The Douro River Valley – A Love Story

The Tunnel of Love

There’s a place, deep in a river valley in northern Portugal, that is rich in natural resources and tended to by humble, dedicated people. It is called the Douro River Valley and is romantic, intoxicating and magnetic. Its fertility, along with a temperate climate, stirs up the perfect recipe for growing grapes. Steep, terraced vineyards rise up from the river grazing the clouds of mist that hang above. Quintas, or wineries, splash the landscape announcing their names on painted rocks, like the sign in the Hollywood hills. Dignified and enduring, the terroir has been producing wine since 2000 B.C.

Quinta Sandeman

I am exploring this river on a Viking Cruise where an outside deck becomes my viewing station for the spectacular scenery I experience. As our ship gently glides along the glassy Douro, the trees and small buildings reflect perfectly, like twins, along the river bank. I feel cozy and tucked in. Ducks emerge from the water ahead and flee upward to escape our approach. Is this the Tunnel of Love?

Twins

Quinta from river
Ducks flee

This fertile valley breaths freely without the clutter of freeways, big hotels or Starbucks to distract from its playground. Alluring villages cluster tightly together as if in solidarity to keep their heritage alive. The Douro valley communities share their unique gifts with each other offering specialities of pork, wine, cheese, bread, and olive oil.

United Douro families

White-washed quintas, olive groves, orange and persimmon trees deliver bursts of color amidst the wintery, avocado green landscape. The tranquility is profound, meditative. Only the lullaby of a soft breeze occupies the air. Clouds hang so low in an airbrushed effect that I feel like I’m part of a painting, a collage of all things artistic and beautiful. One cannot help but feel connected to Mother Earth, part of her roots, reaching into her soul.

Hillside collage

Terraced vineyard leading to their quintas.

Lazy dogs fall under her spell and sleep alongside the vines. They must feel the peaceful energy too. Yes, life here in the Douro Valley seems idyllic, although I’m sure the locals feel the same daily pressures we do. It’s just at a slower pace, in an environment that fosters the use of its nature-provided ingredients to serve up exquisite wine and port alongside other things good that present on a tapas plate. I long to return. It’s a love story not yet finished.

What a life!

“What I do, and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems

Ciao for now!

Mary




A Tease of Portugal

My beautiful, colorful Porto

A new place has touched my heart and her name is Portugal. An old European soul, she remains unspoiled with raw beauty and a depth of cultural influence. I wasn’t surprised as I’d heard so many wonderful things about this country that I had to experience it for myself.

So taken with her old-world charm, an immediate seduction took hold. Like eating a very fine dark chocolate, and the warmth that flows through your body, leaving you craving more. Yes, this place deserves more than the 10 days we would spend in her company.

To get an overview of Portugal, my mom and I chose to take a Viking cruise down the Douro River. We started our exploration in Lisbon, which we just barely touched in a day, then headed to Porto, on the Douro, where our ship was docked. Rio Douro means “river of gold” because its water looks like gold when reflecting the sun. At the mouth of the river, the Douro flows between two Portuguese cities: Porto on one side and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other. Our ship, the Hemming, was actually docked on Gaia, providing spectacular views of Porto, a city that emerged in the 4th century.

I love color!

A musical entertainer on the streets of Porto. Check out his gnomes!

My eyes gazed in wonder at the panorama of Porto, pronounced “Purtu” by the Portuguese. Dots of sunflower yellow, Dutch blue and deep salmon stack up high on the water’s edge, praying to the Douro on which shore they lie. High above peek ancient churches, museums and monuments calling me to step inside the city and indulge my curiosity. I feel like I am entering a fairy tale time warp and about to discover something magical and mystical in this city of old. The feeling is so strong that I am wondering if the locals would be going about their daily activities in 16th century costume.

Church of Saint Ildefonso. Simply stunning!

Tight, winding cobblestone streets weave through the city, showcasing stunning tile work around every corner. The abundance of glazed, ceramic tiles or azulejos, were a main lure for visiting Portugal. I learned that the tile work was influenced by the Moors, who initiated the art form to Spain and Portugal. It quickly took hold as a way to cover up blank walls and provide insulation, not to mention to bring a touch of opulence. Now entire buildings are dressed in the traditional blue and white patterned tiles, interspersed with houses tiled in yellow, green and red azulejos. The entire city looks like one big painting, telling her story with art as her passion.

Porto
Lisbon
Lisbon
IMG_5913

Small, local shops sell bacalhau, a Portuguese favorite of dried and salted cod, linens, azulejos, port wine and cork products. I never realized the many products made from cork that come from southern Portugal. The bark from the cork oak tree is carefully removed by certified harvesters then processed to make it soft and spongy. The finished product resembles fine leather. The water-resistant and fire-proof cork “leather” is used to make gorgeous purses, shoes, flooring, wall insulation, fabric, even surfboards! Of course, the main cork production is in cork stoppers. Warm and friendly shop keepers engage me in conversation, their soft accents almost a mixture of French and Spanish.

 

Pretty cork purses

Music is born into Portugal’s blood and Fado is its music of choice. Many bars and cafes offer evenings of Fado, a folk music that is usually melancholy. A singer expresses her laments as a guitar or mandolin accompanies her or him. It is hauntingly beautiful. Here is a song from Trovadores Oportuna, a group we enjoyed listening to: Fado music by Trovadores Oportuna

Always in search of the local eats, I discovered the favorite morning and mid-afternoon pastry. It is Pastel de Natal, an egg yolk based custard baked in a puff pastry crust. The dense three to four bite pastries are sweet and creamy lightened by the crunchy butter crust. They are usually served warm and are particularly tasty with a coffee. The windows of the many sweet shops were bulging with decadent Christmas cakes, fruitcake and even giant meringues. All begging to be taken home to be enjoyed for the holidays.

Local Pastries Briosa
Local Pastries Briosa
St. Jeronimo Monastery Pastel de Nata & Cafe

I dream of returning; to dig deeper into Portugal’s roots, to feel the uneven cobblestones beneath my feet, to taste the briny shellfish, to engage the people and learn the stories of their lives and mostly to relax into her easy-going pace as I sip an espresso and watch the world go by.

Ciao for now,

Mary

P.S. Just last week I discovered that on Parts Unknown Anthony Bourdain visited Porto. The show aired on June 25, 2017. Take a look if you want to dive deeper into this city of stories, art and history. Here are his field notes and links to his show.  Parts Unknown Porto




10 Things I Love About New Jersey

Waterloo Canal

I’ve been resisting writing about my latest vacation escape. Not because it wasn’t memorable – quite the opposite. But, I just can’t get it out of my mind so needed to share. I went to New Jersey. When I told my friends I was going to The Garden State, they quickly remarked with visualizations of smoke stacks, unattractive clusters of tall buildings, and traffic congestion. Why go there, they asked?

I too, wasn’t sure what to expect, but was curious to see for myself, especially since my dear cousin, Ali, lives there. Turns out, I cannot wait to return! (And, I experienced none of the above-mentioned negatives!)

Here’s what this California girl found enchanting in this nature land.

  1.  In Ali’s backyard: The cicadas hiding in the thick, towering pine and oak trees, their soothing song intensifying, then receding. A hawk soaring overhead. A special tree with branches twisting like an old woman’s fingers, giving birth to an umbrella of graceful limbs, adorned with pistachio-colored leaves. Ahhh – to have a backyard like this…

    Creek in Ali’s backyard.

    Backyard sunset

  2. The many farm stands lining the stretches of country roads with ripe red tomatoes, fresh picked corn and watermelon luring us in. Baskets of pink and orange hued peaches ready for pies.
  3. The big, bold and colorful flowers that only make an appearance during the warm summer months.

    Sunflowers shine on New Jersey!

  4. The wineries – really! intermittently scattered between the farm stands. The wine makers offered up friendly hospitality and affordable tastings of decent wine. In the evenings, at Brook Hollow Winery, concerts and trivia night entertain the locals and twice monthly, they have yoga in the vineyards!

    Brook Hollow Winery New Jersey

  5. Tree-lined country roads took us everywhere. Deer sightings!
  6. Ali’s street, where within a half mile, you can buy fresh eggs, local, grass-fed beef, pick your own fruit and immerse your senses in the rich herbal scents of lavender at Orchard View Lavender Farm. Ali- you are a lucky girl!
    Lavender farm
    Butterlfy
  7. The light-hearted M & M signs that made me smile in Hackettstown, home of M & M’s and Mars candy.

    M&M Twins, Hackettstown, New Jersey

  8. Hiking the Delaware Water Gap. Traversing rocks to climb to the top, in the mist for a spectacular view of the snaking Delaware River.

    Water Gap Trail

    Water Gap view, shared with Ali and Harry

    A view worth climbing for!

  9. Experiencing Waterloo Village, an 1831 canal town, barely restored but expansive and lush with very few visitors other than us. Fun to peek in the windows of deserted old houses! A little paradise.

    Waterloo Village, New Jersey

    Deserted house

    Waterloo Bridge

    I have a fascination with old wooden houses! Who lived here?

  10. Dinner AND Brunch at James on Main, Ali’s favorite local restaurant. In the truest sense of the word, this intimate farm-to-table restaurant uses all locally and seasonally sourced meats and produce. We ate at the counter facing the kitchen to observe our meals being assembled. I loved how the cooks took care to use tongs to gently plate the salads and side dishes, tucking bits of spinach back into place, just so, or perking up a fig to expose her tiger flesh. I could go on and on about my dining experiences here, it was that fabulous. Perfectionists to a “t.” The friendly and talented staff made us feel like family and the food was simply delicious. Somehow, I just can’t seem to find places like this in San Diego.

    Brunch eggs all decked out.

    James on Main briny oysters with character and flavor.

    James on Main exquisite desserts.

Yes, the east coast has won me over. Could these good vibes be the reason for this particularly relaxing vacation? I just can’t get over the intense green farmland, vast forests and tranquility that surrounded us daily. Now I know why it’s called The Garden State. I’ve put my reservation in for next year. Thank you Ali and Harry the dog for sharing your wonderland with me. I loved every minute!

Cousins and best friends!

“Why does everyone make fun of New Jersey? It’s beautiful here,” she said.

“We live in America.”

“What does that mean?”

“People like to judge without knowing.”
Rich Marcello, The Color of Home

Ciao for now,

 




Caponata, Adele’s Way

Adele. The queen of Sicilian cooking and of caponata.

Roberto’s mom, Adele, was my cooking mentor the two weeks I spent in Sicily. I watched as she prepared, mostly by memory, Pan di Spagna, quiche al formaggio, gnocchi, Insalata Russa (delectable potato, shrimp and carrot salad), risotto, frittata, brioche and caponata.

Adele is the “nonna” (grandmother) of the family and queen of the kitchen. She is truly beautiful. With soft brown eyes and a wry grin, she was rarely without perfectly quaffed hair, her pearl earrings and pearl necklace. Her elegance is the epitome of a classy, sophisticated Italian woman. How I wish I could absorb just a bit of her style and class.

Cooking together in her narrow and efficient kitchen, I observed her graceful flow. Adele was focused, almost serious about her cooking. I admired her relaxed style and could always feel the love she put into every dish. Eager to show me one of her treasures, her tiny frame reached up high to a book shelf, her fingers pulling at the binding to release a book that gently fell into her hands. It was a  family cookbook of Sicilian specialities. Her father was well-known, in his circle of friends, for his culinary prowess and Adele naturally fell in line to share the same passion.

My favorite piece of equipment in Adele’s kitchen is an antique scale with gram and kilo weights for accurate measuring of recipes like brioche.

One afternoon, we made caponata, a Sicilian summer classic, using the island’s abundance of fresh, local produce. Adele’s recipe and method appealed to me because it is baked in the oven instead of stirred on the stove, freeing up our time to prepare other dishes. In Sicily, caponata is usually served cold, as a side dish or salad. It is also delicious as a topping for crostini. Caponata will last in the refrigerator 10 days so it can be prepared in advance.

Caponata awaiting its transformation.

Adele’s Caponata

Caponata, Adele’s Way
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

Caponata is a popular Sicilian dish found all over Sicily. This recipe is easy and delicious!
Author:
Recipe type: side dish, salad
Cuisine: Sicilian
Serves: 6-8

Ingredients
  • 1 eggplant, cut into 1” chunks (eggplant will shrink significantly as it cools)
  • 1 red pepper, sliced thinly into strips and then cut in half
  • 1 Tablespoon capers, rinsed to release their saltiness
  • ½ Cup Kalamata olives, halved
  • 2 Cups red or yellow grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • 1 medium onion, sliced thinly into rings
  • 2 Tablespoons toasted pine nuts or almonds or white raisins-optional
  • 4 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon white pepper

Instructions
  1. Stir all ingredients together and arrange on a sheet pan.
  2. Bake in a 350 degree oven, stirring every 15 minutes until done. The veggies will be soft but still retain their shape – not mushy. When I made this here in San Diego, it took 45 minutes and was absolutely delicious!
  3. Salt to taste.
  4. Notes: The capers and olives add salt so wait to taste for salt until after the caponata is finished.
  5. I prefer to stir in the nuts after it has been cooked to retain their texture.
  6. Cool and enjoy!

 

Finished delicious caponata.

Ready to serve!

Grazie Adele for sharing your kitchen, time and loving energy with me. We sure had a great time together!!

Adele and me sharing a moment.

“After arriving on the ancestral soil I figured out pretty quickly why that [Italian] heritage swamps all competition. It’s a culture that sweeps you in, sits you down in the kitchen, and feeds you so well you really don’t want to leave.”
― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Ciao for now,




Sicily, Seafood and Sunsets

“I’m taking you to the best seafood restaurant on the island of Sicily, maybe the entire world!” Roberto proclaimed. Roberto’s insistence that EVERYTHING in Sicily is the best is irritating at times. How can the  food be better than the meals I’d eaten in southern France, Tuscany and Puglia, my favorite places for food adventures? I was anxious to find out.
We drive north from Catania, for about 30 minutes, through narrow, winding neighborhood streets that hug the coastline to arrive in the tiny paese (village) of Santa Maria La Scala.

Santa Maria La Scala sits cradled in a storybook harbor, overlooking a tranquil Ionian Sea. Houses colored ochre, pistachio, melon and granite perch on volcanic rock facing small, bobbing fishing boats. Trattoria Scalo Grande’s location is its decoration. Simple pumpkin colored tablecloths, trimmed in white, and black chairs to match the railing keep the focus on the food. The sun is setting as we sit down at an outdoor table hovering over the harbor. The view is enchanting. The warm breeze invites me to relax into the Sicilian vibe. I glance at the menu but defer to Roberto to order the crudo I’d so anticipated. “Vino?” our waiter states more than asks. “Si! Vino Bianco Locale,” I respond. The wine comes in a recycled green bottle, is cool and delicious. We’ve mostly been drinking white wine on this vacation – weather driven – and its crispness pairs beautifully with the fish and lighter pasta dishes. The Sicilians fill their tumbler glasses a quarter full and drink slowly unlike their food which they inhale like its their last meal.

Loving every minute of this dinner.

Roberto, my guide in all things culinary in Sicily.

For our secondi, or second course, Roberto orders the sepia pasta made with squid ink and I decide to select my fish from the assortment displayed on ice inside the restaurant. The fish is priced by the kilo, so it depends on what you order. The waiter describes the fish using words like “forte,” strong and “pesce a polpa tenera,” soft flesh fish. A chubby “Pauro,” or seabream species, catches my eye. He will be grilled whole with no adornments except olive oil, lemon juice and fresh parsley.

Take your pick! It’s all good.

Our primi arrives in waves. Raw red shrimp, huddled together on a plate drizzled with a hint of olive oil and lemon juice starts us off. After the first bite, I begin to think Roberto really is onto something. Soft, sweet and fresh, melting in my mouth like a bon-bon. I could eat a bowl of these, they are that exquisite. Please be the magical replenishing plate! Alas, we must move on…

Sicilian crudo red shrimp. Fantastico!

I’m not sure how I feel about anchovies. In the U.S., they usually are oily, fishy and not fresh. But, these are different. They gleam. Butterflied to expose their delicate bodies, and dressed with the same olive oil, lemon juice and parsley, their briny and tender taste is bewitching.

Aren’t these the most beautiful anchovies you’ve ever seen?

Small chunks of warm tuna follow, then a delectable mixture of marinated octopus, shrimp and mussels.
The parade of seafood continues. A plate arrives with a trio of perfectly fried anchovies, shrimp and calamari. A squeeze of fresh lemon brings out even more flavor in these crispy bites.

Fried trio
Octopus
Warm tuna

Freshly steamed mussels, heaping in a bowl, are placed between us. I eagerly grab one and with a fork, pry out the orange meat. The subtle taste of wine and garlic accents the mussel’s tender bite. I eat in amazement as I have never eaten a mussel that has no chewiness or after taste. I’m all about texture as well as taste and these are simply the best mussels I have ever eaten. I smile at Roberto, in a fog from all the delectable flavors that have crossed our table, and nod my head. “Yes, Roberto, you are right about everything being fresher, tastier and better in Sicily.” Now there is no denying it.

The best mussels I have ever eaten!

My secondi of Pauro fish is served on an oval platter, laying in a pool of the ubiquitous garnish of olive oil, lemon juice and parsley. He is gorgeous! I expose the inner flesh and easily slide my fork under the set of bones to unlock them and set them aside. The Pauro’s meat is delicate, moist and divine with a spoonful of the sauce. Roberto is just as entranced with his squid ink pasta. Words simply cannot describe this meal.

