I awoke to rain and hail that last morning I spent in Tuscany. And so, rather than rolling my bike out of the garage, I reluctantly packed up my cycling clothing and shoes, and descended the stone steps to the kitchen where a completely worthy task was waiting for me. If I couldn’t ride, I’d at least prepare for all the rides ahead.
I took a copy of Skratch Labs “Feed Zone Portables“ cookbook to Candice and Matteo as a thank you gift for having me as a guest at the villa of Matteo’s family in San Casciano. (The plan was that I, too, would be able to play with the recipes!) I presented it one night over a simple post-ride meal of baked zucchini flowers, rigatoni w/ricotta sauce, and a valeriana salad which launched us into a discussion of eating, and racing, and training as a cyclist in Italy.
I could hardly believe my ears when Matteo explained that, not so unlike in the United States, Italian riders were beginning to prefer specific “ride fuel” bars and gels — which end up being sweeter than their American counterparts and look and taste even less like real food than some of those available to us here in the States. As a general rule, Italians pledge allegiance to foods in their most virtuous forms, and they stand unwavering when it comes to eating, and cooking, insistent upon preparing foods as they always have been prepared by the recipes passed down generation to generation. For decades, their riders have mirrored this sentiment tucking straight-forward (and maybe even boring) panino into their jersey pockets for the epic climbs that still define road cycling as we know it. When I asked him how on earth Italian riders were justifying eating “non foods” for rides, instead of sticking with tradition, Matteo (an avid racer himself) smirked and commented that the only reason that Italians were starting to wear bicycle helmets was because they are a chic way to show off extra carbon on their person; they subscribe to the fads of cycling the same way that they would anything else en vogue. Since when did “non-food” become en vogue? I hypothesize that I could spend hours waxing poetic on this, but I’ll save that for another time.
Matteo and Candice: these lovely, strong, lovebirds are still navigating how they fuel themselves for work, life, racing and riding and they adored the idea, and fresh perspective of the book as much as I have. Designed with busy folks in mind, this second cookbook by physiologist Allen Lim and chef Biju Thomas is chocoblock full of recipes to help riders and athletes redefine the way they think about preparing food, and fueling for their efforts; hand-held, packable treats, and make-on-the-go snacks that ensure no matter where a racer may roam, they’ll never be subject to “road-food.” As the rain fell, Candice and I dug into the recipes — specifically, the now-world renown rice cakes. We weren’t about to go out on a rainy day to buy ingredients, nor did we need to with the garden located below the house just a few meters away. So we set to work using what we had on hand without breaking the simple rules of rice cake concocting; a quick inventory revealed some some nectarines I picked up from a farm stand in Umbria, pecorino cheese from the cheesemonger in San Giovanni, and fresh basil + lemons from the garden at the villa. An ingredient list perfect for taking a twist on the Raspberry + Mint Rice Cakes that Allen and Biju outline in the book.
Our rainy day experiments were valuable that for several reasons; firstly, Candice couldn’t believe how little time it took for us to prepare the cakes (even though their rice cooker is on order and we cooked the rice the conventional way.) We talked about a few ways that each recipe could be manipulated based on the seasons and what she had on hand — which made the book less of a “manual” and more of a guidebook for cooking and eating well as they trained for their upcoming races. (No small feats – the Dolomiti Sportful and the Maratona del Dolomiti. Whoa!) Lastly, I was over the moon to learn that while the cakes make up most easily with a sushi or sticky rice variety, we were able to build them with arborio rice instead — an italian kitchen staple that wouldn’t require Candice or Matteo to venture into Florence to find an asian food market. In order to make sure that the rice was sticky enough to hold a cake, we increased the amount of water used to cook the rice, which seemed to work out just fine, at least in the interim while the rice cooker arrives.
The result was fresh and sweet and satisfying. And, as we wrapped the cakes (eating almost every other one before it could be wrapped,) we determined that the Italian kitchen is just as well suited for rice cake-ery as any other kitchen. Bravi, and buon appetito!
*Skratch Labs, and race course chefs Biju Thomas + Allen Lim are working magic and feeding pelotons all over the United States using recipes that they share in their books, FeedZone, and Feed Zone Portables. To see them in action, check out this little video from the SkratchLabs Blog. For the best method with which to cut and wrap your rice cakes, see this little video from Allen.