 180 degrees and do actually wait until it is hot! Put a circle of baking parchment inside the raw pastry and up the sides and fill with baking beans (porcelain or just dried beans). Give it 15 minutes in the oven and then remove the paper and beans.

Fill about half way up with really good jam and return to the oven until the jam is bubbling – about 20 minutes or so.

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

I have been dipping into Pema Chodron’s writing again and finding, as ever, joy and wisdom there and above all an encouragement to accept myself with love. So I fell to wondering how this relates to what I eat.

PC is talking about meditation when she says ‘Whether you are caught up in […] thought for the entire sitting period, or whether you feel that enormous sense of space, you can regard either one with gentleness and a sense of being awake and alive to who you are. Either way, you can respect that.”

But what does this mean outside the meditation zone? When I get on the scales this morning and they give me a figure I do not like, can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of being alive to who I am? Can I respect that? If I wake up with a hangover and a sense of having poisoned myself (with food or alcohol or rage or hatred), can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of respect? And what happens if I do?

To me it feels as though simply in making space for those horrible feelings (hating my body, hating my behaviour, hating others) eases my suffering. Simply by considering that I can be gentle and respectful of myself when I am full of rage, without having to change myself even when I feel hateful, there is balm. An outbreath. A letting-go.

If you are interested in meditation, do read Pema Chodron. If you are interested in your life, do read Pema Chodron. She has written a lot and it pretty much doesn’t matter which book you choose. The message is the same. It’s not complicated. I can be with myself (however I feel) with gentleness and respect, alive and awake to who I am.

And now, in the same spirit of simplicity, I give you :

The Sunshine Breakfast

sunshine breakfast

Arrange your peach or apple slices or both into a sunshine and pop a few berries in the centre. Now the sun is shining where you are.