Healthy Mediterranean Cooking at Home

Monthly Archives: April 2012

fagioli misti (mixed beans)

Popular Italian Beans

The region of Tuscany is famous for its bean production.  Cannellini or white kidney beans, are, perhaps, its most popular bean.  Borlotti is a bean of northern Italy. Borlotti is also considered to be the healthiest due to its high iron concentration. This bean, in particular, is a popular meat substitute. These red, tan and brown speckled beans turn a dark brown on the outside and yellow on the inside when cooked. They add a creamy consistency to any recipe.

Fresh or dried fava beans are a staple of Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania and Sicily. A staple of southern Italian cuisine, fava beans are hardy and widely available. Purchasing beans that are already skinned and split is the preferred method for ease of preparation. Buying whole beans in their protective skins calls for hours of soaking as well as a tinge of bitterness when they are cooked. Lentils, or lenticchie, are eaten all across Italy. With their nutty taste, lentils are ideally small and brown. The most select lentils are grown in Umbria, Abruzzo and Sicily. Although lentils do not require soaking previous to cooking, they are best when soaked for about an hour.

With the exception of a few types of beans, like lentils, most should be soaked at least eight hours or longer. Some cooks add a bit of baking soda during the soaking, which seems to help the beans remain intact during cooking. Be sure to discard the water, the beans soak in, before cooking with them.

Also, when cooking beans, be generous with the water – a good rule of thumb is six cups for every cup of beans. One cup of dry beans will yield two cups of cooked beans. Try adding a bit of olive oil to the water the beans cook in because it will add flavor and keep them from sticking to each other. Cooking times will vary, of course, but generally Borlotti take about an hour, chickpeas require about an hour and a half of cooking time and lentils may be ready after a half hour.

Some of the most popular Italian dishes that call for beans include minestrone,  bean soup, lentil soup, pasta with red bean sauce, fava beans and pasta, lentil stew with sausage and penne with chickpeas. Beans are used in spreads, soups, sauces and main courses. Beans are a great source of fiber, antioxidants and protein. Many people choose the simplicity of canned beans over cooking dried beans. However, canned beans are more expensive per serving and also have added sodium. With a little bit of planning, you can work with dried beans. You will taste the difference in fresh cooked dried beans.

Soaking the Beans

The night before serving, rinse the beans, picking out any bad ones and place them in a large bowl. Cover with about 2 inches of water, add a pinch of baking soda and let soak overnight. The next day, drain well. Place the beans in a heavy soup pot with 1 carrot, cut in half, 1 celery stick, cut in half,  1/2 onion, peeled and quartered, 1 sprig of rosemary and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until the beans are tender. Drain and discard the vegetables. Adding salt to beans at the beginning of cooking toughens the skins and increases cooking time, so add it to taste toward the end of the cooking time.  Most types of beans cook in about an hour but taste for tenderness. You can serve the beans as a side dish or refrigerate the beans to use in recipes on another day.

Here are some recipes I recommend using cooked beans.

Beans and Greens

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 2 cloves)
  • 1 bunch Swiss Chard, cut into one inch pieces or any greens of choice
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried Italian herbs
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups cooked cannellini beans
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Directions

In a large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, 2 minutes. Add garlic, and cook 1 minute more. Add Swiss Chard, and stir slowly, allowing it to wilt slightly.  Add chicken broth, herbs, and salt; reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the beans, and continue to simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the greens are tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Serve warm, garnished with grated Parmesan cheese.

Tuscan Country Bean Soup

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped fennel
  • 2 cups chopped celery
  • 2 cups chopped carrots
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (2-3 cloves)
  • 3 cups cooked dried cannellini beans
  • 1 carton (32 oz)  low sodium chicken broth
  • 2 plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Directions

Heat the olive oil in a large pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the fennel, celery and carrots and saute for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add the drained beans, chicken broth and tomatoes to the pan along with the thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with the grated cheese.


Authentic Italian cooking is not just pasta, as many people think, here in the States. In Italy, portion sizes are much smaller and pasta is generally served as a first course, separate from the main entree. Family meals are important events and diners are encouraged to savor their food. Italian cuisine places emphasis on the quality and freshness of ingredients and most Italian cuisine originates from frugality. Locally grown and regional products are the basis for meals. Vegetables and fruits are used to enhance and accompany the flavors of the main course.  Vegetables, such as, eggplant, asparagus, artichokes, peppers, fennel, spinach, beans and escarole are most commonly used. 

