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Get comfy with Steven's flavor-packed recipes for Italian Comfort Food.

Then top it off with his fabulous recipes for low-fat Italian desserts.


Cooking Class

Italian Comfort
By Steven Raichlen

Italian cooking is generally considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet—especially as it's practiced on its home turf. But just how healthy is it? Obesity doesn't seem to be a problem among younger Italians, though it is evident in the older generations. Certainly, Italians are less obsessed with dieting and weight loss than most North Americans are.

But not all Italian cooking is healthy by nature—not by a long shot. Think of the popularity of fritto misto and other deep-fried dishes. Consider the generous use of dairy products, of butter and cream-based sauces. Ponder the oceans of oil—even if it is extra virgin olive oil—poured over noodles, seafood and vegetables. Think of such luscious, fat-laden desserts as tiramisu and cannoli. The fact is that any cuisine has its nutritional strong and weak suits and Italian is no exception.

Think Flavor, Not Fat

Still, there's a lot Italy has to teach us about healthy cooking and eating. The first lesson is its generous use of intense, no fat flavorings. Fresh herbs—especially basil, rosemary, sage and parsley—are a cornerstone of Italian cooking. So are aromatic vegetables, such as onions, garlic and peppers. Italians love the sharp flavors of wine, vinegar (especially balsamic vinegar), tomato paste and lemon juice. Tangy, cured condiments, like capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives are also favorites. These ingredients can go a long way to create a symphonic range of flavors, with little or no fat.

The Virtues of Ham and Cheese

Italians also love salty foods, like prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I'm not advocating a ham and cheese diet, but a moderate amount of these ingredients can go a long way in boosting the flavor of your cooking. I like to add a little diced prosciutto to soups, stews, sautÚs and sauces. Italian cheeses, such as Romano and Parmesan, are also quite flavorful, so a little goes a long way. Made with part skim milk, one tablespoon of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, sprinkled over pasta or salad, contains less than two grams of fat.

The Right Kind of Fat

When Italians use fat for cooking, they often use a fat that may actually be "good" for you: olive oil. This fragrant oil helps boost levels of HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol), the "good" cholesterol. Unlike many other fats used in North America (such as corn or canola oil), olive oil offers a flavorful bonus, providing not just the cooking properties and mouth feel of fat, but a distinctive and pleasing flavor in its own right. When you use fat, add it strategically—place it where you can taste it. When I cook with olive oil, I always hold a little back for drizzling on top of the finished dish. That way, it's the first thing you taste when you take a bite.

Bake-Fry Instead of Deep-Fry

Italians love the crisp texture that comes from deep-frying breaded or battered seafood and vegetables. You can achieve a similar effect by applying the breading, lightly spraying it with oil, then baking the dish in a hot oven. You can even make "fried" calamari this way, just follow the simple recipe below.

Putting it All Together

Italian cooking is, above all, a cuisine based on good raw materials. Italians spend an enormous amount of time and energy shopping for first-rate fruits and vegetables and exceptionally fragrant olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The result is that most Italian recipes don't need to be fancy or complicated; they just need to showcase topnotch ingredients.

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  • Egg whites have the same coating and gelling properties as whole eggs. To trim the fat, substitute two egg whites or ╝ cup egg substitute for a whole egg. Sometimes I'll add a whole egg—just one—for richness.
  • You don't need to take out a second mortgage to buy a good olive oil or a quality balsamic vinegar. You should be able to find delicious extra virgin oil and nice balsamic vinegar inexpensively at your local supermarket. If you decide to invest in an expensive olive oil or vinegar, don't use it for cooking—save it for drizzling on pastas, salads and fruit.
  • Make your own bread crumbs, they'll taste better (not full of artificial flavorings). I keep a bag of bread scraps in my freezer and when I have enough, I grind them in my food processor. Just add oregano, minced garlic and a little freshly grated lemon zest to the bread.
  • Clam, chicken and fish broth are wonderful for adding extra flavor to dishes. Bottled clam broth is a great way to add flavor to a seafood dish without fat. Use it to replace some of the olive oil in shrimp scampi or spaghetti with clams. Chicken stock comes in cans and clam broth can be found in cans, but more commonly bottles. Unfortunately, you'll probably have to make fish stock yourself.
  • Strega is an angelica and spice-based liqueur made in Benevento in southern Italy and sold in long slender bottles. If unavailable, use another Italian liqueur.

Try Steven Raichlen's recipes for:

Oven "Fried" Squid
Shrimp with Cannellini Beans and Rosemary
Peppered Strawberries

About Steven Raichlen

Steven Raichlen is the author of 22 books, including the IACP/Julia Child Award-winning Barbecue Bible and the stunning new How to Grill (both published by Workman). His book on low-fat Jewish cooking is called Healthy Jewish Cooking (Viking). He recently created a Barbecue University at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. You can reach him at his website:

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