1

Turkish Eggplant Kabobs

My royal eggplant.

Now starring…drumroll, please. The lovely eggplant: cloaked in a deepest jewel-tone purple, satiny, with unblemished skin, sleek in figure adorned by an evergreen crown cap. She is royalty and commands a striking presence in my garden. I’d almost rather leave this bowing beauty as a decoration than cut it.

But – it called to me to create something exotic, something I’d never tried before and so it became the Eggplant Kabob.

My friend, and student Ahmad in Turkey, knows first-hand the possibilities of this fleshy fruit. Yes, eggplant is a fruit! The kabob was his recipe recommendation. Ahmad is aspiring to live in America and become an electrical engineer but In a previous time was a chef assistant at his friend Erdal’s restaurant called Kebabi in Istanbul. Kabobs, and other meats, and flatbread are all grilled over an open flame. Click on the gallery view on the website to see photos of the appetizing food!

My friend Ahmad and the chef and owner of Kebabi, Erdal.

After watching the “how-to” video Ahmad sent me, I was ready to tackle the eggplant kabob.

An Arabic video on eggplant kabobs

Chris and I marched off to our now favorite market, Balboa International Market to gather ingredients to make it ourselves. In their well-stocked spice section, we found a “’meat kebob” seasoning with cayenne, paprika, sumac, saffron, turmeric, and more. The knowledgeable butcher said it was typical to use an equal amount of lamb and beef to skewer between the eggplant. We added the spices to the meat, along with chopped onion, and assembled it alternating meat and fruit, and then BBQ’ed it on the grill.

Stripes! Assembled and ready to grill!

On the grill.

The result? It was really tasty! To finish it, we sprinkled pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and mint leaves on top which really pulled all the flavors together. Next time I would make a yogurt and cucumber sauce to drizzle on top and serve it with mint tea. Crumbled feta would be delicious too! The Middle Eastern cuisine’s depth of flavors and spices have given my taste buds a new experience and craving for more. What’s next Ahmad?

The dinner my eggplant deserves.

Gleaming skin: a plump elongated shape: the eggplant is a vegetable you’d want to caress with your eyes and fingers, even if you didn’t know its luscious flavor.

Roger Verge

Ciao for now,




Figs – Kisses from the Summer Sun

Fig compote over mascarpone for breakfast.

My fig tree not only bestows me with gorgeous summer fruit but presents a nature show all year long. In the fall and winter, it loses its leaves to reveal bare-naked limbs. Small green buds evolve into broad, finger-like leaves while nubs form on its skinny branches in spring. Finally, in early summer, these little fig buttons push out pear shapes whose bottoms balloon and begin turning a musty burgundy. Biting into a fig is like a beautiful kiss. Sweet, soft, juicy, velvety, downright sexy! Perhaps this is why I have such a passion for this fragile fruit that I eat with abandon during its short-lived season.

My fig tree is named Paradiso, after its southern Italian roots. When my dad and dog, Star, died seven years ago, I wanted to plant something to honor them both. The fig, a sign of peace and prosperity, seemed appropriate. My new-found interest in figs coincided with my exploration of southern Italian food, most specifically in Puglia. Green figs with fleshy pink insides were everywhere and luscious.

Voluptuous.

A search in San Diego came up empty for this kind of fig, so I found a man in Boston who grows over 25 varieties of this delicacy. He matched my description to our growing conditions and sent me an Italian Paradiso. The long, narrow box contained a 15” twig, clustered with leaves and a few small figs. My friend, Jenny, and I cleared a space near my orange tree, and with love, gave this new tree a home. The first two years were rough, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it, but the third year he decided to stay and grew at least three feet! I have been enjoying the sweet fruit ever since.

Paradiso’s first day in my yard.

My fig tree after seven years.

What do you do with figs besides just eat them off the tree? I made a fig compote with roughly chopped figs, a little sugar, some lemon juice, water, and lots of crystallized ginger. It is tasty on toast or on grilled meat. When you cook a fig, its sugar oozes out, and it becomes almost candied. I serve these alongside grilled chicken or pork. You can also pair raw or grilled figs with ice cream and drizzle a little balsamic on top. Here I made a fig crostada.

Lucious fig crostata.

Last weekend, Chris and I made the ultimate, decadent breakfast inspired by none other than our favorite chef, Jacques Pepin‘s Instagram post. French toast soaked in vanilla ice cream, then pan-fried in butter, served with grilled figs and grilled pineapple. No extra butter or syrup is needed. The bread, Praeger Brothers Country Artisan boule, when cut into thick slices, made bunny shapes! Light and creamy with just the right amount of sweetness and fun to eat. Irresistible! If you haven’t tried this, you must!

Ice cream bunnies ready to be fried in butter.

The best breakfast ever!

Enjoy these beauties while they last and please send me your favorite fig recipes.

“To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.”
Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine

Ciao for now,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




Summer Daze

The best kind of pizza!

Despite the pandemic daze I often find myself in, being cooped up has reignited a flame in my cooking life, using seasonal ingredients in imaginative ways. My over-grown garden of veggies nudged my palate to explore new tastes and combinations that permeated further into Italian bread, stone fruit, and a deep dive into wood-fired oven cooking.

My garden is delivering cucumbers, zucchini, and basil in abundance as I anticipate the ripening of my favorite member of the garden club, the San Marzano tomato. Eating zucchini every night can be tiresome. Still, I find great pleasure in a sliced zucchini, drizzled with lemon olive oil and grilled or zucchini tucked into foil packets of shallots and basil, to be topped with fresh fish, and ready for the BBQ. 

Fragrant, juicy peaches have been my obsession, making peach cobbler, peach and cucumber salad, peach ice cream, and peach with ricotta on toast. I love peaches and wish the season lasted longer!

Bread baking is still part of my life, now using olives or walnuts in the dough and also learning to make focaccia. Our last batch of focaccia with rosemary was so good, it was as if an angel from heaven descended and anointed its spongy texture, and salty, herbal taste. Irresistible.

My friend, Chris, has a stunning wood-fired oven in his backyard, and after baking pizza one night, I convinced him that we could make a complete meal in the oven the next night while the fire was still hot. Lemon chicken, Italian white beans, summer veggies, and focaccia sizzled side by side. I felt like I was back in Italy, my other love. 

Here’s a sampling of what Chris and I have been formulating and happily eating. Perhaps one of these photos will inspire you to capture the mid-summer harvest in new and delicious ways. 

My favorite fish dinners this summer.

Ready for the BBQ. Halibut on top of zucchini, lemon olive oil, basil, and tomatoes.

Lunch of fresh prawns, poke, and grilled veggies.

A great French tradition – Ratatouille!

Garden fresh and luscious.

Plums and apricots in a frangipane base. So delectable!

[easy-image-collage id=4490]

My bread learning curve – French Country and Focaccia.

[easy-image-collage id=4491]

Cocktail of the month: Aviation

A summer cooler – introducing The Aviation.

My favorite – Caprese.

Chris’ Caprese. Belissimo!

My Caprese. Delightful!

Breakfast of champions! Sourdough waffles with apricots and cherries and honeyed ricotta on homemade bread topped with peaches and thyme.

[easy-image-collage id=4492]

Peach magic. Peaches, cucumbers, rice vinegar, mint, and basil complement pork tenderloin.

[easy-image-collage id=4505]

Wood-fired dinner extraordinaire.

Wood-fired dinner of lemon chicken, Italian white beans, and grilled zucchini.

Essential tools of the kitchen.

An antique gift from my Aunt Barb. I love making pesto in this beauty!

 

Delight in each day!

“When I pass a flowering zucchini plant in a garden, my heart skips a beat.”
Gwyneth Paltrow

Ciao for now!

 




Dreaming of Gelato

Breakfast in Sorrento

Let me introduce my writing friend, colleague, and guest blogger, Jolie Tunnell. Jolie is witty, sassy, and knows how to tell a story. Her blog at JolieTunnell.com shares humerous tales of her five children, husband, and new kitten and is always a fun read. She’s got a lot more action on her site than just her blog, so please check it out! 

Recently we were bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t just jump on a plane and fly to Italy for inspiration. Inspiration meaning immediately heading to the local gelateria for a pick-me-up. I asked her to share her experiences with this Italian classic to give us all a break from reality.

Thank you Jolie!

In 2018, guest blogger Jolie Tunnell and her Hubby spent their 30th wedding anniversary traveling Italy and sampling the cuisine. By “sample,” we mean “ate as much as they could hold on any given day.” This is her take on the gelato experience, followed by recommendations for locally sourcing the tempting treat.

Not all gelato is created equal.

As a matter of fact, you cannot walk a Roman city block without tripping face first into three different gelato displays, and as tempting as it is to eat your way through Italy with a cucchiaio (spoon) in your hand, you need to know the “Good” sources from the “Great.” You don’t have to settle for less, here in the motherland.

