by Laura Brooks Bright
In case you missed last week, we’re celebrating National Nutrition Month and we’ve partnered with our resident dietitian, Kelly Bright, to explore nutrient-dense cuisines around the world and this week, we’re talking Mediterranean Diet – Italian style. Here’s what’s cooking in Italia.
There are 18 countries with coasts on the Mediterranean Sea: Spain, southern France, Italy, Malta, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Malta, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. And while they all share the sea, they don’t share an identical cuisine. In fact, cuisines vary greatly even within the same country –dishes typical of northern Italy often contain lard and butter, while dishes in southern Italy are traditionally made with olive oil. For purposes of promoting healthier lifestyles, we’re focusing on the cuisine of southern Italy today. Thanks to ample sunshine and lots of coastline, southern Italy is a hot-bed for a nutrient-dense diet full of vegetables, fruits, beans, fish, poultry, olive oil, tomatoes, red wine and whole grains.
We’ve investigated a few major ingredient stake holders in the southern Italian diet to show you what’s in, and what’s out where healthy eating are concerned. Here goes:
The first recorded history of the tomato in Italy was October 31, 1548. The grand duke of Tuscany (Cosimo de’Medici) was in Pisa (as in, the home of the leaning tower) and he was presented with a basket of tomatoes that his house steward was sent from the grand duke’s own Florentine estate. The house steward sent a letter back to the Medici private secretary saying the basket of pomodoro – tomato – had arrived safely and was studied with great interest. It wasn’t love at first sight though, in fact, it took nearly 300 years for the lowly tomato to work its way into everyday Italian cuisine. Kelly Bright, a Brookwood Baptist dietitian touts the health benefits of these “vegetable fruits” noting, “studies have linked consumption of tomatoes to better heart health by lowering total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. They’re also packed with vitamins C, K and biotin.”
Unrefined Whole Grains.
Whole grains can be refined or unrefined. Whole grains contain the whole grain kernel, including the bran, germ and endosperm portions. When grains are refined, the bran and germ are removed during milling, which gives them a longer shelf life. But refining also removes iron, fiber and B-complex vitamins, making them a lot less helpful where nutrients are concerned. Pastas in southern Italy are primarily dried pasta made with unleavened flour and water. In the north, fresh pasta is made with the addition of eggs. That said, dried whole-wheat pasta, whole-grain bread, barley, whole-wheat couscous are the base of most Mediterranean diets. Whole grains mean a lower glycemic index, which means slower digestion and a gentler rise in glucose and insulin. “A diet full of whole grains has been linked to a decrease in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, plus whole grains retain their fiber, magnesium, vitamin E and other antioxidant phytochemicals,” Kelly says.
Dark Leafy Greens.
Bottom line, eat your greens. Greens are high in vitamins – including A, C and K, plus they’re packed with potassium and fiber. They’re low calorie, nutrient-dense and jammed with phytochemicals. Best of all, Kelly says, “they may reduce cancer risk, age-related macular degeneration and can help maintain bone health.” Italian cooking traditionally includes a variety of greens – from brassica to Italian native chard.
Olives + Olive Oil.
Italy is the second largest producer of olives (and olive oil) worldwide, behind Spain. To appreciate just how much olive oil Italy consumes, consider this – per capita consumption of olive oil in Italy is 13 liters per person, per year (almost 55 cups); the United States averages 1 liter per person, per year (just over 4 cups). While definitely a high-fat food (over 80% of an olive is fat), those fats are monosaturated which may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. Olive products also offer an incredible range of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients – including oleuropein. Kelly says, “Oleuropein has been linked to decreased oxidation of LDL cholesterol and lowers markers of oxidative stress, plus, it may help protect nerve cells from oxygen-related damage.”
Other prized ingredients in Italian cooking include peppers, eggplants, artichokes, fresh seafood and legumes. Add some of these ingredients to your weekly grocery list, or better yet, try our Chicken Cacciatore recipe below. We know, we know, you’re hungry now. We’ll cut to the chase. Try this Italian classic and let your taste buds squeal.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
⅓ c. flour seasoned with salt & pepper
⅓ c. yellow onions, diced
⅓ c. red bell pepper, sliced in strips
3 tbsp. olive oil
⅓ c. fresh mushrooms, sliced
½ tsp. garlic, chopped
14 oz. can tomato puree
¾ c. water
½ tsp. chicken base (try Better than Bouillon® brand)
½ tsp. dried crushed oregano
½ tsp. dried crushed basil
3 tbsp. Marsala cooking wine, optional
14 oz. can drained, peeled whole tomatoes
3 oz. dried spaghetti
½ tsp. salt
3 ¼ c. boiling water
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Rinse and dry chicken breasts. Dredge both sides of chicken in flour mixture and set aside. In a large oven-safe sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat, add chicken and sauté until lightly browned, 3-5 minutes side. Set chicken aside and use leftover oil and brown bits to sauté onions and peppers, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and mushrooms and continue to sauté 3 minutes being careful not to brown garlic.
In a stock pot, combine tomato puree, water, chicken base, oregano, basil, Marsala (if using) and pepper mixture. Pour tomato mixture over chicken in sauté pan and bake at 375 for 1 hour or until internal temperature of chicken reaches 165 degrees F.
Prior to serving, skim off excess grease from cooked chicken and boil spaghetti in salted water according to package instructions, approximately 12 minutes. To serve, plate spaghetti and top with chicken breast and sauce. Garnish with fresh basil, if desired.