The dish featured here, will demonstrate how vegetables flavor and support the main dish protein. This dish features fennel, which is a vegetable that is not well know, but is showing up more and more in food magazines and on cooking shows. Fennel is a bulbous vegetable with a tall, wispy, frond top that looks rather like dill. The fronds can be used in salads or to dress a serving plate, but the main attraction of fennel is the bulb itself. It’s very firm and crunchy and it tastes a bit like anise. It has a fresh taste and is excellent for salads or slaws. It can also be grilled or braised until it becomes tender and sweet, mild and delicious.

Fish Braised With Fennel, Artichokes and Lemons

In this recipe you can use any firm white fish fillets that are found in your region, such as, halibut, cod, grouper or bass. I also prefer fresh or frozen artichoke hearts to bottled types because I think the frozen taste much fresher. This is a typical Italian preparation for fish fillets and includes many mediterranean flavors. Give this recipe a try for your next meal.

You will need:

  • 2 lemons
  • 1-9oz. package frozen artichokes, defrosted and cut in half
  • 1/2 large onion, halved crosswise and thinly sliced (about 1 cup

    Fennel

  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed, halved crosswise, core removed and cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips
  • 1 tablespoon fresh chopped oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Flour for dredging
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4  fillets (each weighing about 6 ounces and 1 inch thick)
  • Fennel fronds

Directions

Squeeze juice from 1 lemon; cut the remaining lemon into very thin slices.

Put onion, fennel, artichoke hearts, oregano, lemon juice and lemon slices, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup water and 2 tablespoons olive oil into a large saute pan.  Cover pan.

Bring to a low boil. Reduce heat and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.  Remove to a bowl. Set aside.

Season both sides of the fish fillets with salt, pepper and a light coating of flour.

In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat until very hot but not smoking. Add fillets. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook fillets, without moving them, until bottoms are golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Carefully turn; cook until fish is opaque and flakes easily, 2 to 3 minutes more.

Return artichoke mixture to the pan and warm for a minute or two.  Spoon 1/2 cup artichoke mixture over each fillet. Garnish with fennel fronds.

Servings:  4

fish


Basil Pesto Sauce

basil

The warm months are approaching for many readers and where I live, it is warm now. The warm weather will allow me to plant basil, which is a staple of the Italian cuisine. Basil is very easy to grow in plant pots on your patio.  I usually buy 6 plants and divide them between two pots. These two pots give me plenty of basil to use in flavoring sauces or making pesto. Basil pesto is a favorite in my house and when the children and grandchildren visit, it is one of the requests  for dinner.  Not only is Pesto excellent for dressing pasta, a tablespoon or two is wonderful as a topping for grilled fish or chicken or roasted asparagus.

Many Pesto recipes call for Pignoli or pine nuts, but they can be expensive and difficult to find.  Walnuts or almonds are a fine substitute.  Also, you will find recipes that add the grated cheese during the processing of the sauce, but I like to add the cheese when I mix the sauce with the pasta.  Additionally, this sauce is easy to double and freeze half for another meal.  Pesto frozen without the cheese tastes much better.

The sauce is not cooked and only requires the use of a processor or blender. You can make it ahead and keep it covered on your counter until dinner time.  The sauce may also be covered and kept in the refrigerator for a few days.

To make the sauce, you will need the following ingredients:

  • 2 cups of basil leaves packed tightly in a measuring cup
  • 2 peeled garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup nuts
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 cup of very good extra virgin olive oil

Place the garlic, nuts, salt and pepper in the processor and pulse a few times. Add the basil leaves and with the processor running, add the olive oil slowly.  Process until the mixture becomes a paste. Pour the sauce into your pasta serving bowl and set aside.

Cook 1 lb. pasta, such as linguine or angel hair and, just before you drain the pasta, remove 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water and set it aside. Add the drained pasta to the serving bowl with the pesto, mix slightly and then add the pasta water and 1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese.  Mix well.  All you need to round out this meal is a fresh tomato salad.

bolognese

Bolognese Sauce

When you are in the mood for a meat sauce, Bolognese, is the way to go. It is a creamy, flavorful sauce and very representative of Italian cuisine.  This recipe has been in my family for many years and it is one of the first sauces I made for my husband after we were married.  It is still one of his favorites.

This is where you can make a healthy choice and choose ground turkey breast (preferably turkey raised without antibiotics) over beef. This sauce is delicious over short thick pasta, such as Rigatoni.

To make this sauce:

In a large pot heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

Add 1/2 cup of chopped onion, 1 diced carrot, 1 diced celery stalk and 1 small minced garlic clove.

Cook the vegetables for a few minutes until softened.  Don’t let the vegetables brown.  

Add 1 lb. lean ground beef or ground turkey breast and cook until the meat is no longer pink.  

Add 1 cup red wine and let the sauce cook for a few minutes.