On every street corner.

“Good” will have a small case of flavors, ten or so basics, tucked into a larger establishment like a restaurant or souvenir shop. “Good” gelato is made in a factory from sullen cows with whatever ingredients are handy, but you may as well try it in order to educate your palate.

When Pesto Meets Gelato

“Great” will have a wide variety of flavors, twenty at least, in a place dedicated only to this frozen delight. It will have over 150 if you’ve arrived in gelato Nirvana…which exists in Rome. Maybe it has won major awards for deliciousness in Sorrento. It will say “gelateria” over the door and have a bonafide gelato party going on inside. 

The Real Deal

“Great” gelato is crafted from the finest fresh ingredients from someone’s secret family recipe that Nonna left under her pillow. Each artisanal flavor will be piled into tall fluffy mountains of joy with bits of the ingredient tossed on top. ie: the pineapple gelato will be wearing a pineapple crown and the walnut gelato will be studded with walnuts. They branch out with lighter sorbets, too, just to mix things up.

Browsing Lido.

The chilled pan of nocciola will be half empty because the Master Gelatieres can’t stop sampling it for quality control.

Corniglia Cuties

This place is taking gelato as seriously as you are and that’s good Great.

Roman Cookie Topper.

Next – always choose a cup, not a cone. Don’t be that guy with the cone we watched over and over, wandering sideways into the middle of a busy square attempting to lick his gelato into submission and losing the battle. You will run into him later in the baptistry – sprinkled in holy pistachio. Marked by his dedication.

Gelato deserves your complete attention.

Anacapri-Triple-Lutz.

Now for the best part: Choosing your flavors. Begin slowly, don’t hurt yourself. We began with single flavor starter cups and worked our way up to professional level with three for four flavors at once. This allowed us to sample sometimes eight flavors at a time, because sharing is caring. 

Also, this is how you discover that tart lemon and smooth chocolate go surprising well together in a single lick. My absolute favorites were the pear and the fig. The flavors are rich but also subtle, with bits of dried sweet pear or fresh fig swirled into the gelato. Unusual and delicious. 

Last licks.

While we impatiently wait for a chance to revisit this beautiful country, its delicious cuisine, and its precious people, we offer you a quick perusal of local San Diego gelaterias. Enjoy your sweet summer treat on a friendly neighborhood sidewalk as the sun drops into the west and remind yourself that Italy is only a lick away.

Deliziosa!

Voglio mangiare il gelato tutto il giorno!  (I want to eat gelato all day long!)

San Diego Gelato:

Chocolat Hillcrest, 5th Ave

Bobboi Natural Gelato, Little Italy & La Jolla

Gelato Paradiso, Coronado

Milkissimo Gelato, Mission Valley Mall

Bottega Italiana (UTC Mall), Nado Gelato (Coronado), Gelato 101 (Encinitas)

Pappalecco, Hillcrest

An’s Dry Cleaning, Adams Ave

EscoGelato, Escondido

Gelato Vero Cafe, India St, Caffe Italia, Little Italy

Zero Gelato, Normal Heights

Dolce Italian Ice, Pacific Beach

Figaro Dessert Cafe, University Ave

Gelato & Friends, N Harbor Dr

Gelati & Peccati, North Park

Cor di Gelato, Mission Beach

Jolie Tunnell is a freelance writer, blogger, and aspiring novelist with a background that includes administration, education, and – thanks to her five kids – a sixteen year stint in the PTA. She serves up hard-won wisdom with humor, compassion and insight from her home in San Diego, California. Visit her at JolieTunnell.com, LinkedIn, or Facebook, or be her writing buddy at NaNoWriMo.

Flavors worth finding:

Cocco (coconut)

Pistachio

Amarena (tart cherry swirl)

Deep Dark Cioccolato (death by chocolate)

Stracciatella (a bit like chocolate chip)

Peanut (not peanut butter sadly, but more like a raw peanut ice cream)

Pera (pear and ricotta)

Berry

Tiramisu

Albicocca (apricot)

Nocciola (hazelnut)

Mango (basically you are just eating a chilled perfect mango)

Limone (tart lemon)

Mistero Latino (it’s still a Latin Mystery to me but it was quite tasty)

Fico (fig)

Caffe (coffee)

Ciao for now,




Taming “Shelter in Place” with Bird Watching and Bread-Making

 

Local Parrots testing out the new feeder. Bird watching is fun and entertaining!

Amidst all this self-isolation, I’ve discovered new ways to keep from going crazy, which has happened a few times. The unexpected evolution of these new hobbies are spin-offs of my gardening and cooking passions. They are bird watching and bread-making, one using the right side of my brain and an inactive pursuit, and the other, more science-focused, active, and sometimes frustrating. Both have helped fend off the loneliness.

Weeding is my usual therapy and helps me generate ideas for my writing except for these days, my garden is the cleanest of weeds it’s been in years. I started to tidy up the garage and that became boring all too soon but in the process, did find two old bird feeders. A good scrub and new seed were all that was needed to lure new feathered friends into my yard.  It took a few weeks but now my garden is a flurry of birds. The doves arrive in the early morning and come back later for happy hour. The juvenile doves are so fun to watch, wobbly and still unsure of their new wings. Finches and sparrows feed mid-day and the bluejays, crows, parrots, and occasional hawk swing by to enjoy the vibe. I’ve observed the mourning doves’ mating dance, parrots entertaining me and themselves, yellow-bellied, black and white spotted wrens who are so breathtakingly beautiful, and recently, a bluejay who loves to hang out with me on my patio. Time slips away and somedays my mom will ask me what I did all day and I’ll say, “I watched the birds!” 

The doves especially have made such an impression on me, that they now have a role in the historical fiction novel I’m writing called The Sicilian Sorceress. Doves have been written about since the Bronze Age and were revered in ancient Greece as signs of peace, devotion, love, and friendship. Doves mate for life. The things I’ve learned!

These two doves mated in the tree next door, then came to my yard to discuss baby names.

Without this pandemic, I would never have met these new friends who keep me company during the lonely times and show me that all we really need is food, song, and love.

The trio taking turns.

On to my next new interest – bread-making. Pastries and baking were the focus, and passion, of my life for many years but only included smidgens of bread science. And what a science it is! Using a starter, instead of instant yeast is a whole new ballgame as I recently discovered. I tried making my own starter, then the flour shortage happened. According to King Arthur’s recipe, you must feed the starter with one cup of flour twice a day. My flour stash was quickly evaporating so that put an end to starting from scratch. A friend in Portland, Oregon sent me a starter and gave me directions to keep it going using way less flour so I was back in business. My friend Eva shared her technique for making sourdough bread and I thought to myself, “No sweat!” Wrong again. Two days of vigilant fermenting, stretching, and worshipping the dough resulted in a watery mess, without enough character to even form a ball. Dejected, it quickly found the trash can and I was more determined than ever to learn how to make a decent loaf. Not that I want to be a bread queen but I figure when your brain takes on a new challenge, it usually “rises” to the occasion. My aunt recommended Ken Forkish’s book, Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast and I read almost half of it in one sitting. I’ll start slow to gain confidence before I move onto more complicated bread. I don’t have a choice – I just ordered 50# of flour!

My new guide to successful bread baking.

I hope you are finding some diversions to help you through this delirious time. Please let me know what you are doing to stay sane.

As I learned from Sparky when things aren’t going the way you want them to, Shift Your Energy!

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” 

Mahatma Gandhi

Ciao for now,




In Love With Chocolate

 

This chocolate decadence is sure to capture a heart – or two!

To me, chocolate represents everything good in life. It has helped me through my darkest hours, given me clarity when I am indecisive, and won hearts when it counts.

That is why I cannot imagine Valentine’s Day without chocolate. Whether you are wooing a mate or just treating yourself or family, this flourless chocolate cake will cast a spell for love, which is what we all need, right?

Torta Caprese is a traditional Italian chocolate dessert, rich and dense with chocolate and almonds and moisturized with olive oil. A decadent finale! Excellent served with espresso. Buon appetito!

May love knock at your door this Valentine’s Day!

