The Mediterranean Diet: Eat Yourself Skinny

February 4, 2010

Italian Snack Time

Pasta does not make you fat.

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in Italy can tell you this.  A Mediterranean diet will not only make you skinnier, it will make you healthier.

I already ate a fairly healthy diet before moving here because I am a huge fan of quality food, freshly prepared.  I have made my own soup stock and sauces from scratch for years and am a Slow Food aficionado…including being a member of their LinkedIn group.  Basically, I didn’t just hop on a bandwagon.

Not only does the typical diet in Italy help maintain a healthy weight, but it also helps maintain your health.  The science backs it up.  The World Health Organization stats back it up.  Most importantly, everything tastes good so it is not only easy to adopt, but, unlike “diets”, it is also easy to maintain.  Who doesn’t like a diet with spaghetti, pizza and red wine as basic components?

What are some of the most basic tips that will keep your body slim and your taste buds satiated?

  • Eat fresh
  • Eat multiple times a day
  • Don’t eat chemicals
  • Eat colorfully
  • Eat when you are hungry

Italians eat throughout the day and in small portions, except on holidays…then all bets are off.  Food is bought much more frequently than is typical in the US, going to the market every couple days is not at all unusual.  Preservatives are avoided as much as possible because they aren’t necessary if you go to market three times a week.

Beyond freshness, plates are colorful.  Different fruits and vegetables are in abundance in bowls and refrigerators in every house in Italy…and they are eaten with gusto.  This is great not only for flavors and a balanced diet, but also because of all the phytonutrients and antioxidants, besides, if you don’t eat them mamma or nonna will not be happy.

So what does an Italian typically eat?

  • Prima colazione—the first breakfast, usually toast or a croissant and some fruit or fruit juice and yogurt and, of course, coffee
  • Secunda colazione—the second breakfast, usually about 11 or so, a small sandwich and some coffee.
  • Pranzo—lunch, a sandwich or small plate of pasta and a salad…a small plate of pasta means about 125g or a little over 1/4 lb and with a tomato based sauce typically.
  • Merenda—snacktime, cheese or fruit and most likely an iced tea.
  • Cena—dinner, this is generally good sized and is eaten fairly late 9pm.  Some soup or antipasto, a small pasta serving and a small meat serving, roast pork, seafood or steak and a large salad or vegetables…and a glass of red wine.

Italians consume as much fat as most Americans…but, almost all of the fat is in the form of olive oil.  Olive oil is monounsaturated fat, and gives you fat and flavor without issues with cholesterol and heart problems.  The meat here is lean and high quality and portions are sized right.  It’s the same thing with cheese, every house has multiple types of cheese, but people eat it in small portions…an ounce here or there or grated over pasta.

Good food does not make you fat.  Eat fresh, eat healthy and eat a little at a time…except on holidays, we all need to have fun.

Eat like an Italian!!!

Things I’ve Learned Living in Italy

January 27, 2010

Travel in Italy: Gondolas Rock

I had mistakenly believed when I moved to Italy that the previous four trips I had taken here had prepared me for all possible cultural misunderstandings and missed cues.  I was woefully wrong.  I have a feeling that the learning will continue until I am a feeble old woman chasing my own grandchildren out of my kitchen with a wooden spoon, at which point I just won’t care anymore.

Some things I have learned have been positive, others negative and virtually all have been amusing…sometimes more for the people informing me than for myself.  In no particular order, I have learned that:

