Category Archives: Healthy

Dandelion Greens: Nutrition Not Nuisance

When the early Italian immigrants came to the United States, they were criticized for eating foraged weeds such as dandelion. It was thought that they were shorter than average Americans because they weren’t getting the right nutrition–that the meat-and-potatoes diet with plenty of milk was better than the high-vegetable diet of the immigrants. Of course, we now know that is not true, thanks in part to Ancel Keys, who enlightened the world about the Mediterranean diet in the 1950s.

Dandelion is one such weed, rich in so many nutrients.  Since ancient times, in the Middle East and Asia, it was used as medicine.  It’s good for digestion, to strengthen bones, to protect against Alzheimer’s, to protect the eyes or to detox. A great source of Vitamins K and A, it also contains Vitamin C, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, magnesium, copper, folate, and phosphorus.

My earliest memories of dandelion are of the puffballs that we would pick and blow to watch the little wisps fly through the air. Little did we know they were seeds and we were helping new dandelions to grow.  Not that they need help. They are everywhere, and while some view them as a pest, others view them as a treasure.

When I was growing up, my mom had a friend who would bring us dandelion greens from her garden.  We laughed because this friend was fishing for gossip whenever she brought these over, so we associated dandelion greens with gossip.

Besides eliciting gossip, dandelion has many uses.  The greens can be eaten fresh or cooked, the roots can be ground into a coffee substitute, and the flowers can be made into wine, as many of the early Italian immigrants did.

Italians eat the dandelion greens in salads or cooked with garlic and olive oil.  They can be bitter, so it is best to blanch them before cooking, especially the more mature leaves.  We then saute them in garlic and olive oil.

However, I prepared them the way Julie Ann Sageer recommends in her new Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen cookbook, blanched and sautéed with caramelized onions.

To cook dandelions, wash them first.  They are not very dirty like some greens can be.  Chop off the large stems from the bottom.  Then roughly chop them.  Blanch them.  They are kind of like spinach.  You have to squeeze them to get the water out.  You can then saute them with caramelized onions, as in the cookbook, or you can saute them with sliced garlic and olive oil, the Italian way.  Either way, they are a nutritious addition to any meal and definitely should not be overlooked in the garden!

–Dina Di Maio


Lucanian Peppers and Eggs

Peppers are a mainstay of Italian cuisine. Of course, they do not come from Italy but were one of the many gifts from the Americas. In Basilicata, the southernmost region, in the instep of the boot, also known by its more ancient name, Lucania, the peperoni di Senise are a popular pepper brought by the Spanish in the 16th century. Since 1996, these peppers have an IGP designation, which translates to protected geographical indication, meaning they are to be grown in a particular region in order to carry this label. The peppers are hung on strings to dry. The dried peppers are called peperoni secchi. There are many ways to prepare these peppers. Because they are also used to season food, they are known in local dialect as zafaran, or saffron. They can be crushed and added to a sauce, such as a breadcrumb sauce for pasta. These peppers are sweet and impart a smoky flavor to dishes. A popular way to prepare them is to create a snack food or an accompaniment to a recipe or dish by just frying them in olive oil. These are called peperoni cruschi. I used them to make peppers and eggs.

Peperoni cruschi e uova (Peppers and eggs)

6 eggs

3 peperoni cruschi (I used packaged peppers from Zingerman’s.)

about 1 T olive oil


Reconstitute the peppers in a little water for about 10 minutes. (You don’t have to do this, but I did to soften them.) Drain and slice. Heat olive oil in pan as you would to make scrambled eggs. Add peppers and eggs and scramble. Add salt to taste.

–Dina Di Maio

Broccoli Rabe or Broccolini®: Is There a Difference? Yes!

broccoli rabe

I have seen a new bait and switch tactic going on in food circles these days.  When I order broccoli rabe at some restaurants, I’m not getting the familiar leafy vegetable of my upbringing, but a stalky substitute called broccolini.  In some magazines, I’ve seen articles on recipes for broccoli rabe with pictures of broccolini. Is there a difference between broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, and broccolini?  Yes!

