The Olive Garden v. Italian Food

Italian-Americans don't really eat a proper Mediterranean Diet. They do eat lots of vegetables and olive oil, but the diet has too much cheese and pasta. A big plate of baked ziti with a side of iceberg lettuce is not proper Italian food. Over the years, we've tossed out some bad habits from the Bronx Italian days and gone back to old school cooking.

Here are some tips: 

 1. In order to concentrate on cooking lots of vegetables, I simplify the meat dish. I make something that takes ten minutes to heat up, like sausage, some ham or a piece of fish that only needs salt and pepper. Or I'll buy a rotisserie chicken. 

2. Buy the gallons of olive oil and store it in a dispenser like this one. Do not get one of those mister oil dispensers. They get all gummed up and you really need more oil than a mist. Never use vegetable oil or butter. 

3. Always have garlic at home and store it in a special jar in your cabinet, like this one. Own a garlic press, but don't be afraid to simply slice up the garlic in slabs and fry them up before you add your vegetables. 

4. An essential pantry: dried red pepper flakes, cumin, curry, oregano, bay leaves, various pre-mixed FRESH spice combos (not McCormick crap), garlic powder, tons of cans of Italian (not Hunt's) tomatoes, jars of red peppers, jars of artichoke hearts, jars of sun dried tomatoes, cans of beans, boxes of chicken and beef broth, pasta, rices (not Uncle Ben's or any bleached white stuff), couscous, tuna.  

5. I always have the following items in the fridge: onions, peppers, carrots, celery, lettuce, olives, and potatoes. Then I fill up the fridge with whatever fruits and vegetables and fresh herbs look happy in the supermarket. Right now, everything looks a little sad, so I drive to Whole Foods and get their frozen versions of vegetables. I especially love their frozen kale and collard greens, because it's already cleaned and chopped. 

6. OK, back to the cooking part. Let's talk about the carbs. I always have a side of carbs (pasta, rice, couscous, or potato), but they are never stand-alone dishes. I mix them heavily with herbs, spices, and/or vegetables.

For example, I'll make a box of plain couscous. Maybe I'll throw in half a brick of bullion to add a little flavor. I'll serve the plain stuff to the kids with a little parm cheese. Then I'll saute onion and garlic in olive oil, add zucchini, add spices, add a can of beans, and then mix the rest of the couscous with that. 

Another example. I'll peel a potato, chop it into big chunks, and then boil it. I'll add a little butter and some parsley to half of the potatoes for the kids. Then I'll spice and vegetable up a version for Steve and myself. 

7. Always have a salad and a cooked vegetable. My mom did that. I do that. 

8. This is very time consuming stuff, but that's the way it is supposed to be. Dinner is about more than shoving fuel down the gullet. It's family time. There are no shortcuts. 

9. One of my biggest changes in the past few years is the types of cheese that we consume. I stopped buying mozzarella, except for the hand-made stuff as a treat. I stopped buying cheddar and swiss. I go for little nuggets of highly flavorful stuff like blue cheese or feta. I sprinkle that stuff liberally on salads, vegetables, and carbs. I'm not making foods where the primary component is cheese, like lasagna or Mexican stuff. 

10. I buy desserts for the kids that I don't like. Ice-cream doesn't do anything for me, so that's what the kids get after dinner. If I remember. Mostly, we forget to give the kids any dessert. 

11. Learn how to cook vegetables. I think most people hate vegetables, because they cook them badly. They are too droopy or under seasoned. By doing easy meats and carbs, I've concentrated my efforts on the vegetables. Thanks to my CSA, I was forced to learned how to deal with the beet this summer. Now we love them. 

Anyway, we eat like this, because it tastes good, not because we're on a diet or anything.

It is very time consuming, and I certainly couldn't do this if I was getting home at 8 every night. I suppose it is a luxury in this day and age. But I am home at the moment. I've got the kids doing homework in the kitchen, so I'm cooking and doing homework assistance at the same time. Working friends cook like this by spending an entire Sunday preparing meals for the week. 