  • Soccer is a religion.
  • Your weight is open for discussion.
  • I am too skinny.
  • Putting the “wrong” sauce on a pasta is a crime.
  • Ironing socks is not strange.
  • Americans can’t make coffee.
  • Salt is not optional, ever.
  • Pork CAN be consumed at every meal. Yum.
  • Wine is a food group…this one was just reinforcement.
  • Eggs are for dinner, not breakfast.
  • Your entire life is your neighbors’ business.
  • Dinner before 9:00 is uncivilized.
  • All telecommunications companies are thieves.
  • Good customer service comes from non-contract employees.
  • Businesses closing for a month is perfectly normal.
  • Two weeks of vacation is NOT normal, it’s criminal.
  • Going out without a scarf and gloves if it is below 70 means you will get sick.
  • Going out with wet hair means you will surely soon die.
  • Ugly shoes are illegal.
  • Jeans that are not skin tight should be thrown out.
  • Belts are mandatory.
  • You can walk cobblestone streets in 4 inch heels…it just takes practice.
  • Leaving the house not put together will get you strange looks.
  • It is unhygienic to walk in your own house barefoot..even if you washed the floors 15 minutes before.
  • Tanning is healthy.
  • Paying 10€ for a spot on the beach is normal.
  • 80 year olds in bikinis and speedos are normal.
  • Superstition is alive and well.
  • A guy touching his balls is not sexual…he is warding off bad luck.
  • Italian cussing is much more colorful than most American cussing.
  • Having a clothes dryer is akin to having a bomb shelter.
  • Growing your own veggies is normal.
  • Eating offal doesn’t raise an eyebrow, eating a rare steak is the only way, but eating a rare hamburger will kill you
  • You are still a boy or girl until you are about 40, chances are you still live at home, too.
  • Not having a dark tan in September means that something is terribly wrong in your life.
  • Driving rules, lines on the roads and most stop lights are merely suggestions.
  • Parking on sidewalks and at freaky angles doesn’t get a second look.
  • A woman who can parallel park in the “back in, then pull forward” method is a rare anomaly.
  • Having a cell phone tucked into your helmet, smoking a cigarette, balancing a Louis Vuitton bag…all while riding a Vespa in 3 inch heels is NOT an anomaly.
  • I will never be as stylish as most Italian girls are by the time they are nine years old.

I love Italy.

The Curse of Being Average

January 21, 2010

Where is Your IQ on the Bell Curve?

While most people do not want to admit it, the vast majority of people are in fact, average.

The bell curve that applies to IQ can also be applied to anything that has a statistical average.  That large blue portion that encompasses 68% of any given population is the area of the first standard deviation on either side of the literal average.  The brown area is the second SD and the light blue area is the third SD.  The grey area is the fourth and is the realm of the extremely exceptional on both ends of the spectrum and in all categories.

Basically, blue is most people, brown is the noticeably above or below average, light blue is very much below or above average and grey is wow on both ends.  This applies to looks, intelligence, creativity, physical strength and a bevy of other qualities which people judge both themselves and others upon.

Most people who are active on the internet have seen this distribution curve before and are familiar with it.

The funny part of “averages” is that when surveys are taken about self-perception of any given personal quality or attribute the average (median) result is that people rate themselves at a 7 out of 10.  That is, the MAJORITY of people rate themselves in the right hand brown second SD area while, obviously, this is not possible.

Not everyone can be exceptional in all areas.  There are a few cases of those who are extremely intelligent, extremely good-looking, creative, physically superior, what have you.  But for the vast majority of the population this is not the case.

Pursuing excellence is always a worthy goal and it is unimaginable that anyone would discourage that.  But it should be tempered with a realistic perception of both ability and potential.  A positive attitude will increase anyone’s chances of success in any field and everyone should encourage others in reaching their goals and pursuing their dreams.

But there is nothing wrong with being average in certain areas.  This is perfectly normal and the perception that it is somehow subpar to actually be average in any area can have a negative impact on people.  Those who excel in one category do not necessarily have time to devote to excelling in others and should not feel inadequate because they are not superstars in 14 out of 15 categories.

It is perfectly ok to be normal

Travel in Italy: Deals on Dining

January 18, 2010

Save your Euro

When you are traveling in Italy the exchange rate is not your friend.  Food in Italy is generally fairly reasonably priced, BUT with the exchange rate generally hovering around 1:1.50 this essentially means that everything you eat will cost 50% more than it would in American dollars.

