My family heritage is Italian: my grandmother really loved to cook, and my father really loved to eat. Meat and potatoes were standard, and that was what my dad called dinner. I grew up eating a lot of chicken, pork, and beef – all accompanied by potatoes or spaghetti. The vegetables were negligible, and what we ate was mostly lifeless and squishy, tasteless stuff from cans. In their best form, they were en-casserole’d with cream of mushroom or canned cheese soup. Only on a holiday did we have antipasti, but even that was mostly sliced meat and cheese. We ate like this every night, and over time, it proved disagreeable with my digestion.
Somewhere in my ‘tween years, my family took an unexpected road trip to a remote hillside in Vermont. We went to visit my cousin, who had apparently lost her mind. She was living in a log cabin, with no electricity, no telephone, no indoor plumbing, and no job. She retrieved water and bathed in a cold backyard creek, and even grew her own food. These days, living off the grid is a bit more popular, but back then, my family’s biggest concern seemed to be that she stopped eating meat
That fateful drive was filled with raised voices as they worked out their plot to either shanghai my cousin, or somehow reason her back to civilization so the world could be righted again. However, when we arrived, things were much worse than anyone had imagined. My cousin was not crazy, but she was a lovely, sweet, and willowy sprite, happy and free, and enjoying every moment of her life on the land.
The scene in her home was foreign to me – the walls were cedar planks, lined with glass-capped jars filled with jams, jellies, veggies, pickles, and more. Herbs and flowers were drying, hanging tethered from the beams. Copious jars of varying colors, shapes, and sizes stood on countertops and behind glass doors, packed with dry noodles and rice, sepia washed beans, and yellow-green hued peas. There was even a warm loaf of freshly baked bread that had just come out of the oven for our arrival. And, gee, was that real butter?
While the adults rallied with a gusto that only Italians can deliver, I gazed around in my private wonder. This delightful cornucopia was my introduction to the vegetarian lifestyle that I would much later adopt. I was mesmerized by the beauty of its fragrances, textures, and delicious patterns everywhere, and the natural grace in which indoor life and outdoor nature flowed, uninterrupted, and settled inside a warm and sunlit space.
Fast-forward, forty-something years later, and I am, after several starts and stops, still mostly vegetarian, though I guess not technically so, since I eat a lot of fish, and sometimes poultry. Over the years, I’ve developed a customized food plan that suits my body’s needs, and satisfies my taste buds. What is preserved from that experience in Vermont is a fascination with the flavors, colors, fragrances, and textures that are now available to me, and the mouth-watering anticipation of selecting fresh produce and fish at the market.
It has taken me three decades to craft my version of vegetarian-ish dining that is a delightful feast I honestly prefer over most restaurants (though Portland makes that statement somewhat obsolete). My love affair with food has persisted, and I have come to love cooking without meat. In fact, I often find myself searching for new takes on favorite recipes that are healthier, while easy and delicious.
One of my most useful discoveries was homemade salad dressing. I never knew how quick and simple this could be accomplished, but once I learned (thank you Claire-Bear), I’ve never gone back to the pre-made bottled versions. I am grateful to my cousin for planting the early seeds of her love of natural and freshly harvested foods.
I am as happy as can be when I whip up a healthy and guilt-free version of an oldie-but-goodie food favorite. I would love to share with you a rendition of my all-time favorite salad dressing recipe. Tell me if you don’t think it’s the best Italian dressing you’ve ever tasted!
Sweet and Zippy Herbed Dressing
This recipe was created when I eliminated vinegar from my diet, which was influenced by a book that theorized about how to eat based on your blood type. Today I eat vinegar again, but on my salads, I still prefer this dressing.
Massage a ripe lemon and squeeze all the juice and pulp from it into a container. I like to use a shaker bottle with a built-in whisk that I can store and pour from the fridge. But a deep bowl and handheld whisk work equally well.
Add an equal amount or less, of olive oil. I prefer more lemon juice than oil for less fat, and greater zip-appeal on my taste buds. Next, add a splash of maple syrup, to your liking, and sprinkle in salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried thyme, and if you dare, a dash of crushed red pepper. Voila! Shake and drizzle on your lettuce greens for your best-dressed salad ~ Enjoy!