How to make your Italian meals healthier:
- The satisfaction you’ll get from your food will be much greater if you manage to cook a couple of meals from scratch each week. You’ll also know exactly what’s going into your food. Make your own sauces and meatballs from scratch and, on the weekend, when you have more time make your own bread.
- Wherever possible, buy ingredients that are in season. The typical Italian diet uses fresh produce and this helps to give dishes a great deal of flavor. It also means you don’t have to add fat, salt or sugar to improve the taste. Italians love to wander around local markets to select their ingredients – it’s part of enjoying food and cooking.
- When you are preparing to cook pasta you shouldn’t allocate more than 2-3 oz of dried pasta per person. I find a kitchen scale helpful in determining the right portions. Often people make the mistake of cooking the whole package of pasta and eating far too much. Also take care not to overcook pasta. Al dente (firm to the bite) pasta is better for you than soft, overcooked pasta. Italians lightly coat their pasta instead of drowning it with sauce. Excessive sauce just adds on the calories and fat content without adding any extra flavor.
- Olive oil is much better for you than many regular cooking oils and definitely better than cooking with butter or margarine, if you are trying to eat healthy. Olive oil is high in good fats, like monounsaturated and omega 3, as well as containing anti-oxidants.
- Try to eat fish twice a week. Fish is a very important part of the Italian diet and you will find many healthy Italian recipes for shellfish, seafood stews and fish.
- Swap high calorie desserts for a fruit salad or fresh sliced fruit, as the Italians do, instead of cake after dinner. If you buy fruit when it is in season, you’ll find the taste rewarding and it will tame the sugar cravings.
- Use beans more often and replace some of the meat in your recipes with beans.
- When dressing your salads use a good quality balsamic vinegar so that you can reduce the amount of oil you mix with it. Balsamic vinegar is low in calories and to make a healthy dressing just mix it with a little extra virgin olive oil as a replacement for creamy salad dressings or mayonnaise.
- Add plenty of flavor to grilled steak or grilled fish with a gremolata instead of a cream sauce. A gremolata is an Italian garnish of raw, finely chopped garlic, fresh chopped flat leaf parsley and lemon zest and, when it is sprinkled on top of your fish or meat at the end of cooking, it adds flavor without a lot calories or fat.
- Every mealtime in an Italian home is important and, as a result, we are very aware of and appreciate the food we consume. Avoid having the TV on and other distractions and concentrate on what and how much you’re eating and who you are eating with to make dinner an enjoyable occasion.
Tenderloin with Tuscan Beans
Serve with a green vegetable, such as sautéed spinach or kale.
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1 oz thinly sliced prosciutto, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried garlic/herb seasoning
- 1 beef or pork tenderloin (1 1/4–1 1/2 lb)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 (15-oz) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth or stock
- 1/3 cup sun-dried, julienne-cut tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Chop shallot, prosciutto (you will need about 1/3 cup) and basil. Set aside.
Preheat a large skillet on medium-high 2–3 minutes. Sprinkle seasoning over meat. Place oil in the pan, then add meat; cook 6–8 minutes, turning as needed, until browned on all sides.
Transfer meat to a baking sheet and bake 10–12 minutes or until meat reaches an internal temperature of 145°F. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing.
Return the skillet to heat on medium. Place prosciutto in the pan; cook and stir 2 minutes (until lightly crisp). Add remaining ingredients (except basil);simmer 2–3 minutes or until hot.
Stir in basil. Slice meat thinly and serve alongside the beans.
Easy Cassoulet and Olive Bread
This dish can be made over the weekend and heated for a quick weeknight dinner.
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, coarsely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced
- 1 large yellow onion, cut into 2 inch pieces
- 3 large carrots, cut into 2 inch pieces
- 2 slices bacon, cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 cans cannellini beans (15-16 oz), drained
- 2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 1 (14 oz) can (2 cups) crushed Italian tomatoes
Preheat a Dutch Oven on medium 1-2 minutes. Place oil and bacon in the pan; cook and stir 2-3 minutes or until bacon starts to brown.
Add garlic; cook and stir 1 minute. Season chicken with salt and pepper, then add to the pan; cook 2-3 minutes on each side or until browned.
Add remaining ingredients; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover pan.
Simmer 1 1/2 hours or until chicken pulls apart easily with a fork.
Remove cover and cook 7-8 minutes (without stirring) so mixture can thicken slightly. Serve with Olive Bread. (Recipe below.)
