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Pleasures of Pantelleria

In the salted caper room at Bonomo and Giglio on Pantelleria

 

One of my favorite ingredients – whether sprinkled on pizza, tossed into a salad or paired with olive oil and lemon to adorn grilled fish – are capers.  Slightly sweet, mostly salty with a tangy bite capers add a bright note to many dishes.  

Caper plants clinging to the earth bound for Bonomo and Giglio 


Capers are the unopened flower buds of bushy plants that cling to stonewalls or are cultivated close to the ground. On the tiny Italian island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily just 36 miles from the coast of North Africa, the volcanic soil and Mediterranean sun produce high quality capers prized for their flavor. “They are the best capers and I like them because they are cured in salt and not pickled,” says chef Piero Premoli of Pricci Restaurant. Premoli is featuring a menu of Sicilian dishes throughout October including a cured tuna with capers and the region’s classic caponata stew with eggplant and capers.
Olives, tomatoes, onions, basil and olive oil love in Pantelleria


Pleasures of 

Pantelleria 

If you haven’t been to Pantelleria or even heard of it, join the club.  I was invited by a non-profit food and nutrition organization called Old WaysPreservation and Exchange Trust to join a group of writers and culinary experts for a symposium to discover the island’s uniquely healthy food and lifestyle habits.  
It’s a desert out there. The island of Pantelleria gets very little rain fall. 
The rocky island is pummeled by the wind forcing olive trees, grape vines and caper bushes to lie low growing outward not upward. Citrus trees are cradled in walled gardens to protect the fruit.

“There’s still a little magic out there,” says Phil Meldrum of Food Match a specialty foods importer attending the symposium. “When you find something with a taste particular to that area it gives me goose bumps.”

 Pantelleria capers on freshly caught swordfish makes me swoon. 
Stone cliffs, stonewalls, stone buildings, and piles of stone create a harsh landscape surrounded by the crashing sea. Minimal rain means cactus blooms and bougainvillea blooms offer the only color. 

“It was frozen in time,” says dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant Powered Diet, “We had very little red meat. It’s primarily a plant based diet that’s nutritionally really balanced with carbs from pastas, healthy fats from almonds, olives and olive oil and dishes flavored with herbs, fennel and capers.”  
Sharon Palmer and I enjoying ‘studying’ nutrition on Pantelleria.
Other common cooking ingredients included eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes. Since cows were not a traditional part of farm life here, there is very little cheese and pasta dishes and potatoes are sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs instead of parmesan.  
Just so you believe me. Pantescans add breadcrumbs to pasta.
Palmer notes, “We had traditional dishes handed down through the generations in an isolated farming environment so we had what they have there.” 
Even though there is a tradition of sweet cookies made in intricate patterns and shapes, the principal sweetener is made from reducing grape juice not refined sugar. 
“It’s nice that the healthiest traditional eating patterns happen to be the most delicious,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott, President of Oldways.   

Mediterranean Medicine

The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet – rich in vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, seafood and olive oil – are well documented. Dietitian Kathy McManus, Director of the Department of Nutrition at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston says, “Since this diet is not low in fat people enjoy the foods more, lose more weight and they tend to eat more vegetables because they can add olive oil.”  The Mediterranean lifestyle leads to longevity, too. 
Olive oil contains more than healthy fats, it’s rich in plant nutrients and antioxidants to promote good health.
Ligia Dominguez, MD of the University of Palermo says, “We want an active life in old age not frailty. The Mediterranean diet is high in antioxidants which can add years to your life and life to your years.”

Dominguez says being “kissed” by the sun for at least 15 minutes a day boosts vitamin D levels naturally and getting enough sleep is important too. “I took a nap every day in Pantelleria,” admits Baer-Sinnot, “It’s the joy of resting to reduce stress.”

Grape harvest bonanza during my stay on Pantelleria.


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The Italian Island of Capers, Olives and Wine

The gateway to discovery. Atlanta to Milan. Milan to Pantelleria.  