Broccoli rabe, or rapini, is in the same family as other well-known vegetables like broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower. It most resembles turnip greens or mustard greens that are popular in the southern United States. In fact, turnips are in the same species as broccoli rabe, Brassica rapa.  Broccoli rabe, like turnip and mustard greens, has a bitter flavor that dissipates when prepared properly.

We know broccoli rabe, or rapini, by its Italian name, as it is most associated with Italian cuisine, particularly southern Italian cuisine, although other cultures prepare it and it now grows all over the world.

broccoli rabe

The most common way to prepare it is simply blanching it, then sauteeing it in olive oil, and serving it dressed with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. In the southeastern heel of Italy, Puglia, there is a popular pasta dish called orecchiette with broccoli rabe or rapini.

Italian immigrants of 100 years ago had grown broccoli rabe in their gardens, and the Andy Boy company in California is credited with commercially bringing broccoli rabe, or rapini, to the United States.  Their website lists all the attributes of rapini and has a plethora of recipes.   In the first decade of the 1900s, Sicilian immigrant Andrea D’Arrigo came to the United States, learned English, and earned engineering degrees.  His brother, Stefano, joined him and founded Andy Boy produce company.  In 1926, they invented a way to ship produce across the country in refrigerated cars.  The first vegetable shipped across country was broccoli, grown here from seeds they brought over from Italy.


Broccolini is a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, a vegetable popular in Chinese cuisine, also known as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale.  It was developed by a Japanese seed company, Sakata Seed Inc., that was looking for ways to extend the growing season of broccoli.  After seven years, it was developed and brought to the U.S. market in 1993.  Sakata trademarked the name Asparation because its stalks resembled asparagus.  Mann Packing Co. in California is the grower who trademarked the name broccolini.  (The COO’s wife, Debbi Nucci, came up with the name.) Mann’s website has product information and recipes for broccolini.  Mann’s was founded in 1939 by H.W. “Cy” Mann, a Stanford graduate, and became known for its broccoli.

Both rapini and broccolini end in -ini, which is an Italian suffix meaning “little,” and are often used interchangeably in recipes and restaurants. But they are different. Broccoli rabe is more leafy while broccolini has longer stalks with more broccoli heads. They also differ in taste with broccolini being more mild, and broccoli rabe being more earthy.  They are both nutritionally sound. From a culinary standpoint, they can be used interchangeably in recipes.  But from a traditional standpoint, broccoli rabe is the vegetable eaten for years in Italy and brought to the United States by Italian immigrants.  If a restaurant purports to sell broccoli rabe, it shouldn’t be switching it with broccolini, and vice versa. It comes down to personal preference whether or not one chooses broccolini or rapini, but it should be a choice, not the result of a convenient switcheroo.

–Dina Di Maio

Senza Gluten, Senza Worry


In Italian, the word “senza” means without. Senza Gluten is an Italian restaurant in the Village that is completely gluten free. This restaurant is a great concept because Italian food, with its myriad of pasta dishes, is often hard to find gluten free.  It is nice for people with celiac disease and those with gluten sensitivity or intolerance to have a night out senza worry.

For starters, we had cauliflower parmesan, cauliflower breaded with cheese and tomato sauce. A nice way to eat cauliflower.


My friend ordered a Cesare, or Caesar salad.


My entree was a vegetable lasagna, so the restaurant is vegetarian friendly as well.


My friend got the risotto ai funghi, risotto with mushroom, parmesan and truffle oil.


Finally, one is lucky to find a gluten-free entree at the average restaurant, let alone a dessert. Here, there are a number to choose from of Italian classics like tiramisu and panna cotta as well as a chocolate torte and biscotti.

One good thing to keep in mind while dining here is that Senza Gluten is cash and American Express only, so come prepared.