36 thoughts on “The Olive Garden v. Italian Food

  1. Hmm, that is not the way northern Europeans (or their American descendants) eat. My wife and I (we are empty nesters now) try to eat healthily and we certainly avoid most processed foods, but we would find life in the 11d household rather exotic. Maybe I will try to do a corresponding list of instructions for those of British/Scandinavian heritage. As a short list, I would say: lots less oil, lots more butter, lots more pork, lots less cheese, more potatoes and other root vegetables, lots less garlic, less pasta, often roast vegetables (about the same vegetables, except the garlic). Also we eat white rice, but that came from my Jamaican babysitter when I was young, not from our ancestors.

  2. While I’ve been on a trajectory out of my family of origin’s Hamburger Helper and Kraft Dinner with hot dogs diet for some decades now, the big leap for us probably did come with the CSA bin. Although I think learning to use beans probably was equally significant.
    Both my husband and I work full-time and we have a 7 year old and toddler, the sort of toddler that gamely “helps” you make dinner and then climbs off the stool and gets into the worst trouble available. So we do prep on the weekends.
    My killer app right now is twofold: Raw, diced zucchini/red or orange peppers/mushrooms in a big container, which we scoop out to saute up with garlic and onion or toss into salads with olives and baby spinach or toss in a pan with diced potatoes and diced meat for a hash or throw into a sauce. It keeps for most of the week, although it rarely lasts past Wednesday. That gives opportunity for other vegetables after. Roast beets yum.
    The second is essentially the same combination (including garlic and onion and oregano) with eggplant to boot, roasted on the weekend, which becomes the basis for sandwiches (with grated cheese), quiche or fritatta, or heated up over chicken breasts.
    I also use the crockpot a lot for minestrone, pea soup, curried chickpeas/potato/kale/peas.
    At first it took a /lot/ more effort. Now because we kind of have our rhythm down, yeah, it takes some prep time which can be marital chat time one evening with a glass of wine, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of thought. Our meals are maybe slightly repetitive but I’m okay with that.
    The other big deal thing we did was that we use a high-end breadmaker to make our own bread and pizza dough, and I bake muffins, a loaf of some sort, and a batch of cookies every weekend for snacks and lunchbox treats. I just couldn’t handle the various fats and stuff in the grocery versions and was unwilling to pay for the higher-end buns.

  3. Though intimidated at first, this post gives me hope that we’ll have more time to cook as the kids get older and their school/bed schedules change.
    We cook from fresh ingredients 4 out of five weekday nights, we eat together as a family, but suppertime is 5:00-5:15 (except for Sunday and Monday, when it moves up to 4:15[!]). When it’s my week to cook, this means a slow-cooker dish on Monday, followed by quick skillet meals (burgers & asparagus, pork chops & green beans & apple sauce, chicken pasta, stir-fry) or oven meals (sausage & brussels sprouts, fish tacos).
    It’s hard. Lots of times I season (or don’t) without tasting, I’m in such a rush. Add in the disincentive to innovate provided by kids rejecting 2 new meals in a row, and it’s harder.

  4. I like your list, too and how you organize your food plans. We’re not prepared to spend that much time on food, but even, say, making sure you have a salad at every meal is a big step forward.
    Pantry issues (not having the items on hand, or things going bad) are a big part of why we don’t cook. Weekly meal planning isn’t good enough for us — what we need is things that last long enough that if we can work up to cooking say 6 times a month, we cook well on those days (and yes, 6 times a month, of real cooking, would be a step up for us).

  5. I think Y81’s list is interesting; I was thinking about those differences, too (though in the context of ashkenazi jewish food, which is also higher in meat & potatoes, but lower in cheese & dairy). I suspect that there is a correlation with temperature (i.e. more meat & root vegetables & animal fat in cold climates). The problems arise when we’ve mitigated those physical demands (cold, work, etc) but not changed the diet.
    The vegetarian diet (the only historical one being South Asian, though there too, there are variants, with some eating fish, others avoiding a larger variety of included foods), includes dairy, legumes, vegetables, and rice and spice, in enough quantities that it counts as a food. I think it might be a generally healthy diet, unless it becomes too dairy/rice heavy, which happens, and then it leads to metabolic syndrome/diabetes. In ecosystems where there was feast/famine & lots of physical labor, the diet might have functioned better, but needs modifications when food is consistently available and when labor demands decrease.
    So, it could be that the Med food (I would also like to call it something other than “diet”, though I think the researchers are using the word in the ecological sense) is better correlated with our current living conditions (rather than just being always better).
    I would really like to see more study of food lifestyles and health.

