People all over the world have heard of the Mediterranean Diet, but few know exactly what it entails. This is the case even in Italy where customs and diets have drastically changed over the last century. In conjunction with Italy Hotline I recently had the pleasure to hold a talk, demonstration and cooking class on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, for an enthusiastic group of college students and their professors studying Nutrition at Armstrong and Atlantic State Universities. These students had taken a Food and Market and Wine Tasting Tour with our two Historian, Gastronomic experts and Sommeliers Sarah and Ettore. Now they were ready to learn about cooking with the ingredients they had seen at the market. This would be their final evening in Rome, so we wanted to create something really special for them in the form of a sit down dinner at the end of the lesson.
Chef Francesca gives a talk on the Mediterranean Diet
The challenge for me was not only giving a presentation, but also performing the demo in a hall rather than a kitchen. It is not easy to find a kitchen which will accommodate 25 people or more, especially seated, so we found a space under the Church of St. Paul Within the Walls with adjoining kitchen facilities in the centre of Rome. We happily gave a donation to the church for the use of the space, which will be used to help fund their refugee program. The space ended up working out wonderfully as we had plenty of room for the lecture, demonstration and cooking class, as well as room for a sit down dinner for all!
I set up an educational display of different types of grains, pasta, rice and legumes for the students to see how varied the Mediterranean diet can be in its key components. The students were able to sample various types of olives and olive oils as we discussed their important role in cooking. At the end of my talk, which lasted about 1 hour, it became quite apparent that most of the audience had skipped lunch and, what with the time being by now 4 pm, were getting really impatient to eat!
Several of the students were keen to help out with the cooking, so we quickly proceeded to whip up some classic tomato & basil bruschetta and a quick cannellini bean and celery salad, dressed with some good Tuscan olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Some of the girls were rather surprised to find out that beans could be eaten as a starter, which gave me the opportunity to explain how healthy legumes are, and how with their low glycemic index they will help you feel satiated and eat less of the rest of the meal. The two starters where quickly dispatched…
Mixing up the ingredients for Bruschetta
Next we proceeded to make a simple tomato and basil sauce. Yes, tomato again! The tomato is one of the fundamentals of Italian cuisine many thanks to Cristoforo Colombo who brought us back all those fabulous Solanaceae from his travels! They have become the backbone of Italian cuisine. One might think a basic sauce like this to be extremely simple, which it is, but the key is choosing a good quality tomato, not too acidic, adding the right amount of oil and flavoring given by onion or garlic, or both. A pinch of sugar always helps mitigate the acidity present in most canned tomatoes. So there we go, in 15 minutes a great plate of ‘penne al pomodoro e basilico’, al dente, to satisfy the masses!
Tomatoes have become the backbone of Italian cuisine and add nutrition whether they are fresh, roasted, canned or stewed.
Next, I featured a dish of whole-grain rice, chick peas, sundried tomatoes and green olives, tinged with the aromas of fresh garlic, oregano, sage and marjoram picked in my garden. I usually make this dish with curry powder, but I left it out to give it a more Italian-Mediterranean character. The girls loved this dish and were surprised by the combination of flavors. But the appetites weren’t quite assuaged yet, so I prepared a classic ‘guazzetto’, a simple sauce base in which to cook fish. A few cherry tomatoes, black olives, capers, herbs and white wine, with a splash of olive oil, create the sauce in which you can quickly cook either whole or filleted fish, sea bass in our case, which took a total of 15 minutes. Quick to prepare and elegantly rolled, this dish was a crowd pleaser even for those not too keen on eating fish!
As a side dish we had a salad of zucchini, cut into batons and quickly blanched, dressed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mint and garlic. For dessert we created a fresh fruit salad topped with good yoghurt and a sprinkling of cinnamon.
This was a fun class to teach and the students were all sent home with packets of our recipes so that they could practice what they learned. I hope that they will all be cooking these dishes for their friends and family in order to show how quickly and easily one can prepare an amazing meal from simple, fresh ingredients!