What Happened to Dairy?

Dairy foods used to be my favorite foods, but not anymore.  Not since the food manufacturers started taking the “dairy” out of dairy.  Have you looked at the ingredients of dairy products lately?  They are rarely made from cream and milk but instead have all these fillers like xanthan gum, guar gum, modified food starch, locust bean gum, etc.  It has really affected the flavor and mouthfeel of these once-delicious products to the point where it’s almost not worth buying them at all.  Here, I analyze what’s in today’s dairy products.  However, I’m not analyzing where the milk is sourced and if it comes from cows not treated with hormones and antibiotics–that is another issue I’m concerned about with dairy today.  Here, I’m only looking to see if it’s made from milk and cream and not fillers.

I do think this tasteless dairy results from governmental pressure on food manufacturers to take fat out of food.  Either that or it’s a way to make products even cheaper than they are already made.

Cream cheese

Next time you get a bagel, take a good look at your schmear.  Philadelphia brand regular cream cheese is now made from whey protein and gums.  Its taste reflects that.  It reminds me of what used to be light cream cheese.  Here is the ingredient list:  Pasteurized Milk and Cream, Whey Protein Concentrate, Salt, Carob Bean Gum, Cheese Culture.  Kraft also owns Temp Tee cream cheese, which used to be so creamy and delicious.  Its ingredient list:  Pasteurized milk and cream, cheese culture, salt, carob bean gum.  Bruegger’s Bagels’s plain cream cheese is no better:  Pasteurized cream and non fat milk; sodium and calcium caseinates (milk proteins); salt; citric; phosphoric; acetic acids; xanthan; locust bean; and guar gums; potassium sorbate (maintains freshness); natural flavor.  All of these cream cheeses amount to tasteless white paste.  Sometimes, and it is rarely, I find a cream cheese made with good ingredients.  However, these cream cheeses rarely taste like cream cheese should taste.  Cream cheese used to be so creamy and delicious, a wonderful treat now and again when we would get bagels.  But now that it is no different from plaster, I rarely eat cream cheese or bagels anymore. Luckily, Russ & Daughters still makes real cream cheese.  And Murray’s sells Ben’s Cream Cheese which is also real cream cheese.


Yogurt was the first dairy to go.  I stopped eating it a long time ago.  I would only eat Greek yogurt before Greek yogurt became the rage.  But once Greek yogurt became popular, a lot of brands popped up on the market offering better quality yogurts.  You can find plain Greek yogurt that doesn’t have any fillers, but that’s usually not the case for flavored yogurts.  And the worst offenders are the ones that are supposed to be better for you like the lowfat and nonfat ones.  They have the most fillers.  So you’ll see the gums, starches, pectin, gelatin, agar agar etc.  (If you’re vegetarian, you don’t want gelatin.) I stick with plain Greek yogurt and try to buy local.


I’ve already sung the praises of buttermilk, but you’d be hard pressed to find real buttermilk anymore.  Real buttermilk does have a sour flavor, but it’s wonderful to drink.  The stuff they sell as buttermilk in the stores is incredibly nasty to drink.  It’s got carrageenan in it and gums.  Very unpleasant.  Once in a while I find a brand of buttermilk that doesn’t skimp and I try to buy them out. 


When I was growing up, I loved cereal with milk.  Whole milk used to be a treat.  Skim milk was a bit more watered down, not so pleasant.  These days, skim milk is like water and whole milk is almost like how skim milk used to be.  On the rare occasion I eat a bowl of cereal, I find myself using light cream instead of milk to get the taste of what whole milk used to be.

Heavy cream

When we were kids, it was a delight to get out the hand mixer and make our own fresh whipped cream.  We’d have it with berries sometimes in the summer.  As an adult, I still do that on occasion.  If I make a dessert, I like to make my own whipped cream.  But it’s impossible today to find heavy cream that doesn’t have fillers.  Most have carrageenan, some have mono & diglycerides, some have milk.  I still use it, but only when I find a brand that’s just cream.

