Hearty, Hot, and Wholesome Italian Foods for Winter
Winter has arrived, and it's my least favorite time of year. My body doesn't respond well to the season; no matter how many layers of clothing I put on, when I'm cold, I'm cold. Therefore, I tend to be out of doors as little as necessary until the temperatures start to rise.
Fortunately, I have a number of interests that I can pursue in the warm comfort of my apartment, one of which is cooking. And that bodes particularly well, because the foods of winter are my absolute favorites: a compensation, no doubt, for my general dislike of the season. Hearty, savory meals give me a sense of comfort and fulfillment during the cold months, and provide the pungent tastes I enjoy so much.
Hearty AND Healthy
However, I watch my diet to maintain good health, as well as because of my tendency towards high cholesterol. And, I'll admit it, I'm careful for vanity's sake -- I don't want all those years of working out to go rushing down the drain. So, I look to prepare meals that are not only satisfying to my palate but also healthy.
This may sound like a tough course to follow, but it really isn't. I'm of Italian-American descent, and food always played an important role in my household when I was growing up. My mother was a good cook, but she didn't really love the process. While she wanted to put a tasty meal on the table (and had to, or else she'd have heard loud protests from my father), she also looked for simple, relatively quick recipes to accomplish her goals. The faster she finished the preparation, the more time she had to sneak in an extra soap opera in the afternoon, or have a coffee session with her girlfriends.
I've inherited most of my mother's recipes and, over time as I've built my own skills as a cook, I've adapted some to make them either healthier or even easier to prepare. "Easy," by my definition, doesn't always mean "fast" but it does mean using simple ingredients and preparation steps.
Another thing about my Italian-American home, and most of the homes in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn where I grew up: there was a definite pattern to eating. In the winter, it went something like this: Monday night there was a homemade soup, usually chicken or beef, after which came a second course that followed the ingredients of the soup. Tuesday there was pasta with tomato sauce left over from Sunday, and the accompanying meats.
Wednesday was "American" night, as my mother called it, since we'd eat a one-course meal, often meatloaf, hamburgers, or hotdogs; Thursday was pasta again, this time with garlic and oil or a simple marinara sauce, often followed by veal cutlets breaded and fried. Friday was a meatless soup, such as macaroni and bean ("pasta e fagioli," the Americanized pronunciation being "pasta fazool") or lentil soup, followed by fish. Saturday was always steak night, and on Sunday, the midday meal was the well-publicized Italian staple: pasta with tomato sauce, meatballs and sausages, followed by a roast of some sort surrounded by vegetables.
Feasting With Flexibility
There was some leeway in the routine. For example, soup could be substituted as a first course on Thursdays, leaving Friday open for pasta. This was always good news, since that pasta often was linguini with clam sauce. Or, other interesting dishes could show up on a number of evenings. One favorite was escarole with beans; another was steak pizzaiola, a luscious concoction of steak cooked in tomato sauce with spices. The sauce was served over thick, long perciatelli pasta, and the steak came second.
On holidays, two changes occurred: we upped the ante a bit, having even more intricate, multi-coursed dinners. More importantly, my father took over the kitchen. He was a superb cook, and loved creating delicious "specialty" dishes.
Needless to say, certain recipes accompanied specific holidays. On Christmas Eve, there was a seven-course fish dinner that always started with a multi-ingredient seafood salad. On New Year's Day, we always had rice balls as an accompaniment to whatever else the fare was: cooked rice that had been tossed with egg and parmesan cheese then molded into balls, the center of which were stuffed with beef cooked in tomato sauce. The balls were then breaded and fried to a crisp exterior but as you bit into them, you tasted a moist, cheesy-gooey interior until your tongue reached the middle and savored the buried meat. All of these dishes took time and used lots of pots, pans and utensils. And invariably, my mother wound up yelling at my dad for "using everything in the house," since she was on clean-up duty when he cooked.
And so, I continue to eat many of the foods from my childhood, although not necessarily in the proscribed weekly order. After all, my mother is no longer alive to make statements such as: "You're making chicken soup Ronnie? That's nice. But on a Tuesday night?" I do, however, still have a penchant for pasta on Sundays (well, really on any day but especially on Sundays) and I give in to it most weeks. I don't, as in the old days, have my meal in the mid-afternoon, since it kills too much of the day. But on a wintry Sunday evening at about seven o'clock, I'm ready to sit down to a steaming, mouth watering bowl of pasta, followed by a second course, just like in the old days.
Since we all have to eat, and usually have to cook our own meals, I thought I'd share some of the recipes I've known all my life. I've chosen five that will not only cover your Monday through Friday dinners (and you too can eat them in any order you choose), but will also yield some good leftovers for an occasional lunch or weekend dinner. My criteria for selecting the recipes were: good flavor, of course; good nutrition; simplicity of preparation; relatively inexpensive ingredients; and a nice balance of tastes and textures.
I chose dishes that make good main courses. You don't necessarily have to precede or follow these with anything else; you should, however, always accompany them with a vegetable and/or a salad. And while I'm on the nutrition soapbox, it's always good to have a piece of fruit as a finale to a nice dinner. It's healthy, delicious, and beats the processed sugars of traditional desserts. Save the cake and ice cream for once-in-a-while treats. I believe that the good metabolism I've maintained all my life is largely a function of having developed consistently good eating habits. It's never too late to start a balanced nutrition regimen, and if you're living with HIV, it's more important than for most people.
Try these recipes and see how they'll help you cope better with the cold weather, as they do for me. All of them serve at least two people. And if you like the way they turn out, invite your friends for a warm, wintry dinner. Mangia bene!
Back to the March/April 2002 issue of Body Positive magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.