The holidays, and winter in general, for someone like me, who has struggled with a cooking and an eating disorder most of her life, have always been a trigger, a sweet and sour treat, filled with ideals wrapped in red ribbons, Panettone and glitter, and a reality that doesn’t always match it.
Winter, to me, is synonymous with baking, with warmth and rich dishes, with lush and creamy soups, polenta, buttery cookies and cakes, tarts, caramelized nuts, warm pastry for breakfast to brighten a foggy day, or make even more magical a snowy one.
“Is it worth the calories?” I ask myself, echoing Prue Leith, after each episode of the Great British Bakeoff.
For even today, that I am on a journey of recovery, that I am a chef, and that I love food, culinary pleasure doesn’t always come naturally to me. In fact, there are times when I don’t think about a dish twice, others; however, when I count the calories in the flour and the butter, or in a dessert at the restaurant. Progress, I learned, not perfection.
So, since I began to put together my upcoming cookbook, Eating Again (out February 2022 with Heliotrope Books), I have worked toward the creation of meals and recipes that are at once indulgent and healthy. It turns out it’s something that works miracles for both my career as a chef and a cookbook author, and my mental and physical health as a woman and a mother who wants to shield and protect her young daughter from the suffering of the past.
My mission, making healthy indulgency the new black, seems to have been working magic on my Instagram community as well. And it is with pure joy that I read their stories after trying the recipes we make together, live, every Monday, on Instagram, at 5:00 pm PDT (@alicecarbonetench).
So, here’s my indulgent and healthy go-to cooking menu for a festive holiday weekend, for a romantic dinner, or a birthday celebration:
Let’s start with the appetizer, Italian chicory panzerotti, my take on deep fried dough traditionally filled with mozzarella and tomato sauce, typical of the region of Puglia, where my father is from. Oh, how I still remember those rich bites from 1989, on a hot summer night in Bari, where my father aunt, Maria, lived.
“But deep fried isn’t healthy,” you may be thinking.
And you are right, that’s why I sauté the dough rather than dipping it in hot oil. And I substitute the cheese for another ingredient traditional of Puglia, chicory. There is something about the salty and lightly pan-fried dough and the bitter greens that is irresistible.
This dish will be a crowd-pleaser, and even the little ones will ask for more. My 4-year-old daughter did, at least. Yes, she ate chicory, and I even put one in her lunch box.
Would you believe me if I tell you that at the first bite of my vegetarian Panzerotti you will fly to Italy with your imagination, first class?
The main course won’t disappoint: a traditional baked pasta (pasta al forno) made with tomato sauce and the addition of fennel seed, peas, and butternut squash, as well as the dessert, another healthy play on the indulgence of winter: a (vegan) buttermilk English scone with cranberries, white chocolate, and orange zest.
It is taking me a long time, but I am slowly becoming comfortable with a new concept of self-care, of indulgence, of culinary ease. And sharing it, for me, is part of the journey, one that keeps me hungry for more and fit for every new challenge.
Italian Chicory Panzerotti
Ingredients for 8-9 panzerotti:
For the dough:
- 300 gr. all-purpose flour
- 200 ml. room temperature water
- 10 gr. sea salt
For the filling:
- 2 bunches of Italian chicory
- 1 clove of garlic (whole)
- ¼ cup olives (Taggiasca or Mediterranean olives are the best, full of flavor)
- 2 tbsp capers in vinegar
- Extra-virgin olive oil and salt to taste
- Salt flakes to taste
- Cut the ends of the chicory, rinse it thoroughly and blanch it, in boiling unsalted water for a good 5 minutes. This will get rid of some of their bitterness. I always boil it in unsalted water because I like to drink the water after draining the greens. As my mother and grandmother would always remind me, in fact, that water is rich in vitamins and detoxifying. And it tastes fantastic!
- Drain the greens and set aside.
- Pit the olives and sauté in extra-virgin olive oil with the garlic and the capers for a few minutes in a non-stick, large skillet.
- With kitchen scissors, chop the long-leafed chicory, then add it to the olives and capers. Salt to taste and cook for 5-10 minutes. Remove the garlic and set aside.
- Prepare the dough in a mixing bowl by combining flour, water, and salt. Form a ball and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes.
- Divide the dough in 8-9 portions.