I would not advise eating your way through Italy by patronizing McDonald’s, but it does make for a good comparison.  In Florence a McDonald’s Value meal costs 6.90€ which is roughly $10.  Extrapolate that to all of your food purchases and restaurant excursions for a two-week vacation and it can make for a very nasty surprise come bank statement time.

Now, I would not encourage you to eat mediocre food while you are traveling here so none of the tips will actual involve any reduction in the quality of the food you enjoy.  On the contrary, many of the tips will actually expose you to higher quality foods (both for consumption and for gifts to take home) than many tourists encounter.

  • Water—walking in Italy is the way most people see the sights, this means consuming a lot of water to stay hydrated.  This also means that vendors take advantage and price water significantly higher than the markets that will be within a very short walk of most hotels.  Simply ask the concierge or receptionist where the nearest market is.  Water will be less than 0.50c per 1.5 l bottle in the market, it will be 2€ for a 0.5 l bottle in the city centers.  For two people over two weeks who each drink 1.5 l of water per day that works out to 154€ or $216.  ON WATER.  That is money you could spend on quite a lovely dinner.
  • Sandwiches—when you are out walking about you may notice very small sandwich places or Italian style delis.  Asking where to get a good panino will likely lead you to one where the locals eat.  These will be made fresh to order and use such wonderful ingredients as prosciutto di San Daniele, fresh bread, artichoke puree and other such treats.  Much better than the pre-made sandwiches for sale in so many tourist traps…and usually only around 3€.  Take your panini and plant yourself in the nearest piazza, just like all the people who live here.
  • Tavola—huh?  It is standard here for many casual restaurants to have two separate posted price lists.  The first is for “al banco” and is a much lower price for drinking your coffee standing at the bar.  The second is the “tavola” and is the price for enjoying the exact same item at a table instead.  The prices vary significantly, the coffee that is 0.80 at the bar is 3€ at a table…sometimes you just want to sit so it is worth it, but it is good to be aware beforehand.
  • Restaurant choices—you may have a list of specific restaurants you want to try in certain places and many of those in Zagat or Michelin are what you want to be spending your food budget on.  The thing you do not want to do is to waste your money on mediocre food at high prices.  This often happens in restaurants that cater to tourists.  It is much better to find restaurants that cater to locals.  Spend some money on a decent dictionary and find the restaurants which do not have English menus.  They will open later and the food will virtually always be not only easier on the budget, but much higher quality.
  • Markets—there are open air and indoor markets everywhere here.  They offer everything from artisanal olive oils, small production wines, locally grown produce and hand made sausages.  Fabulous foods for snacking on, taking back to your hotel for a midnight snack or bringing home with you as gifts.  The bonus:  many of these items are identical or better to what you find in the gourmet stores at a fraction of the price and with a much broader selection.

Enjoy the food in Italy without melting your Visa.

Regionality of Italian Cooking

January 14, 2010

Travel in Italy can offer some surprises for many Americans who are not familiar with Italian history and the development of the various cuisines throughout Italy.  The diversity of the food has deep roots and slow or never changing habits.  I have had people traveling here wonder why they can’t find X dish when they are here in Tuscany…”Why can’t I find Italian food in Italy?” went the query.

Because “Italian food” is essentially a misnomer.

  • Geography:  Italy ranges from glacier-covered peaks in the Alps to its southernmost point being on the same latitudes as parts of North Africa.  In a country the size of California they have the kind of geography that has allowed them to host both the Winter and Summer Olympics.  Surprisingly enough to most people, the country has hosted the Winter Olympics twice and the Summer Olympics once.  This means that different foods and livestock characterize different regions of the country.
  • History:  Italian history as such did not exist until 1861.  Prior to the unification of the country the southern portion of the peninsula and Sicily were the Kingdom of Naples and the northern portion of the country was a collection of Duchys and Principalities, with San Marino and Vatican City thrown in as well.  Trade between regions was often strained and resulted in the development of items such as the salt-less Tuscan bread.
  • Grudges:  Italians as a culture can hold a grudge longer than just about any on earth.  The wars that lead to the development of aforementioned salt-less bread ended over 500 years ago, but the bread is still made without salt.  The black rooster on the label of Chianti Classico is a remnant of a 13th century disagreement over territory distribution between Florence and Siena.