 

5.0 from 1 reviews

Torta Caprese
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

Creamy, decadent and gluten-free
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Italian
Serves: 10

Ingredients
  • Line a 9″ springform pan with parchment paper. Lightly oil the bottom.
  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  • 6 oz. good-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened), chopped and melted
  • ½ cup plus 2 Tbls. extra virgin olive oil – I use Galantino Mandarin EVOO* but you can use any high-quality EVOO
  • 1 Tbls. grated orange rind
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1 cup sugar (I use superfine)
  • 7 oz. almond flour or finely ground whole almonds
  • Pinch of salt
  • whipped cream to decorate or if you prefer, powdered sugar dust

Instructions
  1. Gently melt the chocolate and stir in the olive oil. Set aside.
  2. Beat the sugar and 4 egg yolks until light and creamy.
  3. Stir the ground almonds or almond flour into the sugar and egg mixture.
  4. Gently stir in the melted chocolate and olive oil.
  5. Beat the 4 egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form.
  6. Gradually fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. The mixture will not be light and airy but still rather dense.
  7. Pour into prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes. I usually start checking the cake at 40 minutes by inserting a toothpick in the center to see if the inside is still damp or beginning to form moist crumbs. This cake does have a fudgy inside so do not over bake it.
  8. Let cool for half an hour and run a spatula around the edges to loosen the sides. Undo the sides of the pan and let cool. Cake can be kept for up to 5 days, wrapped in saran wrap in the refrigerator. It actually improves with flavor!

*EVOO = Extra Virgin Olive Oil

I have made this cake using the full amount of mandarin EVOO and have also made it with half mandarin and half EVOO. Feel free to improvise by using only EVOO, eliminating the orange peel and perhaps stirring in a tsp. of coffee power for a bold chocolate coffee flavor. Or, use EVOO and stir in a teaspoon of almond extract. Use your imagination!

“Chocolate symbolizes, as does no other food, luxury, comfort, sensuality, gratification, and love.” 

― Karl Petzke

Ciao for now,

 

 

 




Sparky

The Sparkle in my Life

March 2009 to October 2019

My handsome, kind prince.

My dearest Sparky,

Even though you have crossed over the Rainbow Bridge, I feel your warm spirit and vibrant energy beside me. Oh, the adventures we had! From the oceans to the desert and the mountains. Joy was our middle name.

From the moment I laid eyes on you as a six-month-old skinny pup from Baja, I knew we were destined to be best friends. The way you nuzzled my neck and clung to me tugged at my heart. Of course, those big pointy curious ears, bunny-soft tan, and white fur and a tail that curled tightly above your back endeared you to me forever. I called you my Lucky Leprechan and honored you with a birthdate of St. Patty’s Day.

[easy-image-collage id=4372]

You must have been an old soul. Your calm nature and steady loyalty always reassured me that life was good. I never felt alone with you here. Whenever I came home, you were right there at the garage door, ready to greet me and run circles in the yard to show me how happy you were. 

[easy-image-collage id=4374]

[easy-image-collage id=4378]

You were so brave to travel with mom and me on our road trips. We loved our male escort! People always commented on your good behavior. I was always so proud of you.

Read about Sparky’s travels in his own words.

[easy-image-collage id=4375]

I especially loved watching you at the beach as you chased the ball, with all your might, then waded into the water to cool off. Most times, you dropped the ball in the water requiring me to fetch it for you! Your frolicking deer-like dances in and out of the surf always made me giggle. Somehow I knew you did this to entertain me.

[easy-image-collage id=4376]

[easy-image-collage id=4377]

We were both there for each other, like a marriage. A solid commitment. A relationship so strong and tight it defied reason. A soul connection at the deepest level possible. There will never be another one of you. I honor your spirit and am grateful for the perfect 10 years we shared together. I miss you every day….

Happy times at Sunset Cliffs with Sparky

I love you always and forever. May our paths meet again someday. Please.

Mom XXOO

“Dogs, lives are short, too short, but you know that going in. You know the pain is coming, you’re going to lose a dog, and there’s going to be great anguish, so you live fully in the moment with her, never fail to share her joy or delight in her innocence, because you can’t support the illusion that a dog can be your lifelong companion. There’s such beauty in the hard honesty of that, in accepting and giving love while always aware that it comes with an unbearable price. Maybe loving dogs is a way we do penance for all the other illusions we allow ourselves and the mistakes we make because of those illusions.” 

Dean Koontz, The Darkest Evening of the Year

“A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his.” 

John Grogan, Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog




Gramma’s Orange Spice Bars

Moist and bursting with orange, these bars won over everyone who tasted them!

My Gramma has done it again: delivered a recipe sounding so incredibly good that I made it immediately and now cannot stop snacking. I came across it during my annual January purge. This year my studio, which is jammed with multiple writing resources, became the lucky recipient of the clean-out. While rearranging and dusting off my cooking and gardening books, I discovered two plastic recipe file boxes, shoved to the back of the shelf and temporarily hidden. Even though chaos abounded, I took some time to look through each box and every recipe, some from my mom but most from my Gramma. I love how she recorded her recipes by neatly typing them on index cards or thin onionskin paper. This gem for Orange Spice Bars nudged at my sweet tooth. Now that my two orange trees are bursting with fruit, I am ready to make them a center stage of many dishes.

The magic box of recipes and memories.

My beautiful orange trees bring me so much joy.

The recipe comes together easily and took me back in time. As I creamed the butter and sugar and folded in the walnuts, I felt my Gramma’s presence in the kitchen with me, donned in her well-worn and faded yellow apron, sipping coffee and nodding her head in approval. Gramma, thanks for documenting so many wonderful, tasty recipes. I promise to make more of them!

Bet you can’t eat just one!

4.5 from 2 reviews

Gramma’s Orange Spice Bars
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

These moist bars, with the combination of orange and spices, go well with tea or coffee or as an afternoon snack.
Author:
Recipe type: Bar Cookie
Cuisine: American
Serves: 50

Ingredients
  • ⅔ cup unsalted butter or 11 Tablespoons
  • 1½ cups brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 2 eggs at room temperature
  • 1-2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel (the recipe calls for 1 but I used 2)
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 Cup chopped walnuts
  • For the Orange Glaze
  • 1½ cups sifted powdered sugar
  • 2-3 Tablespoons fresh orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated orange peel
  • 2 Tablespoons shredded or flaked coconut

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Grease a 10X15 jelly roll pan or line with parchment (I used a 10X15 lasagne pan)
  3. Cream the butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add eggs, one by one. Mix well.
  5. Add orange peel and orange juice. Mix well.
  6. Sift flour with soda, spices, and salt.
  7. Add to sugar mixture and mix just until combined.
  8. Stir in chopped walnuts.
  9. Turn dough into the pan and smooth it evenly across.
  10. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is golden brown and firm to the touch.
  11. Cool completely.
  12. Make the glaze:
  13. Mix together the powdered sugar, orange juice, and orange peel to form a smooth, thin glaze. Add more juice if you prefer a thinner glaze.
  14. Spread the glaze evenly over the bars. I did not use all the glaze, but if you want a sweeter bar, by all means, go for it.
  15. Sprinkle with the coconut.
  16. Cut into triangles, as my Gramma did, or cut into squares, your preference.
  17. These keep well for days covered or in an airtight container.
  18. Note: Don’t skip the orange glaze. It really adds that extra bit of flavor.
  19. Feel free to omit the coconut if desired

If the family were a fruit, it would be an orange, a circle of sections, held together but separable – each segment distinct.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Ciao for now,

 

 




Homegrown Potatoes

Homegrown Rosy red fingerlings fresh from the garden! Dirt doesn’t cling to them like it does with the Yukon Gems.

I’d never thought of growing potatoes until I visited my family in Denver last year and my green-thumb sister-in-law, Mirna, showed me how. Her homegrown potatoes were finished for the season in October and I helped her dig them up before the first frost. The yield amazed me – at least five pounds. Right then and there determination set in to give the mighty spud a try. 

This is how the potatoes come packaged from Peaceful Valley.

My research led me to Peaceful Valley, an online garden shop specializing in organic tubers, seeds and trees. I purchased “seed” potatoes from them after learning grocery store potatoes are often treated to prevent them from sprouting. Peaceful Valley provides excellent on-line videos with step-by-step instructions on how to cut the eyes and dry them for a day to harden the exposed skin. This prevents the moist surface from creating mildew. 

I used two extra bags of soil hilling the potatoes.

Into the ground they went. I waited and waited. It must have been four weeks before I saw the emergence of green leaves. To protect them from sun exposure, you use a technique called “hilling.” As soon as leaves arrive, you make a hill of dirt around the base the keep them as far underground as possible. I hilled my plants many times as they grew tall. When the leaves dry out, and wilt the potatoes are ready to harvest. At first I dug up a few here and there to eat that night. Most of the potatoes I planted were Red Thumb Fingerling and French Fingerling. The names accurately reflect the small, dusty red, oblong potatoes that came out of the ground looking like they’ve just been to the beauty parlor – all cleaned up! Their creamy richness lent themselves to simple boiling and steaming to eat with salt and butter. 

These are the larger Yukon Gems. Buttery!