  6. I’ve fallen into the habit of not seasoning, particularly not salting, dishes while cooking. I warn my family when serving, “add salt and pepper to your taste.” We often do not add salt, but we don’t restrict family salt intake. We just don’t create a “mandatory minimum” of salt while cooking.
    I have found that tastebuds adjust to less salt. I tried some recipes from a cookbook from the early 70s, and found them much too salty. Almost inedible (by us).
    I suppose tastebuds must adjust to more salt, thus if people eat lots of processed foods, they become accustomed to a salty taste.

  7. re: pantry dinners — I suggest making your own marinara sauce with the kids. Everything is pantry items — can of tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt, dried oregano, pasta. 30 minutes tops. You can add other stuff to it, if you feel fancy.
    Another 15 minute pantry meal is sausage, box of couscous, frozen veggies in the microwave, and a salad. Sausages freeze very well. Go for the fancy chicken ones.
    re: salad — Pre-washed lettuce is fine. We do that a lot. We also cheat with the salad dressing and use supermarket stuff. Whole Foods has a great miso dressing. I also wash heads of lettuce and keep it in the spinner in the fridge.

  8. Yeah, but I hate dried basil. I grow fresh basil in pots outside the house during the summer time, and I use it a lot then. Besides, bj needs really, really simple pantry dinners. Fresh basil isn’t a pantry staple, but dried oregano is.

  9. I was already moving in the direction of that study, sort of, having been convinced by the lower-carb hypothesis a while back, but I do have several questions about it. First, the olive oil group were told to consume 4 tablespoons olive oil per day. Isn’t that a lot? How did they get that much without eating raw spoonfuls of it? Second, what about the role of cheese? I can give up red meat without a second thought–sweets are harder, but yes, I get it, they’re bad. But do I have to give up cheese too? What do I eat with my olive oil and tomato salad if not the Buffalo mozzarella from Costco?

  10. Ugh, I aspire to this. But the combination of two FT-working parents (plus I have a side consulting business), a (lovely, wonderful) husband whose tastebuds run to frozen pizza and potstickers, and a toddler whose world completely melts down if she doesn’t eat by 6:00 makes this nigh impossible right now. Mostly because of the last reason.
    She eats by 6:00, generally before we do. And if we get 2 home cooked meals per week, I am doing AWESOME. We do a lot of frozen veggies + eggs + cheese scrambles, pasta + olive oil + chicken sausage, Trader Joes salmon + orzo + zucchini. But I do aspire to this. Maybe a day when my child goes to bed later than 7.
    I have to say – the guilt is pretty overwhelming at times.

  11. Except for the presence of too much rice, which I know isn’t that great, and the absence of olive oil, they eat this diet in Costa Rica. We were there last summer and I have to say I liked the food there better than anywhere else I’ve visited including Italy. Rice and beans with chicken or fish and the freshest produce you can imagine, all seasoned perfectly. Not a lot of cheese, unlike Mexican food, which I also love, but a lot of eggs, which I think the diet allows.

  12. i like feta cheese with my tomato salad (french feta from whole foods…so good) or a little stinky brie. or just a little buffalo mozzarella! just don’t make ziti with it!
    We basically eat like Laura except we cook more Asian food and I can’t be bothered to make salad very often (i know, lame!). We look up our favorite Thai and Chinese dishes and learn to make them, usually on a weekend when we have a lot of time to shop at the Asian market and make food with a lot of steps. But some of the dishes are easy and its so nice to have homemade thai food, and you can control all the oils and carbs that way. I won’t say its the same as a good restaurant, but a lot cheaper than $30 for take out and solves the craving. Long ago I took an Indian cooking class and still make 2-3 dishes from that…that is easy and vegetarian and really quite healthy: they use so many spices that you can seriously cut down on the oil and throw in whatever veggies you want at the end. also the grill pan and marinating chicken and fish is your friend, add baby spinach and red onion and salsa and wrap in a tortilla. We both work: our goal is cooking 3 workdays with enough for leftovers two nights and 1 takeout or restaurant night, with one big weekend cooking day/night. If one person cooks the other does the dishes. I try to cook an extra dish, like a soup or a big casserole of some kind on the weekend but I don’t always get to. Also, cut up veggies to snack on and get flavorful dips you like, like hummus or tapenade (trader joes has a huge array of delicious things that taste great with carrots and cucumbers…yum). The hard part is that our kids mostly won’t eat any of this, so I do make two dinners: usually chicken breasts, pasta/rice and some veggies, or they eat tofu, eggs, or TJ’s turkey meatballs (so good). They are boring eaters…so was I when I was 8.