The Pleasures of Pantelleria. 
I’d never even heard of Pantelleria until I received an email inviting me to join a group of food writers, food purveyors and nutrition researchers for a trip with Oldways Preservation Exchange and Trust in September.
Oldways was founded to study and preserve the healthy ways folks used to eat and gather their food – from the mountains to the sea. 

Pantelleria. Don’t you just like saying it?Now find it. It’s an island off the coast of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea not too far from Tunisia. This is about as south in southern Italy as you can get. There’s something irresistible about an invitation to someplace you’ve never heard of before. When I read that the island was famous for capers I replied to my hosts, “You had me at capers.”

Benvenuto!

Arriving alone at the slightly modernistic looking Pantelleria airport (most folks in our Old Ways group traveled from New York or Boston or LA through Rome) my 30-something taxi driver who spoke only “hello” and “thank you” English was quite busy chatting in Italian on his flip cell phone while we crossed the island past lots of rocks and cactus in bloom and sweeping views of the Mediterranean.

I took a photo of him and he smiled shyly. No, I don’t have a crush on you – I just haven’t seen anyone on a flip phone in a while. OK, on my best behavior. For now.

A tiny island of rough black, umber and grey volcanic rock soon softens to the eye with cascades of glorious flowers.

Purple and white bougainvillea abound.

 Stone walls are everywhere – Pantescan people are really good with rock. Tumbling out of crevices are long green tendrils that I soon learn are the mighty little plants that give us capers.  A little lemon and olive oil with this edible landscape and I’m ready to toss with pasta.
But, don’t be tempted to pluck a wild caper and sample – I’ll explain why later.

Caper plants spring boldly from boulders on Pantelleria.
This might be my favorite photo.
Sunset over the Mediterranean from my patio at The Mursia Hotel on Pantelleria. 

Alora, we arrive at the Mursia Hotel. The white washed building with a Moorish look  (we’re only 36 miles from North Africa here) rises above the black lava rock majestically without need of embellishment. Entering the breezy lobby my eye is drawn beyond the reception desk to what I had been dreaming of all day. A swimming pool. Palm trees were a bonus. It’s about 85 degrees outside.

Let me explain. The huge pool in the foreground is empty – an old pool once filled by the sea.
The new pool at The Mursia surrounded by palms and lounge chairs is nearer the hotel bar. Nirvana- a salt water pool.

So far the only Italian word I really like is “Alora!” which I think means OK or implies “what’s next?” or “then…”….which is like my favorite Spanish word “Entonces!” I will never work as a translator at the UN. But, I do know how to rally a group. “Alora! Time for a drink folks.”

Winery Owner Cologero Mannino of Abraxas offers up a taste of the island’s specialty – slightly sweet, nicely balanced  passito de Pantelleria wine.
How about another glass of wine? This is Italy. That’s better.
Alessandro Luchetti bound for Florida International University in January demonstrates his handsome host skills.
Starting to relax into the Mediterranean lifestyle. 
Stay tuned for the next post……as the pleasures of Pantelleria continue. 

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Are you ready for your culinary close up?

Culinary Close Ups

Pretty in Pink: peel ‘n eat shrimp Florida and Georgia coast menus
It’s not enough to simply relax and dine on the dishes chefs create for restaurant menus, some folks want to jump in and help cook the meal.  The promise of an “Epitourian” experience in the professional kitchens of the Sawgrass Marriott Resort in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida is what attracted Maureen and Billy Ray Price of Moultrie, Georgia. “I found it online. We wanted to go to the beach to celebrate our wedding anniversary but we wanted something different,” says Maureen Price. “My husband is a really good cook and I thought ‘he’ll learn to make even more great things for me’ and it will be fun.”

So while other guests at the golf centric resort, host hotel of THE PLAYERS Championship, headed out to play one of the areas eight championship golf courses or grabbed a book and a beach chair at the Cabana Beach Club, the Prices jumped on a golf cart with Executive chef David Scalise to visit the on-property bee hives.

