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The Worlds Healthiest Cuisines - Italy
The Worlds Healthiest Cuisines – Italy

Everyone is trying to eat healthier, especially as it gets closer to the end of the year and New Year's resolutions are soon going to become a hot topic of discussion. Diet and exercise are typically the go to answers to the question, "How do you plan to be healthier this year?" But sometimes these answers are so broad that we still don't know where to start. Diet by definition is food or drink regularly provided or consumed or habitual nourishment. Instead of portraying a diet as eating less food, the best way to make improvements is to eat more quality ingredients that keep you fuller for longer. One way to do this is to stick to healthy staple foods and build your meals around them. This means that just because you are eating healthier, you don't have to sacrifice taste.

That brings us to one of the world's healthiest cuisines, which also happens to be one of my favorites- Italian. Italian cuisine goes back – waaay back to the 4th century BCE. The first recorded record of Italian style cuisine was written in a poem. At this time the author made note of not using herbs and spices in order for the true flavors of the ingredients shine. Shortly after this, the Romans threw simplicity out the window. The first published Italian cookbook contained 470 recipes which all contain heavy doses of herbs and spices. Culinary traditions from Rome and Athens influenced cuisine in Sicily which can be categorized as the first true Italian cuisine, as it is known today.

Staple Ingredients

Italian cuisine in Italy is much different than Americanized Italian food that you would get at your local restaurant. Traditional Italian food is far from lasagna and double cheese pizza. Italian meals are healthy, simple and delicious. Most dishes contain only 4 to 8 ingredients  and there is more of a focus on the quality of the food than presentation, almost the opposite of another incredibly healthy cuisine, California cuisine.

Like many of the healthiest cuisines in the world, Italian cuisine puts an emphasis on using fresh, local ingredients. Even in the 18th century, Italian medical records warn against eating processed foods. Some of Italy's food staples include fish, beans, pasta, gnocchi and cheese from Sicily (Sicilians have a reputation of being the best cheese makers). These are used in combination with herbs, root vegetables, flowers, seeds and fruits.  

Italian Seasonings

Italian cuisine is known for its use of a variety of herbs and spices. Homemade sauces are enhanced with red pepper flakes, minced onion, oregano, basil and parsley.

Another use of spices, which is typically thought to be Italian (but don't try it in Italy!) is dipping bread in a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and herbs and spices. Many Americans like to enjoy a fresh piece of Italian bread with olive oil with spice blends like our Tuscany Dipping Seasoning, Milan Dipping Seasoning and Sicilian Dipping Seasoning as a quick and easy appetizer. In Italy, bread is not served in restaurants before the meal because it will fill you up. Olive oil is also not found on the table, because it is only used by the chef in the kitchen before your meal is brought to you. In homes though, a simple fettunta can be found, which is a slice of bread that is heated over an open fire and then rubbed with garlic and completely with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and salt to taste. This is typically not found in restaurants because it is considered a much too simple food to waste time making when you go out to eat.

Meal Structure

American meal structure is much less complicated than Italian cuisine. Traditionally in the US, you have your appetizers of salad and/ or soup accompanied by fresh bread followed by a main course and then dessert. Italian cuisine, on the other hand has a pretty impressive structure for their meals.
Aperitivo – A glass of wine that is enjoyed before the appetizer in a large meal
Antipasto – a hot or cold appetizer
Primo – The first course which consists of a hot dish such as pasta or soup
Secondo – This is the main dish, which is typically meat or fish
Contorno – This is the side dish to the main dish. It consists of either cooked vegetables or a salad. Traditionally this is served at the same time as the main dish.
Formaggio e frutta – "cheese and fruits" – This is considered the first dessert
Dolce- Sweets such as cakes and cookies
Caffe – Coffee
Digestivo – Dessert liquor

Popular Dishes

Like I said before, traditional Italian cuisine has little to do with massive amounts of cheese and dough or pasta. Instead, these healthy dishes contain fresh ingredients depending on seasonality and location. When you think of Italian food, rice may not initially come to mind, but the term Risotto may be slightly familiar. Risotto is a traditional Italian dish from the Northern area of Italy. This is a rice dish that may contain vegetables, meat and fish and is cooked with milk to a creamy consistency. It is most commonly served as a first course, or appetizer.

Polenta is another popular dish in rural Italy, where fresh seafood isn't as plentiful. This cornmeal boiled into a porridge can be fried, baked or grilled and is then served with cheese and meat. Polenta can be found in most grocery stores in the international isle. Our version of Roasted Ajvar Salsa over Grilled Polenta is a low calorie appetizer or snack that is easy to make, but still absolutely delicious and a little different.

One popular winter dish, Cassoeula, is prepared with cabbage and meats such as pork, Verzino sausage, and occasionally other meats such as chicken and goose. These ingredients, along with onions, carrots and celery are cooked in a casserole for 2-3 hours before being served. The style of casserole cooking comes from traditional Italian cuisine.

Drinks Are Important, Too!

When it comes to a traditional Italian dinner, the meal isn't complete without a glass of wine with dinner and coffee with dessert, especially espresso. Italian wine has a very high importance not only in Italian cuisine, but in their culture as well.

Some of the oldest wine producing vineyards are located in Italy, and they produce the largest amount of wine annually by volume. This is most likely why wine is such a large part of Italian culture. Italian wines are categorized into four types including Vini, Vini Varietali, Vini IGP and Vini DOP. These classifications are determined by the area where the grapes are grown, the types of grapes used and the amount of the time wine is aged.

So now you know a little about real traditional Italian food, not just the super cheesy pasta dishes that you find at your local pizzeria. If you follow the guidelines of eating fresh, local produce as your main meal with the addition of small amounts of meat you'll be on your way to a healthier, yet still delicious diet.

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