Pauro
Squid ink pasta

For dessert, I opt for a digestive of lemon sorbetto. I taste a combination of lemon and key lime. Asking the waiter what kind of lemon it is, he replies, “locale,” or local. The different parts of the island deliver their own unique fruit flavors. I eat the cool, slushy sorbetto slowly, savoring every spoonful. Roberto’s mandorle (almond) semi-freddo drizzled with chocolate sauce is heavenly too. It melts in your mouth, is not too sweet and is just the perfect few bites to finish off the meal.

I could never duplicate this meal, this dessert. It is only meant for this place in time. An experience more than just a dinner. It will be etched in my memory forever… the warm ocean air, beautiful views, setting sun illuminating the city lights. Bellissimo!

A beautiful finale.

Trattoria Scalo Grande

66, 95024 Acireale

CT, Italy

39 328 883 2384

 

Her gaze dims as her nostalgia for Palermo overcomes her. Those smells of seaweed dried by the sun, of capers, of ripe figs, she will never find them anywhere else; those burnt and scented shores, those waves slowly breaking, jasmine petals flaking in the sun.”
― Dacia Maraini, The Silent Duchess

Ciao for now,




The Power of Agrigento

Temple della Concordia at Agrigento. Spectacular!

Have you ever been to a place that brought forth such a surge of emotion that it vibrated into the deepest part of your soul? A place so powerful, so ancient, that its energies pulsate, like a heartbeat, and still feels alive, even now, over 2500 years later? This is how I felt while visiting Agrigento or The Valley Of Temples on the south coast of Sicily. The extraordinary UNESCO site is preserved in honor of the Greeks, who built these magnificent temples to honor their gods. So humbled by this experience, I felt as if I were bowing to a lion.

Check out the view of the ocean from the temples.

The Greeks built their society on these dusty hills overlooking a turquoise sea to demonstrate their strength when viewed from below. It must have been, and still is, imposing and overwhelming in its grandeur. Almost as if giants lived here. Monumental Doric columns made of sandstone frame the temples, their walls lost to history and war, leaving a hollow, a void to be filled only by the spirits of their worshippers. But the small bodied Greeks, working their hearts out to create gratuity for their gods and goddesses, somehow designed and built temples that would last, freezing their time in existence. Hard to imagine!

A Telemone which is a male figure used as a pillar. His head is to the left and his arms are raised as if he is lifting something.

I’ve not been able to identify this statue, although I saw a replica of it in Pietrasanta a few years ago.

At every temple site, with headphones glued to my ears, I listened to the stories behind each structure; The Temples of Juno, Zeus, Hercules, Dioscuri, Persephone and Demeter. I was getting a Greek mythology lesson and I loved it. A thriving city-state housing over 300,000 inhabitants, Agrigento prospered under Greek rule and was respected for its brilliant architecture and its beauty. These people had it all. A fishing port down the hill. A valley behind, named Kolymbethra, abounding with orchards, gardens and wildlife. It came complete with a sophisticated hydraulic irrigation system, to be the envy of any present-day gardener. What more could you ask for? I guess that is why it was so heavily fortified, only to be conquered and re-conquered for its abundance of natural resources as well as its strategic positioning.

Cluster of columns
Hilltop ruin

They say the average stay at Agrigento is two and a half hours and we were there for more than five. I could have stayed longer. Kolymbethra’s garden oasis enchanted and seduced the gardener in me.
If I had lived here, my job would have been to be a caretaker of this splendid paradise. Cool breezes filtered through the orange, lemon, apple, pear, bergamot, mulberry, fig and pomegranate trees that lined a pathway on both sides of the canyon. I walked further along, surrounded by olive and almond trees, artichoke stalks, and vegetable gardens, all strategically irrigated via narrow ditches guiding water from a nearby pool. Every food I love, right here. A gastronome’s paradise. I wondered, who were the cooks, the chefs and how did they prepare this plenitude, these riches and gifts of the earth? My research revealed a lack of details on food preparation but I did find this great site about the kinds of food grown by the Greeks. The website is called Spruce Eats. If I were the cook, I’d prepare sardines and prawns with freshly pressed olive oil, fennel, cucumbers and olives served over thyme infused barley. For something sweet, I’d bake little cakes with the almonds and pistachios and maybe add a little saffron. How about figs soaked in pomegranate juice or artichokes steamed with citrus peel? The options were endless! And delicious!

I spotted this mysterious dog running from hiding place to hiding place, obviously hot. He looked like a ghost of a Greek spirit.

One side of the irrigation system in Kolymbethra.

The water travels across and into the vegetable gardens.

Kolymbethra. A tree bearing mini pears. They are so delicious!

“Agrigento!” is the first word out of my mouth when someone asks me about the highlight of my trip to Sicily. Since I’ve not yet been to Greece, these ruins gave me a  deeper perspective on life and a respect and reverence for the ancient Greeks. How did we get so far away from simplicity? Ok, I know their life wasn’t simple – I’m sure it was hard but what mattered to them were their gods and goddesses, survival from invaders and attention to nature and its natural resources. How can we, as a society, bridge the gap?

 

Temple of Dioscuri. We became friends. Very strong earth energy.

Empedocles (c. 492-432 BCE), who came from Agrigento, famously said of the city’s inhabitants and their easy living: ‘…they party as if they will die tomorrow, and build as if they will live for ever’. (Found on the Ancient History Encyclopedia, a fantastic website!)

Ciao for now

 




A Pistachio Inspired Pranzo

Il Fiorentino. Pistachio heaven with Pino and France.

A Pistachio Inspired Pranzo
A review of Il Fiorentino, Bronte, Sicily

Another lovely blue-skied day in Sicily. Today’s adventure and culinary find takes us from the aquamarine sea to a mountain top and then half-way down the other side. All this to reach our lunch (pranzo) destination, Il Fiorentino, in the paise (village) of Bronte. Bronte is well-known for its pistachios grown in the foothills of Mt. Etna. Sicilians take pride in this regional nut, claiming the minerals from the lava in the earth give the pistachios a special richness and intensity to their flavor.

It is a Monday and most eateries are closed on Mondays. Roberto called ahead to double-check and the owner replied, “Si!, viene!” Winding curvy roads, with views that resembled the Rocky Mountains, the terrain suddenly dips down into vast open meadows filled with colorful cows and even llamas. Around another corner and Roberto immediately swings into a street parking spot right in front of the restaurant. Arriviamo! We walk through the beaded curtain entrance and are greeted by Pino, the owner. A warm, fuzzy feeling takes over, like I am entering a friend’s home, someone who has lived here for a very long time. The room’s light comes only through its windows. Old memorabilia line the walls and shelves while crisp, white tablecloths anchor the maybe 10 tables. Charming. As it happened, Il Fiorentino is closed but Pino opens just for us! We will have a private pranzo, cooked to order.

Interior of Il Fiorentino, Pistachios are their specialty!

Pino is a small man, maybe mid 60’s, conservatively dressed in a shirt and buttoned up v-neck sweater, wearing a closed-lipped grin. He hands us menus but Roberto clearly knows the ropes and orders for both of us. A bottle of water and a carafe of red wine are placed on the table and the feast begins.

Trio of Bruschetta

A trio of caramelized onion, pomodoro and herb bruschetta sets the tone for the meal. Roberto orders a primi of antipasto to share. An abundance and variety of textures and colors activates my taste buds. Caponata, green beans, home-cured salami, local olives and caciocavallo cheese, fried potatoes and two kinds of stuffed and fried squash blossoms fill every corner of the plate. I first dig into the fried, mozzarella-stuffed squash blossom, its cheese oozing all over my fork. The salty, melting warmth brings forth a squeal of delight. Pino’s grin widens as he watches me eat with such pleasure. I enjoy the local caciocavallo cheese so much, he returns with another large slice and sets it next to me. So sweet.

Antipasto
Squash Blossoms

Il Fiorentino’s menu offers two kinds of their specialty pasta with pistachios, “Casarecci al Pistacchio.” It is a warm day and Pino suggests the “red” pasta with tomato, eggplant and onion for me. Roberto likes the “white” pasta in a light cream sauce. The presentation in beautiful Sicilian ceramic bowls make this experience extra special. Both dishes are heavily dusted with freshly chopped pistachios. Pino makes sure I understand that he has picked and shelled these pistachios. I eat slowly, savoring every bite. When I reach the bottom of my bowl to scrape every last morsel onto my fork, I am greeted by a smiling sun face! It was if she is saying, “I’m glad you enjoyed me so much!”

Pasta
mekJPG
Smiling face

Click here to see Franca, Pino’s wife, making her pasta.

Our plates are cleared away and Pino asks, “Would you like some cherries?” Certo! A bowl of just picked and perfectly ripe burgundy beauties is placed between us and we eagerly bite into the juicy flesh. Pino is obviously still enjoying our display of delight with his food.

Palate cleanser of cherries

Il Fiorentino’s specialty dessert is pistachio gelato served with pistachio cake. Even though I am feeling pasta-full, I cannot resist, and can never resist, dessert. I take a scoop of the intensely flavored, nutty gelato and smear it on top of the cake to eat them together. Ice cream and cake! I especially love the moist cake with a slightly sugar crunch on top. My pastry mind is putting the ingredients together. Meringue? Flourless? So enamored with the cake, I ask Pino how it is made. He shrugs his shoulders and then leads me to the kitchen to meet his wife, Franca, who is the star chef of the restaurant. Delighted by the compliment, she eagerly shares her recipe with me. I am overwhelmed by her kindness.

Pistachio cake plus pistachio gelato. A match made in heaven!

For me, this is the definition of a great dining experience. Besides fantastic fresh food, it’s the warm hospitality in a comfortable home-like setting. Mostly, it’s Pino and Franca who so lovingly share their livelihood, that forever will endear me to Il Fiorentino. If you are ever in Sicily, do not miss the opportunity to dine with them!

Here is Franca’s recipe for the Pistachio Cake.

Sicilian Pistachio Cake
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

This moist cake is perfect for dessert, especially when served with ice cream or whipped cream. With only three ingredients, it’s a snap to make!
Author:
Recipe type: Pistachio cake, gluten-free
Cuisine: Sicilian
Serves: 8-10

Ingredients
  • 200 grams sugar (1 Cup)
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 250 grams ground pistachios (2 Cups) Trader Joe’s has them!

Instructions
  1. Beat sugar with egg yolks in a mixer until light and fluffy.
  2. Beat egg whites until soft but still holding their shape.
  3. Add vanilla and salt.
  4. Fold whipped egg whites into sugar mixture.
  5. Fold pistachios into all.
  6. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes or until golden on top.

 

Glossary of Italian words used in this story. Your Italian lesson for the day!

Pranzo – Lunch

Viene – Come, come in

Arriviamo – We have arrived.

Primi – First course

Certo – Certainly

Pomodoro – Tomato

Paise – Village

History of the Bronte Pistachio

Interesting article in the New York Times about the Bronte Pistachio

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Ciao for now!




Scrumptious Sicilian Pastries

Sicilian Pistachio Cake

As a former pastry chef, I am constantly on the quest for beautifully crafted and tasty pastries and of course, gelato. What I saw and tasted in Sicily really wowed me and delivered an unexpected surprise. Very similar to beautiful French pastries, only using more of what mother nature locally provides, like pistachios, almonds and citrus,  from this sunny island. I thought I’d share a few photos I took of the diversity of Sicilian pastries to make your mouth water or to perhaps inspire your next creations. Be sure to check out the photo captions for links, or use these, to learn how to make cannoli, semi freddo, marzipan, and brioche.

A Sicilian pastry classic, the cannoli. Click here to see how it’s made! Cannoli

Tempting Sicilian Candied Apples

Sicilian Apple Tarte and Brioche – to eat with granita!

Sicilian Watermelon Tarte (I’d never ever seen anything like this!)

Sicilian Stuffed Lemons

Sicilian SalAmone Cake – stunning!

Sicilian Mandorle (Almond) Semi Freddo Click here to see how to make Semi Freddo

Sicilian Chocolate Cakes Almondine

Sicilian Cake Sveva. So gorgeous!

The perfect Sicilian Croissant!

Sicilian Drumsticks. I always wanted to go back to get one but never made it. Next time!

 

Sicilian brioche. The color says it all! Here’s my recipe for Brioche!

Marzipan – a Sicilian classic. Here’s a great story on the history and making of this elegant confection. Sicilian Marzipan

Gelato 3
Gelato 2

 

 

Sicilian Coffee & Pistachio Gelato

Proud Sicilian Signore Gelato!

Sicilian Panna Cotta Cake with Berries. So sweet!

 

Sicilian Festive Semi Freddo

Did you see something that inspired you? Some of these pastries are truly imaginative! I think a Semi Freddo will be my weekend project!

“All of Sicily is a dimension of the imagination.”
Leonardo Sciascia

Ciao for now!

 

 

 

 

 

 




Granita – Sicily’s Sweet Secret

Mandorle Granita with a shot of espresso

I’ve tasted some pretty incredible things on my world-wide travels but did not expect for Sicily to offer foods that almost made me speechless. Seriously! Fine pastries in France, fresh seafood in Australia and robust goulash in Budapest all stand out as epic food experiences. What great Sicilian taste made my heart beat a little faster? Granita. If you have ever tasted Sicilian Granita, you understand. If not, it’s worth the trip just to find out – and fall in love.

The warm morning after I arrived in Catania, my host and guide Roberto announced, “You must have a granita for breakfast.” Many “bars” (our version of a coffee shop), offer coffee, pastries and granita for the morning’s greeting. My first introduction to granita made me a true believer in the seduction of Sicilian food. If this was the first of many local foods that made my body quiver with lust for more, how many more Sicilian specialities were on this gorgeous island?

It’s not easy to describe granita but I’ll try. Creamy (although there is usually no dairy), fluffy, cold, melt-in-your-mouth, and flavor intense, not sugary sweet. It is not formed with a scoop, like a sorbet, but served a little slushy. It’s made with fine flakes of ice frozen together with sugar and fruit. Other flavors may include almond, pistachio, coffee, or chocolate. Most bars serve almond, a favorite, coffee, lemon, pistachio and strawberry. This is a Sicilian ritual for breakfast when the weather heats up, accompanied by a warm brioche or other delectable pastry.

At the Bar del Santuario, my favorite stop for granita, you saddle up to the counter and order your choice of granita and pastry. Then choose an outdoor table overlooking a lovely park, alive with people and a flowing fountain. A handsome, well-groomed server brings your granita in a stemmed glass dish with a tiny spoon, a plate with your pastry and a glass of water. The only distracting thing on the table – an ashtray. You pay at the cashier inside only upon finishing your breakfast. Two granite and two pastries cost about 5 Euro or $5.75. Yes, the delicious food is much cheaper than the rest of Italy. Affordable for all, locals and tourists alike.

Mandorle granita and brioche

Mandorle (almond) with a shot of espresso on top became my fast favorite. Silky almond and sharp contrast of espresso was the perfect marriage, destined to last a lifetime. “Roberto! I want to eat this everyday for the rest of my life!” My emotional side was taking over. The mandorle is made with freshly extracted almond milk, almonds being a key ingredient in many Sicilian foods and also a major player in the agriculture scene. Each day I tried a new pastry to go with it. Buonissimo! (So good!). So addicting is granita that my day just wasn’t right without this starter.

Gelsi granita

During my two weeks in Sicily, I tried many flavors of granita. Gelsi, or mulberry is a seasonal specialty, and its dark eggplant color mirrored its deep berry flavor. At Caffe Sicilia in Noto, I tried strawberry tomato granita, with a color of rhubarb. Sounds strange but somehow the tomato just barely tames the flavor of the strawberry, pushing forth really ripe tomato for balance that is indescribable. When I asked the person next to me in line which item was his favorite, he quickly replied. “Strawberry tomato granita!” So I was not alone.

Strawberry tomato granita

I was surprised to learn that Sicilians rarely use ice. No ice in water. And to cool iced tea – what else? A scoop of lemon granita. Exquisite!

Tea with lemon granita

My last day in Sicily, I tried half strawberry (with fresh local berries) and half pistachio. Equally yummy. All fruit flavors are made strictly with fresh fruit of the season. I know you can make it here but it will never match the homemade quality and intensity of flavor only found in Sicily.

Strawberry pistachio granita

Yes, I would return to Sicily for the mere pleasure of savoring granita from coast to coast. Sicily – this one’s yours to keep!

For a fun background and history of granita, please visit Citi Map Sicilia on Granita

Ciao for now,




Sparky’s Southwest Adventures Told in His Own Words

traveling dog

Please Mom!

Oh no! Suitcases! I sigh. Long stress yawn. I hate suitcases so much, my anxiety kicks in big time. It means you are going away. Pouting is my favorite way to instill guilt and boy, does it work!

Wait! Are you packing my leash and my bowl? Does this mean – really? Oh boy, oh boy! Let me in the car and close the door, quick! The car is really full of stuff and my dog bed is lining the back seat. Where in the world are we going? My Grammy gets into the car too. My curly tail doesn’t allow me to really “wag” but I can shake my butt and wiggle with glee. One happy boy! The pack, all of us together. I am excited but nervous. We dogs live for the present and every day is a new adventure. I LOVE adventure but the roar of the engine causes me to slip into a dreamy sleep.

traveling dog
traveling dog

When I wake up from my nap, we stop for my pee breaks and the air feels different – drier and hotter. The heat carries the smells of my mom’s herbal garden: sages, rosemarys, fragrant wood. Hmmmm. Thirsty, thirsty. The rough, gravelly dirt is prickly on my sensitive paws. I hop back in the car and am blasted with cool air. Hey, I know it’s hot outside but this temperature switch is killing me! Turn down the A/C guys! I crawl onto the floor behind the seats for relief.