It’s now late spring and my appetite for bright summer veggies kicked in. Even though I relished in my every other day harvesting, I dug up all the potatoes to make room for squash, cucumbers, poblanos and cantaloupe. I love the activity of a treasure hunt, and as I turn the dirt, it’s like magic as potatoes appear on my shovel. The entire raised bed gifted me with a yield of around 15 pounds! As I crumbled the soil to prepare it for its next visitors, my fingers combed through he dirt to find at least 30 more potatoes, comfortably tucked into their warm home, still hiding from me. 

Summer squash now occupies the potato patch.

What am I going to do with all these potatoes? Needing a cool place to store them, an idea came to me. Put the spuds in my wine cooler to save them from sprouting. San Diego’s climate is not conducive to storing produce that needs to be dry. I hope this works! Let me know about your homegrown potato-planting experience and how you keep them fresh. Next week, a simple recipe that honors the virtue of my new favorite winter vegetable.

“I only want to live in peace, plant potatoes and dream!” 

Tove Jansson, Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, Vol. 1

Ciao for now,

 




Food Photography, Santa Fe & A Cake

Even Sparky cannot resist!

On a plane en route to Albuquerque, final destination Santa Fe, I devoured a book by one of my food writer gurus, Ruth Reichl. Her latest book, Save me the Plums, was just released and is a memoir of her life as editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine, my favorite food magazine – ever.

I have read all her books, and the admirer I am, couldn’t wait to hear all about her insider’s view on the world of publishing. A recipe she included in the book called Jeweled Chocolate Cake caught my eye and I couldn’t stop thinking about making it upon my return home.

So, what was I up to this time in Santa Fe, my favorite destination? A friend told me about a food photography workshop at a retreat center, Santa Fe Workshops, nestled in the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Photography is one of my loves but capturing food always alludes me – the lighting, composition, and how to edit the photos without just pushing the “boost” icon in iPhoto. My photography life was about to change.

The workshop taught by food photographer, Tracy Benjamin of Shutterbean, awakened my brain and revitalized and artistic side I thought was fading.

Tracy is a talented photographer, artist and exceptional teacher. Her patience and easy-going spirit propelled the five of us into a new world of visual possibilities. After four intensive days of shooting food in the retreat basement, the Santa Fe Plaza, and in bars and restaurants, I felt like I had been revitalized and was ready to utilize my new-found skills. By the way, the other four women in the workshop humbled and inspired me with their unique talents and diverse careers. I learned a lot from them.

Almond and hazelnut praline

Back to the cake. The pastry chef in me erupted like Mt. Etna. As soon as I returned home, I began my photography experimentation beginning with baking Ruth’s Jeweled Chocolate Cake and composing photos to highlight its exquisiteness. The dark velvety cake has a whisper of mascarpone topping and then a tumble of crunchy, glistening praline. I finished photographing it around 6 p.m. and couldn’t resist having a slice before dinner. A trio of flavors collaborated on my tongue. Soft, dense and tender chocolate, creamy, tangy frosting, and an accent mark of crunchy, sugar nut sparkles. One bite and the marriage was consummated. It kept tempting me back. And, I am not really a cake person so this one is a serious keeper! Thank you Ruth for the decadent recipe and another great read.

I love how this cake glistens like pieces of amber.

I am discovering once again that baking is my groove. And now, showcasing the photos that highlight my sweet creations gives me gratitude for this life-long passion. Thank you Tracy! You are a gifted teacher and I will continue the journey….

One bite and I’m hooked!

Get the recipe for Jeweled Chocolate Cake and watch an interview with Ms. Reichl at:

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ruth-reichl-save-me-the-plums-memoir-recipes/

“…it was so rich and exotic I was seduced into taking one bite and then another as I tried to chase the flavors back to their source.” 

Ruth Reichl

Ciao for now,




My 5 Favorite Memories of The Beach House

Our family beach house of 57 years is now a memory. I spent much of my childhood here, in the tiny 1929 blue cottage with brick-red shutters along the shores of Mission Beach. Her living room was covered in a driftwood-type paneling, a fish net hung in a corner, stuffed with shells. The floors and furniture were all a bit sandy. I often wonder why we didn’t name her. We just called her “the beach house.” To me, it was heaven on earth. My sanctuary being the wide blue ocean in her front yard.

[easy-image-collage id=4269]

My mom’s memories: First, it was finding the house after renting apartments for several years in Mission Beach. It was  perfect because it was right on the beach and the way into the ocean was gradual. Just right for young children learning the ways of the waves. Close enough to watch from the kitchen window. The beach was rarely crowded. The boardwalk lent itself to learning to ride a two-wheeler.

Memory #1:

Riding the Waves

[easy-image-collage id=4273]

Surfing the white ruffles of waves on an orange canvas float is heaven. My dad is my raft caddy, teaching me how to get through the surf. After I learn the ropes, I am off on my own. My arms paddle with ferocity out to the last set of waves. I glance over my shoulder, waiting for that perfect swell of water to lift me up, then plunge me downward into her curl. The salty water sprays over my body as I am propelled, at an angle, toward the shore, finally stopping with a thump as my float hits the sand. A rush of adrenaline always makes me giggle with delight as I turn my float around to paddle out for more. The cool water sends shivers down my thin body at the same time as the warmth of the sun gives it a glow. I smell like Sea & Ski and am either slathered in sunscreen, while swimming, or in cocoa butter while tanning. My hair dries with salt crusts and bleaches with blonde streaks naturally.

Mom calls for me to come in for lunch and I reluctantly leave my water home. After eating, I am told I must wait 1/2 hour before returning to the sea. It seems like an eternity as I nap in the warm sand, awaiting the A-Ok. I have this routine, day in and day out. There is nothing I’d rather do and nowhere I’d rather be. 

Memory #2

Family

It seems we are almost always together – my mom and dad, brother John and babysitter Claudia. We sure know how to play! Swim, sunbathe, ride bikes, repeat. Every kid’s dream and we are living it!

[easy-image-collage id=4283]

Mom and Dad and the infamous fishnet!

 

Memory #3

Beach Combing

[easy-image-collage id=4276]

Early misty mornings at low tide, my babysitter Claudia and I awake early to see what gifts the ocean has delivered to her shore. An aroma of salty seaweed hovers in the still air. Bucket in hand, my eyes downward, I scan the beach for scallop shells, tiny clam wings and the prized sand dollar. It takes a special awareness to find the sand dollars, whose “bump” is usually the only thing visible, the rest of the fragile shells covered with sand. I create art with the shells, making hanging mobiles to decorate the beach house and my room at home. I glue my finds onto picture frames and pile them into glass jars for display. Shells are my visible connection to the ocean, even when I am not there.

My mom’s memories: As the children grew and friends were invited to come for a week in the summer, it became a destination to enjoy the ocean, lie on the beach to “cook” until a good tan was visible, and to eat the sweet rolls from the Parker House and to savor the fish and chips from the authentic English vendor, Jubbs, wrapped in newspaper and dosed with vinegar.

Memory #4

Sandcastles and Sunshine

My mom and Claudia taught us how to design a sandcastle!

It is almost an everyday occurrence. Building a sandcastle and then watching it disappear with the rising tide. Running to the water with our buckets for water to drizzle on top, like icing a cake. Each one has its own character and theme. Mostly of fairy tales, like the kind Claudia would read to us at bedtime. All of us contributing one special tower or a moat to a work of love.

Memory #5

Watching the sunset with my dad

The best time of the day!

Every night, my dad calls us outside to view the orange ball of sun sink into the horizon. This is his favorite part of beach living. Quietly, we gather on the deck, like a nightly ceremony. Sometimes the sun vanishes in a tangerine glow. Sometimes, when it is very clear, we are rewarded with a “green flash.” This phenomenon does not occur often and you must not take your eyes off the sun. Not even for a second! As soon the last bit of sun hits the horizon line, a flash of lime green light bursts forth, hence, the green flash. Every night we watch for it. The best part of our sunset viewing is actually after the sun has set and the clouds light up the evening sky with layers of fuchsia, fire-red and salmon orange. The colors become more vibrant, then begin to fade with the darkness to become glowing embers. Afterward, my dad and I give each other hugs, not saying a word, just sharing the emotion. Every sunset I watch now, I feel my dad’s embrace and know he is in my heart, admiring the color-splashed sky alongside me. 

My mom’s memories: When Jim retired we spent free time at the beach house hosting friends and relatives. It was a great getaway. Everyone enjoyed the lazy days and the magnificent sunsets. Time marches on and it was time to say farewell to “this old house”. It was good to all of us and its walls hold just as many memories as I do. May its new inhabitants give the walls new memories to hold.

It was a time of togetherness and family love. If wishes could come true, well, mine were pretty well granted. This was summer life in Mission Beach. Still my favorite place to swim, nap in the sun, watch the dolphins and the sunsets and most of all, remember how to play again.

