Most people know what foods fuel their body and what foods slow them down. There are a million different prescriptions out there for what is right, but we all know, when we listen to our bodies, what works. For me, before I left the USA for an undetermined number of years to wander the globe with my kids, my kitchen was Paleo. I had enough almond flour to sink a ship, accompanied by coconut oil, lean proteins, and produce laden lists swimming through my mind. All I had to do was look up Paleo recipes, go to the store and pick up everything I needed to execute cauliflower curried rice with precision.
After spending the greater portion of year in Italy everything changed. The puritan Paleo I was becoming in the USA was chucked from her pedestal on a global scale. The grocery store became a survival exercise. I no longer had a menu plan. I didn’t know the language and if almond flour fell from the ceiling into the cart, I would not have been able to read the label. The produce section was like something out of The Lord of the Flies. Women’s gloved hands were grabbing the best produce and weighing it with swift elbows flying that defied their years. Get food and get out was all I could manage.
This week as I was determined to hold my place at the produce scale, gloved and elbow-ready with some choice Italian phrases if needed, it dawned on me how far I have come from being puritan about anything. Long term travel would be next to impossible with the kind of rigidity, fervor, and convenience the USA allowed me to entertain daily.
December was filled with the most gracious food gifts imaginable. December is largely about food in Italy and we were lucky enough to be on the receiving end of many edible gifts. Everything from nutmeg laced béchamel lasagne steaming on our doorstep, to hand-dipped, dark chocolate biscotti packages, came our way. Did I even think about passing on these dishes as I would have back home? Sadly, no, I didn’t. I enjoyed them with every fiber of my being. As one of my favorite coaches used to say, “I am 100% Paleo, 80% of the time.” I don’t think it matters what “methodology” you apply the equation to, it is timeless wisdom to give ourselves that flexibility.
Here are a few of my favorite Italian dishes that are also Paleo:
Steak and Arugula
As we sat next to a wood-fired oven in a farmhouse in Molise, we were close enough to hear the steaks sizzle. Moments later, on a worn, wooden peel, straight from the oven, was the most beautiful dish I have seen in Italy. The steak was butter-tender with a wood-fired char, hiding beneath a delicate pile of verdant arugula and a Sicilian lemon on the side. When I squeezed the juice from the lemon the platter was still so hot that the flavors merged and jumped off the plate assaulting my senses. We have made this dish almost weekly since that amazing evening.
Cook your favorite steak, preferably grilled for that charred flavor. You can toss the arugula with a touch of olive oil or stick with only the lemon juice. I always shave a bit of aged parmesan on the kids’ plates for added flavor but you can easily leave that off without sacrificing anything. Start to finish, 15 minutes!
After drooling over pasta filled minestrone and ribolatta all over Italy, I knew I had to make something similar that would have all the comforting qualities and none of the side effects. My pot roast usually ends up more like a thick stew because I just keep it cooking until it all falls apart. Sear a chuck roast. Add a splash of red wine that will deglaze the pan and cook-off.
Add some quartered sweet potatoes (only need a few to get the broth thickened), carrots, and anything else you fancy like rutabagas if you wish. Add some fresh herbs like oregano, thyme, paprika if you please, and definitely parsley. Add enough stock (vegetable, chicken, or beef) to cover the roast and simmer for hours until tender! We like it thick and mushy but you can pull it early if you want the veggies a bit firm.
Brussels Sprouts Disguised
When I first had these in Sicily, I had no idea they were brussels sprouts. They were served with a filet of almond crusted tuna and I still dream of this meal consumed by the seaside. The prep is time-consuming but it is worth it because my kids always ask for seconds!
Cut the end off of each brussels sprout so you can peel the leaves. Keep cutting the ends until you have peeled as many leaves as possible from the core. There should be very little leftover when you have done due diligence peeling the leaves.
Toast some raw walnuts in a frying pan – just for a minute to release the natural oils and fragrance. Put them on a plate to cool.
In the same frying pan add a bit of olive oil (or if you want to add some meat, sauté the pancetta and skip the oil), walnut oil, or even just a touch of water and sauté the brussels sprout leaves until they turn a brighter shade of green (5-6 minutes) but still retain their shape. Squeeze half a lemon over the top and toss in the walnuts flipping it all together while the pan is hot. Plate immediately and serve with any lean protein on top or on the side.
Set before dinner or in place of lunch – hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with paprika, Italian meats, and every in-season vegetable we can find accompanied by fruit platters and nuts. Before dinner, we often set out the cut vegetables antipasti style and the kids snack while waiting for the main course. We add protein and nuts and pickled vegetables for lunch.
Something we discovered in Tuscany is the sweetness of pickling with balsamic vinegar. If you roast a bag of beets, peel and slice them, you are ready to preserve them. Pour a cup of balsamic vinegar and some dried oregano into a Tupperware. Put the sliced beets into the balsamic and enjoy whenever your meat needs a kick or you need a little crunch. The balsamic is the perfect balance to the earthy beets and it is so easy and long-lasting!
Italian Wedding Soup
This is so easy and the kids love to help me make it! Use a pound of ground beef and add some salt, pepper, and any other Italian herbs you enjoy. Roll walnut-sized meatballs and set aside. Brown meatballs in a soup pot and remove them to a plate. Use a little ghee or olive oil if there is little fat in the meat.
Throw carrots, celery, garlic, and any other fresh veggies you like – we always include red pepper. When the veggies are tender, return meatballs to the pan. Slowly add chicken stock and additional seasoning if required. Cook for 30 minutes. Right before serving, add fresh chopped spinach or chard or even tender kale. Not too much but enough to pack a punch of color. Top with fresh parsley and eat!