Easy Olive Bread
- Olive oil cooking spray
- 1 lb prepared pizza dough, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
- 1 (4.25-oz) can sliced black olives, drained
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- All-purpose flour, for rolling dough
Preheat oven to 425°F. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. Chop basil.
Pat pizza dough out on a floured board. Sprinkle the surface with the olives, cheese and basil and fold dough over several times until well blended.
Knead 3–4 minutes or until the dough is smooth. Place dough on baking sheet, forming it into a 15-inch loaf. Make two 1/4-inch slits diagonally across the top. Let stand 10 minutes to rest.
Bake the bread 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°F. Bake 8–10 more minutes or until golden. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing.
Creamy Sausage Mushroom Pasta
Serve with oven-roasted asparagus.
Lighter Alfredo Style Sauce
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1 1/3 cups low-fat milk
- 2 tablespoons reduced fat cream cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 5 oz shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
- 1 large leek, coarsely chopped
- 2 links mild Italian pork or turkey or chicken sausage (8 oz)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 oz rigatoni pasta
- 8 oz fresh sliced cremini mushrooms
- 1/2 cup white wine (or chicken broth)
- 2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, chopped
To make the sauce:
Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic; cook 1 minute, stirring frequently. Stir in flour. Gradually add milk, stirring with a whisk. Cook 6 minutes or until mixture thickens, stirring constantly. Add 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, cream cheese and salt, stirring with a whisk until the cheeses melt.
To make the pasta:
Bring salted water to a boil for the pasta.
Chop leek (white part only; 1 cup) and chop parsley.
Remove sausage casing.
Preheat a large sauté pan on medium-high 2-3 minutes. Add sausage; brown 3-4 minutes, stirring to crumble the meat, or until no pink remains.
Meanwhile, cook pasta al dente following package instructions.
Remove sausage from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
Add oil, then add mushrooms and leeks; cook and stir 3-4 minutes or until tender.
Reduce heat to medium-low and stir in wine; simmer 2-3 minutes or until reduced by about one-half.
Stir in Alfredo sauce; bring to a simmer. Stir in pasta and sausage; cook and stir 1 minute. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and parsley. Serve.
Sautéed Balsamic Fish With Vegetable Orzo
Serve with steamed broccoli.
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 1 teaspoon zested lemon peel
- 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 5 tablespoons homemade or store-bought basil pesto, divided
- 1/3 cup finely diced plum tomatoes,
- 1/3 cup finely diced onions
- 1/3 cup finely diced bell peppers
- 4 white fish fillets, (tilapia, haddock or flounder, etc.) 5-6 oz each
- 2 teaspoons dried salt-free garlic/herb seasoning
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup reduced-sodium vegetable broth
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Bring the 2 cups of water to a boil and stir in the orzo; cook and stir 4 minutes.
Reduce heat to low; simmer and stir often for 3-4 more minutes or until the orzo is tender and most of liquid has been absorbed. It is important to stir the orzo to prevent sticking. No draining will be needed.
Stir in 3 tablespoons pesto, tomato, onion and bell pepper, lemon zest and lemon juice. Remove pan from the heat and cover; set aside.
Preheat a large skillet on medium-high 2-3 minutes. Season fish on both sides with the garlic/herb seasoning. Place the oil in the pan, then add the fish; cook 1-2 minutes or until fish is lightly browned. Turn fish over.
Combine broth, vinegar and remaining 2 tablespoons pesto. Add to fish; cook 2-3 minutes or until mixture reduces by about one-half and fish flakes easily.
Divide orzo among four dinner plates, top with fish and some of the sauce.
Eggs over Spinach and Polenta
Look for the polenta in the refrigerated produce section of your supermarket. Serve crusty Italian bread and a mixed green salad with this quick meal.
- 1 (16-ounce) tube of prepared polenta
- Olive oil cooking spray and olive oil
- 2 cups homemade marinara sauce
- 1 (6-ounce) package fresh baby spinach
- 4 large eggs
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded Asiago cheese
Cut 8 polenta slices off the log, each about ½ inch thick
Arrange polenta slices on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Lightly brush the tops of the polenta with olive oil. Broil 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
Bring the sauce to a simmer in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in spinach; cover and cook for 1 minute or until spinach wilts. Stir to combine. Make 4 indentations in the spinach mixture using the back of a wooden spoon. Break 1 egg into each indentation.
Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes or until eggs are the desired degree of doneness. Sprinkle with cheese. Place 2 polenta slices on each of 4 plates; top each with one-fourth of the spinach mixture and 1 egg.