“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running — that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach….” 

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”

Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds

Ciao for now,

 




On Stage Now – The Super Bloom of the Desert!

 

The rebirthing of the desert

The desert displays many faces. It can be bone dry and desolate, or raging in color and life, like it is this spring. It’s called a Super Bloom and only happens when an abundance of rainfall gifts its precious resource to the parched land. It’s wildflower time!

I want to show my Portuguese visitor, Luís, the best of southern California and it is curtain call for the wildflowers at Anza Borrego desert. We drive through ranchlands in back country San Diego, along with my pal, Sparky, to the Visitor’s Center in Borrego. The rangers direct us to an area known as Garden Desert for the best flower show and because it is dog friendly.

Luís and Sparky enjoying a moment.

The road we follow is lined with orange groves and faces the open desert landscape. It’s a dichotomy of lush fruit trees paralleling the dry, wind-swept desert floor.

[easy-image-collage id=4242]

Warm-to-the-touch breezes gently guide us in, toward the mountains. I am one with the wind, feeling the vibrancy of life. Sweet scents of orange blossoms mingle with the more stringent creosote bush and collide with the delicate fragrance of tiny white flowers, reminiscent of jasmine. Carefully, I traverse the pathways, trying hard not to step on the multitude of flora. I gather a handful of pink flowers and nuzzle their bouquet to my face, breathing in their faint, sweet scent. I feel insignificant compared to all this activity, just a passer-by in a flash of time.

[easy-image-collage id=4247]

A Desert Lily captures my attention. She almost evokes a religious element, she is that perfectly crafted, her arranged and spiked leaves protecting the delicate white bloom that is her pride. No longer living a life of obscurity, these flourishing plants flaunt their brilliance, basking in the limelight, if only for a short time.

The stunning Desert Lily.

Tiny animal footprints – rabbit? – solidly cast in dried, cracked mud follow a path along the wash. I wonder if all the desert critters frolic and rejoice under the moonlight, celebrating this phenomenon?

I stop in the middle of this polychromatic carpet and close my eyes. The voices of nature are the only sound: lofty creosote bushes sway and comingle, the friction of their branches release a rustle as well as the scent of camphor that fills my nostrils. Lower lying flowers dance with the winds and whisper to each other. Sparky’s eyes close as he drinks in the quiet.

I feel grounded, like roots are sprouting from my feet, connecting me to the next layer of life. A feeling of peace overcomes me, knowing that all things are possible. Hope springs from the harshest of challenges and the desert perseveres. Soon the show will end and they will fade and retreat underground until Mother Nature grants their freedom once again. Thank you Borrego for a brilliant performance!

“Love is wild; its whole beauty is in its wildness. It comes like a breeze with great fragrance, fills your heart, and suddenly where there was a desert there is a garden full of flowers.”
Osho, Intimacy: Trusting Oneself and the Other

Ciao for now,

Mary




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

[easy-image-collage id=4228]

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.

[easy-image-collage id=4193]

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.

[easy-image-collage id=4200]

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




Classic Pineapple Upside Down Cake

A taste of Hawaii.

Home Ec class, circa 1970. Our teacher, Mrs. Talbot, handed out mimeographed recipes for Pineapple Upside Down Cake. Exotic! We donned our aprons, made in the sewing class she taught, and organized the ingredients. Our class was the giggly kind but, today, the giggles were replaced by intrigue and excitement. Learning how to make a cake from scratch!
I don’t think I had ever eaten a Pineapple Upside Down Cake before this class but now, I was hooked. The cloying topping of brown sugar and butter melding into the canned pineapple rings sang “Hawaii,” a place we all dreamed of going. The extra juices seeped into the velvety-textured white cake. We devoured the cake and couldn’t wait to try it at home.
My best girlfriend and I went on a Pineapple Upside Down Cake binge, making it monthly, always adding more brown sugar to the topping to satisfy our sweet tooth. It was addicting.
Last year I tried to re-create the old school recipe and could only find modern versions. Then, when sorting recipes, I found this one I had cut out from the Riverside Press Enterprise in 1991 and eureka! I hit the mother lode. Making this again brought back so many happy memories of high school friends, how we loved our Home Ec class and the teacher we made fun of, but secretly really admired and respected. Cheers to a classic!

Such a happy cake!

5.0 from 1 reviews

Pineapple Upside Down Cake
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

This cake will take you back in time. Make it for family and watch them eat the sugary edges first!
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Old-fashioned!
Serves: 6-8

Ingredients
  • 1 20 oz. can pineapple slices
  • Maraschino cherries
  • ¼ Cup unsalted butter
  • ½ Cup light brown sugar
  • pecan halves
  • 3 egg yolks
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1½ Cups cake flour, sifted
  • ¾ Cup sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 9 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Drain pineapple slices and cherries on paper towels to absorb extra moisture.
  3. Melt ¼ cup butter in a 10” cast iron skillet
  4. Stir in brown sugar and remove from heat.
  5. Place a pineapple ring in the center of the sugar mixture and assemble pineapple rings to surround the center ring. Place a cherry in the middle of each ring. Tuck pecan halves inbetween slices.
  6. Combine egg yolks, 2 Tablespoons of the sour cream and vanilla in a small bowl.
  7. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Mix together.
  8. Add butter and remaining sour cream. Mix until dry ingredients are moistened. Beat for a minute or two.
  9. Add egg mixture in thirds, beating between each addition.
  10. Batter will look silky.
  11. Pour batter carefully over pineapple slices and spread evenly.
  12. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cake should be deep brown on top.
  13. Invert immediately onto a cake plate. Let rest for a minute to release the cake. If some of the pineapple rings stick to the bottom of the pan, simply pick them up and place them on the cake.
  14. Cool or eat warm. It has just the right amount of sweetness and the top edges form crispy, sugary bites.

“One should never save cake for later when it can be eaten now.”
― Marissa Meyer, Winter

Ciao for now!

Mary




Gifting With Phyllo Dough

A dinner gift of Phyllo Chicken.

The cooler fall days encourage a shift in my cooking. After a binge on vegetable soups in all stages, my taste buds are hungry for something I can sink my teeth into. Enter phyllo dough.

Most people know it as the thin layers of dough between ground nuts and honey in the Greek pastry baklava. But phyllo dough begs to be used in a million ways. My mom and I experimented with phyllo while I was in high school and I fell in love with its diversity.

My favorite and something I’ve been making since my 20’s, is phyllo chicken with tarragon and mustard. I don’t remember where this recipe came from but have made it for catering clients and shared it with friends over the years. I taught my dear friend Debbie how to make it right after college and to this day she tells me how much she still enjoys the recipe.

Phyllo chicken is the perfect dinner party entrée as the little packets of goodness represent gifts of love. It is visually attractive and your guests will truly feel special.

[easy-image-collage id=4157]

Chicken breasts are first smeared with Dijon mustard and sprinkled with tarragon leaves, then wrapped into a square of layered phyllo dough. They bake into a beautiful golden brown bundle. I like to dress them up with a “ribbon” of thin roasted red pepper for an added touch of elegance. Set the baked parcel in a pool of delicate mustard sauce for an infusion of flavors. Don’t be afraid of the mustard in this recipe. The addition of cream tames its sharpness and produces a silky, delectable sauce.

Layers of buttery crispness shatter beneath the fork, exposing a savory chicken breast. The combination is undeniably delicious. I would serve this with haricot verts (thin French green beans), carrot mousse and crusty French bread. For dessert, poached pears or a flourless chocolate cake.

I have made these packets and successfully frozen them, unbaked, until the day of my party.
Treat your friends to this gift of love. Someone will ask you for the recipe.

5.0 from 1 reviews

Mustard Chicken in Phyllo
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

This easy-to-make main dinner course is a great idea for a holiday get-together.
Author:
Recipe type: main course
Serves: 6

Ingredients
  • 3 boneless chicken breasts
  • Dijon mustard
  • 6 springs fresh tarragon or 1 about Tablespoon of dried tarragon
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 sheets of phyllo dough
  • Melted butter – about 4-5 Tablespoons
  • Mustard Sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced or 2 shallots, halved and sliced thinly
  • 1 teaspoon tarragon
  • 1 Cup dry white wine
  • 1½ Cups chicken stock
  • ⅓ Cup Dijon mustard
  • 1 Cup cream

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Cut chicken breasts in half.
  3. Spread about a teaspoon of mustard on the chicken breast. Top with either a tarragon sprig or sprinkle with dried tarragon.
  4. Unroll phyllo dough. Butter one sheet of dough and fold in half. Place mustard chicken one inch from narrow end of dough. Fold outer edges of phyllo into the chicken and roll up. Butter the top and sides. Place on a cookie sheet seam side down. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
  5. For the Mustard Sauce:
  6. Melt butter and add onions or shallots. Saute until soft but not browned. Add tarragon.
  7. Add wine to onions and raise heat to medium high. Add chicken stock and mustard. Whisk to combine. Reduce by one half. This takes about a half an hour.
  8. Add the cream, reduce heat and cook on medium low until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Keep warm on simmer until ready to use or cool and refrigerate to reheat later.
  9. Bake chicken phyllos at 375 degrees about 30 minutes or until deeply golden brown.
  10. Thinly slice a roasted red pepper. Drape over the package and form two loops to look like a ribbon. Serve on top a pool of creamy mustard sauce.

