By Letizia Mattiacci
o you remember that once-upon-a-time when you could ask people what seemed to be a fairly simple question, "What do you like to eat?"
Those days are over, my friends.
Food behavior has reached new frontiers, if not landed on a brave new world.
Gluten is off of the table, Paleo diet followers are up (no grains, legumes or dairy products), and veganism is rising just as spectacularly even in our little corner of carnivore rural Umbria.
As for me, I just don't know what to cook for people anymore. Everybody in the "special dietary needs" generation appears to have decided badge of honor-style that they need to have something they can't or shouldn't eat.
Please don't get wrong. I have a profound respect for dietary freedom. Particularly when it's done for environmental reasons.
In fact, I'd be vegan myself if it hadn't been for three years of Ph.D. research. Part of my job was feeding soybeans to stinkbugs. Imagine walking into a room full of stinkbugs and soybeans every day for months on end. Sorry, I just can't manage to love it again.
What I don't get is the expanding food elimination craze with zero tolerance toward whatever food happens to be on anyone's personal hit list, which can mean no wheat, no nuts, no sugar, no fish, no dairy, no nightshades, not cooked, you name it. Take a group of 10 people and at least four are likely to tell you that they don't eat an entire category of basic foods. And not, mind you, because they're allergic or intolerant.
That's fine and maybe even fair enough if you're at home or ordering at your favorite raw-centric joint.
But say someone invites you for a social event. Do you really think it's normal to ask your host to cook a completely separate dinner not because you're allergic but because you're on a special diet of your own making? And then announce at the table that (sigh, poor you), you'll have what other guests are having because, "It's a party and I'll make an exception"?
Well, I'm having a bad day, so I'll give it to you straight. Making a dinner for 10 is a lot of work. Making a nice dinner for 10 is even more work. Making a dinner for 9+1 is agony. If you're looking to be invited again, please don't count on it.
So, whoever you are: Please eat the eggplant I'm making. Do it for your friend (me) who's been huffing and puffing around a hot stove for the better part of the day, to make food for you. No, it won't give you arthritis. In fact, you might even enjoy it. I promise.
Nonlethal grilled eggplants (Serves 2-3 as a side dish)
Ά Heat up a stovetop grill or a BBQ. Meanwhile, peel and cut eggplants crosswise into 3-4 mm (1/10-inch) thick slices. Place the olive oil, garlic and lemon juice in shallow bowl to make a marinade. Add some chopped basil or parsley if you like.
Ά Parcook the eggplants. Transfer a few slices in a plate, creating no more than two layers.
Ά Put them in a microwave for 1-2 minutes until they just start getting moist and tender. Don't cook them too long as they'll just disintegrate on the grill.
Ά Grill the slices until cooked through and slightly charred, then transfer them into the marinade and cover with a lid so they will infuse.
If you have time, prepare them a couple of hours in advance and serve at room temperature. Season with salt just before serving.
In case of dietary panic attacks, pour additional wine.
Perugia has a troika of protector saints but only one of them is endowed with a special romantic gift.
Umbrian nuns once took up refuge in a lovely valley, though loveliness in the Middle Ages was relative.
While it's easy to idealize a "nonna" cooking for the kids in a bucolic kitchen, rural realities were different.
Participating in a grape harvest is great way to meet people, break a sweat (and bread), and pick up delicious recipes.
Celebrity chef creativity is fine. Calling Italian dishes Italian when they're personal twists is not.
More In Provincia