I keep having this wonderful dream in which I've been transported to Italy, roaming the countryside and eating to my heart's content. Then I awake to a reality breakfast of oatmeal and tea. I remember when my husband and I really were transported to Florence, Rome, and beyond to eat, sight-see, and eat once again. Not only were the surroundings beautiful but the food was the best I've ever tasted. I loved the homemade mozzarella balls in our salads, handmade pasta, a zillion flavors of gelato, and eggplant sandwiches. It seemed that every espresso stand or fast food counter had eggplant sandwiches — Italy's answer to our bagels. It usually consisted of two slices of sauteed eggplant on some delicious Italian bread, sometimes with a slice of mozzarella or tomato. I loved this vegetarian snack so, needless to say, I ate quite a few. After the eggplant sandwiches and gelato sampling, I had little room left for a two or three course dinner. I was forced to quit after the pasta course while my husband moved on to the veal.
Americans are usually too busy for several courses, so when it comes to Italian food, it's either pasta or meat. In Italy, the meat dish was almost secondary in comparison to the rest of the meal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture "Food Pyramid" and the "Mediterranean Diet" illustrate that we should go easy on the meat and dairy and emphasize instead grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables. Many of us grew up believing that Italian food should be smothered with cheese and sauce when in fact, Italian cooking varies depending on the region. Italian cooking need be neither heavy nor labor intensive. Don't worry, there's no need to throw out your favorite lasagna recipe; use less cheese and more vegetables. "Mangia!"
Here's an easy chicken recipe that can be on the table in 30 minutes or prepared ahead and reheated. Serve over pasta, orzo, or risotto.
2 teaspoons olive oil
4 to 5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 3 ounces each
1 medium onion, halved and sliced
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1 eight-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted (I used Bird's eye)
1 fourteen-and-a-half or fifteen ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped. liquid saved
1/4 cup each: chicken broth, tomato liquid, fresh squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)
1/4 teaspoon salt
dash cayenne pepper and freshly ground pepper
12 ounces spaghettini*
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large skillet, heat the oil on medium- high heat.
2. Saute the chicken breasts for about three minutes per side until browned, reducing heat if they start to bum.
3. Stir in the onions and garlic; saute until wilted.
4. Add the rest of the ingredients except the spaghettini, cover, and reduce heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes until the chicken is done in the center.
5. Boil the water for the pasta. Boil the pasta for about 4 minutes until just tender (al dente).
6. Drain thoroughly and toss in a large bowl with the oil, parsley, and seasonings.
7. Put pasta onto plates, then spoon the chicken and sauce over the top.
*Spaghettini: thinner than spaghetti but not as thin as angel hair or capellini.
You can buy cannoli shells, but if you're not pressed for time these easy shells are much lower in fat. Not fried like the ready-made, these are more of a rolled cookie.
1 fifteen-ounce container low fat or skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
optional: 1/2 cup unsalted pistachios, shelled
1. Chop the pistachios in the food processor or by hand so the pieces aren't too large, Pour into a small bowl.
2. Using a food processor or mixer, beat together until smooth everything except the chocolate chips and nuts.
3. Stir in the chocolate chips.
4. Shortly before serving, spoon the filling into the shells and dip the ends of the shells into the nuts.
Homemade Cannoli Shells
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup sugar
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/3 cup unbleached white flour
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar. Add the egg whites and extracts; beat until smooth and slightly foamy.
3. Spoon the flour into the measuring cup and level with a knife. Stir into the egg mixture until the lumps are gone.
4. Lay a broom on your kitchen table and clean the handle: you'll use it for shaping the shells.
5. Oil generously two nonstick cookie sheets.
6. Depending on the size of your cookie sheets, make up to four pancakes, 1 tablespoon dough each, on one of the cookie sheets.
7. Using a spoon, spread out the dough into a 3 1/2 to 4-inch thin circle. Make sure the edges aren't too thin or they'll crumble later.
8. Bake for about seven minutes until the edges are golden brown and the center firm.
9. Using a pancake turner, remove the shells from the cookie sheet as quickly as possible. Wrap each one around the broom handle with the edges overlapping underneath the handle. Don't wrap them too tightly or they won't come off.