Where does this leave the traveler when searching out good food while traveling in Italy?  My opinion, eat what the locals eat.  The variances in things as “simple” as tomato sauce really do correspond to the items that they are served with.  A second factor in this is immigration.  Immigration from southern to northern Italy is quite common so finding good southern Italian cooking throughout most of the country is fairly easy.  If you are looking for a restaurant straight out of Naples you can probably find one in most towns.   On the other hand, if you are a fan of the indulgent style of eating characterized in Bologna then visiting the city is recommended.

Hints for maximum restaurant enjoyment:

  • Find a restaurant that does not display English menus:  this means they cater to locals and the price/quality ratio will be infinitely better.
  • Look for asterisks on the menu:  it is required by Italian law that the use of any frozen ingredients be indicated on the menu…the more of these you see the higher the chances you will get mediocre food.
  • Seasonal foods:  even if you do not go for truffles or cinghiale, the more focus a place puts on the seasonal the better your meal will likely be.
  • Unusual foods:  do not immediately run if you see unusual dishes on a menu.  Tripe, liver, chicken neck, wild boar and even horse are not unusual in traditional foods here.  Even if you do not order them, it usually means that absolutely everything in the place is going to made from scratch.

Other than that, eat as much as possible, as often as possible and with as much gusto as possible…you can walk it off sight-seeing.

Youth Knows What Wisdom Realizes it Does Not

January 13, 2010

As a self-declared dork in addition to self-declared glutton I have been characterized as someone who (appropriately enough) “eats” books.

This observation was made by my favorite Italian PhD after returning a book the day after I borrowed it.  My love for reading does indeed correspond to a devouring of books.  My tastes do run a little to the geeky side with a decided dearth of best sellers.  (Don’t let that make you think I don’t enjoy certain indulgences like Eat, Pray, Love which I absolutely loved or my collection of Jane Austen novels.)

My wanderings have taught me that reading the same book/play/novel/short story again and again over the years is most decidely NOT an exercise in futility or a waste of time.  The same Shakespeare I read at 13 then at 16 then at 19 bla bla bla yielded new insights with every reading.

We grow and change with every additional experience we have so our rewards from a single work of literature are not limited to a one time experience.  With every additional piece of wisdom we acquire or every lesson that we learn our viewpoint is altered and who we are as a person is changed.  Youth knows what wisdom realizes it does not.

As a youngster I often wondered why my father kept all those old books.  As an adult I realized exactly why he had kept them.  I also realized that going back again and again to works that had stood the test of time is always a great use of your time…except that now the reading is often accompanied by a glass of wine.  I have books I have read close to 10 times and I have no plans of getting rid of them.  I will continue to go back again and again.

Why?

I know that I have more mistakes to make and more lessons to learn in the journey that is my life.  This means that at some point I will actually understand most of The Wasteland and Elliot will not make me want smack my head on the desk repeatedly.  It also means that every book becomes a well-thumbed friend, the kind of friend that allows you to make your mistakes, consoles you, and never says, “I told you so.”

Christmas in Italy

January 8, 2010

What is celebrating Christmas in Italy like?

The shopping beforehand is the same…chaos, traffic, stores running out of the toy at the top of your child’s list.

Traffic is horrendous.

Trees and lights are everywhere.

The streets of Florence are all lit in various styles of sparkling white lights.

Babbo Natale comes to give the children gifts..if they have been good.

But the food…OH MY GOD!

I have never eaten so much in one day in my life.

I awoke at the house of my friend.  Three sons aged two, four and six make for a real Christmas morning.  We set to cooking.  Four different types of antipasto were passed around.  Then there was lasagne (I had two servings.)  Then there was a pork roast and a beef Wellington, plus potatoes au gratin, plus veggies.  Then there were individual apple tarts drizzled in caramel sauce with a walnut topping.

Oh, did I forget?  That was only lunch.

