Like the rest of the overindulged world, our thoughts have turned to the virtues of simplicity in the wake of Italian holiday season excess. We had a wonderful time during the constant round of parties, friends and multicourse meals, but there was way too much of all of it. While starvation is a daily reality for so many, I just learned that worldwide obesity has doubled since 1980. Stunning. So now we’re moving into a more contemplative moment, trying to figure out how to live with all this exuberance while maintaining some semblance of sanity in terms of our salute (health) and diet. The answer? We’ve turned to the elderly here who are still tied to the old ways that gave rise to the much-heralded Mediterranean Diet.
There is a saying we’ve heard again and again from some of our older neighbors in the country: “Si stave meglio quando si stava peggio.” Roughly translated, it means “We were better off when we were worse off.” This may be exaggerated—life was hard here, even relentless, just half a century ago. It’s easy to romanticize the simplicity of the past, which was often due to chronic deprivation. Yet as poor as most aspects of life may have been, the contadino (peasant) diet was rich in everything we now know provides the very best recipe for long life and good health.
Vegetables, fruits and nuts were grown locally, usually in one’s own fields. Legumes and grains were sown and harvested here, too. Eggs were plentiful, as were chickens when their useful laying days were finished. Meat was scarce, served typically at Christmas and Easter, but fish and shellfish were abundant and free for the taking. Wine and olive oil were produced from the ubiquitous vineyards and groves that dot the landscape. Every family participated in the grape and olive harvest, earning their share that stood them in good stead for the year.
The sharecropping system left much to be desired from the peasants’ perspective, but the bounty of foods that could be foraged in the wild weren’t required to be turned over to the padrone or landowner. Some of the most prized additions to the peasant diet were those found growing in the forests and fields of the Valle d’Itria. Wild mushrooms, asparagus, greens and herbs and even seaweed were foraged and preserved to provide significant nutrition and enliven palates during the long, fallow winters here.
Now we know that the Mediterranean Diet is probably the most accessible and widely acknowledged path to overall health and longevity. It’s a diet rich in a vast variety of vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and whole grains, with reduced emphasis on dairy and meat. Meals are eaten in the company of family and friends as a pleasurable experience rather than a fueling session or an as an accompaniment to some other activity. Happily, these traditions live on in the older generation and are becoming reinvigorated by younger Italians. Despite the plethora of prepared, packaged foods on parade in the supermercati here, there are signs of hope for the future.
Our elderly neighbor, Antonietta, recently shared this well-understood remedy for post-holiday eating after I complained about our holiday overindulgence. “Caterina,” she admonished while pointing a bony index finger in my general direction, “bisogna mangiare le verdure. E’ la segreta alla buona salute e il mio stato di benessere. Roba genuina, Caterina!” “Catherine, you must eat greens. It’s the secret to good health and my own well-being. Genuine food, Catherine!” Well, all right.
So we have embarked on a stripped-down version of the Mediterranean Diet, reveling in the array of greens, beans and legumes on offer here. Far from feeling deprived, we’re discovering a whole new world of flavor that is as old as these Pugliese fields. I’m asking everyone for their grandmother’s recipes and taking notes, so expect to see some well-loved favorites that feature Mediterranean Diet specialties. I don’t miss last month’s pettole (fried doughy fritters in honey) in the least.
Here’s the first recipe in a new series that focuses on healthy, flavorful Pugliese dishes that will brighten your winter table. While leeks are not strictly Pugliese, cipollotti are. Cipollotti are spring onions, and they are a lot like bigger, bolder green onions. This recipe works best with leeks, though, which are readily available in the U.S. if not ubiquitous in Puglia. Our children are absolutely crazy about this dish, calling ahead to make sure it’s on the menu at family dinners and holidays. One guest even produced a little painting of the braised leek plate as a thank you note, so feel confident that everyone who eats these at your table will love you.
Cipollotti o Porri in Umido—Braised Leeks
Extra virgin olive oil
Four sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed from the stalks and chopped fine
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped fine
½ cup dry white wine
Kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley
Slice the leeks in half lengthwise, stopping just before the root end so the entire leek stays intact. Rinse each leek well under running water to make sure any sand and dirt is removed. Slice the root end just barely above the root end, keeping the leek stalk halves largely intact. You will end up with two long leek halves for each leek.
Cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet with a good amount of extra virgin olive oil. Heat the oil over medium-high heat, then place each leek, cut side down, in the skillet. You may need two skillets if your leeks are very large.
Cook the leeks until they start to turn brown on their undersides. Keep a close eye on them so they don’t burn; you may need to adjust the flame. When they are a caramel-colored brown, use tongs to flip them over. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the chopped thyme, garlic, Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. After a minute or two, add the white wine, reduce the heat a little further and cover the pan.
Leave the leeks to braise slowly over low heat, checking every so often to make sure they’re not burning and that there is still a sufficient amount of liquid in the pan. If the pan is dry, add a little more white wine or water. Let the leeks braise for about half an hour or until they are very soft, nicely browned and caramelized. Test for doneness with a fork; if the fork enters the root end of the leek easily, the leeks are finished cooking.
Remove the leeks to a serving plate, taking care to arrange them lengthwise for ease in serving. There should be some braising liquid remaining in the skillet. Pour this liquid into a mixing bowl. Add the vinegar, about 6 Tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard and finely chopped Italian parsley and mix well with a whisk or a fork. Taste and add additional salt and/or pepper as needed.
The braised leeks can be made ahead. If you’re serving them in the same day, leave them out of the refrigerator. If not, refrigerate them overnight but make absolutely certain they are not cold when you serve them. Room temperature or slightly warm is best so you can appreciate their deep, earthy flavor.
Serves 6 as an appetizer. There won’t be leftovers.