Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Epiphany have all come and gone, but the wretched excess we encountered at the Pugliese holiday table lingers on. And in our case, it’s taken the considerably less appetizing form of excess weight. Now that January has rolled around, we’ve said “arrivederci” to seasonal delights like purcidd, cartellate, pettole and pasta al forno and all of its cheesy goodness for the time being. But considerably more desperate measures are required. It’s time to go to la palestra (the gym).
Sadly, this is not an unfamiliar ritual, so I started to poke around online to find a palestra within walking distance of our house. I quickly came up short. Old listings without much useful information and websites without photos made it difficult to narrow the list down to a few likely candidates. So I employed my newest Italian life skill. I asked my neighbors, friends, hair stylist, butcher and barista for a palestra recommendation. The result was far more satisfactory, complete with definite opinions, tips about trainers to use, cost comparisons and several phone calls to various palestre on my behalf to set up appointments. I should have known. No endeavor here is ever contemplated without an in-depth discussion of options, first among one’s extended family and, if necessary, with friends.
Armed with far too much information, I chose the gym that appeared on everyone’s short list with the most regularity. On day one, I arrived with the usual gym accoutrements—towel, water, iPod, and headphones—and made my way to the cardio machines against the back wall. As I turned on my headphones and adjusted the treadmill settings, an earnest, gym-clothing-attired man tapped me on the shoulder. This was how I learned that cultural difference is just as prevalent in gym behavior as it is in every other aspect of life here. And the learning curve doesn’t ever really flatten out.
Francesco, one of the two trainers I have come to know at my new gym, explained that the gym would prepare a workout for me based on my goals. The trainers would then follow my progress, making adjustments and assessing my effort accordingly. After four weeks, my program will change, requiring a whole new tutorial and observation until, at the end of the fourth week, I have finally figured it all out. DIY gym participation was clearly not an option, nor would anyone here even consider the possibility. And I would need to supply a medical certificate from an Italian doctor confirming my fitness to participate in, yes, a fitness program.
About the iPod and headphones . . . I am the only one who uses them because everyone else is busy chatting to one another as they trod along on the treadmill or ascend the Stairmaster. And the trainers stand on the immobile sides of the treadmill chatting right along with them. Yes, while you are struggling to maintain a vertical position at seven kilometers an hour, your trainer is standing right next to you, chatting all the while.
What do we chat about? Topics range from what we all ate last night or are planning to eat today to the weather, with brief parenthetical references to la politica (a mess) and la crisi economica (hopeless). There is also quite a lot of discussion about the harmful effects of accumulated perspiration, which invites torcicollo (stiff neck). Accumulated perspiration in a draft is a Code 3 emergency, to be avoided at all costs, so the temperature at the palestra is always sub-tropical. Preventive measures involving enormous down jackets, wool scarves and beanies are employed by my fellow gym goers as they leave to rush home for lunch, but I am usually so overheated at the end of the session that I slink out in a simple fleece, hoping to escape notice and the advice that accompanies it.
My trainers, Francesco and Lucia, are especially well prepared. They coach gymnastics teams and have trained professionally in order to qualify for their positions. And Lucia in particular, who has an ever-vigilant eye that misses nothing (not unlike a Italian grandmother), is quick to address incorrect movements and slackers. The other day, I overheard her grilling one of her clients. “What did you eat for dinner? Pasta al forno? But no, you can’t do that. We have to get rid of this stomach here so you need to have a little pasta in broth, maybe a little chicken breast and some boiled chicory, okay?” All of this was accompanied by a pinch of the offending stomach and an affectionate hug while standing on the side of the treadmill. I live in fear of my own eventual menu inquisition.
So the January gym membership phenomenon well known to penitents everywhere is alive and well in Italy. Too much fun during the holidays transforms seamlessly into self-improvement schemes in the cold winter months leading up to carnevale (carnival). And then, after a brief respite for martedi grasso (Fat Tuesday), the deprivation begins in earnest all the way through Lent until Easter. But deprivation is a relative term in Italy.
Our own contribution to menu austerity these days centers on soup—soup in myriad forms with a range of flavors and textures to keep us interested. I have been saving vegetable scraps to make vegetable broth, which serves as the base for much of what we’re eating. It’s easily done: just reserve ends, peels and other pieces saved from vegetable preparation in a container in the refrigerator. When you’ve reached critical mass (3-4 cups or so), empty them into a stock pot with 6-8 cups of water, a bay leaf or two, a little salt and some peppercorns and simmer for about 45 minutes. You can add the remains of a roast chicken, too, which provides more flavor.
Strain the solids in a sieve, pressing down to extract all the flavor from the vegetables. Use in place of any other bouillon or prepared stock and revel in the flavor. Use the stock in a soup like the one I’ve included here, or just about anywhere else you want a lively vegetable (or chicken) broth to brighten things up.
For a warming, restorative soup consistent with palestra goals, try this little chicken broth-based minestra. It is infinitely flexible: make it with vegetable broth; use spinach instead of chard; rice can substitute for the barley; and cannellini beans can provide some protein if you want to omit the chicken. Don’t forget the squeeze of lemon juice at the end, though. This is the secret ingredient that pulls together all of the disparate elements, elevating this soup to something more than the sum of its parts.
Minestra di Orzo, Bietola e Pollo—Barley, Swiss Chard and Chicken Soup
7-8 cups of fresh, homemade vegetable or chicken broth
1/2 to 2/3 cup pearl barley
1 bunch Swiss chard leaves (approx. 15 large leaves)*
1 cup diced roast chicken (ideally left over from the chicken whose bones you used in your homemade chicken broth)
Juice of one lemon
Bring the broth and the pearl barley to a simmer in a soup pot. Continue to simmer over medium low heat until the barley is still firm but close to being done (about half an hour).
While the barley is simmering in the broth, remove the tough inner stalks of the Swiss chard and set aside. Stack the Swiss chard leaves on top of one another and slice them crosswise into ½-inch ribbons. Set aside. Stack the tough inner Swiss chard stalks into one big bundle and julienne them into ¼-inch pieces.
When the barley is almost done, add the chopped Swiss chard stalks to the broth. Five minutes later, add the Swiss chard leaf ribbons to the broth and stir well. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then add the diced chicken. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then taste the barley to see if it is fully cooked. It will provide some resistance with a chewy, nutty bite, but it shouldn’t be hard in the middle. Taste one of the Swiss chard leaves to make sure it is soft but still has texture.
When you’re ready to serve this soup, squeeze the juice of one whole lemon into the stockpot and stir. If you’re feeling magnanimous, sprinkle each serving with a little freshly grated parmigiano. A piece of toasted, slow-leavened country bread with great quality extra virgin olive oil wouldn’t be a bad idea either, but then you’d need another 15 minutes on the palestra treadmill.
*I used wild chicory or cicorielle the last time I made this soup and you should, too. In the U.S., dandelion greens are a terrific substitute, especially since they’re pretty ubiquitous (just make sure they haven’t been sprayed). Dandelion greens offer incredible health benefits, so give them a try.