After a few more hours we then had dinner.

Tortellini in broth with loads of real Parmagiano.  Then chicken with sugo verde and boiled tongue. (Yes, I actually do like tongue.) More vegetables and then tiramisu to top it off.

The occaaaaaasional sip of wine was enjoyed as well, just occaaaaasional.  And spumante and cuvee with dessert.

I think a realistic estimate of calorie consumption would be between 4000-5000.  Just WOW.

I had been warned, but figured I was enough of an eating veteran to handle just about anything.  The pace of the eating was more than I was able to handle and for the first time in a long time I felt like waving a white flag and surrending to the superior Italian ability to consume large amounts of pasta and meat in record time.

I believe next year I will train as if for an Olympic sport to ensure that I am not continually told to “mangia” and that I am too skinny.

Eloquence

December 9, 2009

What makes a person eloquent? What qualities make others not only listen to a person, but ponder and remember what was said?

At first, many people might think that flowery words or the ability to evoke images and burn a picture into the minds of listeners are the most important aspects of being eloquent. While a broad vocabulary to select from and the ability to pick just the right adverb or adjective to lend visual brilliance to what is being said definitely make a speaker or writer more engaging they do not make a great speaker or writer.

The verbal, whether oral or written, must first address what people want to hear or create interest that did not exist before. A storyteller can enrapture children and adults alike as Sheherazade did by transporting them to other times and places filled with adventure, opulence, danger and intrigue. Not being able to put a book down because you just have to see what is going to happen next. Entertain people.

Eloquence can also make people think, sometimes when they do not want to. Writers like Swift, Paine and Emerson could not only turn a phrase, but could also create interest in readers and turn subjects that many people would consider mundane into avenues of interest. When taking subjects such as politics, philosophy and theology and turning them to must-reads the author has reached the apex of eloquence.

Speakers do this in other ways. Many of the most reviled and respected leaders throughout history were extremely eloquent or were mesmerizing. It was said that many people who listened to Hitler speak could remember almost nothing which he actually said, but were virtually hypnotized by the way in which he said it.

One of the most important factors in using words is to anticipate what the readers or listeners will be interested in, or to create that interest by leading them down a path of ideas and images. Almost all people want to think more and learn more. To harvest their attention, first draw their interest and then answer the questions that are not being asked and plant the seed that develops the interest to verbalize the questioning thoughts. From infancy to advanced age, the question of “Why?” is always asked and the eloquent person answers it or asks it himself.

So, You Want to Live in Italy?

November 27, 2009

Ah, Florence, Tuscany, Italy.  Does the idea of chucking it all and moving to Italy intrigue you?  Many friends and acquaintances have expressed envy or horror in equal doses when discussing what I have done.  What is it really like to do it and how close is the reality to the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun?”

Um, well…no one ever seems to remember the pitfalls Diane Lane encountered in the film.  I was well versed enough (thanks to the input of a number of friends who had lived here previously) that I traveled here four times before and took a lot of time planning what I needed to do.  The romantic vision of Tuscany is accurate in the scenery and the food, wine and fashion.  But books such as “Too Much Tuscan Sun” and “The New Italians” give a realistic balance to the view that all is rosy and perfect in Tuscany.

What are some of the positives and negatives involved in relocating to a new country, learning a new language and embracing a new lifestyle?  It is definitely not something for someone who is not self-reliant and extremely patient.  Unfortunately, I have self-reliance in abundance but patience is a virtue I have never acquired.  Considering I have a “permanent partial disability” that has put some serious limits on my physical capabilities you would think I would have become more patient…but ADD overrides even ruptured spinal disks.  I want to live in Italy and I want to do it NOW.

So, positives:

* Tuscany really is that beautiful.  Those lush green hills of picture postcard fame are actually like that.  There is no great photographer needed.

* Food and wine are fantastic here.  The quality versus price of virtually all imbibable substances is astounding.

* Art in Florence is to bumper stickers in LA.

* Architecture is stunning here.  A hotel in Florence, a villa in the surrounding hills, a convent or a restaurant near the Mediterranean are all gorgeous.