Off they go to find the bee hives with Chef Scalise and Heidi Barfels of Miami
Scalise tends two bee hives tucked away in an area guests wouldn’t normally see behind tall trees and overgrown with black berry bushes and other natural plants of north Florida, “At first everyone panicked when they heard I wanted to set up bee hives on the hotel property. But these honey bees are not aggressive and finally even the lawyers understood it was going to be OK, “ says Scalise who set up the hives about a year ago. 
Sweet life: Executive Chef David Scalise tends the hives at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort
“Our first harvest yielded fifteen gallons. The honey is a little nutty tasting with nuances of the wild blackberries. We use pieces of the honey combs on our cheese platters.”  The hotel’s homegrown Sawgrass honey not only sweetens the culinary program, it’s sold in the gift shop and used in the spa for treatments. “We’re even working on using the bees wax to make lip balm, “ says Scalise.  
Proud beekeeper shows off part of the honey harvest.
He says another bonus from beekeeping is developing stronger relationships with local farmers, “We lend our bees to pollinate their crops including a strawberry farmer nearby. So then we get strawberry honey.”

Cook and Learn

Next stop for the Prices on their culinary adventure is the farmer’s market in nearby Neptune Beach to shop for foods they’ll cook with that afternoon.  On the menu for today is a lesson in making fresh pasta.  “I’ve always loved to cook. Even in college at the University of Florida I made spaghetti sauce every Sunday for the other students in my dorm,” says Billy Ray Price who’s a physician in Moultrie.   

Romantic lighting in the Augustine Grille captures the beauty of handmade gnocchi pasta with local vegetables.
A few notches up from spaghetti, Scalise led the Prices through the steps needed to make fresh gnocchi including the delicate broth based sauce that would be served to them for dinner that night as well as other guests in the Augustine Grille. So their “epitourian” experience went beyond creating their own courses, the Prices truly were part of the Sawgrass Marriott’s culinary staff for the day.

Maureen and Billy Ray Price celebrate their Epitourian experience in the Augustine Grille
Watch and Learn

If you’d rather stay out of the line of fire in a busy restaurant kitchen, but still want to be close enough to see exactly how the chef sears a piece of fish then you can take a seat at the Chef’s Table at The Cloister at Sea Island, Georgia.  
Elegant settings and sumptuous bites of the finest food and wine at The Cloister, Sea Island
Seating four guests comfortably in a small yet elegant glassed-in dining room the table overlooks the expansive kitchen of the Georgian Room where chef de cuisine Daniel Zeal and his brigade of chefs turn vegetables into jewel like shapes, expertly grill meats, poach lobster in vanilla and citrus, delicately prepare fine fish such as cobia, garnish plates with edible flowers and create multi-ingredient desserts.  Can’t keep up with the action? Just change the channel.  Above the picture window in the chef’s table dining room is a wide screen television. “We give the guests their own remote control to switch camera views around the kitchen so they can follow their meal every step of the way and I pop in to answer any questions they might have about techniques or ingredients,” says Zeal.

Under the direction of  Resort Executive Chef Jonathan Jerusalmy, Sea Island chefs
create a wide range of culinary experiences for guests.
Off the Farm

Snapper ceviche with micro greens at Edwards Fine Food & Wine, Rosemary Beach,  Florida
It’s nothing new to see the names of farms and farmers on menus today as more chefs create business bonds to bring the best in locally grown foods to their guests. But, take a look around the dining room and you may even see a farmer. 
Eating dinner one night at Edward’s Fine Food & Wine in Rosemary Beach, Florida I asked chef Edward Reese about the deliciously fresh micro greens in salads and garnishing plates. He smiled and replied pointing to the man sitting at the next table, “Why don’t you ask Claus Kazenmaier, they came from his farm this morning!”

So it seems that another component of judging culinary quality is today is how close we can get to knowing where our food comes from and exactly how it’s prepared even when someone else is doing the cooking.