  13. I never understood why anyone ever used anything other than extra virgin olive oil for any type of cooking. It is healthier and taste better and is just as “easy”. Total no brainier.
    Also, as a child growing up in the olfactorily glorious shadow of the McCormick’s factory in Baltimore, I’m deciding to take offense at the slur.

  14. When we cook (which is during long breaks when the college cafeteria is closed), it tends to be Southeast Asian or Indian-influenced. While I like the American traditionals just fine, the end results don’t justify the work. I like Nancy McDermott’s cookbook Quick and Easy Thai, which really is.
    Here’s my contribution to the pantry meals list:
    1 jar Patak’s sauce (rogan josh, tikka masala, whatever)
    1 can kidney beans
    1 can garbanzo beans
    Simmer together and serve with couscous and frozen veggies.
    The kids think it’s better with chicken added, but they do eat it.
    Another shortcut is to bake chicken at leisure, freeze it, and then use it in salads or curries.

  15. Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice is allegedly low-glycemic, fwiw. I’ve switched to that from brown because my husband prefers white rice, and it’s lower glycemic than white.
    We don’t cook a lot of meat here, and I prefer not to eat so much pasta, so we do a lot of stir-fried tofu and vegies, various bean dishes like chili or beans and rice, Mexican-type foods (I make an awesome sweet potato/black bean burrito), and a bunch of quinoa dishes (black beans and quinoa with avocado is a favorite). The kids eat a ton of pasta. We do too much fast food lately because my husband is out till 8 twice a week.

  16. I frequently roast vegetables for dinner. The basics are dicing veggies and tossing them with olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. Then depending I add other spices or vinegar/lemon juice. I’ll do broccoli, onion, carrot, brussel sprouts, garlic and potatoes or sweet potatoes (usually sweet potato). It’s filling and gets in veggies and carbs. Sometimes I’ll add protein, but often not since usually we’ve eaten it for lunch. It’s a really nice way to get lots of veggies in in the winter. Also, I’ll often sautee veggies with some bacon. The little bit of bacon adds a lot of flavor and makes them feel very indulgent. I eat lots of salads too, with nuts, hard boiled eggs, other veggies & fruits, meat, and/or cheese (not all in the same salad). I’ve taken to making fish more since I can get cheap frozen fillets, and I love fish. I like using canned tuna, but because of the mercury I don’t eat it as much as I’d like. I’m trying to cook more with beans, since they’re so healthy. I also am trying to use dried beans more, but frequently I plan dinner so late I don’t have time. Recently I’ve been eating pasta 3-4 times a week, since I’m dating an Italian and his cooking repertoire includes 3 pasta sauces & fritatta (I’m lucky he had a feminist mom, otherwise he might not know how to turn on the stove).
    y81: I grew up as a little kid eating Norwegian food: lots of fish, lots of dairy, lots of potatoes, rye bread and crackers, and lots of root vegetables in the winter, berries in the spring and summer. (My mother added in more veggies since US produce is much more plentiful and variable year round.) We ate meat in the form of ground meat, organs and sausage, but not a whole lot of whole meat pieces, except sometimes roasts and coldcuts, and ham at Christmas. I don’t know how healthy it is to eat so much dairy fat, but my grandparents all lived pretty long lives eating cheese and butter every day, so I like to think my body is designed for it. About 5 years ago or so, some Danish scientists came up with a “Nordic diet” to counter the “Mediterranean diet,” involving things like reindeer meat, lichen, and berries. Of course, it was very far away from how actual Scandinavians eat.