My ears! Something feels different. There’s pressure in my ears and it hurts. I am yawning way more than usual. Please open the window, even a crack!
Mom keeps talking about mountains. The landscape is flat with big mountains in the distance. We finally stop and the suitcases come out. Grammy tells me we are in Flagstaff. This isn’t our home! Why are we here? I really am a creature of habit! A homebody! I know all that stuff I said about living in the present. I take it back. I’m not used to being out of my comfort zone – my sweet backyard with cool grass, a shady patio, the occasional possum to kick my prey drive in gear.

All these noises in this Flagstaff backyard spook me. My barking mechanism is triggered with the crack of a twig. I am in protection mode for the pack. It’s my job and I don’t take it lightly. I’m not like those Golden Retrievers who gush all over everybody. I size up a situation and am super cautious. You might say distrusting. Sometimes it takes years for me to realize people are actually my allies, like my neighbor, Sandy who I now adore. Yes, I have trust issues but it’s too late now to teach this old dog new tricks. I’m too smart to buy into any kind of behavior reform! Thankfully, Mom and Gram pet me and scratch my chest until I calm down. I quickly fall into a deep sleep and dream of chasing cats.

Cats. I’m not really sure how I feel about cats. When I spot one, my bark turns high-pitched and I whine. I want to pursue but have never really interacted with one. Once, on a neighborhood walk, I barked and pulled on my leash to get a closer look at a big, gray cat on a doorstep. Another cat, I’m sure the porch cat’s friend, jumped out from behind a bush (she must have just been waiting for someone to terrorize) and landed directly in front of me. She arched her back, raised her hackles and fur and let out a “hiiisss” like I have never heard! I got the message but the experience shattered my ego. The cat terrified me! I leapt in the air several feet backward and whimpered like a baby. I am not proud of this moment but there it is. I digress.

The next day we hit the road again. Killer temps but I manage to relax into the drive. We arrive in a town Mom calls Santa Fe. I exit the car, do my downward dog yoga pose and enjoy the cool breezes. Sniffing with curiosity, I detect anointed pee on rocks from unfamiliar creatures. Birds softly chirp and the rustle of wind in the pines unlocks bold and stringent scents. My ears are perked straight up like radar, alert, on guard, pivoting to catch any and all unique noises.

Mom sits on the porch and writes while I zen out next to her taking in the clean air where I can really pick up scents like coyote and lizard. I even think I hear drum beats. I am an old soul and very intuitive. I feel an energy of connectedness to this natural wilderness. Am I in tune with the ancients who lived here so long ago? Mom seems especially comfortable here and I hear the word “love” a lot. Sigh. Traveling can be interesting!

The altitude is affecting my appetite and I’m not very hungry. I know it’s my anxiety too. Grammy sneaks me her leftovers from the dog-friendly restaurants we go to. I love my Grammy. People in the restaurants always reach out and want to touch me – usually my head. Well hellOH-HO. Can you please be polite and ask? Did you not take Dog Etiquette 101? Ok, scratch my chest and I’m yours.

Hey wait! I’m feeling comfortable here, in the wooded forests of Santa Fe. So why are we packing up and leaving? Oh well, as long as we are all together, I’m in. A few stops later and the visuals and scents are shifting. Big, I mean really big snow-capped mountains loom, so close their energy pulsates. Boulder is the word Mom and Grammy keep telling me. I guess we’re going to Boulder. All shades of green dot the landscape. Who says dogs don’t see color? Ahhh, refreshing. I LIKE Airbnb! My paws enjoy cool grass like my backyard. My nose detects water, more pine, and that familiar smell I know so well – cats!

Every evening my mom takes me for a walk around the condo complex where we are staying. Every evening, as we turn the corner, an orange tabby cat sits just inside a small wooden patio. Every evening she waits for me (it must be love) and when she see me, leaves the comfort of her condo to strut her stuff outside along the wooden planks, almost as if she is a lady of the night in an old western town, daring me to come closer, “Come on over, big boy,” she seems to say. It’s this game we play, night after night and I quite enjoy it. Of course, I whine out of curiosity. Each time I whine, my mom gets a fit of the giggles watching us. Maybe my mom should get us a cat to play with….

Packing up again! When will this end? The drive home is hotter and at the rest stops, my mom actually picks me up to place me in a grassy area so my pads won’t touch the searing pavement. I love my mom.
Exhausted from all the new sights and sounds, I sleep away, dreaming of tall forests and scents of herbs, and gigantic mountains and my favorite dream of all – cats!

That’s my story. As my mom always says,

Ciao for now!

Sparky




La Festa

 

This event happened in October of 2015 in Lucca, Italy. It changed my life and I wanted to acknowledge all my friends in Lucca who have opened my heart and showed me that anything is possible. The story is longer than usual so sit back with a coffee or glass of vino and enjoy.

This story is dedicated to my dear friend Davino, who showed me the real Italy, who taught me how to eat chestnuts and who had the biggest heart, always filled with love and generosity. I miss you Davino.

Davino Lazzarini

1947 – 2017

 

The Festa
A celebration of friends and food

This birthday stung. I felt like I was being propelled from the comfort zone of my “middle ages” into the “senior” zone. A downward spiral. What would mark the “age of wisdom” was otherwise depressing. We all experience milestones in our lives. I would survive.

To make this transition bearable, my mom, our dear friend Claudia and I planned a trip to Italy for late September into October. A visit to Florence, a week’s stay in Pienza and the grand finale, a week with my dear friends Angela and Davino on their comfortable farm, La Mimosa, in lovely Lucca.
As always, Lucca invited us in with open arms.

La Mimosa nestles itself into a landscape of spring mix salad greens, rolling hills, olive trees, and villas. My favorite view from the property is a stark but peaceful and eye-catching white washed convent that seems to hover, like a pair of angel wings, at the top of a hill in the distance. La Mimosa’s vast property houses two living spaces. One home for Angela and Davino and a renovated barn we three would share for a week. To me, this is the most peaceful place on earth and I was eager to reunite with my friends, their dogs Pongo and Gilda, the many cats and three donkeys that call La Mimosa home.

I’d been to Italy many times before but on this trip I would discover why I am seduced into returning here, to Lucca, even when there are so many other places I yearn to visit. The seduction was revealed during a festa, or party, thrown by Angela, Davino and my mom so I could reunite with all the friends I’ve made here the past three visits. The party would also take the sting out of my birthday. How exciting!

***

By early October, the autumn weather has shifted dramatically from warm sunshine to cool breezes. Black skies loom overhead throughout the day giving the feeling of constant dusk. The coziest and warmest room in the house is the kitchen, and, at its heart, a wood burning fireplace tucked in at waist level, delivering instant heat. An old wooden and well-worn farmhouse table sits in the middle of the room becoming the square kitchen’s centerpiece. When friends gather, it is often around this table where wine or espresso is shared and conversation flows freely. An antique meat slicer rests on a corner counter ready to deliver paper-thin prosciutto slices whose recipients are often one of the many lucky cats living at La Mimosa. Angela’s favorite cooking gadgets and appliances line another deep counter and directly above, open shelving houses plates and glasses.

In the comfort of this kitchen, Angela begins making Zuppa Verde, a traditional Tuscan bean soup with Fagiolini, a brown bean with swirls of red and shaped like a kidney. In Italy, this labor of love has many stages, the first of which is to cook the beans in garlic and sage. She then passes the beans through a hand-cranked press that extracts the skins pushing out only the inner bean. Next, Angela makes a soffritto, the Holy Trinity of Italian flavor basics: onions, carrots and celery. These ingredients are sautéed then added to the beans along with some pomodoro or tomato water. Aromas of the soffritto, which flavors the beans, steam from the tall pot on Angela’s large rustic stove, as the soup simmers for hours. Next, Angela stirs in chopped kale, swiss chard, celery and leek and the soup continues its journey building flavor upon flavor. “We have a contest here,” she tells me, “to see who makes the best Zuppa Verde in Tuscany!” Like our chili cook-off’s, I think to myself, only more sacred.

Our friend, Nico, arrives late in the still-dark day. His contribution to the festa would be homemade spinach-stuffed ravioli. We need ingredients so Mom, Nico and I pile into the car for an adventure at COOP, a large grocery store with good prices on the west side of town. Nico carefully chooses all the ingredients to make his special ravioli and we also purchase olives, jars of marinated red onions, and bottles of Prosecco to drink with the antipasti. The Italians love their coffee and with one whole aisle dedicated to this tradition, Mom finds an espresso coffeemaker to take home. She has learned how to make espresso the Italian way and so will carry forth the tradition – way to go Mom!

The rain is relentless. On the way home, Nico wants to show me where he works, at a center for learning that encompasses acres of land for group or individual gardens. Here he teaches organic gardening to children and disabled people. I can see how this is a good fit for him as he is so patient and kind. The garden is a canvas of design, color and texture. Some rows are well-manicured housing healthy, gorgeous heads of green and red leaf lettuce, spinach and arugula. On the other end of the color spectrum, scraggly bean stalks are saying goodbye to the season. A few aging eggplants still hang on. Nico explains, “This is not only a garden for the center, but the community can use it too for the small fee of 10 Euro a year.” Nico knows all the families, which plots they have and advises them on organic gardening methods. An Armenian family has even created a large coop for chickens and turkeys. Nico points out a giant white “Cinderella” pumpkin making an appearance in an open field. Nearby, a pergola houses hanging gourds of all shapes and sizes. We duck inside from the persistent rain to be semi-sheltered. The long hanging gourds almost form a curtain in the doorway. Some gourds look white-washed with their necks stretching three feet long. Some are deep green with a skin painted like a watermelon and oblongated bodies, perfectly shaped by nature. One must weigh 10 pounds and still hangs proudly on its sturdy vine. We traipse through the beds, picking various lettuces for the party and nibbling the spicy, fresh baby arugula. I am enchanted by this special place, this little microcosm of nature outside of Lucca, like a painting with rotating artists creating their own picture, year after year.

We return to La Mimosa around 5pm to begin making the fresh pasta. Nico proudly shows off his culinary skills by cracking the eggs into the flour to make the pasta dough, and Mom, his eager understudy, rolls the dough into long sheets in preparation for the ravioli. Angela pours us all a glass of their house-made red wine and takes a break from cooking to share her zuppa recipe with me. Then, with Nico’s guidance, I make the spinach filling for the ravioli. This filling is an Italian variation using half cow ricotta and half pecorino ricotta which give it a pleasantly tangy flavor. In a large sinkful of water, we clean, then blanch the abundance of fresh spinach we’d plucked from the community garden. Yes, we will have plenty of filling! We roll the pasta dough into six long wide strands and then dot three of them with the perfectly seasoned spinach, ricotta and parmesan filling. Another pasta layer is carefully placed on top and then gently sealed with fingertips to hold in the filling. “Which ravioli cutter should we use Nico? The big one?” I ask. “Use the small one,” Angela chimes in as she stirs the Zuppa. “We could use the wheel to make squares,” Mom comments. Nico was set on round. So small round it was.

Pasta dries quickly in a warm kitchen so we add pressure to cut through both layers of dough. A dusting of flour on top and voila! we have a finished product. The dough does not make as many ravioli as we project to feed 15 people. Considering all the food that would be served, I think we will have plenty, but the good Italian, Davino, wishes copious amounts of food for his guests. “When Italians are invited to dinner,” he reminds me, “they expect to be fed well.” No cocktail parties here! Yes, a feast, an Etruscan banquet this will be. We share a light meal with Angela and Davino before heading off to bed.

Friday – Festa Day
In the early morning, Mom and I drive to the seaside town of Livorno to purchase olive wood products for my olive oil business. The rain has not let up and is actually even more deliberate in its full throttle shower. The drive is exhausting and I need a nap.

Soon Davino is at the door, asking me to go with him to pick up the sausages for tonight’s festa. The weather is behaving brutto-ugly with angry booms and cloud bursts of torrential water. Onward we drive, winding in and out of country roads, making our way to his friend’s machelleria or butcher shop. Tucked away down a tiny, rural road is a short driveway and a small store front, the butcher’s living accommodations upstairs. Davino says this is how they can make a decent living, by having their shop in their house. The butcher and his wife, a handsome couple in their 60’s, dressed in their matching white aprons, stand proudly behind the small counter. Davino chats away with them, sharing the stories of the day. I watch as the butcher cuts the sausages from a long string, counting out 35 or two per person. How can we possibly eat all this food? The cost is 29 Euro, not bad for freshly ground, fat, pork sausages. Another slice of life in Italy. Doing what you love, even if it means living upstairs from a room of animal carcasses!

We return home and Davino insists that my mom goes with him to pick out the pastries for the party. He tells me I can’t go. “But pastries are my thing!” I whine. “No!” Davino says with a smile. “Only your mom and I!” They will drive to Davino’s home town, nearby, and meet his sister, the baker. I learn later that they are picking up my birthday cake and didn’t want me to see it before the party. My mom returns with stories of Davino’s home town and a glimpse of his past life. I think they really bonded!

I wander over to the main house to see how the preparations are going. Nico is busily poaching the ravioli and a pomodoro (tomato) ragu, to accompany them, bubbles on the stove. They look divine. Davino teaches me how to use the large, antique slicer to make thin salami slices for the antipasti. Nico prepares a gorgeous Mediterranean farro salad with beans, mint, tomato and onion. I place this in bowls and set up the antipasti area in the next room before going back to the barn to change my clothes. I wish I’d had something more appropriate to wear but had not packed for a party. The weather has shifted, fall is early and all my dresses are sleeveless. I put on my garnet-colored sweater and matching tank, some eye makeup, my favorite dangle silver earrings, rose-colored lipstick and now am ready to meet and greet.

Annalisa, Angela’s painting friend arrives first, followed by Mattia and Michelle, the incredibly talented opera singers I had stayed with the year before. Simonetta and Federico, Mattia’s parents whom I had met last year at their Vendemmia (grape harvest) came next and then Antonio, a well-regarded Tuscan painter, Liliana, his dentist wife and their daughter, Francesca, a concert pianist. The two Germans staying in La Mimosa’s studio also join us. A diverse, educated and artistic crowd will make for a lively evening. It is a quiet sort of mingle for the antipasti. Everyone gathers in the living room for Prosecco and Nico’s delicious farro salad. Soon Angela calls us all into the kitchen for La Cena. The kitchen table is flanked by two more tables creating a dining space the length of the room. A white tablecloth, white plates and simple white cotton napkins line the table along with carafes of Tuscan red wine. The food is to be the centerpiece. The fireplace roars with crackling wood, filling the room with warmth.

Presentation is everything. Angela lines a very large green ceramic bowl with day old bread slices, spooning the steaming Tuscan soup, Zuppa Verde, on top to soften the bread. Fantastico! From this bowl, she then scoops out some of the bread and ladles the hot zuppa on top into individual bowls for the guests. We all complete the zuppa with a ritual drizzling of Italian extra virgin olive oil. There is a hush and the only sounds are of spoons clanking the sides of the bowl scooping out every savory, creamy drop. The bowls are cleared away and new ones appear. Soon Nico’s ragu-baked ravioli are placed into the bowls along with a slice of thin, meat lasagna. It turns out Davino didn’t think there would be enough food so bought a beautiful homemade meat lasagne just in case. I am already getting full. Our ravioli are bursting with the delicate spinach and cheese filling and every mouthful dances on my tongue.

Listening to the various conversations is challenging since everyone is speaking in Italian but I manage to understand quite a bit. Mattia is clearly the entertainer, making everyone laugh and occasionally bursting out into song. His wife, Michelle, obviously adores him and enjoys bantering back at him. Antonio is a quiet and serious man with a big heart. I imagine him constantly creating a new painting in his mind’s eye. I hear him chiming in to comment, adding only a few words here and there. He is mostly focused on the food and like any artist, appreciating, with gusto, Angela’s masterpiece of the zuppa.

Angela comes alive, leaving her soft-spoken self and with animation, recounts a recent news story of people in Austria (her home country) trapped and locked away in a house for years. She has the entire table under her spell. It is a time to continue the digestion before more food.

Again, Angela clears away bowls and fresh plates arrive. She must have a magic replenishing cupboard! While we devour the ravioli, Davino is busy grilling the fresh salsicca (sausages), over the open fire in the kitchen. A cat appears and rubs up against my leg. He apparently smells the meat and invites himself to the party. The hot, aromatic sausages are delivered to each guest by Davino. How could I possibly eat more? But every bite tastes so good! Still the food keeps arriving. It is a dream I never want to end.

Earlier, Nico and Angela prepared fagioli, beans, simmered with copious amounts of garlic, onion and sage. So rich in flavor, I could eat these everyday. This is the accompaniment to the sausage. Dio Mio! By this time, my stomach is swelling out of proportion. Thankfully, after this course, we all retreat upstairs for some entertainment.

Francesca, Antonio and Lilliana’s 19 year-old daughter, is a classically trained pianist and treats us to a Beethoven concerto. I am mesmerized as her slender fingers slide so easily over the keys, making musical notes leap into the air. It is a masterpiece only to be understood by those of us lucky enough to be present in her company. Mattia and Michelle sing “Ol Sole Mio” and with gusto, everyone sings along. I have goosebumps. How can an evening be more perfect? I am about to find out.

