A few weeks ago, I wrote about how healthy food can and should be tasty. This is contrary to a common perception that healthy food is unexciting and antisocial. Fresh, quality ingredients, cooked well, balanced in flavour and combined with herbs are far better than dishes that try to be tasty by using sauces and fats, which mask the real flavour of the main ingredients.
This week, continuing on our tour of Italy, I share with you some principles for constructing the flavour of dishes, so you can create tasty gourmet recipes that are good for your well-being.
On the island of Ortigia, the historic centre of Siracusa, Sicily, and a Unesco World Heritage site, there is a special restaurant called Oinos (oinosrestaurant.it), where I recently spent several happy lunches and dinners.
The owner, Ivo Vatti, is passionate about the ingredients he uses. He tells me that his restaurant operates on the "micro-grocery" principle.
He spends the morning finding the best ingredients, which will be used only on that day. "Because I spend so much effort finding ingredients, I make sure that they are respected when they're cooked so that their superior natural flavours are preserved."
This means he's against deep-frying and in favour of applying gentle heat, cooking food as little as possible by steaming and boiling. He also minimises the use of fats and sauces, using extra virgin olive oil instead.
His dishes are works of art, rooted in the tradition of Sicily but lighter and healthier, using the knowledge of nutrition that has become available to all. "My clients come to eat here for pleasure, not for need. They come to try new tastes," Vatti says.
The human tongue can taste five flavours - sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami - but our noses can detect more than 10,000 smells. This is why we are not able to enjoy flavours when we have a cold. When you cook, take note of the five basic flavours and balance two or more of them in a single dish.
When you taste a dish, ask yourself: which is the first flavour you notice? What comes after it? Do the two flavours work well together? "You must think about the dishes that you make; you cannot just let them happen by chance," Vatti insists.
For me, this is the fun part of cooking. Free yourself from slavishly following recipes; rather, understand how they are constructed so you can add your own creativity to them by making use of what you have in your fridge or at the store. A chef's best friends are herbs and spices, which add depth and aroma to dishes. Basil, oregano, thyme, mint, parsley ... use plenty of them.
To complete the sensory experience, take note of the texture of foods when you bite into them and give pleasure to the eye by manipulating colours and presentation.
Complicated? Hardly. The recipe for Vatti's carpaccio di gamberi rossi di Sicilia - or Sicilian red prawn carpaccio - shows how easy whipping up a healthy dish can be. The prawns are extremely sweet, the wild greens are bitter, the orange-flavoured vinaigrette is acidic, and the whole nuts add texture.
Sicilian red prawn carpaccio Serves 4
200g Sicilian red prawns, shelled
Extra virgin olive oil
Some wild greens
A handful of walnuts
Clean the prawns of their intestines. Place them between two sheets of cling film and flatten them using a weight. Mould the flattened prawns into the shape of a square.
- Make the vinaigrette by mixing one part orange juice (one orange) and two parts oil.
- Cut the other orange into small pieces.
Arrange the prawns, oranges pieces, greens and walnuts on a plate. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve.
Healthy Gourmet is a weekly recipe column by private chef Andrea Oschetti. He can be reached at email@example.com