Now let’s head to the beach……….
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Brunch Bunch Beware

Marvelous morning meal at Rancho La Puerta Spa


Wake up and smell the coffee, the bacon and the eggs.
There seems to be a lot of action in the breakfast category as more restaurants focus on the first meal of the day. Eateries from fast food lane to corner coffee shops are in hot pursuit of early birds with an appetite to spend money on breakfast away from home. Even the new AMC television series The Pitch features an episode with rival advertising agencies fighting to win the Subway breakfast campaign account.

According to the NPD Group, about 14 percent of Americans eat breakfast away from home. But restaurants want to entice even more folks to order their breakfast out and have their eyes on the 31 million people who skip breakfast. The biggest ‘skippers’ are males aged 18 to 34 – nearly a third of these guys ignore the morning meal. Women over age 55 are the least likely to skip breakfast.

Morning Fuel – to eat and drink.

No doubt you’ve heard that “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Eating in the a.m. recharges your batteries, giving fuel to your brain and your muscles, making it less likely you’ll succumb to a mid-morning munchies or a huge lunch because you’re ravenous by noon. Dietitian Dr. Joanne Lichten says the best breakfasts contain both fiber and protein, “I’d go for the oatmeal and some scrambled eggs and fresh fruit. But you could opt for Greek yogurt, sprinkling of nuts, and fresh fruit.” Simply drinking a cup of fat free milk or adding to cereal or a coffee latte provides eight grams of protein.

Container of Fage  Greek Yogurt contains 12 grams protein

Big Breakfast, Big Calories

Some even say we should prioritize the morning meal by eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper. But Lichten says “How many of us eat dinner like a pauper?” In her new book “Dr. Jo’s Eat Out Healthy” she reveals the fat trap with big breakfasts, “ Even when breakfast out is just once a week, the traditional large bacon, eggs and biscuit meal can put on excessive pounds, due to high caloric content of these foods.”
When ‘Let’s go out for breakfast or brunch’ turns into an overstuffed omelet, hash browns, bacon, sausage and biscuits slathered in butter you’ve moved into the budget-busting calorie category. A three-egg ham and cheese omelet can rack up 500 calories. Hashbrowns add 250 calories. Two sausage links another 100 calories. Big biscuit with butter and jelly add up to 450 calories. And before adding cream to your coffee, say ‘Good Morning’ to 1300 calories.
Sharon Palmer, dietitian and author of The Plant Powered Diet says, “Restaurant breakfasts can be the most decadent meal of the day providing at least half a day’s calories and more than a day’s worth of sodium.” But, she’s happy to see healthy trends, “More restaurants are offering “lite” or “fit” menu offerings with reasonable portions in the 500 calorie range. The best news is that these lighter meals are hot sellers—showing that people are tired of eating these traditional “American” gut-busting breakfasts. I tried a Denny’s Fit Fare Breakfast recently when traveling and it was just the right amount of food—and there was fresh fruit and veggies on my plate!”

Health Halos not Heroes 

Seemingly uber- healthy granola cereals, fruit smoothies, and whole wheat pancakes, big muffins or bagels can throw a weighty wrench into your day’s diet plans too if you don’t pay attention to portion sizes.

Sure they’re packed with whole grains and a daily dose of bran but enjoy half to avoid eating your whole calorie budget

Jackie Newgent, chef, dietitian and author of the upcoming 1,000 Low Calorie Recipes advises two actions – choose your breakfast location and beverage wisely. “For a healthy weight, breakfast—like all meals—is best eaten while sitting down at a dining table, and not while in a car, at a desk, or on your iPad. Plus, some popular morning drinks, including select blended coffee or juice beverages, can provide a meals-worth of calories. The best bet when eating breakfast out is to keep your beverage calorie free, like an unsweetened green or black tea.

Juice it up – but not too far up

And if there’s no fruit in the breakfast, then it’s okay to sip a glass of 100% juice in a six ounce juice glass – not 16 ounces.”  Juice can have the same calories per ounce as a soft drink.
Cynthia Ann Chandler, a dietitian and culinary nutritionist ( that means she really likes the food part of food and nutrition!) in Louisville, Kentucky has a great idea for a hydrating with breakfast juice,”Just go for an orange juice, small size.  If you are using it to quench your thirst, add equal parts club soda to the juice and you have a refreshing breakfast drink.  Don’t be afraid to ask for club soda.  Most restaurants with fountain drinks can offer you a club soda option.”