Add the following ingredients to the pot:

  • 1-28 oz. container Pomi chopped Italian tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Bring the sauce to just the boiling point, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and cook for 2 hours.  Just before you are ready to serve add 1/2 cup fat free half and half or whole milk. Heat until warmed.

One point to remember about dressing pasta with sauce is “just a little”.  Italians don’t like their pasta swimming in sauce. You can always add more. 


Meatballs and sausage are just about the most favorite accompaniment to spaghetti or other pasta for most folks.  As I was growing up, I think meatballs were my very favorite. I did not have an appreciation for sausage until later in life.  As I recall,  pork sausage could be chewy and contain large pieces of fat. Not the healthiest of foods. Today there are numerous types of sausages besides pork, such as turkey, chicken and vegetarian. However, if you want an authentic taste then Italian pork sausages are the way to go.  

About 10 years ago I discovered Fortuna ‘s Sausage Company located in Rhode Island and was very pleased with their product.  The sausage is made with all natural , hand trimmed pork and comes from small farms across the region.  The sausage comes in a number of flavors and is not fatty.  I have included a link below, if you would like to see the products they sell.

When it comes to cooking meatballs or sausage, my method is different from my mother’s. She would mix the meatball ingredients, form the meatballs and fry them in oil before adding them to the tomato sauce.  In fact some of my relatives prepared the meat in the same pan that they later cooked the tomato sauce in, leaving all the fat that came from the meat in the pan and then into the sauce.  Even frying the meat in a skillet, as my mother did, added fat to this dish. So to avoid this added fat, I bake the meatballs and sausage in a hot oven and then add them to the sauce.  I like to think that my method is much healthier.

My usual preparation is to spray two 9″ x 13″ glass baking dishes with olive oil cooking spray. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In one dish I place 1 lb. of Italian sausage cut into 3 inch links. The second dish will hold the meatballs and the recipe is as follows:

Italian Meatballs

  • 2 lbs. lean ground meat (beef and pork) or you can use all beef 
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped fine
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups of Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 cup warm water

Directions

In a large mixing bowl place the bread crumbs and warm water. Mix and let rest for about 10  minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients except the meat and mix well.

Add the meat and mix with your hands just until combined. Over mixing causes the meat to toughen.

Wet your hands and form the meatballs. A traditional size is 2-3 inches across, but you can make them any size you want. I usually get about 16 meatballs. Place them in a greased baking dish.

Bake the sausage and the meatballs until brown, about 40 minutes, turning them half way through the baking time. Remove the meat to a tray lined with paper towels to drain.

Add the meat to the tomato sauce during the second hour and let them simmer in the sauce for an hour. The recipe for the sauce was in yesterday’s post. Just click on the link.

Image

Meatballs and sausage to serve with cooked spaghetti.

http://www.fortunasausagecom                       Fortuna's sausage


My goal for this blog is to share with you what I have learned from my grandparents and parents about good Italian home cooking.  Creating Italian dinners should not be difficult or time consuming and they should be healthy as well as delicious. In future posts I will share with you more information about my relatives and their enthusiasm for cooking. One of the first things I learned was the importance of a quality tomato sauce, either marinara or meat based, as so many Italian dishes rely on such a sauce. It is not difficult to make your own sauce and you will know what is in it. Jarred sauce often contains sugar, too much salt and preservatives or additives.

Start with quality canned tomatoes.  I prefer the boxed 28 oz. POMI Italian chopped tomatoes. The only ingredient in this product is tomatoes.  If you can’t find this product, try to find tomatoes with as few added ingredients as possible, such as Muir Glen.

You can prepare this sauce on the weekend, if you have a busy week schedule. This recipe makes enough sauce for several meals and you can keep some of the sauce for up to a week in the refrigerator for a weeknight dinner and you can freeze the rest in several containers for a few other meals.

In the next post I will tell you how to prepare meatballs and sausage to add to this basic sauce.

Homemade Marinara Sauce

Ingredients

  • 3 garlic gloves, minced
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped fine
  • 1 carrot, chopped fine
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped fine
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1-6 oz. can tomato paste
  • 4-28 oz. boxes Pomi finely chopped tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon each dried oregano, dried basil, crushed red pepper and dried thyme.
  • Salt and pepper

Directions

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a Dutch oven and saute the vegetables and garlic. Add the tomato paste. Fill the empty can with water and add it to the pot.

Add 4-28 oz. boxes Pomi tomatoes.

Simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour.

Add 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon each black pepper and the dried oregano, dried basil, crushed red pepper and dried thyme.

Simmer, uncovered, for another hour or until the sauce thickens.

Taste the sauce to see if it is very acidic. If it is, add a teaspoon of honey or agave syrup.

Pomi Tomatoes



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