 

Ciao for now,

“Life is a gift. Don’t forget to live it.”
― Nicola Yoon, Everything, Everything




Almondines – Reviving One of My Classics

The Almondine

While cleaning out an upper cupboard in my closet last week, I discovered a forgotten box. A treasure full of old recipes I had created when I taught cooking classes, as well as letters and postcards I’d sent my parents from La Varenne in Paris, France. It was like opening a present on Christmas day. The “missing pieces” from my life suddenly inspired me to go back to the recipes I’d embraced many years ago. Early in my cooking career, ideas for recipes came like lightning strikes, unexpected but exhilarating, followed by cloud bursts of extended creations. It all seemed so easy. I almost couldn’t get the ideas down fast enough, not to mention implement them.
Here is one of those recipes for Almondines that I’ve adapted. The results impressed me more than I’d expected. The tart is made delectable by the inclusion of almond paste. Rich and tender, the almond filling almost melts on the tongue and the unifying light almond crust is the accent mark. Divine. It’s been a hit with all my taste testers. The best part is you can fill the tarts with the almond creme, sprinkle on the sliced almonds and freeze for an impromptu breakfast or tea time. They only take about 18 minutes to bake or about 25 if frozen. I’m making a batch to freeze for weekend guests and last-minute holiday gatherings. Enjoy!

5.0 from 2 reviews

Almondines
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

These delicious tarts make a great dessert, breakfast pastry or tea time treat.
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: French
Serves: 11

Ingredients
  • Almond filling
  • 1 stick, 4 ounces butter or 100 gr
  • ½ Cup sugar or 100 gr
  • 1 tube, 7 oz. almond paste or 198 gr
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ Cup flour or 65 gr
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • Pâte Sucrée (This is my favorite from A French Chef Cooks at Home by Jacques Pepin) I added the almond extract. Feel free to use your favorite crust recipe too.
  • 1¼ Cup flour
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1 stick, 4 ounces cold unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1 egg yolk
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 Tablespoons ice water
  • ½ cup sliced almonds

Instructions
  1. Pâte Sucrée
  2. Combine the flour, salt and sugar.
  3. Cut in the butter pieces until size of small peas
  4. Combine the egg yolk, almond extract and water.
  5. Drizzle into the flour mixture and combine gently.
  6. If the pastry feels too dry, add a bit more water.
  7. Knead lightly to form a ball. Pat the ball into a 6” round, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least a half an hour.
  8. Note: I use a food processor to make my crusts.
  9. Meanwhile, make the almond filling.
  10. Almond Filling
  11. Cream the butter, sugar and almond paste together.
  12. Beat in the eggs one by one.
  13. Beat until light in color and fluffy. This will take about 5 minutes.
  14. Slowly add the flour and salt. Stir in almond extract. Mix just until combined.
  15. You can refrigerate the filling at this time or use immediately.
  16. Note #1: I made this recipe using organic sugar with crystals much larger than the white C&H variety. The crystals melted into the butter and did not whip up into a fluffy mass. The filling was much denser than I like. I prefer using regular white sugar for the filling for a lighter crumb.
  17. Note #2: I prefer to weigh my ingredients. There is a tiny bit of discrepancy in the measurements when you use Standard vs Metric measuring. This is not enough to alter the recipe.
  18. Roll the dough out to ⅛”-1/4” thick. Cut into rounds appropriate for your tart tins. I used 4” tart tins and the recipe made 11 tarts. You can also make one large tart using a 9” quiche tin. If the dough seems too sticky, you can pinch off pieces of dough and fit them into the tart molds.
  19. Pat the dough into the tins and put in freezer to chill.
  20. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  21. When the pastry crusts are cold, fill with almond mixture and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Pat the almonds down slightly to help them adhere to the filling.
  22. Bake for 15-18 minutes. They are done when deep brown on top.
  23. Brush with strained apricot jam when warm to create a beautiful glaze.
  24. These can also be frozen after they are baked.

Believe in your heart that you’re meant to live a life full of passion, purpose, magic and miracles.”
― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

Ciao for now,




Bonding Over Pomegranates

Pomegranate Twins

This story is dedicated to my forever pomegranate best friend, Jenny.

The one fruit I have always been smitten with is the pomegranate. Not because of its highly sought after nutritional benefits or how it has become a “cool” fruit, but for other deeper reasons.

Flashback. We had one of the few backyards in my Riverside neighborhood with an actively producing pomegranate tree. As fall approached, we young ones anxiously awaited the season of the pomegranate. Fall signaled the dreaded shorter days, but hope was on the horizon. Everyday, I’d inspect the fruit, watching it turn deeper and darker red. When the fruit signaled its ripeness, I would call my friends to come over to share in the harvest. “It’s pomegranate time!” Back then, pomegranates were rarely used as a garnish or addition to a meal. They were purely for the pleasure of eating straight off the tree. It was an annual tradition – an event!

The pomegranate flower looks like a squash blossom Indian necklace.

Extracting the fruit was an arduous task that my friends and I found challenging, but more so, entertaining. First, we peeled off the dark, outer leathery skin, then pulled the thin, bitter white membrane away to expose the red seeds. We’d giggle at each other, the red juice squirting all over our faces, hands, and the old clothes our moms made us wear.

The fruit finally torn apart, we stuffed handfuls of the pomegranate into our tiny mouths, crunching through the inner white seeds to extract the tart juice and gorge until we couldn’t eat anymore. It was as if eating the seeds with such abandon and recklessness was our own private ceremony, a time to share secrets. We weren’t trying to figure out which balsamic vinegar to pair with them or how to bake them into a chicken recipe. It was just enjoying the moment in its simplicity, bare and naked.

These halved pomegranates look like pretty flowers!

In my teenage years, I began making pomegranate jelly. (This recipe is from Williams Sonoma and includes apples!) It was a real gourmet treat which I gifted to friends at Christmas. I’ve graduated from jelly to pomegranate martinis, paired with gin or vodka, always a favorite for a Halloween or Christmas cocktail.

Five years ago, I finally planted my very own pomegranate tree and it is definitely the happiest tree in my yard! It grew quickly, now topping 25 feet, its branches dominating a large part of my garden. I let her have her space. Her vibrant, soft, billowy leaves catch the sunlight and remind me of a time of carefree indulgence, stained hands and friendship bonding – over pomegranates.

“Fun fact #1 about pomegranates: Pomegranates are awesome.
Fun fact #2: Pomegranates are like little explosions of awesome in your mouth.
Fun fact #3: A lot of people think you’re not supposed to eat the seeds of a pomegranate – but that’s not true, people who tell you that are liars, and they don’t know anything about life, and they should never be trusted.”
Tahereh Mafi

Ciao for now,




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![easy-image-collage id=4077]
  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!

For a great website that gives 100 ideas for places to visit in New Jersey, go this article in Your RV Lifestyle. After reading it, I am inspired even more to return and explore this beautiful state!

“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.

[easy-image-collage id=4034]

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.

[easy-image-collage id=4038]

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.

[easy-image-collage id=4005]

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 New Twist on Paella – Squid Ink!

Sepia, or Squid Ink Paella

I’m interrupting my travelogue of Sicily to tell you about yet another fantastic paella party I hosted on Saturday. This was our 4th annual party and my mom and I decided to take it to the next level. “I saw this interesting Garcima Paella Burner at Pata Negra,” my mom said enthusiastically. Pata Negra is our local Spanish food stuffs store and also carries every size of paella pan and accessories to throw a great paella party. I returned to the store with her and fell in love with the concept. Two propane-fueled ring burners attach to a tripod. The paella pan sits on top. No more messy charcoal! Click here to see them at La Tienda.

The knowledgeable salesman saw me eyeing the packages of squid ink or sepia, I so enjoyed in Sicilian pastas. He pointed out a sepia broth that he swore would make the BEST paella ever. How could we refuse? The black broth, from the squid ink, would turn the rice black!

Sepia or Squid Ink broth for the Paella. You can buy it at Spanish Table

Sauteeing the Bomba rice with olive oil. You can see the Garcima Paella Burner setup.

I love inviting guests who are eager to try new and different foods.

Me and my fabulous aunt Barb, who is a fabulous chef herself.