Sour cream

Apparently, one can still find sour cream made from cream.  Thank goodness for Daisy sour cream

Cottage cheese

Again, thank goodness for Daisy cottage cheese, which is made from milk and cream while other brands like Kraft’s Breakstone’s add whey, modified food starch, xanthan gum and guar gum.

Ice Cream

Ice cream was my favorite food, but I rarely find one I truly enjoy these days.  For the most part, I think it is being made with this same fat-less milk I mention above.  Haagen Dazs is the only brand that uses real milk and cream but even some of its flavored ice creams have ingredients like soybean oil and soy lecithin (ones with chocolate).  What bothers me is that luxury brands that go up to more than $10 a pint still have gums and fillers.  I appreciate that Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream uses fair trade ingredients.  But for premium ingredients, the ice creams have tapioca starch in them, and also, nonfat milk is the first ingredient in most of them.  Steve’s uses grassfed milk and cream as the first ingredients in most of his ice creams, but they all have guar gum too.  I’m wondering if ice cream makers need to add gums because of the problem I mentioned with the milk above–that it doesn’t have a high-enough fat content?  I understand that these gums act as stabilizers and emulsifiers.  However, why do manufacturers need them now when they didn’t used to?  What is different about the milk that requires the use of these ingredients?  Honestly, I grew up in a time when ice cream was made from cream, milk and sugar and it tasted good–like ice cream should.  Why can’t it be made that way anymore?  My guess–the lack of fat in today’s milk.  I don’t need a stabilizer to make ice cream at home.  I buy top-of-the-line heavy cream and milk and it works just fine.

Read my post on ice cream here.

In the days of high unemployment, a food scientist is probably one of the few people who have stable employment these days, scrambling to come up with new ways to disguise plastic as food.

Escarole and Beans

escarole and beans

escarole and beans

Escarole and beans is an Italian soup. It’s great this time of year because it’s a healthy recipe that’s perfect for a post-holiday detox. We always called this shka-roll and beans, as the Neapolitan dialect pronounced sc as a sh sound (which is done in Tuscan/standard Italian only when followed by e or i).

Escarole and Beans

1 lb. dried cannellini beans (or 2 cans cannellini beans)

2 medium bunches of escarole

1/4 cup olive oil

1 or 2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cloves garlic, minced or not

salt and red pepper flakes to taste


If using dried beans, soak them in water overnight. (Make sure they are covered with water but do not cover the bowl.) The next day, drain the water. Put them in a soup pot and add enough water to cover them. Add the salt, red pepper flakes, parsley, tomato paste, olive oil and garlic. Cook beans for 2 hours. While they cook, wash the escarole. You want to do this carefully, as escarole can be dirty. Chop it into bite-size pieces. In the last 10-15 minutes of cooking, add the escarole. Stir it in and let it cook down. Serve with parmesan or romano cheese. If you are using canned beans instead, rinse and drain them. You do not have to cook them for two hours. Just bring to a boil with all the other ingredients, simmer a few minutes, add the escarole and cook for 10-15 minutes until escarole is cooked.

Day 7: 12 Days of Southern Food Gifts

To represent the 12 Days of Christmas (which start the day after Christmas but I’m doing it earlier so you can give these as Christmas gifts), I’m showcasing 12 days of delicious artisanal food treats from the American South.  These are hand-picked by me, Dina, because I’ve tried them and they are delicious.

Big Spoon, nut butter

Day 7, Durham, North Carolina: Big Spoon Roasters nut butters

Big Spoon is the best thing to happen to peanut butter since, well, peanut butter. The nuts are roasted by hand and then they are milled to create a coarse texture. The owner learned how to make peanut butter this way while in the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe. Try the peanut pecan–the perfect blend of North Carolina’s two favorite nuts.