I follow the rest of the guests down the stairs and back into the kitchen. To my surprise, the kitchen is dark and on the table sits a large gorgeous cake with “Happy Birthday Mary” written on it. A tiny firecracker sizzles and I blow out the candle that read “60.” Everyone sings Happy Birthday. It is beautiful and I feel a surge of love for these Italians who have become my family. This outpouring of food and genuine well wishes is overwhelming. I make a wish (to someday live in Lucca!) and cut the first slice of “Svoglia.” The cake is a giant Napoleon. When Davino ordered the cake, from his sister’s bakery he asked for a cake for 15 people. Instead, he got a cake for 50 people! A thin cookie crust creates the base, followed by layers of puff pastry, then panna (cream) and a thick layer of dark, gooey, delectable chocolate pastry cream fills the center. The entire cake is frosted in whipped cream with pretty flowers piped decoratively along the edges. A pink rose garnishes each corner. It is fantastico!

My incredible birthday cake!

Davino loves gelato and no party is complete without it. After cake, he brings out his four favorite flavors: Hazelnut, Pistachio, Chocolate and Cassata. I am ready to explode. Oh, all this with more Prosecco.

Nico, who is sitting next to me, gets up and presents me with a beautiful white bag. Inside is a bottle of perfume encased in a gold and white box. I am stunned. “Nico, sei troppo gentile.” What a sweet, sweet gift from this gentle man. Michelle then stands up and comes back with another white bag. This one holds a tiny dark blue bag closed with raffia. Inside are a pair of silver earrings studded with two rounds of emeralds. “Bellisima!” Again, I am almost in tears. This outpouring of love and gifts is almost too much for this person who is so unused to attention. The group cries “Speech, speech!” With Nico whispering in my ear, the Italian words I want to convey, I thank my guests for coming, express gratitude for their friendship and then say “Amo i miei amici Lucchese!” I love my Lucchese friends. Everyone claps and the chatter returns.

I sit in between Nico, who speaks English, and Simonetta, who doesn’t and try desperately to carry on a conversation with her in my intermediate Italian. She is a fabulous cook as well as an accomplished Flamenco dancer and I love her confidence and style. She has made my favorite Italian dessert, her specialty of Semifreddo, an Italian frozen mousse. We don’t even get a chance to eat it – we already pushed the gastro limits beyond capacity. It will wait patiently to be appreciated the next day.

I have an epiphany at that moment. Italy itself is oozing out of this table, like a tube of oil paint and with each squeeze and stroke of the brush, coloring the event with art and artists. Everywhere, art is complementing art. I am surrounded by artists all in their own right. Three fine art painting artists, two opera singers, one concert pianist, one European architectural restoration artist, one dancer, three cooks, and one garden expert and historian. This is Italy. Living, breathing, art. I am a part of this art, drinking in all its humility on one side and its ownership on the other. It has taken me years to fully grasp this concept even as “art” keeps singing in my ears.

The evening is ending and I say goodnight to all. I will always remember this very special day and how my mom, Angela and Davino planned the perfect surprise just for me. That night as my mom and I lay in bed, she tells me how she had planned this party back in March as soon as she knew we were coming to Italy. She wanted me to feel happy and loved after the year of struggle and ill-health I experienced. I am learning to accept love and attention. This is a start. I am so grateful for my mom and all the friends who truly care about me. Lucca is a gift and a treasure and I cherish every moment I am here to experience her loving arms and joyful vitality.

Ciao for now,




Volare!

Volare sing-along

Place: Pulignano a Mare, Puglia, Italy

The True Italy

The pistachio gelato I had just consumed made me sleepy and I headed back to our beautiful white-washed hotel overlooking the ocean. As I turned the corner, a group of young men waving Italian flags gathered in front of a life-size statue of Domenico Modugno, the Italian hero who wrote the iconic song, “Volare.” At first it looked like a political rally until in unison, they all broke out into song and with gusto sang “Volare” for all the town to hear. So moved by this experience, this respect and outpouring of admiration and Italian pride, their voices seemed to silence the waves of the Adriatic Sea, crashing behind them.

This joyful group might have represented the entire country of Italy and their joy of singing and life. Volare is now one of my favorite songs and I never, ever, tire of hearing it and singing along.
Be sure to listen to Domenico belt it out on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1958.

Domenico sings Volare!

Me and Domenico

Ciao for now!




Perks! Caveats! Secrets! Collective Travel Tips for Going Solo

P1010781

Many of the most meaningful and fun experiences in my life have happened while traveling alone. I met people who are now life-long friends; took part in a Vendemmia (family grape picking and crushing celebration) in Italy; was treated to an “insider’s” tour of Rome by a fantastic guide, Andreas, who made the sites extra special because he felt sorry for me traveling solo; and drove winding French roads in the rain to Rocamadour, France, on a spiritual quest to visit a Black Madonna. I can indulge in as many farmer’s markets as I want! I also do my best writing when alone. No distractions or anyone telling me to “Hurry up!”
I asked a few of my friends, who also value traveling alone, for some tips they’ve learned over the years and what makes solo travel special. Here are their thoughts:

What advice can you offer on traveling alone?

Bonnie advises:    Most important, savor every moment, enjoy every bite of local cuisine and take lots of pictures.  Until you know your way around, carry the address of your lodging whenever you are out sight- seeing.  Observe landmarks high and low, that are close to your hotel to help you find your way back.  Go a little further from home base every day.  If you are in a country where English is not widely spoken, explore thoughtfully.  Until you get your footing, stay in the busy tourist areas if possible. There will be LOTS to see and absorb.  If you are going to venture out on public transportation, watch the people getting on to see if they are using change or tokens so you can be prepared
.
Maya says:     To just try it! I think three days is the perfect amount of time: long enough that you can’t mope about being alone the whole time, and short enough that you know it will be over soon if you truly hate it! I would also say I remember being worried about being scared or bored. I have felt both those things, but they are empowering to overcome. Also, bring a book.

Robyn suggests:     Don’t be afraid to reach out and make new friends among other travelers or locals.  Try new things, take a chance,  put yourself out there.  Embrace the people and culture.  Get out of the museums and churches, and spend time in cafes and parks and local shops where ordinary citizens hang out. Find festivals and concerts and art exhibits.  Explore the country by bicycle. This allows you to get out of the cities, appreciate the beauty of the countryside and its people, and get some exercise.

Ali recommends:     RESEARCH where you want to go–decide on a few places you would like to go, and then determine if they address all (or much) of what you’re looking for, during the time of year you’ll be traveling: weather; landmarks (open at that time); activities to do as a “single.”
READ REVIEWS – on the hotel, the location, etc.  People will tell you exactly what they think about a place, hotel or activities in your “chosen” place. I have often re-thought my destination, based upon candid reviews alerting me to items I never would have considered.

What are your greatest fears about traveling alone?

Maya:    Like any woman, I fear for my personal safety the most.

Robyn:    My greatest fear is losing my wallet/ID/credit cards…

Ali:     Safety.  Make sure you are aware of where you are traveling, and if there are any safety concerns you need to be aware of. Then read up on your destination to ensure there aren’t any specific areas where you need to be even more cautious.  And…always be aware–even if you know it to be a safe area.
As for my travels–a few things… In Madrid I was pick pocketed.  I found out later that pick pockets are rampant in parks in Madrid and Barcelona.  I didn’t engage with these people who were asking for a donation for a kids charity for more than seconds, yet it was long enough for them to steal $100 from me.
A word of caution for single women travelers — always be alert.  It’s no big deal if you’re pick pocketed, but you need to be alert for people watching you or showing an overly friendly interest.  Never disclose any detailed personal information (last name, city of residence, company, etc.).  Also, if you’re staying at a hotel at an airport and go to drink in the bar, there may be people who want a “hook up” before they go on their merry way–they aren’t always just being friendly because they want a nice conversation.  I noticed this right away in a hotel I often stay at, at the Frankfurt airport when I have an early flight the next day.  Don’t be scared, just mindful.

“The steward just asked me if I was not afraid to travel alone, and I said, “Why, it is life.”
― Emily Hahn, Congo Solo; Misadventures Two Degrees North

What do you miss most when traveling alone?

Maya:     Of course there are times when I wish I could share a view, or a funny misunderstanding, or something reminds me of someone in particular, and I wish they could experience it too. But I think traveling alone really forces you to deepen your relationship with yourself simply because you have no other option. In the least self- absorbed way possible, it really strengthened my own understanding and friendship with myself. In the least clichéd way possible, it has helped me learn more about myself and contribute to my own self improvement. For example, I have a lot of anxiety, and it has been great practice in trusting myself and going with the flow (like when transportation is delayed or you’re not on the bus you think you are).

Robyn:     Sometimes you want to share the experience and emotions with someone you know – in the moment.  “Look at that!”  “This tastes incredible, try it.”  I miss being able to share the journey, the adventure, with a fellow traveler.

Ali:     Having someone to share experiences with.

Do you feel you are treated differently when traveling alone?

Maya:     I’m really answering this from traveling abroad alone, so I do feel that most of the attention I’ve gotten has resulted more from being a foreigner than being alone.

Robyn:    No different from at home.  In the presence of couples, you really have to make an effort to reach out, being especially nice to the wives. They always seem to be nervous when a single woman is in the room, and the husbands are often reluctant to engage in too much conversation for fear of making their wives mad!

Ali:     No—I enjoy meeting other people.  Sometimes it can feel awkward, however, that’s all on me–no one has ever made me feel that way.

Do you venture out at night alone?

Bonnie:     When I am out during the day,  I check out places close to the hotel where I can have a nice dinner.  I ended up going to one little restaurant in Istanbul many nights because the food was amazing and the proprietor was so interesting to chat with.

Robyn:    Sure!  But I pay attention to my sixth sense and local intel regarding whether a certain area is safe.

Ali:     It depends.  Not about the safety aspect–it depends whether or not I’m traveling for work (when being “out at night” means dinner, then bed), in a place where there may not be much night life (i.e. Maine–where again, it may be dinner and then bed), or if it’s a place where there is local night life–then I would definitely go out (However, in this case, I am mindful to be cautious in different surroundings).

What do you love about being by yourself?

Bonnie:     The best part of traveling alone is setting your own schedule and leisurely indulging in places that are of great interest.

Maya:     I really value the time to myself. As I’ve grown older and more comfortable with the idea of being alone in general, I’ve been practicing how to use that (now very precious) time to its fullest extent. I would like to point out that I am exceedingly lucky at my point in life, I have few obligations, no dependents or serious relationships I can’t take a small break from, I am financially stable, and I have generous time off working for a school. I recognize the majority of the world is not this lucky. Here is an example of a time an independent trip helped me: Last autumn I was really struggling with my job and unsure if I wanted to stay with it. During a holiday weekend I gave myself four unscheduled days in a different location. The physical and mental space from my work gave me the clarity to see benefits to the job I hadn’t considered, and it gave me unpressured time to decide what was right for me. Of course, I was fortunate in the regard that I could afford the trip, and it was made much simpler by the fact that I was already living abroad. But if you have the time and resources, I would encourage you to try it!

Robyn:     I can do what I want, when I want, and go where I want.  Freedom and flexibility.  When you travel by yourself, you end up meeting more new people.

Ali:    I can travel when my schedule allows, to a destination of my choice. So much of what we do is dictated by a travel partner or family–it’s nice to do something YOU want to do.  I can get up when I want, go where I want, see what I want, eat where I want, leave when I want. It’s actually very relaxing knowing that if the sight at your destination was not as touted or a restaurant wasn’t great– there is no one to apologize to–you just go on!

“Whether by plane, bus or carpet,
own the magic in your ride.”
― Gina Greenlee, Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments in New York

Do you have an anecdote or experience to illustrate how your advice impacted your trip?

Bonnie:     Met two men on the flight to Istanbul and ran into them the next day in the park.  Ended up spending the day with them sightseeing, laughing and chatting.  They were from Houston, had been lifelong friends and the one man was accompanying his best friend to Africa.  The son of one of the guys was in the special forces and fighting bad guys in Somalia.  They were meeting the son on his R @ R and they had just broken up the trip with a one night stay in Istanbul.  I still think about them. I am quite sure if I was with someone I never would have spent the day with these two terrific, well-traveled gentlemen.  Lucky me!  Seems the people I met on this trip were travelers, not vacationers. Be aware of and count on your instincts.  I tried to be pretty close to “home” when the sun started setting.  Best laid plans, right?  One day I was in the 1000 year old Grand Bazaar just meandering and enjoying all the sights, sounds and people.  When I left, the sun was setting.  I ended up leaving from one of the many entrances but not the one through which I had entered.  I found myself in a close dark alleyway filled with people who were selling their wares.  I had NO idea where I was and I had a very uneasy feeling.  I figured if I just kept going downhill, I would hit my main landmark, the Bosporus Sea.  When I got to the Bosporus it was pretty dark but I knew my way back to the hotel from there.

Robyn:     On a trip to Slovenia, I was the only single person in the group.  At our little hotel in a small town, Podkoren, I decided to order a beer and join a group of local men outside at the picnic tables.  We couldn’t speak each other’s language but had so much fun trying to communicate using a few words and body language.  They bought me a second beer and we laughed a lot. I made new friends and learned more about the local ski jumping facility. The rest of the group was just hanging out in their rooms.

Ali:     I went to La Rioja in Spain to drink wine and went to many wine tours specifically in Spanish to improve my command of the language. After a few glasses of wine, I thought my Spanish was really good (they may not have felt the same way!) In Bad Durkheim, Germany, the annual Wurstmarkt is a 600 year old tradition, now with rides, great food and amazing wine from the famous wine region.  I imbibed, as I took the tram from Mannheim. On the way home, I didn’t relinquish my last glass of wine because, in Europe, you evidently can have alcohol on public transportation.  I was chatting up the entire car, talking with a German who had lived in Kansas and talking with a nice grad student about my cute single daughter in NYC.  While I was jumping off of the tram, at my stop, he kept asking where she was–poor guy. On another train ride, I was on my way back to Mannheim from Basel, Switzerland and there was a group of middle-aged friends who decided to lead the train in song.   This happened for about half of my two-hour train ride–it was great–they had everyone laughing, including the conductor.  All I could think of was–“That was me after the Wurstmarkt”!

Did you ever have a “What happens in ____ stays in Vegas?”

Maya:     Not kissing and telling!!!

Robyn:     When cycling on the islands of Croatia, our group took a break to hang out at the beach.  There was also a nude beach close by.  I decided to swim naked in the beautiful, warm waters of the Mediterranean and it was amazing!!!  I was able to recruit one other woman to join me and we took pictures of each other walking out of the water and onto the beach. Only for ourselves. Just to remember.

Ali:     Yes, however, it was by a work colleague and, ew-NO.  However, I am going to a Club Med in December, so maybe we should have a “part deu,” as I would never rule it out.  :-).

I am grateful to my dear friends for the stories and advice they’ve shared for traveling solo. Here’s one last anecdote from me:
One time, when I was 23, I took a train from Paris to Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy, for the weekend. The train was uncrowded and at one point split tracks. This meant that I had to be in the correct part of the train to continue onto my desired destination. In my broken French, I asked the conductor which car I needed to be in for Mont Saint Michel. He eagerly ushered me into a private compartment which was lovely, assured me this was the correct car and went on his merry way punching tickets. After his rounds, he returned to my compartment, and sat down next to me for some conversation…actually, flirtation! Suddenly, he had his arms around me and started making out with me! Flabbergasted, I nicely pushed him away and showed him the fake wedding ring I wore, insisting that ” je suis marié!” I am married! He finally got the message and left. I quickly gathered my bag and found a seat next to an American family visiting their son who was in the military.  I was protected!
Do you have any advice or stories to share? I’d love to hear about them! Until then!

When you’re (traveling) with someone else, you share each discovery, but when you are alone, you have to carry each experience with you like a secret, something you have to write on your heart, because there’s no other way to preserve it.”
― Shauna Niequist, Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life

Ciao for now!

Mary

 




Koreatown Part II

8100459.0

Lunch at Sun Dong Nan set the tempo for the rest of our exploration of Koreatown. Across the street from our lunch spot is the landmark Chapman Market, a beautiful Spanish and Moorish style building dating to 1929. In its heyday, it was the city’s first drive in mall, frequented by wealthy families and Hollywood movie stars.

1929Pkg

Archway leading into the Chapman Market.

Interior of Old Chapman Market

This luxury one stop shop for produce and dry goods was unique in that you could just drive through the archway into the middle patio, park, then shop. In 1988, it was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. After several new owners and renovations, it is now home to Korean boutiques, bars and restaurants. A visual beauty!
Just down the street, we discover City Center, a three-story mall catering to the Korean population with a variety of shops including The Face Shop, where we purchase several face masks to please, please, diminish our wrinkles and a glance at sunglasses where the friendly salesman eagerly tries to sell us $450 glasses. All we want is a referral for something sweet to eat. He sends us to Okrumong, a few blocks away, his favorite place for shaved ice.

Anything cool sounds heavenly. Okrumong reminds me of a tea room where friends would meet for an afternoon indulgence. Overwhelmed by the dessert choices, we decide on Green Tea Snow.