My cousin Ali, who is a master at organizing parties and who helped me more than I can say, and my beautiful mom, the birthday girl.

My co-chef Eva, me and my best friend Jenny!

Me and my dear friend Alan who makes the best cocktails on the planet!

Our guests: Jenn, Joanne, Jan, Barb and Mom

Here I was, trying something totally new on my 11 guinea pig guests! The entire paella prep was reduced by half by using the sepia broth. All we did was chop one onion, sauté it in a fair amount of olive oil, add the Bomba Spanish rice, stir, then add the warmed sepia broth. I stirred in a pinch of saffron (from Palermo!) and about a teaspoon of smoked paprika. Now all that was left to do was to let it steam while we prepped the seafood to top the paella.

Eva and me adding the mollusks. We are having fun!

We tucked clams, mussels, squid ringlets with their tentacles and shrimp into the cooked rice and covered it with foil for about five minutes. Mangiamo!

Finished Seafood Paella before garnishing with roasted red peppers and fresh parsley.

I think everyone agreed, this was the best paella ever. The sepia broth delivered a richness, almost as if I had slaved all day to make the perfect fish broth using fish heads and shellfish. The unusual squid ink that colors the rice black just made the entire dish more interesting and a great conversation piece!

Jenny and her colorful salad.

The perfect crunchy green salad to go with the Paella.

The paella was accompanied by a gorgeous green salad, made by my best friend Jenny, and some chunks of French bread. This was a celebration for my mom’s birthday and every year she craves Pavlova as her birthday cake. The meringue was one of the best I’ve ever made. Thick, soft marshmallow meringue with a lemon creme filling, topped with whipped cream and fresh berries. Always a crowd pleaser and all the prep can be done in advance. Assembly takes about five minutes! My advice for throwing a party – keep it simple. Limit the dishes to one hearty main, a salad, bread and dessert and involve your friends in the cooking and prepping process. Don’t forget the after dinner dance party! Ours lasted until midnight!

Pavlova – a slice of marshmallowy lightness with a tang of lemon creme. Yummy!

My wonderful mom, the birthday girl!

The next time you make paella, I hope you try it with the sepia broth. You will thank me.

“When you hear a Spanish cook describe a paella or a cake, you realize she’s using a much richer repertoire of adjectives than what one of us would use to characterize a book or an important experience.”
Julio Cortázar, Final Exam

Ciao for now!




A Pistachio Inspired Pranzo

Il Fiorentino. Pistachio heaven with Pino and Franca.

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.

Exquisite Antipasto Plate

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!”

Pistachio Smothered Pasta

Miss Sun made my day!

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 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.

Franca’s Sicilian Pistachio Cake

A light and flourless cake studded with pistachios

  • 200 grams sugar (Approximately 1 cup)
  • 3 eggs (separated)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 250 grams raw, unsalted ground pistachios (Approximately 2 cups ground pistachios)
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter an 8 or 9 inch springform pan. Sprinkle with sugar to coat bottom and sides.

  2. Beat sugar with egg yolks in a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes.

  3. Add vanilla and beat well to incorporate. Transfer sugar-yolk mixture to a large bowl.

  4. Clean mixer bowl. Add egg whites and beat until soft peaks form. Add salt and continue beating until whites hold their shape. Do not overbeat.

  5. Fold whipped egg whites into sugar-yolk mixture.

  6. Fold in ground pistachios.

  7. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes or until golden on top and a toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean.

  8. Let cool, then invert onto platter. Dust with powdered sugar and serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

Dessert
Italian
Bronte, Sicily, Pistachio cake, pistachios

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

[easy-image-collage id=3925]

 

 

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.

[easy-image-collage id=3872]

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!




Rhubarb Pie Deconstructed

When the rhubarb arrives in my small local grocer, late spring, it’s like a mid-year Christmas present. I don’t know where I got this fondness for rhubarb but it does seem to be a fetish of mine.

Years ago, I remember having dinner in a rural cafe in Hamilton, Montana. You know, the old-fashioned kind of cafe/roadhouse where when you walk in, the selection of freshly baked homemade pies in a glass case next to the cashier, catches your eye. That evening, the case was sparse with a few slices of chocolate cream pie, apple pie and one lonely slice of rhubarb pie. My friend Cami, also a rhubarb fan, and I were set on sharing this sweet favorite after dinner. When it came time to order dessert, we watched as “our” slice of rhubarb left the case, only to be delivered to the table next to us. “Oh no!” we both cried in unison. The person about to dig in looked up and saw our dismay. He kindly stood up and walked the rhubarb slice over to us and sat it down on our table, giving up his slice of heaven so we could have ours. An act of kindness I will never forget, and a memory Cami and I will always share, giving us a good giggle always!

As I still carry a torch for rhubarb, my heart leapt a little when I spied the tall ruby stalks, neatly lined up next to the lettuce in the produce department earlier this week. Immediately my mind began imagining how I would honor this humble and often neglected vegetable.

Last year I created my Rhubarb Almond Meringue Cake. A stunner, definitely for a special occasion. This year I am simplifying. The stars in this recipe: a pâte fine sucrée (sugar crust) from Jacques Pepin’s book, “A French Chef Cooks at Home,” a compote of rhubarb, strawberries, lemon and sugar, and vanilla ice cream.

5.0 from 3 reviews

Rhubarb Pie Deconstructed
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

A pretty and fun way to make a rhubarb pie.
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Serves: 8

Ingredients
  • 1 crust pâte fine sucrée (Jacques’ crust recipes are my “go to’s for faultless crusts) Feel free to use your own favorite pie crust recipe.
  • 3 cups rhubarb, cut into ½” cubes. If the rhubarb is cut smaller, it tends to disintegrate.
  • ½ cup sliced strawberries (I had berries that were beginning to go bad so used them up) You can replace them with more rhubarb if you wish.
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 pint vanilla ice cream, slightly softened

Instructions
  1. Make the pâte fine sucrée, refrigerate, then roll out to ¼” thick. Cut rounds with a 4” scalloped cutter, prick with a fork and freeze for 15 minutes. This makes about 8-9 rounds. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. For the rhubarb compote:
  3. Combine rhubarb, strawberries, lemon juice and sugar in a saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring until slightly thick. It will continue to thicken as it cools. This takes about 12-15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
  4. Bake the pastry rounds for about 12 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool.
  5. Soften the ice cream, then swirl in a few tablespoons of the rhubarb compote. Freeze until cold. Remove from freezer and using an ice cream scoop, scoop out the rhubarb swirl in neat rounds and place on a parchment lined paper. Refreeze until ready to use.
  6. To assemble:
  7. Ladle about 14 cup of the rhubarb compote onto a dessert plate. Place the pie crust round on top of the compote, leaving a border of rhubarb. Add a scoop of rhubarb swirl ice cream on top. If desired, spoon on more rhubarb compote.
  8. This recipe can be made in stages and then assembled easily for dessert.

For those of you who have never tasted rhubarb or think it tastes like something else, give this a go. One of my friends who happened to be over when I was making the compote, said she didn’t think she’d like it because it would be bitter. I gave her a spoonful to try and then she asked for another, larger spoonful!! Sold!

“And the birds sang their songs of love. And the flowers serenaded with their sublime fragrances. And the whole world fell in love in spring!”
― Avijeet Das

Ciao for now




The New Look!

Infant San Marzanos. My ode to Italy!

Spoon & Suitcase

Welcome to my new blog site! I have a new name, Spoon & Suitcase, that reflects my passions  for eating, cooking and travel. I really like it and hope you do too! I’ve categorized my recipes, stories and travel information to make it much easier to access. Also new is a “print” option for the recipes.

Take a look around and let me know what you think. I am grateful for you, my readers, and love writing about my cooking and traveling adventures. In June, I’m off to the island of Sicily, complete with my tour guide and fratello Roberto, a native Sicilian who is featured in a few of my stories. I’ll share all the great little Sicilian haunts that are local favorites!

Me and my Sicilian tour guide Roberto.

Ciao for now!

 

 

 

 




Holiday Pears

Pears have this seductive quality about them. They flaunt their curvy hips and hold their stem high, like wearing a tiny crown. Their taste and texture, soft, sweet and flowery, almost melts in your mouth. Rustic, yet delicate describe the Bosc variety, my favorite for poaching and making tarts. They hold their shape and don’t disintigrate into mush. A brown, weathered-looking skin, like years of overdoing a suntan, distinguishes them from the rest of their pear family.
During the winter, I make wine poached pears and serve them after a hearty meal to bring a lightness to dessert. Deep burgundy sings of the holidays and is a show-stopper with little effort and can be made ahead. Dust them with powered sugar to give them a festive feel.

