Healing and Melted Tomato Bruschetta
The colorful treasure above is my new favorite appetizer. Creamy, garlicky ricotta smeared on a lightly toasted slice of bread that’s crunchy on the outside with a bit of chew on the inside when the crisp shell gives way. Even though it’s only May here in Chicago and fresh tomatoes are yet the stuff only ravenous dreams are made of, roasted tomatoes with their bright sweetness are satisfying enough to tide me over until August. These gems are from last year’s harvest (The recipe link below will explain how I’ve managed to preserve them all these months.), but roasting tomatoes is also a great way to breathe life into a pint of store-bought cherries this time of year. And unless you are exceedingly patient, which Greg tells me I’m not, you won’t want to wait until August to try this recipe.
As delicious as this bruschetta is—if the fact that I’ve made it three times in as many weeks tells you anything—I’ve sworn it off, along with an extensive list of my favorite foods. Last week we took a thirty day pledge to go without dairy, sugar, grains, legumes, and alcohol. Specific to me this means, no Friday pizza night, no Saturday night popcorn with Saturday Night Live, no creamy Gorgonzola on a raisin crisp, no sipping wine while I cook dinner, and no peanut butter toast at breakfast. Greg shares my pain especially when it comes to pizza though he can take or leave the booze. His biggest craving is for sweets. In past attempts to give up sugar, he hasn’t lasted a week.
We have been dancing around the notion of an elimination diet (give up certain foods for an extended period of time, then slowly reintroduce them into your diet and observe how your body responds to them) for months now. My innards are likely constructed of cast iron, but Greg’s not so lucky. We often play the game of “what did you eat” when he’s stricken at 2AM with tummy trouble. We’re already following a doctor prescribed anti-inflammatory diet as a means of managing Greg’s genetically derived high cholesterol. Last year his doctor asked him to limit dairy, wheat, and processed sugar, not give them up entirely. There is a big difference between limit and eliminate, like the difference between having pizza on Friday night and, gasp, not having pizza on Friday night.
Then last month my eldest niece Kate sent me this text, “Have you read It Starts With Food? It’s right up your alley.” The answer was no. I’d never even heard of the book, but the trap was set. My whole life starts—and ends—with food. Besides, anytime someone I admire says something is up my alley, they have my full attention. The book, which I immediately purchased after our text exchange, outlines the Whole 30 challenge and describes how the food groups you’re eliminating affect the body. It’s chock full of research that makes sense to me, having spent the last year collaborating with a nutritionist for Conscious Crumbs cooking lessons. Testimonials are sprinkled amidst the data, but all it took was one to spring the trap. Dallas Hartwig, a nutritionist and trainer and one of the book’s co-authors, had suffered for nearly two years from chronic tendonitis in his shoulder. He tried everything with little to no success. Then he changed his diet as a means of limiting the inflammation, specifically giving up legumes. Six weeks later his shoulder was healed.
For two months I’ve been battling proximal hamstring tendinopathy (PHT), an uncommon sports injury likely brought on by treadmill running and pulling off my snow boots. (Thanks again Old Man Winter!) In layman’s terms PHT means that the common origination point of my three hamstring muscles is inflamed or more simply, I have an excruciating pain in my butt. Running is out and so is yoga, even walking and sitting are painful. The cases with the shortest recovery time (3-6 months) are the ones where the person did nothing outside of physical therapy. NOTHING. (I could insert three more paragraphs here describing what this is doing to my mental state, but I will spare you.) Could a change in my diet really be the answer?
Greg and I spent our Sunday morning mulling it over while noshing on Gruyere covered eggs and toast slathered in raspberry jam. My pizza loving, sugar craving husband was the first to say, “let’s do it.” Even with my pain, I was a little slower to come around. The program flies directly in the face of my, well, Julia Child’s really, credo, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” But thirty days isn’t forever, so I agreed. I grabbed my phone and texted Kate, “I’m in! And so is Greg.”
Breakfasts are easy: smoothies with a mix of fruit, kale, and cashews or almond butter or veggie frittatas hold the cheese. Greg loves leftovers and is happy to have last night’s dinner for today’s lunch, while I’m having a giant salad loaded with tuna, olives, and artichoke hearts. Dinner and the limitation on legumes has been the biggest challenge so far. We aren’t big meat eaters, and beans and lentils provide much of our protein requirements. With my go-to, in a hurry move of beans and garlicky greens off the table, our dinners require more advance planning. I’m reaching for different cookbooks, revisiting past issues of Bon Appetit and Saveur, and loving every minute of the creative process so much that I almost don’t miss my glass of wine while I cook: Scallops with Carrot Coconut Curry Sauce, Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken with Cashew Pesto, Spaghetti Squash with Chorizo and Chili Glazed Mushrooms, and Roasted Butternut Squash with Eggplant and Tahini Sauce. Alas, we’re not exactly suffering here.
Five days in we’re both sleeping noticeably better than we have in a very long time. We’re also lacking the energy we had a week ago, something the book told us to expect in the first week as our bodies re-calibrate and adjust to new fuel sources. The most fascinating part for me so far relates to the psychological aspects, the noticeable differences between a habit—a glass of wine while I cook, a craving—Greg squirming in his chair after dinner because he can’t reach for a piece of chocolate, and real hunger. We’re learning a lot about our bodies, and almost as much about our minds. As for my butt, well, it still hurts.
Kicking our cravings and habits to the curb will take longer than a week. I want to peel that bruschetta above right off my monitor and sink my teeth into it, but Whole 30 is an all or nothing program—no cheat days, no exceptions. And when it’s over, I will have to wait a bit longer before I slather up my toasts with silky ricotta. Food groups must be reintroduced slowly and one at a time: dairy first, grains with gluten four days later, followed by non-gluten grains, and finally legumes on day ten. But if giving up wine and pizza for a month or more means that I’ll be strapping on my running shoes by the time the summer solstice arrives, then it’s all worth it.
Melted Tomato Bruschetta with Roasted Garlic Ricotta
- MELTED TOMATOES
8 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
freshly ground black pepper
18, 3/8-inch thick baguette slices
- To roast the garlic: heat oven to 375°F. Put garlic cloves in the center of a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Generously drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Fold up the foil packet and seal tightly. Bake for about 45-60 minutes or until the garlic is soft.
- In a small bowl, mash the roasted garlic cloves until a paste forms. Add the ricotta and mix until thoroughly combined. Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper. Refrigerate until ready to assemble bruschetta.
- To toast bread: preheat a stove-top griddle or grill pan on medium-high heat. Brush both sides of the sliced bread with olive oil and grill until golden, about 1 to 2 minutes. (Or place on a cookie sheet and bake at 350°F until lightly brown, about 8-10 minutes. Remove and let cool.)
- Generously slather ricotta mixture on each toast. Top with a spoonful of melted tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil. Serve at room temperature or warm in oven at 350°F for 5-7 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh basil immediately before serving.
Makes 18 bruschetta.