Green tea shaved “snow,” layered with red bean paste, and topped with something that looks like a marshmallow but is actually a squishy rice ball. We both take a bite, expecting even a hint of sweetness but find only a tinge. “Refreshing,” is Eva’s description. Trying hard to get my taste buds to adjust and actually enjoy this speciality is difficult. I’m sure it’s an acquired taste, especially when your sweet tooth is used to more sugar. We both agree that we are happy we tried it but would probably not attempt to recreate it at home.
One thing I had not realized is Koreatown is big! It covers 2.7 square miles. Perhaps on a cooler day, it would be a good workout to experience this neighborhood on foot. Next stop- Koreatown Plaza. Free underground parking! Working our way from the top-level down, we begin in a giant home goods store that carries everything from fine china to irons. It really has something for everybody! Requiring more hydration, we head downstairs to grab a water in the food court. We sit down across from a stand selling Cheesetella. What is Cheesetella? we wonder. We watch a video of how this jiggly, thick mass of “cheesecake” is made, and try the samples they are handing out. Straight from Korea, Cheesetella is a sort of sponge cake or Asian bread that has a layer of cheddar and parmesan cheese nestled between a fluffy egg cake batter. It is half-baked and half steamed and the result is a tall, wobbly cake that is not sweet. I guess it’s all the rage is Korea. Watch this UTube video to see how it’s made. Cheesetella Utube

On our way out of Koreatown Plaza, or KTP as it is affectionately known, we spot a store selling enormous, almost gaudy gold chairs. Of course, adventurous Eva must go in to inquire. We are greeted by a super nice salesman who offers to let us experience “The Bodyfriend,” an upscale massage chair. I watch as Eva sinks into the chair and then is almost wrapped in by the salesman. They turn on the magic and she drifts into bliss. IMG_8164

“Do you want to try it too?” they ask me. Yes yes. This is just the thing I need! I tuck into the chair, close my eyes and the next 10 minutes might have been the best massage I’ve ever had. I feel like three people are massaging my feet, neck and arms simultaneously. This piece of luxury comes at a price – a cool $9000!
Completely refreshed and rejuvenated after this session, we are ready for dinner. Eva chose a pub on Western Avenue but our plans were about to change. The valet hints that Beer Belly is the best joint in this area and we really ought to try it out. So we did. Beer Belly is a cozy beer bar tucked back off the street behind an ice cream shop. The vibe is low-key but not the beer or food. We eat on the vibrantly painted patio and are treated like queens. The craft beer choices are all from the Los Angeles region. Beer Belly’s message is simple and beautiful: “To us, craft beer represents a conscious movement of good will.” From Gardena’s State Brewing Company, I choose an Oolong Summer, a Kölsch with oolong tea infusion. Not at all what I expect – better! It has a kick and is refreshing. The menu as well is carefully crafted. We split an order of duck fat fries topped with duck confit and served with homemade raspberry mustard sauce. Talk about creative.

My salad reminds me of something I would get in France, but LA style. It’s the LA Wedge Salad. Iceberg lettuce, avocado, pickled hot peppers, pickled red onion, queso Oaxaca, applewood smoked bacon and a fried egg gracing the top. Salty, spicy, crunchy and cool. It is perfect and I know I am in LA.

The food here is made with care and creativity and the staff is extraordinary. I just wish I could have tried more items off the menu, but the prior heavy lunch would not permit my stomach to expand any more. I will return for their sincere hospitality and dedication to making their place in Koreatown.

Sitting on the patio, I have a view of a saying painted on a building wall across from us. “Bringing Joy Through Sharing Love.” And this sums up my day of adventure and food in Koreatown. The people we met, all of them, are warm, friendly and engaging. I can’t wait to return!

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

Ciao for now,

Mary

 

 

 

 




Santa Fe Style!

View from the Casita’s porch. Stunning!

Last week I wrote about the New Mexico I experienced in my 20’s. What hasn’t changed is the way the food is prepared, firmly rooted in its use of locally grown ingredients, really before it was “cool” to eat “local.” Take chile peppers for example.

Chiles require respect and dominate New Mexican cuisine. Their hot, spicy, and sometimes smokiness contribute a distinct flavor that every other vegetable must yield to. Chiles can be intimidating too. I start to feel the heat creeping up, first in my mouth, then in my throat, as my eyes water and my nose runs. Heck, this is just looking at a menu! I don’t know why, but nowadays, I am more tolerant of chile heat and not afraid to order something that will challenge my taste buds.

My favorite place to eat true New Mexican cuisine is The Shed in Santa Fe. Originally an old hacienda dated to 1692, this restaurant has remained a family owned and operated establishment since 1953. The shaded patio, which is dog-friendly, leads into an old adobe house. Every time I’ve eaten here over many visits, the food is consistently delicious. I love the blue corn enchiladas smothered in homemade red chile sauce, their specialty. All the red chiles are grown locally and ground on the premises. Spicy, plump posole (large, dried corn kernels that have been simmered for hours and result in a popcorn flavor and a chewy texture) and soft pinto beans share the plate with the enchiladas. A perfectly balanced Elite Gold Margarita with fresh lime juice, on the rocks, tempers the heat in my mouth from the chili sauce. I am in heaven. It’s a must do when in Santa Fe and is usually my very first stop.

img_2985
img_5167

As much as I enjoy returning to an old favorite, like The Shed, I also make a point to discover one new eatery like Rowley Farmhouse Ales, which will now be on my list to visit again. Unassuming from the outside, and situated in its own little space away from the shopping, Rowley is a pub-style brewery serving up some of the best food we had on our trip. An outside patio is as large as the inside pub and felt like a park with gravel floor, shady trees and long picnic tables with bench seating. Family style! Our neighbors eating behind us quickly became our friends as they showered Sparky with friendly pets. We ordered an IPA house beer and took a look at the menu. Again, local ingredients were combined creatively. Hum. Chicken Biscuit Sandwich. “What can be so great about this?” I asked myself. I took the risk. A perfectly fried chicken breast was wedged between a split cheddar cheese biscuit slathered with horseradish crema and topped with homemade cucumber pickles. On the side sat a ramekin of homemade catsup – tomatoey, tangy and not too sweet to accompany a mound of thin, crunchy and hot french fries. The side pickle tasted of briny, chile- infused heat. Wow. Every bite was a marriage made in heaven.

IMG_3038
traveling dog
IMG_7949

 

IMG_5188
9758A6B3-ED6C-424A-A82F-BD588A5E7CCF
IMG_5189

Santa Fe has over 500 Airbnb’s and we were lucky enough to hit the jackpot with the Quiet Country Casita on Historic Santa Fe Trail.  Surrounded by acres of wooded forest, the guest house, in traditional New Mexico style, was as comfortable as I’ve ever been staying in someone else’s home. Tonie and Mark live across the way and were super helpful hosts with eating ideas and places to visit. Tonie makes an Apricot Bread for all her guests which my mom and I quickly polished off. She generously shared the recipe with me. I thought this was particularly appropriate since we are now in the peak of apricot season and farm stands selling apricots and cherries lined the New Mexico highways.
Thanks Tonie!

Certain things catch your eye,
But pursue only those
that capture your heart.

old Indian saying

Ciao for now!

 




Santa Fe – The Past Comes Full Circle

Glorious New Mexico Landscape

For me, travel is like a recipe. You take a bite, it consumes your senses. You make a memory out of a few ingredients along with the people who join you on this trip. Soon it’s in your “favorites” file. Some places have a profound effect on us, like that incredibly tasty dish you can’t get out of your mind. That dish we return to again and again and rarely disappoints. Like ingredients in a recipe, my travels create memories worth repeating. But, the experience is never quite the same because the world is dynamic and things change. Freeways move and beltways go around a town instead of through them. That small town with a cool trading post is now difficult to find among the dense population and crowded tourist traps.
Santa Fe is one of those colorful destinations where the ancient drumbeat of the culture calls me to step back in time, slow my pace and breathe in the scent of stringent sap from the Pinon pines.
Two weeks ago, I returned to New Mexico to capture this feeling where chili ristras abound and the sand palette of the mesa’s adobe is the required color block. Dedicated to improving my blog writing skills, I took a road trip to Boulder, Colorado to work with a personal writing coach. It just made sense to include a stopover in my Santa Fe. Where did this attraction to Santa Fe begin? I need to go back in time.
One spring, long ago, my mom and I rendezvoused in St. Louis. I had finished spring semester at Southern Illinois University and she flew out to help me drive back to California. Our trip across the country bonded us in so many ways. A mother-daughter trip is special. She showed me places she had visited with her friends at my age and together we discovered a few new venues. That trip, our favorite new find was Acoma, Sky City, a 13th century pueblo 60 miles west of Albuquerque that sits high above the barren desert, on a tall mesa. In 1977, it was so remote and barely known to tourists that you literally had to drive off the beaten track to get there. The only access to the pueblo was up a gravely and rocky dirt road that tested the limits of my little yellow Capri. We seemed to be the lone visitors. A young native Acoma boy appeared with a blue bandana tied around his forehead and a welcoming smile. “Would you like a tour and history lesson on the beginnings of the Acoma Pueblo?” he asked. In its ancient times, Acoma was an impenetrable fortress that protected its people from neighboring Indians as well as the Spanish.

Me at the top of Acoma, 1977

Sparse and dry with the sun warming the dirt beneath our feet, the stillness felt eerie and haunted. Was I imagining, or did I hear the cries of Indian chants? The heat unearthed the dusty smell of clay which was also the dominant mono tone color of the pueblo. Entryways with screen doors alternated with kiva ladders for higher access to second and third floor homes. “Where is everybody?” I wondered.

Very old photo of lonely Acoma Pueblo

Weathered but still standing.

The only other sign of life was two women, both with gray hair pulled back in neat braids, sitting on the ground on well-worn blankets, in front of what must have been their home. We watched in awe as their brown, weathered and steady hands painted intricate geometric designs on small pots in the Acoma colors of black, white and burnt orange. I purchased a small pot, just finished, for a few dollars. Little did I know that Acoma pottery was about to explode in the “collectible” scene of today.

Our young guide gives us the tour.

Santa Fe was equally enchanting. This trip took Mom and me to the roof of the La Fonda Hotel, tangy margaritas, a classical guitarist serenading us, and the aroma of spicy chilis. Vibrant color- turquoise, corals and sunflower yellows decorated everything from clothing and  door frames to hanging geranium flower pots and chili red ristras. Visits to Native American museums, the nearby Taos Pueblo, spicy, innovative food I had never experienced so captivated me, my mom and I often returned to create even more memories.

The Old La Fonda Hotel, 1977.

It has been 27 years since our last visit to Santa Fe together. The following is my mom’s recollection of her favorite time in Santa Fe.
“It was our family Christmas in Santa Fe. Dad and I met Mary and her brother in Albuquerque. The Four Runner we had driven from home was packed to the ceiling with food and gifts and the four of us. New Mexico didn’t disappoint us. Snow for Christmas! Lots of snow! The NM highway patrol escorted a long line of Santa Fe bound travelers along the barely cleared highway. It was one of those snowy years that had impacted the entire southwest. We Californians were not daunted. I said “Now it feels like Christmas.” Santa Fe was magical. More than two feet of snow and below zero temperatures. Crisp and crunchy dry snow. Christmas luminarios lit flat roofs and walkways. Our condo Christmas tree fashioned out of a pine branch and decorated entirely with southwest decor- coyotes, mini painted pots, Kokopelli. Christmas dinner of blue corn enchiladas and posole. Indeed it was one of the best Santa Fe memories. Each trip makes for another memory. I still have a quote to bring us into the present. ” The only thing constant is change.”
A lot has changed but the ambiance has stayed the same as well. Acoma Pueblo certainly has advanced its stature. We stopped there on this recent road trip for a very different experience. Now there is a visitor’s center at the base of the mesa. For $24 buses shuttle you to the top for a peek of the past. It’s structured. We passed on the tour, wanting to remember the lonely Sky City as it was.

Acoma M&M
IMG_5146
Acoma CU

The photos above are from our recent visit to Acoma.
For both Santa Fe and Acoma, the ingredients, culture, crisp, clear air, magnificent sunsets, were all still there, but the recipe had changed. I have learned to accept the changes, like adapting a recipe, because I still feel a deep connection to the earth that I felt the very first time my eyes met the brick-red dirt of the desert kissing the glacial blue sky of New Mexico.
Embrace it, but remember.
Next week – more on Santa Fe plus a recipe for Apricot Bread from a local.

Ciao for now!




“Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”

DSCN3744

The most peaceful, beautiful place on earth. Lucca, Italy

My heartstrings are tugging like a hug you don’t want to release. This feeling waxes and wanes but mostly waxes. It’s a longing to be in another place, another reality far different from what I’m used to. A chance to reinvent oneself, live in the moment and not be caught up in the hustle bustle and busyness of big city living. It hits me hardest after I receive a letter from my dear friend, Angela, in Lucca, Italy, who tells me the news of our mutual friends, her painting and the latest art exhibits, her pets and garden. I flashback to our meals cooked together, excursions to the countryside and festivals, and friends picking grapes for our wine. How I wish I could trade places with her for a year!

What spell, exactly, does the charming town of Lucca have on me that calls to my heart like a siren at sea? In my eyes, it’s the one place in this world where everything I love comes together so naturally. Ancient history, walled cities, pasta, gelato, sculpture, pecorino cheese, opera, olive oil, wine, art, cobblestone streets with narrow alleyways, homes of rustic reds and harvest golds, the beautiful sing-song language (so romantic), markets of fresh garden vegetables, espresso, scarves, Buccellato bread, prosciutto and the list goes on.

Whenever I feel the need to return to my dreams, I review my favorite photos of Lucca. I thought I’d share a few that tell a story about the countryside, people and food I embrace so tightly. I hope you enjoy them and are able someday to travel to this special piece of paradiso. I’ve included an amateur video I took of my friends, the opera singers, Michelle and Mattia performing in a small church in Lucca. Bellissimo!

In the words of  the famous song by Janis Joplin, [Lucca}, “takes another little piece of my heart” every time I visit.

Bucatello
IMG_0259IMG_0260IMG_2514

IMG_0257DSCN3790DSCN3741DSCN3780IMG_3991IMG_5412




Food Fraud Exposed Editorial

60 minutes recently aired an exposé on the Mafia’s control over food production in Italy, called “Agromafia.” It is scary. Chlorophyll and sunflower oil or canola oil mixed together to form olive oil; detergent added to cheese to whiten it; cheap wine touted as expensive reserve. Food is a big business, especially in Italy.

The show focused on Italy but the Italians aren’t the only culprits in the food industry. Remember the melamine from China in dog food that made so many pets sick? Food from China is often boycotted because we distrust their full disclosure of ingredients. I’ve been researching various food products around the world and each country has its pocket of villains trying to make an easy buck. God knows our country is not exempt and also has its share of fraudulent manufacturers.

It’s a world wide epidemic and why? Our need and want for more choices but at a low cost lures us into buying with our eyes closed. If you are paying $9.99 for a gallon of olive oil, do you really think you are getting the real deal? We convince ourselves that we are getting a bargain without questioning the source. As my high school English teacher, Mr. Bell, said repeatedly, TINSTAFL. There is no such thing as a free lunch!

There are many agencies that regulate food fraud including the FDA. Actually, my last shipment was randomly flagged and held over in customs for six weeks until an FDA agent could “test” my olives and make sure they were acidic enough. They passed the test with ease and I learned that some food companies pass through unnoticed with possibly tainted food while others, like mine, must endure the food safety process.

Beware of companies jumping on the bandwagon to sell trendy foods who do not do their research. My travels over Italy have led me to the true creators of authentic, family grown and unadulterated products. I care about what goes into my body and choose to support the independent businesses rather than the “box” brand names. I rely on them to deliver quality and they rely on me to buy their products. Food Fraud Resources is a great website and a tutorial for helping us to distinguish between authentic and fraudulent foods. There is an especially interesting article on fish that will surprise you and also make you swim away from certain seafoods. foodfraudresources.com

So let’s not live in fear of products from other countries, but rather be aware, read labels, and support the people who really want to make a difference in the world.

Here’s a video clip from the 60 Minutes episode:

Agromafia

Visit my site, thevirtuousolive to view a video from Galantino, the olive mill I receive my beautiful, pure oils from. You can see first hand how they produce their extra virgin olive oils.

Enjoy and drink your olive oil!!

Mary

 




The Fortress of Montecarlo

Every little village in Italy has something unique and special to offer it seems. Montecarlo, situated high on a hill near Lucca, is no exception. My dear friend Angela is fond of this artsy piece of antiquity and was eager to share its gifts with me.

The fortress, founded in 1333, feels cozy guarded by large wooden gates that in medieval times could be closed snugly to prevent intruders from Pisa and Florence from entering.  The two main narrow streets,  paved of thick, uneven stones and of different colors, meet in a “V” at the piazza center. This small village is an amalgam of old exposed brick and stone and houses painted in rich Tuscan colors. This mix of old and new, is to me, what gives it its charm.

The main street was quiet this time of year. Angela says it’s crowded in the summer but with the European crowd. It is not on the tourist bus route yet, thankfully.

 

Now, to disclose one of Montecarlo’s treasures – its wine. This small region of Tuscany grows the grape varietals of Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebianno and Pinot bianco and makes a white wine using French methods. It is only here in this small part of the world you will find this unique wine. Eager to taste the famous Montecarlo Vino Bianco, we sat down outside a small trattoria for pranzo (lunch) and immediately ordered a bottle. Clean and crisp with a soft hint of fruit, it was almost too drinkable! It is the perfect warm weather wine. Angela and I sipped wine, took photos and chatted away about the lessons of life. I ordered a risotto with pecorino and pear and Angela chose a risotto with sausage and radicchio. Both were delicious. The pecorino and pear complemented the wine and was a combination I had never eaten. Angela’s colorful risotto was equally fabulous.

While we were eating, Angela recognized an artist friend who soon joined us for an after lunch Limoncello. I love traveling with the locals as they introduce me to so many engaging people with interesting stories. Thank you Angela for a beautiful day!




Breakfast in Florence

Ditta Artigianale in Santa Croce

Hidden in the quaint neighborhood of Santa Croce sits Ditta Artigianale, a gem of a cafe that serves up creative and beautiful food in the tiniest of kitchens. We stumbled upon this cozy and comfortable eatery by mistake, no one recommended it, it just showed up.

The place to be!

The two large open front doors invite you in, and upon entering, a retro feel takes over, with a turntable on a bench belting out tunes of the Rat Pack and other crooners.

Hip and cozy.

Hits the spot!