10. Cool before sliding off the handle.
11. Repeat using the other greased cookie sheet.
Making lasagna has never been easy for me, even with my Italian stepmother's terrific recipe; either it's too dry or too soupy. Although this recipe uses more dairy than I would like, it comes out deliciously perfect every time. When fresh basil isn't available, I use a tablespoon of pesto from my freezer and add it to the sauce.
Basil Cream Sauce
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons unbleached white flour
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each: white pepper, nutmeg, cayenne pepper
3 cups lowfat or skim milk (I prefer 1% milk)
1/4 cup freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, snipped with scissors into strips
14 lasagna noodles
2 ten-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach,defrosted
1 egg, beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 fifteen-ounce container low-fat ricotta cheese
1 cup provolone or mozzarella cheese, grated (I used smoked mozzarella for more flavor)
1/4 cup freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese*
1 cup Provolone or Mozzarella cheese, grated
Preliminaries: Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Boil water in a large soup pot; add the lasagna noodles. Boil until tender; about 10 minutes while you make the sauce. Drain and lay the pasta out on a non-terrycloth dishtowel. Below are directions for the sauce.
1. In a medium sauce pan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour, garlic, and spices. Keep whisking on medium heat for about one minute to cook the flour.
2. Stir in the milk and whisk until smooth.
3. Keel stirring occasionally until the sauce has thickened, at least 10 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and stir in the cheese and basil.
5. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the sauce and set aside.
6. Place the spinach in a colander and press out the water.
7. In a large bowl, whisk together the ricotta and egg; stir in the cheeses and spinach.
Assembly: Have ready a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Pour the sauce into a glass measuring cup. Spread 1 cup of sauce in the bottom of the pan. Put down 4 noodles lengthwise, overlapping the edges if necessary. Spread one-third of the filling over the noodles. Repeat the order two more times. Sprinkle the cheese on top. Bake for about 35 to 40 minutes until the top is lightly browned and the lasagna is bubbly. Don't overcook. Cool for 15 minutes before slicing. Cut into squares and serve.
*I use Pecorino Romano cheese for all my Italian cooking. It has a stronger flavor than Parmesan so less cheese is needed.
This salad is best when the tomatoes are fresh from the garden, but I make it occasionally during the winter using fresh Italian plum tomatoes which are usually available all year round.
4 fresh or smoked mozzarella balls, 1 to 2 inches in diameter
4 to 5 ripe plum tomatoes
16 large, fresh basil leaves
1 head Boston leaf lettuce or greens of your choice
1/4 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
1 large clove garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. Slice the cheese and tomatoes into quarter-inch slices.
2. Wash and dry the whole lettuce leaves.
3. Whisk together the dressing in a glass measuring cup.
4. Arrange the lettuce leaves in a single layer on a platter or individual plates.
5. Alternate the cheese, tomato, and basil slices on the platter.
6. Drizzle the dressing over the top just before serving.
Note: The salad can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for an hour or so without the dressing.
1 medium eggplant
extra-virgin olive oil
1 whole-grain baguette or a hard-crusted Italian bread, cut into thick slices
1 medium tomato, sliced
fresh lettuce, spinach, or arugula leaves
optional: 2 large cloves garlic, minced
Other ideas: pesto sauce, roasted red pepper provolone, mozzarella, or goat cheese
1. Slice the eggplant into half-inch circles and place in a colander.
2. Generously salt the slices and place the colander in the sink for thirty minutes.
3. Turn on the oven broiler and line a cookie sheet with foil.
4. Rinse the slices in cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
5. Place the slices on the cookie sheet and brush with olive oil and garlic.
6. Broil for about 3 to 4 minutes per side about six inches from the flame until they're lightly browned. The slices will continue to soften as they cool.
7. Pile the eggplant into a plastic container or wrap in foil until needed. I like to make the sandwiches while the eggplant is still warm.
Keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Lightly toast or warm the bread and assemble the sandwiches.
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