More breakfast ideas and tips in my book The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!




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Get IN the Kitchen on Vacation



Executive Chef Elijah Bowe’s Cooking Class at Graycliff Hotel in Nassau



Most folks go on vacation to get out of the kitchen and let someone else do the cooking.

But, when Atlantan Lydia Connerty began planning a bicycle tour of Vietnam with several other girl friends she chose a group cooking experience as one of their activities, “The first thing I did was sign us up to take a hands-on class in Vietnamese cuisine. What a fun way to get introduced to the country and its culture. And then we’d know more about what to order from menus on our trip.”

From cruise ships to resort hotels, cooking classes are joining spa treatments and zip line adventures as popular vacation activities. Joe Carlin, Associate Editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, has sought out cooking classes on his world travels with wife Julie for years, “We I took a class in Bangkok on green and red curries back in 2008 and found it a very positive experience. The class served as a nice introduction to the foods of the country. The class was a success because the instructor was knowledgeable, knew her audience and did not try to overwhelm us with too many dishes.”

Chefs at hotels and restaurants also find that inviting guests into their kitchens to cook is a great way to promote their properties and build customer loyalty. Executive chef Elijah Bowe, of the historic Graycliff Hotel in Nassau, Bahamas welcomes his class with a flute of Champagne and then hands out the aprons and knives. After a review of culinary vocabulary associated with the evening’s recipes from “al dente” to “roux” he leads the group through a step-by-step lesson in how to clean a whole fish.

Then the group of six separates into duos to get dinner ready including blackened grouper with tomato compote. While his students slice and dice Bowe, a native of the Bahamas, shares stories of growing up in the islands and his enthusiasm for teaching, “Some people are very skilled and others are kitchen novices. It’s fun to see the teamwork develop. Eventually we do get dinner on the table!” Then the aprons come off and kitchen duties are left behind as guests take their places in the elegant colonial dining room and enjoy the courses they created with sommelier selected wine pairings.
The wine cellar deep beneath the floors of Graycliff Hotel with thousands of bottles of buried treasure! 

If you’re still craving time to cook on a trip to Nassau, the One and Only Ocean Club on Paradise Island has added cooking classes and mixology lessons to their menu of things to do at the beach.

Pretty Dune Restaurant at One and Only on Paradise Island, Bahamas

The evening I visited, executive chef Emmanuel Gibson of Dune restaurant showed us how to make plantain crusted grouper and led us through a tasting of spices used in Bahamian cooking before sending us off to the ocean front dining room where the classroom experience really added to appreciation of the Caribbean spiced fresh seafood dishes. 

Fresh caught seafood of course! Chef Emmanuel Gibson of Dune speaks fluent fish.

Kitchen Clean Lessons


One of the things that impressed me is the attention to sanitation before, during and after these amateur hours in professional kitchens. Everyone is firmly instructed to properly wash their hands, avoid cross contamination between raw meats and fresh vegetables and to wash their hands again before entering the dining room. During the Chefs Plate Gourmet cooking class at the Royal Playa del Carmen resort in Mexico, the lesson in proper hand washing technique included nail brushing and scrubbing up to the elbows. Good moves considering you don’t really know the other guests in your group or whether they’ve just come off the golf course or shopping in town before helping to cook your lunch. It was apparent the food and beverage staff of the hotel, part of the Real Resorts of Mexico, were trying really hard to dispell any fears of Montezuma’s Revenge. In fact, the kitchens were gleaming clean.  
So, whether you’re traveling to India or China or taking a cooking class at a restaurant in Atlanta, keep an eye on kitchen cleanliness as well as the cuisine to get the most out of the experience. The only souveniers you want are a few new recipes and new found appreciation for world cuisines.

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