At first our plan was to just have a coffee and a pastry but we curiously wandered to the back where the wow factor took over as we observed sumptuous plates of salads and perfectly poached eggs leaving the kitchen. We were intrigued and immediately decided to stay for breakfast. In Italy, breakfast means standing at the counter of a “bar” tossing down an espresso and munching a brioche (croissant). This place was decidedly different.

Brunch of Croque Madam ala italiano.

The menu offered such enticing dishes as an Italian version of Croque Monsieur and Croque Madam. I chose the Croque Madam, a grilled sandwich stuffed with eggplant, pesto, spinach and mozzarella, topped with a fried egg. Decadent. The drinks were even more inventive. Hot coffee was out of the question because the morning weather was already steaming hot, so I tried the double espresso with tonic water over ice. Refreshing and surprisingly tasty.

Tonic induced double espresso.

I loved the vibe here. Local families dropped in proudly showing off their babies, the staff joyfully arranging flowers and everyone genuinely having fun. If I lived in Florence, this would be my morning feel-good hangout!

Ditta Artigianale

Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

Ciao for now,

Mary




A Time Not Forgotten

An exquisite memorial of an unknown Estruscan, 6th century B.C.

My mantra for the day was, “I am timeless and ageless.” This phrase kept repeating itself as I wandered through the National Archaeological Museum of Chiusi in Italy. The three of us had the museum to ourselves, the only people exploring this treasure of ancient Etruscan history. Even the town of Chiusi felt lonely that day, perhaps haunted by its early inhabitants.

Chiusi’s beautiful view of Tuscany

National Archaeological Museum of Chiusi

The Etruscans, whose roots have been traced by scholars as far back as 700 B.C., were artistically advanced and flourished in the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. The museum showcases the best of the artifacts recovered from hillsides in the surrounding areas.

Nike?

She captivated me. 5th century B.C.

The extensive display of artifacts showcases tombs, urns, sculptures, pottery, embossed bronzes and even culinary utensils and vessels (my favorite!).

Assorted cooking utensils. The pronged star is for roasting meat. The green triangle on the table is a grater. 4th -6th century B.C.

Clever and unique bronze vessels. 4-6th century B.C.

Intricate mosaic. A true artist

Unlike other eras of art, these pieces were meaningfully created for a purpose. The tombs were a focal point with the intention of honoring the deceased visually, and preparing them spiritually. Did the Etruscans realize they were talented artists or did they simply put their heart and soul into what was necessary for daily life? Did they even think they would be recognized thousands of years later? What an anonymous legacy to leave and challenge us to appreciate the art in everyday living. History is fascinating!

“History is formed by the people, those who have power and those without power. Each one of us makes history.” Anselm Kiefer

Ciao for now!

Maria




Brunello di Montalcino

Santa Giulia

Santa Giulia

Brunello, where have you been my entire life? I’ve finally found you tucked away in the rolling hills of Tuscany in an exclusive neighborhood of vineyards reserved only for the Sangiovese clan.

Under the shadow of Montalcino lies acres of grapes destined to become one of Italy’s most prized wines. Tasting a beautiful Brunello was on my bucket list. After a little research, I came upon a vineyard called Santa Giulia near Montalcino that specializes in Brunello. Only about a half hour from our home base of Pienza, I pointed the car southwest and relaxed into the drive. The picture perfect Tuscan countryside dotted with tall lanky cypress tress and narrow country roads gave the illusion of being in a dream.  A few wrong turns corrected, we made a left down a long gravel road to reach our destination.

We were greeted at the entrance by Gianluca Terzuoli, the owner and second generation wine maker at Santa Giulia. The farm is small with five hectares of grape vines producing only 20,000 bottles of Brunello each year. Much to my surprise, the vineyards have no irrigation and rely solely on rain water to quench their thirst. The roots are encouraged to reach deep into the earth to receive minerals from the soil that give the wine its unique taste. Dependent on the weather, a heavy rainfall year will produce a grape with a high water content which means less sugar and lower alcohol. A dry season will produce a higher sugar content grape with a consequently higher alcohol content. The art of making a balanced and well structured Brunello is achieving that perfect balance of rain water to sunshine, resulting in a medium sugar to water ratio for the best wine. Brunello must be 100% Sangiovese grapes and is only produced in this region. Gianluca makes a “Rosso”, which is aged in Slovakian barrels for two years, and a Brunello di Montalcino which after this first aging, is moved into French Oak for another year or two before bottling. After our enlightening lesson, we retreated to the house where Gianluca’s mother had prepared a platter or artfully arranged prosciutto, salami, (meats made by the Terzuoli family), bread and pecorino.

As instructed, the way to taste wine is with food so we are encouraged to eat and drink! The Rosso is delightful, light and fruity. Next is the 2009 Brunello which is browner in color with a rich ruby, slightly earthy taste. Last we tasted a 2008 – fruit forward, silky and lush with dried cherry aromas. Heavenly.

Gianluca sells only to private buyers and one distributor in San Francisco who only sells to restaurants. We felt lucky to meet him and enjoy his family hospitality. If you find yourself in the Tuscan countryside, longing for a great taste of the best Italy has to offer, be sure to look Gianluca up. I’ll look forward to drinking the 2008 Brunello on my birthday!

Santa Giulia Winery, Montalcino, Italy

“First we choose the food. Then we choose the wine.” Gianluca Terzuoli

Ciao for now!

Maria




Foraging for Mushrooms

Julian and his prize.

Julian and his prize.

For years I’ve dreamed of hunting for mushrooms. These almost illusive, sought-after fungi were surely only for the expert spotter – until today. I’m spending time with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew in their mountain home in Colorado. Hiking the quiet, unpopulated alpine trails is their passion as well as practicing the art of foraging.

A perfect specimen!

A perfect specimen!

Boletes, or more specifically, King Bolete, the mushrooms we were seeking, are also known as Cepes in France and Porcini in Italy. These are no ordinary mushrooms but a prized culinary delicacy. They grow at high elevations here in the Colorado Rockies and hide themselves in the forest, nestled under spruce trees

My European sister-in-law, Mirna, was the perfect teacher in showing me what to look for and how to tell the edibles from the poisonous. She learned the art from her father as a young girl, foraging the forests of Croatia. About 1/2 hour into our hike, Mirna spotted the first Bolete of the day. A smooth cinnamon-colored cap lay solo tucked next to a spruce log.Unearthing
Mirna demonstrated how to dig deep around the wide stem, making sure to dislodge the entire mushroom. Soon after, our eyes trained, we were calling “Bolete!” to signal each other that another one of these randomly placed treasures was discovered.

Mushroom hand

My Belle Soeur (sister-in-law), Mirna and me.

My Belle Soeur (sister-in-law), Mirna and me.

Unearthing my first mushroom!

Unearthing my first mushroom!

Voila! Dinner tonight!

Voila! Dinner tonight!

Our day's forage.

Our day’s forage.

Hiking down the mountain, our bag full of large, tasty mushrooms, I felt a surge of admiration for Mother Nature and thanked her repeatedly. This was the best day of my life!

If only one could tell true love from false love as one can tell mushrooms from toadstools
Katherine Mansfield




Mountain Magic

Splendid!

Splendid!

“I believe fairies live here.” I nodded in agreement with this comment made by a passing fellow hiker, smarting a huge grin. The beauty and tranquility of the Colorado mountains always manages to take my breath away and this day was no exception. A visit to my Colorado family, who are adventurous hikers, was not complete without experiencing their favorite alpine trails. We started at a turnout parking lot near Berthoud Pass and wound our way up to the glaciers, I, huffing and puffing, my lungs not used to the high altitude.

At one with nature.

At one with nature.

Wildflowers abound!Inhaling the thick, aromatic pine-spiked air awakened my senses. Time stands still.
Each curve of the trail revealing Mother Nature’s allure. Only the sounds of a trickling stream and occasional chirp interrupt the silence

Fallen timber and dusty gray pinecones scatter the ground amidst tufts of lush summer grass and pockets of tall white daisies. A sapphire sky watches over it all.

IMG_3457

Wildflowers galore!

Nearing the glacier, we make a turn and are greeted by a soft spoken and terraced, winding stream. My eyes had to refocus to drink in the clusters of vivid magenta wildflowers, Parry’s Primroses, hugging the water’s edge. Pristine and breath taking.

Where the fairies live.

Where the fairies live.

We were nearing the glacier’s icy edge and made one last push upwards. The views were our reward. How did we climb up so high in the sky? IMG_3449 IMG_3451 IMG_3452
This forest, that offers so much hope in all stages of life, leaves me speechless and seduces me into becoming one with nature. At this moment I recognize that I am not a separate entity but an integral part of this living, breathing planet. The fairies know a good thing when they see it.

“When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.”
― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Ciao for now,

Mary




Roberto Cooks Sicilian

True Sicilian pride.

True Sicilian pride.

My friend Roberto, musician, teacher and lover of food, especially Italian, came to visit last weekend. He brought us the best gift. He cooked for us! Did I mention Roberto is Sicilian? His recipes are not what you would find in any restaurant and probably rarely what would be published in a trendy cooking magazine. They are true-to-the-culture dishes that are a bit out there and really pushed my culinary boundaries. Skeptical as you may be, this recipe is so delicious, your stomach will be begging for seconds, as mine did.

Pasta Con Le Sarde, or Pasta with Sardines, is a representative dish of Sicily from Palermo.  What makes this dish so interesting is its Arab influence and how the middle eastern ingredients found their way into Sicily’s culinary history. Examples of this are raisins, pine nuts and saffron included in this pasta.

Roberto told me of his mother and aunt making Pasta Con Le Sarde for family dinners. He fell in love with his first taste of the dish even as a young child. As he grew older, and eventually moved to California, Roberto became more interested in the food and ingredients of his homeland.  To help with the surges of homesickness most foreigners experience, he began cooking from a cookbook of ancient Sicilian recipes he brought with him from Sicily. Here is the recreation of the recipe he fondly remembers.

The beauty of this dish is that you can have a few things going at once and while they simmer, sit down and enjoy a glass of wine.

This recipe will not spell out exact measurements because Roberto made it off the top of his head. Still, it is easy to create and this dish is not an exact science! Serves an army or about 4 hungry diners.

Pasta Con Le Sarde
 
Ingredients
  • 2 Tbls. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 anchovy fillets canned in oil
  • 3 cups chopped fennel fronds and stalks, not the bulb
  • 16 oz. rigatoni pasta
  • 1 tin sardines in oil
  • 1 cup raisins, soaked in warm water to soften, then drained
  • ½ cup pinenuts, toasted
  • generous pinch saffron
  • Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Sauté the onion in the olive oil with the anchovies.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt.
  4. Add the chopped fennel fronds and boil for about 45 minutes or until very tender and soft.
  5. As the onions cook and soften, add spoonfuls of the fennel water to the mixture to keep it moist.
  6. When the fennel is cooked, strain it out of the water using a slotted spoon and add it to the onion mix.
  7. Do not discard the water! This water will be used to boil the pasta.
  8. Add the pasta to the boiling fennel water and cook until just al dente or firm to the teeth.
  9. Meanwhile, to the fennel onion mix, stir in the sardines, raisins, pine nuts and finally the saffron.
  10. Gently stir in the cooked pasta and coat it with the fennel sauce.
  11. Use olive oil, we prefer the Lemon Extra Virgin, to coat a 6 quart baking dish. Pour in the pasta mixture. Generously drizzle the entire dish with lemon extra virgin olive oil, about 2 Tablespoons.
  12. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 10-15 minutes or until heated through.
  13. Serve with a fresh green salad and crusty bread.

 

 

IMG_1036

In Italy, Roberto uses wild fennel, Finnochio Rizzo, that he gathers from the side of the road.

In Italy, Roberto uses wild fennel, Finnochio Rizzo, that he gathers from the side of the road.

The marriage.

The marriage.

The nose is telling Roberto how many more sardines to add.

The nose is telling Roberto how many more sardines to add. The sardines smooth out the strong flavor of the fennel. Of course, in Sicily, fresh sardines are used.

The finishing touch - generous drizzles of Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

The finishing touch – generous drizzles of Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

So, how many of you will attempt this dish? It is quite tasty, not fishy and flavorful to a fault.

“And anyone who has once known this land (Sicily) can never be quite free from the nostalgia for it.”
D. H. Lawrence

Ciao for now,

Love,

Mary

 




Preserving Garden Tomatoes

IMG_3204

San Marzanos awaiting transformation.

Tomato sauce recipes are ubiquitous. Ask your friends and they will all have their own versions which most cling to like a plum pit. If you grow your own tomatoes like I do, you want to do something really special with your precious harvest.

San Marzanos in abundance!

San Marzanos in abundance!

This year I am growing Italian San Marzano heirloom tomatoes. Originating from the town of San Marzano sul Sarno in southern Italy near Naples, they are a prized Italian treasure. You can usually find the canned version in specialty stores but rarely will you see them in the fresh fruit section of the grocery stores or even at Farmer’s Markets. They are a smaller, more elongated version of an American plum tomato or Roma, with a thick pulp and low acidity which makes them perfect for preserving. As if overnight, about five pounds of them ripened simultaneously in my garden. It was time to can.

How did I decide on what kind of sauce to make with these coveted tomatoes? I consulted my library of traditional Italian cookbooks from Giuliano Buglialli to Ada Boni. The suggestions ranged from complex to simple. From my travels in Italy, I know that the true Italian version of “sugo di pomodoro” or tomato sauce is not to embellish it with too many flavors. The intention is to keep it simple so the tang of the tomato can shine. I liked Bugialli’s technique of simplicity so improvised with my own twist.

San Marzano Tomato Sauce
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

Author:
Recipe type: Tomato Sauce
Serves: 6 cups

Ingredients
  • 4-5 lbs of San Marzano or Italian Plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbs Garlic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Handful of basil chiffonade (thinly sliced basil leaves)

Instructions
  1. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise.
  2. Place in a deep saucepan.
  3. Stir in Garlic Olive Oil
  4. Stir in basil. The basil helps bring out the flavor of the tomato.
  5. Cook over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally until juice is released and tomatoes break down. This took about 2 hours.

The finished sauce, thick and juicy and delectable.

The finished sauce, thick and juicy and delectable.

Most people will pass it through a food mill to eliminate the skins and seeds. Not me. I am ok with seeing and eating the entire fruit.
You can either pour it over hot pasta and sprinkle with parmesan or preserve it by canning like I did. Instead of placing my jars in a water bath and sealing my cans, I opt to freeze my sauce in the jars. It lasts nicely, keeps its vibrant red color and is easy!

Yield: About 6+ cups of sauce. I could just eat it with a spoon out of the jar.

Yield: About 6+ cups of sauce. I could just eat it with a spoon out of the jar.

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
― Miles Kington

Ciao with Love,

Mary




Olive Oil Granola

Today's breakfast!

Today’s breakfast! Granola topped fruit and yogurt.

Olive oil? In granola? Certo! (Certainly!) This idea offered to me by my sister-in-law Mirna, was worth exploring. I’ve made plenty of granola in the past and recently started craving it with my morning yogurt and fruit. A quick label read at the local healthy grocery store revealed that every single brand on the shelf from medium-priced to expensive all contained canola oil. As a canola oil rebel, I was disgusted that all these companies creating so-called nutritious and healthy cereals would be reluctant to add anything other than canola! Yes, I realize that canola oil has its benefits for some but I choose to eliminate it from my diet – GMO’s, pesticides, high heat processing – you get the picture. When the suggestion was made to substitute olive oil for canola oil, at first I suspected it might have a flavor incongruent to the cinnamon and maple syrup in the granola. I took the chance anyway. The results – the best granola I have ever made. I used my Galantino medium fruity EVOO but think it would be extraordinary with lemon or mandarin oil. The granola cooks at a very low temperature so the oil remains stable and holds onto all its health benefits. Because the ingredients in granola are personal, feel free to substitute your own favorite nuts or fruits. I love coconut and feel this adds the amount of sweetness I like. One trick I’ve learned over the years is to add the nuts and coconut nearing the end of the baking time so they do not over-toast. I stir in the dried fruit when the granola has cooled.
So for you brave hearts that try this delicious snack, please send me a comment and let me know how you liked it. I think it will make a great nibble at work!

Olive Oil Granola
 
Ingredients
  • Preheat oven to 225 degrees
  • 4 cups oatmeal   I use Trader Joe’s organic
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon  I used a bit more and love King Arthur’s Vietnamese Cinnamon
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup Galantino EVOO   Try lemon or mandarin too!
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • ¾ cup sweetened shredded coconut or unsweetened if you prefer1 cup nuts   I used ½ cup slivered almonds and ½ cup hazelnuts
  • ¼ cup tart dried cherries
  • ¼ – ½ cup dried fruit of your choice   I used Trader Joe’s mix of mango, dried blueberries and dried cranberries

Instructions
  1. Mix together the oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt.
  2. Combine the olive oil and maple syrup.
  3. Pour olive oil/syrup mixture over oats and stir to combine well.
  4. Pour out onto a 13 X 18 baking sheet lined with parchment paper. I do this so the pan stays cleaner! You can also use two smaller cookie sheets. If you use two cookie sheets, the layers are thinner so watch carefully as it will cook faster.
  5. Bake for about 2 hours or until desired crunchiness and well-browned. Stir every 20 minutes to evenly brown the oats. Just before the granola is finished, stir in the coconut and nuts and cook just until browned.
  6. Cool and stir in fruit of your choice.
  7. This granola is not clumpy. If you prefer it clumpy, give it a gentle stir and allow pieces to stick together.

Olive oil update: My next shipment arrives in a week! New EVOO flavors and even olives! Check out www.thevirtuousolive for the latest tasty products to be added to my line-up.