* A more natural style and pace of life are the norm here.  Legislation caps the workweek at a 66 hour max, but typical is 35 to 40 unless you own your own business and six weeks of vacation is standard.

* The sense of history is stunning…especially to someone who was born and raised in areas where the only buildings more than 100 years old were the Spanish Missions.

Some negatives:

* Bureaucracy here is unbelievable.  Visas, banking, contracts, notarizations etc. are a nightmare and the chances of this changing=snowball in Dante’s Inferno.

* Expenses are high.  The almighty dollar is not.  The exchange rate, coupled with the terminally high expenses that are typical for Florence specifically and Italy in general, make for an unhappy face when looking at bank statements.

* The acceptance of American and other foreign women here is not universal by any means.  Many, but not all, Italian women view foreigners as competition and many men, but not all, have ulterior motives.

Things I love:

* No one looks askance at you when you have a glass of wine at lunch

* I can smoke a cigarette after dinner at my outdoor table and without being told that I am polluting myself and everyone around me.

* I can roll my Rs.

* The speaking with my hands that was so strange in California is normal here.

* I can and do walk virtually everywhere

So how close is the reality to the movie?  The residual superstitiousness was accurate.  The thunderstorm was accurate.  The ease of buying a house versus a vehicle was accurate.  Uncured/unbrined olives really will make your face do that.  What they didn’t show: visas, codice fiscale, permisso di soggiorno, transportation strikes and a six week wait for an internet connection.

But as Miss Carol Flores would say, “It had to be [great]…I mean heck…SHE’S IN ITALY FOR CHRIST SAKE!! 😛 😀 Heehee…

What Makes a Fabulous Meal?

November 19, 2009

I have been asked on countless occasions what I think makes a meal great.

I am definitely not a food snob and enjoy a thick juicy hamburger with all the fixings or a big ol’ plate of BBQ as much as foie gras and fine wine.  I have been known to eat and serve all types of meals with the same gusto.  Expense does not make a meal stand out.  Some of the simplest meals can also be the most enjoyable (says the proponent of peasant food.)

What are keys to making any meal as good as it can possibly be?

The freshness of your ingredients and their quality.  Animal products must be fresh (except for the ageing aspect…follow the three day rule.)  Using good quality ingredients does not mean buying the most expensive thing in the store or special ordering freakily rare ingredients.  It means picking good tomatoes, using fresh herbs whenever you can, springing for the cage-free eggs.

Flavor combinations need to be considered.  High end restaurants with prix fix menus are well aware of this.  Appetizer A flavors work with fish course B flavors work with meat course C flavors.  This applies in everyday meals too.  The previously mentioned BBQ (yup craving BBQ, don’t get it the same way here) the sweetness inherent in most sauces plays well with the high sugar content of creamed corn, the bacon flavors in baked beans and the hoppiness of ice cold beer.  Classic flavor combos exist because they work.

Pacing a meal makes it more fun and more relaxing and enjoyable.  Unless every person you know eats like a Hoover, then pace out your meals.  You know it’s healthier to eat more slowly.  But it also lets you enjoy the flavors of each dish more.  Just like multi-tasking creates less than optimal results in work, multi-task eating creates less enjoyment.  Relax over your meals and savor flavors.

Simple presentation.  Once in while I like the artsy presentation of hard sugar decorations on my dessert plate, crisped sage leaves on my soup and decorative drizzles of creme fraiche.  But for the most part, simple presentation works best.  Clean design white plates, plain old white napkins that you can bleach, simple flatware and good, honest food.

Company counts.  All food is more enjoyable when you share it with people you care for.  Lively conversation will make a meal an event rather than a source of sustenance.  Use this time to focus on asking questions and reminding yourself why you have these wonderful people in your life.  The relationships with your family and friends should inspire you to create meals that you do not want to end.  This is why there are such a wonderful array of after dinner drinks.

Did I forget wine?  Of course not, sillies.  I just think it goes without saying.