  17. I wrote a comment and it was eaten, but short summary. I roast lots of veggies with olive oil and salt/pepper, plus other spices or vinegars/lemon juice. I also cook veggies with a little bit of bacon, the bacon makes them taste very indulgent, and allows them to be the main (or only) course. I’m trying to cook more with beans since they’re so healthy, and I want to use more dried beans, but I am very bad at planning ahead. I eat lots of pasta because I’m dating an Italian and his cooking repertoire is made up of 3 pasta sauces and fritatta (I’m lucky his mom is a feminist, otherwise he probably wouldn’t be able to turn on the stove).
    y81: I grew up eating Norwegian food: lots of fish, lots of dairy, lots of potatoes, rye bread, lots of root vegetables and berries, and lots of ground meat/organs (e.g. meatballs, liverwurst, sausage, etc.) I don’t know if high fat dairy every day is good for you, but my grandparents lived pretty long lives so I like to think I’m adapted to the diet. About 5 years ago some Danish scientists came up with a “Nordic diet” to counter the “Mediterranean diet,” involving things like reindeer meat, lichen, and berries. Of course, it’s not how actual Scandinavian people eat.

  18. “About 5 years ago some Danish scientists came up with a “Nordic diet” to counter the “Mediterranean diet,” involving things like reindeer meat, lichen, and berries. Of course, it’s not how actual Scandinavian people eat.”
    We had a couple day stopover on the outskirts of Helsinki for orientation on the way to my study abroad in St. Petersburg, and I was unfavorably impressed by how very fishy the hotel fare was.
    I’m not sure how much fish-eating is typical of modern Scandinavia, but I remember reading in Gotz Aly’s Hitler’s Beneficiaries that the Nazis looted Norway of vast amounts of herring.

  19. Sarah I have a 7 yo and a 2 yo and even though we usually cook (or heat up, or crockpot), what I wanted to say after reading your comment is…don’t stress about it right now. It gets _hugely_ easier in a year or two when the meltdown factor recedes a bit.

  20. B.I.: Ground meat/organs is probably a little too authentic for our family. We are, after all, the American descendants of Scandinavians. I should have mentioned the dark bread, however.
    We had some friends who expressed shock that we gave our daughter whole milk when she was little. I told them that Scandinavian babies are genetically in need of lots of whole milk. I just made that up, of course. But our daughter is 6 feet tall and a size 2 (although it may be size 4 by the time freshman year ends), so the whole milk evidently was the right choice.

  21. I am careful these days to avoid Chinese garlic – I worry about heavy metals & other pollutants in some internationally-sourced ingredients. Our potatoes are local and blueberries thrive hereabouts – otherwise it’s standard greenhouse goods and tinned tomatoes.
    We roast meats a lot more these days, root veggies, too. Good herbs really help to perk up the meals in the winter time.
    Our biggest obstacle to a family dinner is getting people to dinner. Most nights my partner isn’t home until 8:15 or 9:15. Eldest works two nights a week. This leaves us with one family dinner a week, unless a miracle occurs. We make up for this by ensuring we do at least one sit-down weekend lunch and another breakfast.

  22. If you’re consuming gallons of olive oil, you probably should be eating a whole ton of fish, too. (The “mediterranean diet” described in the NYT piece has you eating fatty fish THREE times a week.) Olive oil is omega-6 fatty acid, and the good stuff is the omega-3 fatty acid in fish (also in flax seed, etc, but my shaky understanding of the bio-chemistry is that the fish form is superior). You need the right ration of omega-6 to omega-3, otherwise the effects are not protective. That’s my understanding, anyway. We eat fish about once a week, so not nearly enough.

  23. So the Latins have the olive oil, and the Scandinavians have the fish, and neither one has the ratios right? Very possible.
    Probably best to just stick with the wine. I just put some brownies in the oven, which triggered the rule about how the baker gets an extra glass of wine (I ration myself pretty conscientiously to two glasses on weekdays). Let it be confessed, the brownies are all natural, but make no additional pretense to healthfulness.

  24. They have chocolate. Isn’t chocolate good for you? especially with red wine? I’m pretty sure there’s some study out there that says that chocolate & red wine are good for you.

  25. Janice is right, I flee from Chinese garlic like the plague — I buy American garlic at Costco and put it in one of those green (as-seen-on-tv) vegetable bags that keep them fresh(er) — they work!
    Anyway, except for the meat we eat very similarly to your family. I think that sometimes we may lack protein, so I try to use whole grain and lots of beans, but once in a while the meal has mostly the carb, the veggies & the salad.
    I agree with all the advice you’ve given wholeheartedly! oh, and like some people were saying, it is way easier when the boys are older and less picky.
    P.S. I cook some Asian stuff (Korean, Thai, Japanese) at times and Indian. If we do Mexican it’s very light on the cheese and heavy on beans, homemade fresh salsa and guacamole.

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