EVOO = Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Thanks for reading
Ciao for now!
Love,
Mary




The Rain Storm

Alley cat lounging on a car hood. Check out her reflection. Bella.

Alley cat lounging on a car hood. Check out her reflection. Bella.

I wrote this in late September in Lucca, Italy while listening to an intense thunderstorm. As much as I wanted to include a photo of rain, I could not find one in my photo library, hence this interesting cat. It’s funny how we always want it to be sunny for our photos. I have learned a lesson and will now document rain or shine! Enjoy my first experiment with prose.

Wednesday, 7:30am

The Rain Storm

The sky roars waking the earth with its thunderous baritone.
Rain soon arrives pelting the ground with fierce intention.
Softer yet deeper rumblings vocalize, then echo as they fade across the universe.
Gentle and steady cascades the water, like a summer waterfall.
A single “boom” and flash of light signals its cloud bursts must continue.
Another long, drawn out tenor note fills the fresh air leaving a lingering stillness.
How I love to be surprised with these arias of song on this otherwise ordinary morning.

Love and Happy Holiday Times,

Mary




Dinner at 8, Lucchese Style

My beautiful new friends Mattia and Michelle

Once upon a time you meet people who forever change your life. Mattia and Michelle did just that. What originated as friends of friends, blossomed into a friendship and an Italian experience I will never forget and for which I will always be grateful. Both seriously talented opera singers, Mattia and Michelle shared their home and lives with me for 11 days this fall in Lucca, Italy. Besides their accomplished opera careers, they’re both amazing chefs, whipping up last-minute meals out of nowhere. And this is where my story begins…

Lucca, Italy 26 settembre 2014

It’s 7:00pm on a Friday night. Michelle and Mattia are throwing a dinner party and guests are due to arrive at 8pm.  I volunteer to bring the chicken, so before heading home, stop at a small family owned negozio di pollo, a shop that sells poultry. I tell the macellaio, butcher, how many people we are serving and without asking, trims the fat, debones and then portions the chicken, all while giving me cooking advice. The bird pieces are carefully wrapped in paper, the shop keeper, with a smile, generously tucking in seasonings of fresh rosemary and sage, herbs that show up frequently in Tuscan kitchens. Oh the charm of such exquisite customer service!

I arrive home to an empty and quiet apartment. Tick tock tick tock. Now it’s 8pm and no sign of Mattia or Michelle. A quick call reveals they have met an old opera friend at the Oratorio who has gifted them with singing lessons. Our guests have been notified that the party will now begin at 8:30. With a sense of calm, and very little prep done, Mattia and Michelle arrive home with joy in their hearts ready to prepare the dinner. The three of us work in perfect harmony, like a concerto, to produce a beautiful meal in 45 minutes! These two are now my role models for entertaining! Here’s what we cooked.

Infused with lemon, rosemary and sage, the chicken begins its journey

Mattia teaches me the Lucchese way to cook

Michelle, a native of Australia, prepares her specialty, Apple Crumble

A grating of fresh parmesan finishes the first course of pasta

Angela has a kitchen chat with Mattia

Il secondo. Tuscan chicken

A little vino, and charming company create the perfect ambiance

Mouth-watering apple crumble, Aussie-style

After dinner, Mattia shares his vintage record collection played on a gramophone. We loved the music and his singing!

Frank Sinatra inspires a dance

The evening ended with singing, of course, Michelle and Mattia at the piano, serenading us with Phantom of the Opera favorites. A night to remember!

Check out Mattia and Michelle’s website Lucca Opera Festival and when you are in Lucca, be sure to go to a concert to hear them sing!

My lesson for this day is to let the magic happen, and it will when you decide to just go with the flow!

Ciao for now!

Love,

Mary




Immersed in Olive Oil

Le Fenice Nolce Olives

It’s been a busy month and I am happy to announce that my new enterprise, The Virtuous Olive is up and running. The shop is stocked with fruity oils, natural and flavored. My goal is to bring a taste of the true Italy to your table. These photos are from La Fenice, Galantino’s personal olive estate near beautiful Bisceglie where I visited this last month.

Picking Nolce, or the new olives

The chili peppers used for the Peperocino olive oil

A very old olive tree living the good life at La Fenice

I hope you visit my site! There is something for everyone’s taste, I promise. I will be back next Wednesday with more tales from my recent trip to Italy so stay tuned.

The Virtuous Olive

Sending amore,

Mary




La Vendemmia

La Vendemmia means the harvest, in this case of the Campetti’s beautiful vines near Lucca

Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.

Harvesting grapes is just as much fun as it is work. Michelle and Nicola crack me up!

The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.

The master fire cook Angela

The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats

A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making

The red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice

I give it a go. It’s not easy!

The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.

Revitalizing!

A tavola!

“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.

Ummmmm

Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.

The art of wood fired food

Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!

Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?

 

A yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?

Mattia donning a recently shed snake-skin. Eek. I hope we don’t run into any with the skin on!

Frederico’s artful transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico and his best mate Fiori

After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.

The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.

Ciao for now!

Love,

Maria




La Vendemmia

Grape vines

La Vendemmia means the harvest, in this case of the Campetti’s beautiful vines near Lucca.

Every day in Lucca gets better and better. Mattia’s family invited me to partake in La Vendemmia, an annual event, in late September and early October, to harvest grapes for wine. I feel privileged, and lucky, to share in this day long celebration of family, food and friends.

Michelle & Nico

Harvesting grapes is just as much fun as it is work. Michelle and Nicola crack me up!

The vineyards are on Frederico and Simonetta’s property, Carpineta Ranch, a beautiful 20 minute ride from Lucca. The drive follows narrow and winding roads up the hills where the vistas get wider, deeper and so visually stimulating that I become hypnotized, my eyes drinking, like parched desert, the equally balanced green and stone cropping of old churches and houses. A visual feast.

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

Welcome to Carpineta Ranch!

When we arrive, Angela, a friend of the family, is busy making a wood fire for cooking the lunch. It is a deep oven, large enough to fit four-foot pieces of wood and to create intense heat.

The master fire cook Angela.

The master fire cook Angela.

The sky is blue and the air is warm. I tuck my feet into a pair of rubber boots, grab the clippers and off I go. We clip like mirrors. One person cuts clusters on one side of a row and the other clips facing them, insuring that all the grapes are found. Sometimes my mirror partner is Michelle and we chat away; sometimes it is Alberto, and we clip in silence, exchanging glances and mm’s as we taste the juiciness of the grapes. A giant bucket lies nearby ready to be filled. The clipping is rhythmic and before I know it, my bucket is bursting with the purple jewels.

Future wine

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

Michelle showing off an exceptional cluster.

The buckets are loaded onto a tractor and Frederico transports them to his wine-making shed.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

Frederico with our pick is off to unload the precious cargo into the vats.

A metal crusher sits at the entrance, pushing the grapes through, expelling the stems and leaves.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Into the crusher for the first stages of wine making.

Copper vatsThe red pulp, skins, seeds and all, is immediately pumped into large vats where they will rest for five days to soak up the color of the skins and ferment. The white grapes are crushed, then poured into an ancient wooden slat barrel where they are hand pressed. This barrel sits on a platform and has slits at the bottom to catch the juice as it flows into a large bucket. Pressing the grapes to release the juice is an art form and a labor of love. One must use a very long smooth wooden stick to carefully push down through the grapes, along the side of the barrel. If the push is too strong, juice will spill over the side, wasting valuable soon-to-be wine.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

Mattia hand presses the white grapes to release the juice.

I give it a go. It's not easy!

I give it a go. It’s not easy!

The stickiness of the grape juice permeates my skin. Following tradition, the cool pool refreshes sweaty bodies.

Revitalizing!

Revitalizing!

A tavola!

A tavola!

“Pronto” calls Simonetta. Pranzo (lunch) is ready. This is the best part! A long table under the pergola is neatly set with green dishes.

Ummmmm.

Ummmmm.

Simonetta arrives at the table with a huge pan of baked pasta. Fantastico doesn’t even begin to describe it. Pasta is tossed with ragu and poured into a baking pan. Bechamel sauce anoints the top and swirled into the pasta. A sprinkling of Parmigiano and finally a thin layer of a butter crust coats the entire pasta dish. This bakes just until the crust browns and the inner pasta is hot. Wow.

The art of wood fired food.

The art of wood fired food.

Angela now leaves the table to remove the rest of the dinner from the fire.The food could not be fresher. Tomatoes, potatoes, the chicken and cannellini beans are all grown on Angela and Carlo’s nearby farm. This is such a treat I must pinch myself!

Patate Pomodoro Pranzo Plates are whisked away to make room for the dolce. How can I possibly fit any more into my swelling belly?

Simonetta's version of semifreddo with pinenuts.

SemifreddoA yogurt cake and pine nut semifreddo appear on the table and Frederico does the honors of cutting portions and plating. Another perfect complement of desserts. i eat it all. Cafe is the finishing touch. Is it nap time yet?

Mattia donning a recently shed snake skin. Eek. I hope we don't run into any with the skin on!

Mattia donning a recently shed snake-skin. Eek. I hope we don’t run into any with the skin on!

Frederico's transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico’s artful transformation of a hunchback tree trunk. Her name is Bess and she resides at the bottom of the hill. Bellisimo!

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

Frederico and his best mate Fiori.

After a stroll in the woods to hunt for porcini mushrooms, which had recently been plucked by someone a step ahead of us, it really was nap time. Comfortable cots line the pool and the warm sun seduces us into relaxation.

Napping

Even Buck is sleepy.

Even Buck is sleepy.

The light softens as the sun begins its descent into the hills. Colors intensify. An ancient church on the hill is distinctly visible against the darker green of the hills. A pumpkin colored home pops out against the landscape. I love this dream of Tuscany. Or Paradiso as Mattia calls it. Another perfect day among new friends. I could not be more grateful.

duskCiao for now!

Love,

Maria




Cooking with Chef Leo

Olive oil transforms good food to greatness.

Olive oil transforms good food to greatness.

My visit to Galantino in Puglia, Italy, was a composition of olive oil familiarization, in-depth visits to Puglia’s cheese makers, ceramists, bread artisans and olive groves and, the fun part, cooking lessons with Galantino’s head chef Leo. I joined a group from Holland who was also there for the same adventure. Each day we prepared different dishes all using a variety of what else – olive oil! The two recipes here, a foccacia and Caprese Cake are described with mostly technique as the recipes were for the masses. In the upcoming weeks, when my Virtuous Olive site goes live and I am back from Italy, I will publish detailed recipes. The Caprese Cake is especially delicious and different with the addition of orange or mandarin olive oil.

Significant amounts of olive oil coat the foccacia pans. All this oil enhances the flavor of this delicious Italian staple.

Chef Leo pours significant amounts of olive oil to coat the foccacia pans. All this oil enhances the flavor of this delicious Italian staple.

Chef Leo’s foccacia is a mixture of flour and potato flour. This cuts down the gluten and makes it a softer, spongier bread.  The copious amounts of olive oil give the outer crust a crispiness.

The dough is pushed into the edges of the pan with fingertips to create the small divets characteristic of foccacia.

The dough is pushed into the edges of the pan with fingertips to create the small divots characteristic of foccacia.

We each "decorated" a foccacia with slightly simmered pomodoro - tomato - oregano and sea salt.

We each “decorated” a foccacia with slightly simmered pomodoro – tomato – oregano and sea salt.

Perla, the family dog, makes her hang out strategically and hopefully between the dining room and kitchen.

Perla, the family dog, makes her hang out strategically and hopefully between the dining room and kitchen.

Eggs and sugar whisk together until fluffy with air.

Eggs and sugar whisk together until fluffy with air in preparation for the Caprese Cake.

Maud stirs the orange olive oil into the melted chocolate. Decadent!

Maud stirs the orange olive oil into the melted chocolate. Decadent!

Cocoa powder and ground almonds are carefully folded into the eggs.

Cocoa powder and ground almonds are carefully folded into the eggs.

The melted chocolate is stirred into the batter and poured into a oil and floured pan to bake for oly 10 minutes.

The melted chocolate is stirred into the batter and poured into an oiled and floured pan to bake for only 10 minutes.

The group eagerly awaits dinner and....the Caprese Cake.

The group eagerly awaits dinner and….the Caprese Cake.

This cake tastes as good as it looks. The orange and almond marry well with the chocolate giving it intensity.

This cake tastes as good as it looks. The orange and almond marry well with the chocolate giving it intensity.

Recipes will be forthcoming! I am eating more than I ever have here in the land of food alive with flavor and taking notes!

Ciao for now.

Maria




A Bit of Bisceglie

Che bello!

Che bello!

Nestled into the heart of Puglia lies the seaside town of Bisceglie in southeastern Italy. I am here on an olive oil discovery, to slip into a slower pace and to delve for clues about what makes this such an alluring part of the country.

The people have a warmth and contentment about them. They seem satisfied with life and most that I have met have long lineages in Bisceglie. It’s all about family and their culture of which they are passionately proud.

A visit to the Fish Market on Friday got my adrenaline flowing and whet my appetite for the cooking classes I will attend. For now, let me share with you my favorite photos of the people and their livelihood.

A thinking moment.

A thinking moment.

Live, fresh prawns awaiting their fate.

Live, fresh prawns awaiting their fate.

Advertising his seafood.

Advertising his seafood.

Describing, in Italian, how to stuff the zucchini flowers.

Describing, in Italian, how to stuff the zucchini flowers.

Dinner. Octopus soup.

Dinner. Octopus soup.

This is for you my belle soeur! Our favorite Italian plums.

This is for you my belle soeur! Our favorite Italian plums.

Scooping out the sea urchins' delicacies.

Scooping out the sea urchin’s delicacies.

Freshly picked chilis, roots and all.

Freshly picked chilis, roots and all.

Waving away the flies.

Waving away the flies.

Ciao! This darling group of friends called to me to take their photo. Looking good!

Ciao! This darling group of friends called to me to take their photo. Looking good!

My next story is on Pugliese cooking. Stay tuned!

Ciao for now.

Sending amore,

Maria




The Virtuous Olive

VO-final-shadow

The Virtuous Olive

Olive oil is my passion. Food is my passion and travel is my passion. I have decided to combine all these loves into my new business, The Virtuous Olive, and it is here that I am first announcing its launch. After last year’s visit to Puglia, Italy and to a local frantoio, (olive mill), my heart spoke to me and insisted that I import this olive oil. This is not just any olive oil. It is 100% pure extra virgin Italian oil made from olives solely grown in Puglia. Its flavor is lovely, distinct and makes a statement.

Italian Bootie from my trip last year.

Italian Bootie from my trip last year. I finished this lot off pronto and knew it had to be a part of my permanent pantry!

Next week I travel to Puglia to learn from the masters at Galantino all the nuances that make olive oil special. We will cook, olive grove gaze and be immersed in all things olive. This is just my cup of tea. I plan to post recipes, insights and historical facts as well as indulging in some amazing food. Puglia, also known as the heel of Italy’s boot, is magical and unspoiled and filled with warm, welcoming faces. Click here to see a map of the region and to read about its baroque architecture, trulli, music and artisans who inhabit this piece of paradise. Puglia map and highlights

My travels will also take me back to Lucca, where I will stay with two opera singers (Lucca is Puccini central) and renew friendships from last year. I plan to visit Modena, capital of balsamic vinegar, to discover the perfect balsamic to complement my beautiful oils. My foodie and adventuress spirit will be soaring!

My website and shop, www.thevirtuousolive, will be stocked with a variety of olive oils and vinegars, and open for business after I return, mid October. Stay tuned for more details.

Sending you amore!

Ciao for now,

Mary – Maria

 

 




Party Paella

Spanish Paella. Ole!

Spanish Paella. Ole!

Lately I’ve been having fantasies – of Spain. Spanish tapas, Spanish olive oil, Spanish wine, the people, the music, the romance of it all. My feet have only touched the airport in Madrid and now they dream of dancing the flamenco in Sevilla.

This sudden enchantment was Anthony Bourdain inspired by his visit to bewitching Andalusia on his TV show, Parts Unknown. The spell is cast and perhaps next year I will indulge my fantasy. Until then, let’s explore a Spanish specialty!

Paella, as one version of the story goes, is Latin-named after the shallow, round pan it is cooked in, a “patella.” Farmers and laborers in Valencia, the southeastern region of Spain, created “paella” over a word burning fire to cook rice, a local crop, with whatever was available like rabbit, snails, chicken and white and green beans. The coastal version often incorporated seafood and soon paella emerged as a dish to suit all tastes using a variety of ingredients. nowadays, paella can take form as a “mixta,” a combination of chicken and seafood, a Valencia Paella, like the original noted above or a combination of chorizo, chicken and seafood, which seems the most popular here in America. Many forms of paella exist in Europe and other parts of the world, each infused with the region’s edibles. Spain is a major producer of saffron and it plays a prominent role by adding an earthy rich flavor and deep orange color.

The beginnings of a delicious dinner.

The beginnings of a delicious dinner.

I love paella but have been overwhelmed by what seems like a big deal. Well, paella is now more fun than fear thanks to my sister-in-law Mirna who showed me her secret to simplicity. All you need to do is to prep a few things before hand and the rest can take place while your guests sip a refreshing Sangria or cool Pinot Grigio on the patio. This is a great party food!

We love this flush of paprika's heat on her cheeks!

We love this flush of paprika’s heat on her cheeks!

Our imitation of the Paprika Girl!

Our imitation of the Paprika Girl!