- On a floured surface roll the first portion of dough (it should be very elastic) until very thin and see-through (as if you were making a strudel). Now brush the thin sheet with extra-virgin olive oil and add a spoonful of chicory filling. Tightly wrap the dough, delicately stretching it. Repeat for the remaining 7-8 portions.
- In the same skillet you have used to cook the chicory, add some extra-virgin olive oil, and cook your panzerotti until golden brown on each side, using kitchen tongues.
- Remove from heat and salt with salt flakes. Serve warm.
- These are also great the day after, simply heated up in a toaster oven, but not in the microwave.
Italian Baked Pasta (Pasta al forno) with fennel seed, Butternut Squash, and Green Peas
Ingredients for 6 people:
- 500 gr. of your favorite short pasta
- 2 ½ cups of homemade tomato sauce (I make mine by using quality crushed tomatoes, olive oil, basil, salt, and a pinch of sugar and slowly cooking it for 2-3 hours. The longer you cook the tomato sauce, the better it will taste, and the more tomatoes will lose their acidity.)
- 1 tsp fennel seed
- 1 cup of cubed butternut squash (I cook mine cubed, in the oven, with olive oil and salt for 45-60 minutes at 400F)
- 1 cup organic canned peas
- 1 cup of vegan shredded mozzarella
- 2 tbsp oat milk (optional)
- 1 cup of Parmigiano Reggiano (or vegan parmesan cheese), grated
- Extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste
- Chili flakes (optional)
- Make the tomato sauce (or use store bought). You can make this ahead of time. I usually make a big batch and freeze it.
- Cook the butternut squash (also this can be made ahead of time, and these two vegetables can easily be substituted with green beans).
- Pre-heat the oven to 425 F.
- Grate the Parmesan cheese (either vegan or dairy)
- Cook the pasta al dente in boiling salted water.
- Take a big baking dish, add 3-4 tbsp of tomato sauce and spread it
- Drain the pasta and pour into the baking dish, add more tomato sauce until it reaches your desired richness, add the butternut squash, the peas (drained and rinsed), the fennel seed and the shredded mozzarella (or your favorite vegan cheese). Toss, add some oat milk to prevent from drying too much, salt to taste and top with a generous amount of grated Parmigiano.
- Bake for 15 minutes, then broil for 2 minutes.
- Take out of the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
- This will make a great leftover, it can be frozen, and remember: it is all about how flavorful you tomato sauce is.
Vegan Buttermilk English Scones with Cranberries, Orange, and White Chocolate
- 500 gr. all-purpose flour
- 300 ml. almond milk
- 75 gr. vegan butter (frozen or very cold)
- 1 ½ tbsp lemon juice
- ¾ cup frozen cranberries
- 5 tbsp brown sugar + 1 tbsp for sprinkling
- 3 oranges (zest)
- 2 tsp baking soda
- 2 tsp cream of tartar
- 1 pinch of salt
- ¼ cup white chocolate chips
- 1 egg (or vegan option) for the egg wash
- Cinnamon to taste, ginger, and cloves to taste (optional)
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla paste
- The first step is making the vegan buttermilk by adding the lemon juice in the almond milk and stirring. Let it curdle for 10-15 minutes.
- Pre-heat the oven to 425 F.
- In a mixing bowl, combine all the dry ingredients, the orange zest, and the white chocolate chips
- When 15 minutes have gone by, add the vanilla paste to the vegan buttermilk
- Take the vegan butter out of the freezer and cut it small cubes; then add to the dry ingredients.
- Take the frozen cranberries out of the fridge and sprinkle some flour on them, then add to the dry mix with the vegan butter.
- Work the butter and dry mix with your fingertips until it forms small crumbs, then finally add the vegan buttermilk. Combine with your hands, but do not overwork the dough.
- As soon as the buttermilk has been absorbed, transfer the dough to a floured surface, lightly kneed it, and roll it out to a thickness of approximately 2 inches
- Start cutting out 2-inch scones (this will make 15-16)
- Arrange the scones on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, brush with the egg wash, sprinkle some brown sugar on each one, and bake for 15-20 minutes at 425 F. These scones need a little more time than regular English scones and won’t be as light in weight when cooked, because of the cranberries and the white chocolate in it.
- Allow to cool down on a rack before serving.
- You can freeze these, and thaw overnight.