Balancing Health with Tradition

It’s been three weeks since I moved back to Bologna and already my body is complaining. From time to time, we’ve mentioned Dr. Alejandro Junger’s Clean Program (see our post on gardening for optimal health and our recipe for delicious gluten-, dairy- and sugar-free cookies) — a holistic detox program that has helped both Barbara and me reach our optimal health goals.  The bad news is, it requires you to cut out basically all of the main food groups in Italy — wheat, dairy, pork and refined sugar, which means no pasta, no cheese, no pancetta and no gelato! While it is necessary to completely eliminate these foods only for a few weeks while detoxing, I have continued to stick to the guidelines for the most part, even months after completing the program because it makes me feel just that much better.

At the Slow Food Market in Bologna

Living in Bologna makes this much more difficult — the city is nicknamed “la grassa” (meaning “the fat”) for its notoriously heavy cuisine composed of meat ragù; tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and drowned in a butter, sage sauce; gramigna with sausage and cream, thick layers of lasagne … and the list goes on and on. At home this summer I found it quite easy to eat according to Clean — we had a steady supply of fresh vegetables coming out of the garden and access to all sorts of whole grains and local meats.

Prosciutto displayed in a shop in Parma

While I also have access to most of those ingredients here, I’m constantly tempted to buy a new type of cheese or cured meat or fresh pasta, or to sample a new flavor of gelato while out running errands in the 100-degree heat. I also wholeheartedly believe in embracing the food culture in which I’m living, which includes eating the local specialties; but now I must ask myself — at what cost? One of my most important discoveries during Clean was how gluten affects my mood and energy. I realized that if I eat a large serving of wheat for dinner, I often wake up feeling groggy and in low spirits the next morning. And so now I must decide, is it really worth eating pasta for lunch if I’m going to feel tired and grumpy all afternoon? Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no.

Fresh fruits and vegetables for sale

Once again, as I wrote about last week, I’m finding the need to create a balance, not only between cooking with Italian and foreign ingredients, but also between savoring the local specialties and eating what makes me feel healthy.  I often find myself moving between extremes; for example making pasta with fennel and spicy sausage for lunch, one of my boyfriend’s favorites, and the chickpea-flour flatbread, socca, topped with zucchini for dinner. I’ve included both recipes below.

I felt much better after the Socca than after the pasta, but I also believe that sometimes we need to listen to our cravings and embrace local ingredients and cook and eat for pleasure, not just  for health. Who knows how long this rhythm will last, but for now I feel relatively healthy and most certainly satisfied.

Penne with Fennel and Spicy Italian Sausage

Serves 4


1 lb penne

1 fennel bulb, core removed and sliced into long, thin strips

2 small hot Italian sausages, broken into small chunks

2 garlic cloves

2 handfuls fresh basil leaves

Optional, depending on how spicy your sausage is: dash of peperoncino

Parmesan, grated


1. While bringing the pasta water to a boil, heat a skillet over medium heat and add a dash of olive oil. Add the fennel and sauté until soft.

2. Throw the pasta into the salted, boiling water. Add the pieces of sausage to the pan with the fennel and cook until done, removing some of the excess fat from the pan. Add the garlic (and peperoncino if using) and basil and cook for a minute or two until the garlic is soft.

3. Drain the pasta and toss in the skillet with the topping. Serve with freshly grated parmesan.


Serves 2

Inspired by Neeta’s Clean Recipe

This chickpea-flour flatbread is served without toppings in the South of France and in Liguria, where it is called farinata and often topped with pesto. I love to use the basic recipe for socca as a gluten-free and protein-filled substitute for pizza dough. Top with whatever you like or have on hand.


1 cup chickpea flour

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon mix of dried herbs such as thyme, rosemary, sage


1. In a medium bowl, gradually whisk the water into the chickpea flour.  Mix well, making sure to eliminate  any lumps that may form. Add the salt and herbs and combine. Let rest 20-30 minutes.

2. Preheat the over to 400 degrees. Prepare the topping. Here are a few of my favorites::

– sauteed yellow onion, thinly sliced zucchini rounds, minced garlic, toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley

– sauteed red onion, toasted pine nuts, black olives, lemon zest, mix of chopped fresh herbs, minced garlic and arugula

-thin slices of boiled potato, sauteed red onion, minced garlic, lemon zest, toasted pine nuts, spinach and crumbled goat cheese

3. Place a baking sheet into the preheated oven for a few minutes until hot. Remove and coat with the remaining 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil. Pour the socca batter onto the tray and add the topping. Cook for 15-20 minutes until crispy on the edges.

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Categories: Health, recipes, Travel

4 Comments on “Balancing Health with Tradition”

  1. September 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    I’m going to try your socca recipe. We tried one a few years back in my sister’s pizza oven and it was just so – so, but I have had great socca in Italy. Any great food recommendations in Roma? I’ll be there in 12 days!

  2. September 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Nancy, let me know how the socca turns out! As for Rome — one of my favorite places to eat is the Roman-Jewish restaurant Da Giggetto (, they make amazing fried artichokes and cacio e pepe. My favorite gelateria is San Crispino, near the Trevi Fountain. Lucky you, have fun!

  3. September 9, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    Hey, I think I’ve been there. Have you been to Said Dal 1923 in the old chocolate factory over on Via Tiburtina? Really fun. Not quite healthy veggie tho! 😉

  4. September 10, 2011 at 7:54 am #

    Never! I’ll have to go there the next time I’m in Rome — thanks for the recommendation!

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