Lidia Bastianich is America’s matriarch of authentic Italian cuisine! This culinary icon is a best-selling cookbook author, Emmy award-winning television host, restaurateur and creator of a line of delicious sauces and pastas with more products in the works. Lidia is a gentle soul with a commanding presence. Like the E.F. Hutton slogan, “When Lidia talks, people listen”. She is a teacher by nature and I witnessed this firsthand. Before we so much as peeled a garlic clove, Lidia graciously schooled me on pasta, bread and San Marzano tomatoes. Through the magic of television, Lidia endearingly invites us into her kitchen to share tips, recipes, family stories and shows how to combine fresh ingredients using the techniques she has acquired during her more than 40 years of cooking. Preparing a delicious pasta dish from start to finish with this dynamic, passionate, fun and talented woman was truly an honor.
Now let’s get Lidia’s take on healthy cooking and eating…
Diane: Do you see a trend with diners seeking better-for-you options on the menu?
Lidia: Yes. Diners are looking for a flavorful experience while always keeping a watch on the nutritional aspect of the dish. We offer pastas with a high ratio of vegetables and/or proteins. In the dish that I’m preparing today, you’ll see both vegetables and proteins in equal ratio to the amount of pasta being served.
We are also seeing a large number of customers asking for gluten free dishes in our restaurants, and we have a number of options – including pastas and desserts – from which they can choose. We find that diners are eating more and more vegetables, not only as side dishes to their main course but also as appetizers. In fact, many of the restaurants’ appetizers have naturally become vegetarian as high quality produce has become more available and customers’ desires have shifted towards this type of delicious, yet nutritious choice for starting a meal.
As for dessert, seasonal fruit bursting with flavor is requested more often than before. For example, you’ll find light fruit tarts served with scoops of sorbet or small mini-tastings of yogurt or homemade ice creams with seasonal fruit and a little crunch.
Diane: What¹s your definition of healthy eating?
Lidia: My cooking exemplifies the Mediterranean diet. My definition of healthy eating is a seasonal, sometimes local, balanced, diverse food experience. I like to serve and eat a small antipasto or appetizer with lots of different and intense flavors. I think of smoked fish, marinated vegetables, cured meats. I follow with a small portion of pasta—known as “due forchettate’ or two forkfuls—and the ratio of pasta to the vegetables or proteins is 1 to 1. I then follow with a moderate amount of proteins served with equal amounts of fresh vegetables and legumes. My fat of choice is extra virgin olive oil, and for me the preferred techniques are steaming, poaching, roasting, grilling and braising. These are all techniques that I use where I can control the fat.
Diane: What is your secret to cooking healthier without sacrificing flavor?
Lidia: Fresh, local seasonal ingredients will guarantee flavor. I then depend on fresh herbs, dry seasonings or spicy additions like peperoncino. I also like to use acidity in my cooking which includes vinegar, lemon juice, tomatoes. And I cannot forget using certain intense flavors like dry porcini, anchovies and capers which in small doses can really go a long way in flavor.
Diane: What is your favorite dish on your own menu and why?
Lidia: It’s spring, so I love paccheri pasta with ramps, fresh peas and fresh garbanzo beans with a drizzle of delicious extra virgin olive oil and grated Grana Padano cheese. I also love pasta with spring onion, nettles and morels during this time of year. If I yearn for protein, I can always throw in some fresh shrimp or scallops to the dish which blend so beautifully with spring vegetables.
Diane: How about an update on what¹s new and exciting in your world?
Lidia: I just finished shooting another 26 episodes of Lidia’s Kitchen, the companion to my cookbook, Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking. My involvement with Eataly has been so exciting as Chicago just opened a few months ago and we are heading to Sao Paolo, Brazil in early 2015.
My Lidia’s food line continues to grow with six different flavors of sauces and eight different pasta shapes, and now we are working on soups. My next cookbook will come out in the fall of 2015 but prior to that, you’ll find my third children’s book, Nonna Tell Me A Story, published by Running Press, on shelves in January of2015.www.lidiasitaly.com
Click here for Chef Lidia Bastianich's Shells with Chicken Sauce Recipe
Diane Henderiks is a personal chef and culinary nutritionist on a mission to teach America how to cook and eat well. Follow her on Twitter @dhenderiks, "Like" Diane on Facebook, or visit her website.