The grill is the secret weapon where we literally cooked the entire paella. A real find was a large “paella-type” pan at Ikea that can comfortably sit and bake on the grill. Once the onions, garlic and peppers are chopped, just measure out the rest of the ingredients and have them handy. That’s it!

A sprinkling of parsley adds the final flash of color.

A sprinkling of parsley adds the final flash of color.

We made a few adjustments to the traditional paella and that’s the beauty of the dish. You can add or subtract ingredients to suit your liking. We like the flavor smoked paprika contributes. I adore artichokes and red peppers, other traditional Spanish ingredients. Paella can be your ticket to wherever you feel like traveling that night. Pick a destination and build your dish around ingredients indigenous to that locality. Make it fun!

Paella at the Vaison la Romaine market in the Haut Vaucluse region of France. Yummy!

Paella at the Vaison la Romaine market in the Haut Vaucluse region of France. Yummy!

I must mention that in the olden days, the farmers would sit around the fire and eat the paella straight out of the pan with a wooden spoon. No plates to clean up. It might be a fun way to share a dinner with family and friends!

A toast to family forever!

A toast to family forever!

“You should conduct yourself in life as at a feast.” Epictetus

Paella for a Family Reunion, serves 8
 
Ingredients
  • 3 chicken thighs
  • 2 sweet Italian sausages
  • 1 spicy Italian sausage (next time I will use Chorizo)
  • ¼ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 large or 2 small sweet red peppers, cut into 1” pieces
  • Salt to taste
  • pinch of saffron
  • 4 cups (or more) chicken, vegetable or clam broth
  • 2 cups rice – we used Arborio but the Spanish use Bomba. Be sure to use a short grain rice to absorb all the liquid
  • 3 Tablespoons Smoked Hungarian Paprika
  • 1 ½ cups frozen or canned artichoke hearts – no oil
  • 1 package Trader Joe’s Seafood Blend OR shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari to suit your taste
  • ½ cup frozen or fresh peas

Instructions
  1. Heat a grill to medium heat. Grill chicken thighs and sausages until brown but barely cooked. Remove from grill. Cut into 1” pieces. Set aside.
  2. Place paella pan on grill and add olive oil. Stir in onions and sauté until soft. Add garlic and peppers and cook another two minutes.
  3. Crush saffron and combine with broth. I read a recipe where Bobby Flay toasted the saffron before adding to the broth. I will try this next time.
  4. Stir in rice and coat well with oil and veggies. Cook for one minute.
  5. Stir in liquid and artichoke hearts. Sprinkle paprika on top and stir in.
  6. Cook over medium heat until liquid is evaporated, about 20 minutes. If rice seems dry, add more liquid. Try to refrain from stirring rice so it doesn’t get sticky.
  7. When rice is firm but tender, stir in cooked sausages, chicken thighs, seafood and peas and cook just until done, another couple of minutes. Give a generous sprinkling of parsley and voilà! Your party is a success!

If I’ve peaked your interest about paella, check out these great websites: www.lapaella.net, www.orceserranohams.com, www.lapaella.co.uk

Ciao & Adios!

Maria

 




Time Travels

My first view of the Eiffel Tower at age 23

“The first Eiffel Tower elevator goes up at a slant and gave me a giddy feeling. I still wasn’t too sure about why I was locking myself into this thin tower with wires that cracked and creaked. There are four elevators altogether which take you to the top. The final upward lift is very slow and it seems as if it will never make it. The little French elevator operator laughs and cracks jokes and you wish you knew what he was saying and since you can’t, it makes you more nervous!” excerpt from my journal, circa 1979

Years back

What was I thinking? I was aboard a plane heading for France with no knowledge of the French language and no place to stay. I musta had guts! What I did have was the dream to become a chef, a caterer, anything food related and I figured going to culinary school would polish off my cooking skills and give me the credentials I needed.

The most gorgeously prepared food in Paris at the time. I window-shopped Fauchon at every opportunity

The view through Fauchon’s window

Although I was a seasoned airplane traveler, I had never been on a nine-hour flight overseas. My trepidation diminished the minute I sat down – next to a priest! Feeling safe with no crashes in the forecast, I fell asleep for the entire flight. The minute I landed, my life as a free spirit and adventurer began.

The best cooking school in the world!

From my journal I write, “Prices are outrageous. A tiny two bedroom flat is $600 a month plus utilities. Greg Usher, the director of La Varenne, the culinary school I would attend, found it. His friend who went to La Varenne lives here, Anna and her friend Arabella, so there’s three of us. The girls are really friendly – both English.” I shared a tiny bedroom, with fireplace, in a tiny flat in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. I was about to get the European education that would fire my passion for all things food. From my roomies, I learned how to eat goat cheese, appreciate champagne and negotiate politics with their British friends.

The open air market at St. Germaine. Food galore!

The demo station at La Varenne and my favorite teacher ever – Albert Jorant, master pastry chef with personality plus

My life felt like a movie – classes all day, good company at night and weekend jaunts to wherever my Eurail pass would take me. Everything changed. The old me was gone. I was now a world traveler and true foodie and dubbed myself a Free Spirit.

To be continued….

Ciao for now,

Marie, Maria, Mary




Garden Reformation

The cicoria edible plant, gone to seed, produces these lovely purple flowers. I have not removed them yet as they are so dainty and sweet.

The cicoria edible plant, gone to seed, produces these lovely purple flowers. I have not removed them yet as they are so dainty and sweet.

The Ops Twins (see April 2013 “The Beet Goes On”story), goddesses of agriculture, united again to trim, weed and dismember parts of my garden in need of refreshing. This year my niece Maya joined in to help celebrate Mother’s Day and to lend a hand.

A trio of generations gathers to celebrate Mom and our friendships.

A trio of generations gathers to celebrate Mom and our friendships.

I selfishly hang onto over-grown, gone to seed and wilting plants from my winter garden. I love the height and depth of colors the favas, kales and Italian greens grow into. They are a focal point in my yard, always happy with the cooler weather, requiring little attention except for the oohs and ah’s I deliver to them daily. Yes, I play favorites and my winter garden is my favorite child. So, I procrastinate, as long as possible, adding these spent greens to my compost pile.

I dug up this Rapa Toscana root. Does anyone know if you can eat this? Speak now or forever hold your peace!

I dug up this giant Rapa Toscana root. Does anyone know if you can eat this? Speak now or forever hold your peace!

A farmer's best friend. These worms will keep my soil healthy for the tomatoes.

A farmer’s best friend. These worms will keep my soil healthy for the tomatoes.

Something I did yesterday was to uproot the many volunteer tomatoes that have dug themselves into my gravel, and replant them with the other free spirits that sprouted up about two months ago in my strawberry box. It’s my experiment. All my tomatoes this year will be a surprise as to variety. Kind of like not knowing if it’s a boy or a girl.

I fashioned a tepee of old trellises to stake up my volunteer tomatoes. I think it's awesome!

I fashioned a tepee of old trellises to stake up my volunteer tomatoes. I think it’s awesome!

My box of flowering and consequently bitter greens is now vacant, awaiting another weekend inspiration. What to plant this spring? Most likely grilling veggies, as they seem to be my summer dinner – so simple and fresh.

This Italian cicoria or chicory, is my favorite plant this year. Its elegance dances a tangled tango.

This Italian cicoria or chicory, is a sculptural work of art and my favorite plant this year. Its elegance dances a tangled tango.

As I clear out and make space for new, I own this change and am re-energized at the prospect of vine-ripe tomatoes, long, skinny, deep purple Japanese eggplant, peppers of all colors, sweet and of fire, and who knows what else?

Feeling the warm dirt caress my fingers, as I dig holes for new seeds and plants, gives me a rush of joy and fills my happy heart with hope for abundance. What foods, ideas or dreams will you plant for yourself this week?

The Buddleia, or butterfly bush, is doing its job, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds galore. Since these guys are short season bloomers, I had to share their heartbeat.

The Buddleia, or butterfly bush, is doing its job, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds galore. Since these guys are short season bloomers, I had to share their heartbeat.

Leave room in your garden for the fairies to dance.

Ciao for now! Happy planting!

Mary




A Spontaneous Dinner Party

My friends Meghan and Nick devouring the shitake mushrooms al' Italiana

My friends Meghan and Nick devouring the shiitake mushrooms italiano

Sometimes you just need to get out of the norm. Last night I planned a dinner party but did not plan the menu, hence a spontaneous dinner! I prefer to cook “with” friends rather than “for” friends.

Cooking together is such a personal experience. You get to spend quality time with people you like and share great food and wine. Food definitely speaks to people’s souls and activates openness in communication at a deeper level than any way I know.

When my young friends, Meghan and Nick asked me if I would show them a few ways to expand their vegetarian repertoire, I eagerly agreed. Assisting me with this event was Eva, a fabulous cook and bread baker, with a brilliant mind for improvising. Instead of just sharing my favorite recipes, I thought it would be fun to do a spontaneity themed dinner. By this I mean, have lots of great ingredients on hand, a few ideas to get started, then let the creativity flow. And flow it did into an explosion of flavors and colors.

Farm fresh ingredients, a zingy dressing and a mouthful of flavor.

Farm fresh ingredients, a zingy dressing and a mouthful of flavor.

Here’s what we started with and how it played out for a delicious spring dinner.

Our ingredients: Fennel, spinach, zucchini, red peppers, red onions, yellow onions, garlic, shallots, fresh basil, beets, yellow pear tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, parsley, oranges, feta cheese, walnuts, pine nuts, garbanzo beans, Dijon mustard, breadcrumbs and LOTS of great olive oil.

For starters I share a shiitake mushroom appetizer my Italian friend taught me. We ate them so fast that I almost forgot to take a photo!

Delectable, easy appetizer with a happiness factor included for free!

Delectable, easy appetizer. They go quickly so make lots!

Drizzle the bottom of a baking dish with olive oil. Place about 12 medium shiitake mushrooms (for four people) on the dish, stems straight up. Drizzle more olive oil on top, sprinkle with a generous amount of finely chopped garlic and parsley, sprinkle with salt and top with breadcrumbs. A final drizzle of oil on top, then pop into a 400-degree oven for 15-20 minutes. Eat hot right out of the oven when preparing the other courses.

These mushrooms seriously make everybody happy!

These mushrooms seriously elicit the happiness factor in us all!

Eva approves!

Eva approves!

The rest of the dinner unfolded like we were following a recipe, but we weren’t. Fresh fennel, sliced thin, combined with orange slices, sliced red onion, chopped parsley, and Eva’s vinaigrette made with mandarin orange olive oil and the juice of the orange. This was the favorite, next to the shiitake!

The fennel salad gets a final drizzle of orange vinaigrette.

The fennel salad gets a final drizzle of orange vinaigrette.

My beet harvest consisted of one giant beet. Yes, I planted about 20 seedlings I grew from seeds, but only one survived.

The ruby lines of my beet sing of nature's simplicity.

The ruby lines of my beet sing of nature’s simplicity.

I ended up with the biggest beet ever and sliced it thinly into rings, then roasted them. Next I cut the beet slices into triangles and made a “pickle” of white balsamic vinegar, cider vinegar, bay leaf, peppercorns and a dash of olive oil. This would be the heart of a spinach salad.

Our array of ingredients for the spinach and beet salad.

Our array of ingredients for the spinach and beet salad.

To beef up the salad we added garbanzo beans, walnuts and halved yellow pear tomatoes. The dressing came from the pickling marinade.

Colorful, healthy and infused with flavor.

Colorful, healthy and infused with flavor.

For a main entrée, we decided on a roasted veggie pasta. The propane on my grill breathed its final breath so I ended up grilling the veggies on the stove. We grilled onions, red peppers and zucchini and tossed them with penne pasta, chunks of pecorino cheese, fresh basil and a generous amount of basil olive oil. Most of us also dressed our personal bowls of pasta with a generous splash of garlic olive oil. Delicioso!

In my opinion, you can never add too much olive oil!

In my opinion, you can never add too much olive oil!

Sharing good food, friendships and laughter is always good for the soul.

Sharing good food, friendships and laughter is always good for the soul.

For dessert, I had prepared my favorite go-to lemon olive oil cake with fresh strawberries drenched in limoncello.

Get the recipe here: Lemon Olive Oil Cake

A moist cake with an almost herbal flavor from the fruity olive oil.

A moist cake with an almost herbal flavor from the fruity olive oil.

Such a whirlwind of activity, chatter and light-hearted fun. I really enjoy cooking this way and recommend it to anyone who wants to have a relaxing cooking experience, expand their mind and their culinary collection.

By the way, the olive oil I use, and love, is Galantino from the southern heel of Puglia in Italy. I will soon be importing these fine oils and have them for sale on my website.

Ciao and love for now!

Mary




Lucchese Style Cooking

Delectable Torta Verdura, a sweet and savory dessert popular with the Luchese.

Delectable Torta Verdura, a sweet and savory dessert popular with the Lucchese, a style local to the area of Lucca.

Are you interested in learning some authentic Italian recipes from a bona fide cooking school in Lucca, Italy?  If so, read on. Davino, my host from La Mimosa, had arranged for me to attend a cooking class at the International Academy of Italian Cuisine in Lucca, just on the other side of the hill from my house. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was grateful for the opportunity to join an ongoing class. This particular course trained students for a career as a professional chef. 10 were Japanese, two were Chinese and one was Italian. Mama Mia!

The whirlwind, Mariela.

The whirlwind, Mariela.

The instructor was Mariela. She patiently went through the menu with us all, a translator changing Italian to Japanese and then to English for me. The clock started ticking. We started at 10 am and lunch was to be on the table by 1:30 pm. Then the switch went on. I felt like I was on Iron Chef. It was chaos – for a while. Pots began clamoring, students, almost in a panic, grabbed ingredients and bumped into each other, all in an attempt to put their ingredients in place for their designated recipes. The first minutes seemed uncertain, a searching for confidence, then this sense of order settled in. Dishes started to unfold.

A teaching moment.

A teaching moment.

I was told to go here, and then there, do this, then that. I felt a little out-of-place hovering, assisting, chopping, straining, the only sounds being Japanese words. Some students tolerated me and some were curious. Why was I here, interrupting this “professional” class? It certainly was not what I expected but I must say I learned a thing or two.

Like how to make the Torta Verdura. I had been curious about after eating it at the Festa. Made with swiss chard, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, candied citrus, raisins soaked in liquor, pinenuts and a little sugar.

All the goodness piled high awaiting a hand mix to create the pastry.

All the goodness piled high awaiting a hand mix to create the pastry.

So it is a little savory, a little sweet and served as a dessert. The crust is like a pâté sucre, a sugary crust, and heavy with egg yolks. These happen to be brilliant orange – must be what the chickens eat.

Sunset colored yolks for the torta crust.

Sunset colored yolks for the torta crust.

Hand mixing makes a tender crust. This is enough dough for three tortas.

Hand mixing makes a tender crust. This is enough dough for three tortas.

I learned a new technique for decorating the crust to create little “beaks” by slicing the dough on an angle, then with a knife, folding it over the dough to its right.

Making a slit at an angle, then folding over the existing dough makes a pretty "beak' decoration.

Making a slit at an angle, then folding over the existing dough makes a pretty “beak’ decoration.

This torta, a Torta di Riso al Cioccolato, is filled with chocolate, rice, pinenuts and lemon zest.

This torta, a Torta di Riso al Cioccolato, is filled with chocolate, rice, pinenuts and lemon zest.

The spinach, for the lasagna, was pressed through a tami, or strainer, for extra fineness – another good tip.

A finer pasta texture is achieved when the spinach is finely strained.

A finer pasta texture is achieved when the spinach is finely strained.

This sweet Italian student must be getting ready to finish her internship. We rolled the pasta outside on the patio!

This sweet Italian student became my friend. We rolled out the pasta layers outside on the patio!

Mariela demonstrates the proper technique.

Mariela demonstrates the proper technique.

Bechamel sauce tops the spinach lasagne as the first layer.

Bechamel sauce tops the spinach lasagna as the first layer.

A tomato sauce is swirled into the bechamel, then the layers continue. Delicioso!

A tomato sauce is swirled into the béchamel, then the layers continue. Delicioso!

I helped make a timbale of cardoons, which when cooked, have a similar flavor to artichokes. We squeezed lemon juice on our hands to prevent the cardoons from turning them black due to the iron in the vegetable. Cardoons look like tall, fat celery.

Cardoons are first stripped of their "strings" then chopped and cooked in boiling water to soften.

Cardoons are first stripped of their “strings” then chopped and cooked in boiling water to soften.

A last minute plating of the appetizer.

A last-minute plating of the appetizer.

Lunch was served on a lovely patio outdoors and I sat with the owner, Gianluca who has taught here for 10 years.

Our main course of stuffed veal roulade, cardoon custard and sauteed greens.

Our main course of stuffed veal roulade, cardoon custard and sautéed greens.

Gianluca’s students have eight weeks of training and then are placed in restaurants all over Italy for a 10-month internship. The students are not paid but receive room and board in exchange for this opportunity to learn from master chefs. His success rate is high and the students seem to thrive on this experience.

The owner and operator of the academy, Gianluca, turns out professional soon-to-be chefs.

The owner and proprietor of the academy, Gianluca, turns out professional soon-to-be chefs.

The next time I visit Lucca I will participate in the evening classes which are designed for people who enjoy learning from local chefs and just want to have fun! Contact Gianluca for more information at:

The International Academy of Italian Cuisine In Lucca

info@italiancuisine.it

www.italiancuisine.it

I’m working on perfecting the Torta Verdura recipe so I can share it with you. Look for it in an upcoming post!

Abbandonatil all’amore e alla cucina. Love and cook with wild abandon! And that I did!

Buon Appetito!

Ciao and amore for now,

Maria