aken as a whole, the Italian holiday menu can defeat an elephant. The stuffing ritual begins as early as Dec. 8, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, with mugs of hot chocolate with doppia panna (double cream). Less than a week later comes Santa Lucia, she of the traditional buttery biscuits.
But Mission Impossible opens its real run on Christmas Eve, when southern Italians warm up with seafood and fish banquets that feature capitone (female eel) in a vinegar marinade, stewed cod with olives, raisins and pine nuts, lobster, grilled scallops or oysters and crab (for the rich), steamed salmon, sautéed mussels, pasta with a piquant tuna ragù, and whatever else family recipe tradition imposes.
These meals usually end with torrone (soft or jaw-breaking honey and almond nougat, or in a milk chocolate version), panettone and pandoro (classic Italian Christmas cakes), struffoli (Neapolitan fried dough drizzled with honey and colored sprinkles), dried figs and dates, mixed nuts; copiously drown in liters of fine spumante.
With unbuckled belts and hangovers, family members then gather the next day for Christmas Day lunch! That menu is likely to include tagliatelle, agnolotti (meat-filled ravioli) or lasagne, and a selection of chicken soup primi: tortellini, passatelli, cappelletti, or canederli.
Main courses vary by region, but classic Christmas staples are fritto misto (a mixed fried vegetable platter), roast capon, guinea fowl, braised spezzatino, roast beef, the gargantuan bollito misto experience, or ossobuco. Needless to say, the accompanying wine flows generously.
The respite last only until New Year’s Eve, when trays of prosperity-bearing lentils, boiled cotechino (pork sausage) and zampone (pig’s trotter) appear at midnight, along with more desserts and spumante.
After the abuse, there’s always a time of abdominal repose and deep repentance. But instead of fasting and making resolutions that involve promising never again to ingest anything other than liquids, I recommend you follow my “Big Eater’s post-Feste Detox Ground Rules.”
- Get rid of tempting leftovers. Though pandoro sliced and warmed to a slight crisp for breakfast is divine, enough is enough. Remove half-open jars of foie gras and nutella from the pantry. Nuts and remaining dried fruits, poultry bones and odd meats can all be recycled in healthy savory pies, salads and pizza toppings.
- Cleanse the liver. In December, spumante, prosecco, champagne, franciacorta, and vino of all shades, grapes and colors mine the health of your most powerful filtering organ. Give it a rest, replete with the proverbial eight glasses of water (minimum) a day, and plenty of tisanes, herbal teas and chamomile. I allow myself one glass of robust red wine on a special evening, per week.
- Reduce portion size. My brother-in-law taught me to eat meals the size of my fist, and when I occasionally diet, that’s the trick that makes me shed pounds, without giving up cappuccino or my other favorite treats.
- Cut the salt. Salty foods cause fluid retention and puffiness, and can cause serious damage on a sleep deprived, food coma holiday subject. If you start eating without salt, you’ll find that in time you’ll need less and less to season your foods.
- Eat fruit. Doesn’t have to be rigorous like dieting, though. I get my Vitamin C intake via lush salads made with peeled orange wedges, Kalamata olives, dressed with olive oil and seasoned with fennel seeds and white pepper. Throw fruit and blooms in salads, or add apples and pears to hearty grain soups and minestrone. Snack on grapes, which are high in potassium (essential in maintaining normal kidney function) and metabolic stimulants like grapefruit.
- Go vegetarian for a week. Pepper up your lean amatriciana, substituting guanciale with punchy leaves of antioxidant arugula thrown in at the last minute before serving. Go easy on the eggs and cheeses, relying instead on grains, legumes, seasonal greens and leafy veggies. This time of year even restaurants serve up a forest palette worthy of kings: chickory, broccoli rabe, spinach, artichokes, puntarelle, Tuscan kale, served all’agro (with a dribble of lemon juice and olive oil) or sautéed with garlic and chili flakes, for extra flavor.
- Cut the carbs. If you can manage to eliminate gluten and starch from your diet for seven days, your body will feel different, purified and unexpectedly full of energy. On hold go pizza, pasta, risotto, polenta, bread, cake, pie, corn, cereal, oatmeal, potatoes, cookies, and all things similarly wonderful.
- Drink wisely and basta sugar. Refined sugars cause spikes in blood sugar and, thus, cravings. Alcohol and caffeine cause dehydration, while sodas and soft drinks contain fructose, the substance with the highest quantity of carbs per gram. Remember that.
- Make broth. Chicken soup, our mothers taught us, does wonders for the soul. Same goes for the digestive system. Drop a few cantaloupe balls (high in digestive enzymes) in warm consommé, or serve it chilled in a tall glass, brodo does wonders for a stressed body.
- Avoid red meat. We’ve all heard of the morning-after hangover hamburger, but after the holiday binge, it’s best to stick to foods low in fat and high in nutrients. So after the vegetarian week, stick to veal, lamb, chicken and turkey for your animal protein.