[easy-image-collage id=3563]

The leftover wine can be used to make Glugg, a Swedish hot wine drink, perfect for sipping beside the fire.
“There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Ciao for now!

Holiday Pears
 
Wine Poached Pears
Author:

Ingredients
  • 4 Bosc pears
  • 1 bottle dry red wine, like a Zinfandel or Burgundy
  • ½ cup port – the port give a deeper color and richer flavor
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 cloves
  • 3 peppercorns
  • Orange rind from ½ an orange
  • For the filling:
  • ½ cup mascarpone
  • 10 amaretti cookies, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract

Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to low and simmer 45 minutes to one hour. This helps create the spicy infusion of flavors.
  2. Core the pears by using a knife to cut out the bottom of the pear, then scoop out the seeds with a melon baller. I carve a larger than usual cave to make room for the mascarpone and amaretti mixture, a surprise treat inside.
  3. Peel the pears starting from the stem, and down toward the bottom. This keeps the shape of the pears. Slip each pear into the simmering wine and poach for approximately 45 minutes to one hour. I use a deep wooden spoon or ladle to baste the pears every 15 minutes or so. A metal spoon might cut the delicate fruit. Gently flip them several times so their burgundy color is even.
  4. Cool in the pot, preferably overnight.

    Filling

  5. Mix together the mascarpone and amaretti cookies. Stir in the almond extract. I like to have a few bites of cookie when I eat it with the pear, so don’t pulverize the amaretti. Gently stuff the bottom of the pears with the filling and set upright on a platter. Pour a little of the poaching liquid onto the bottom of the platter. Dust with powered sugar and wait for the applause.

 




A Passion for Persimmons

She lured me in with her perfect “t” shaped limbs, reaching out like angel wings. “Take me home.” she whispered. Not planning to add another fruit tree to my already demanding garden, this one was like an abandoned puppy. You know, the one that finds you. I’d always loved Fuyu persimmons, their sweet versatility making them perfect for eating like an apple, or slicing into a salad for a burst of orange color.

I could not resist. Dreaming of harvesting my own persimmons made me drool with anticipation, so I loaded her into my car. That April, while planting her next to my avocado tree, she told me her name was Francesca. We bonded.

Fall arrived and she dropped her leaves, baring her naked body for what would seem like an eternity. I tended to her every need: water, fertilizer, regular conversations. “Francesca, amore. I believe in you,” I coaxed. But still, she stood frozen in time, seemingly in a time warp. My angel was fading into a ghost.

A year after I planted Francesca, I returned to the nursery where I bought her to show them photos with a final plea for help. Their advice: scrape the bark and if it is green, she is still alive. With hope, my fingernail drew a line in the bark, revealing a bright green interior. Realizing this was a test of my patience, I relaxed and observed. Within two weeks small lime green buds appeared, followed by flowers, then tiny miniature fruit. I was in love again. Our relationship had come full circle.

In October, my reward was a dozen, perfectly shaped, pumpkin orange persimmons. Inspired by Francesca’s endurance, I’ve designed a few recipes to celebrate her beauty and honor her as a treasured member of my garden family.

Right out of the oven with a brush of glaze. I love how the maple leaves look like a wreath!

Persimmon Breakfast Bake
 
This light and colorful pastry is perfect for either a pre or post Thanksgiving breakfast gathering. Your guests will want another piece!
Author:

Ingredients
  • I sheet frozen puff pastry dough – I use Trader Joe’s frozen Puff Pastry
  • Egg wash – one egg lightly beaten with a pinch of salt.
  • 4 ounces cream cheese or honey goat cheese
  • ¼ cup mascarpone cheese
  • 2 Tablespoons honey
  • ½ Teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 medium ripe fuyu persimmons
  • Apricot jam to glaze

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Thaw the sheet of puff pastry for an hour in the refrigerator.
  3. Cut out a 10” circle. I invert a bowl with a 10” diameter onto the dough to use as a template.
  4. Chill the round while you cut out the decorations for the edging. I used mini maple leaf cutters but you can use any design or even leave it rimless if you like.
  5. Freeze the dough and decorations for 10 minutes.
  6. Mix the cream cheese or goat cheese with the mascarpone cheese, honey and vanilla until smooth.
  7. Remove the pastry from the freezer and evenly spread the filling on top of the dough leaving an inch border.
  8. Brush the edges with egg wash to help the borders stick. Layer the persimmon slices on top, starting at the outer edge and working your way inward to form a spiral. Place the maple leaves on the egg washed rim all the way around. You will have a border with a fancy edge!
  9. Freeze again for 10 minutes.
  10. Bake for 35 minutes or until the bottom and edges of the tart are deep brown and crispy. About half way through I put foil around the edges to prevent them from getting too dark. Make sure the tart is well-baked. I learned that the French method is to bake their pastries on the darker side. Remove from the oven and brush with strained apricot jam while still warm. Slice and eat immediately.

 

Harvest Salad
 
One bunch lettuce – I prefer butter lettuce for its delicate consistency. An addition of curly endive would be lovely too.
Author:

Ingredients
  • 1-2 persimmons, cut into thin wedges
  • 1 fennel bulb, cleaned and cut into thin slices
  • ¼ cup toasted and coarsely chopped hazelnuts. Don’t hazelnuts just speak “holiday?”
  • Sprinkling of fennel pollen if you have it. If not, here is a good source: The Spice House
  • Dressing
  • 2 Tablespoons dark, thick balsamic vinegar. I love fig balsamic.
  • ¼ cup good quality olive oil.
  • salt, pepper

Instructions
  1. Toss salad ingredients together. Add the nuts at the last minute so they don’t get soggy. Mix the vinegar and olive oil together and salt and pepper to taste. I don’t like to overpower the flavor of the salad ingredients with too many dressing ingredients so keep it simple.
  2. Drizzle on the dressing and enjoy the fall flavors!

 

The fruit of your own hard work is the sweetest. Deepika Padukone

Ciao for now,

Mary




My Canadian Autumn

This captures beautifully, my colorful views for the week.

New Brunswick, Canada: A land where time stands still. Sculpted by nature, the unspoiled landscape is rough around the edges, like an unpolished stone and not in any hurry to progress. Inland, its rolling hills hopscotch between forests of coniferous trees – balsam fir, red and black spruce, pine, sugar and red maple – and acres of blueberry and cranberry fields, a church spire tucked in between here and there. Lakes and rivers travel through the land and ferries carry its passengers from one town to the next. Hugging the Bay of Fundy to the east, New Brunswick’s pebbled pristine beaches greet well-maintained storybook lighthouses that perch on rocky cliffs. It almost doesn’t look real. There’s much more to this beautiful land than meets the eye.

Fun art from creative beach rubbish!

So, where do I fit in here? Last autumn, I planned a trip to once again visit my dad’s extended family in New Brunswick just in time for the unleashing of fall colors. What wasn’t planned was how much my Canadian roots would unlock my heart and the emotions this trip carried.

Ever since my dad’s death in 2013, I was determined to memorialize his life somehow. Because his entire family on his father’s side is from New Brunswick, I thought it appropriate to place a plaque in the country cemetery in White’s Cove, that houses centuries of the Knight ancestors. A bittersweet trip, indeed.
I started my journey in beautiful Portland, Maine visiting dear friends, then made my way north through nature’s color palette of Canada. Because this was a personal journey, I drove alone. I needed time to gather my emotions for the catharsis soon to take place. Two simultaneous experiences were about to occur: one interior and one exterior. I would balance the anticipation of coming face-to-face with a ceremony of closure of my father’s death, with the spectacle of fall colors that left me breathless. Every twist and curve of the northbound road led me through tunnels of kaleidoscope color. The further north I drove, the more intense, deeper, and richer the crimson and mustard. This “E” ticket experience was all mine to drink in and all I had to do was watch for darting deer and moose!

Autumn at its peak.

Roadside activity near the Maine/New Brunswick border. Check out those lobster pots!

In St. John, I am lucky to have two of the most kind and loving cousins, Maureen and Sandra as my hostesses. Born and raised in New Brunswick, they know the family history dating back to the 900’s in England (really!). Fortunately, they are always are eager to play my tour guide through the past.

An old, deserted church near White’s Cove.

Maureen shared her favorite rural and artsy destinations, while Sandra, the family historian and genealogist, introduced me to long-lost relatives and their stories. One of my favorite stories told how our grandfathers, along with the entire community and their horses, moved a small house from Mill Cove to White’s Cove via a frozen lake! Such power and grit these people showed.

My grandfather, James, was born in a farmhouse on Knight Road in Mill Cove. His family loved the land and were proud farmers. James made his way to Arizona at the tender age of 18 in 1892 to seek his fortune. He was the only sibling of many brothers to leave his Canadian home and venture west. Hence, his disappearance from the family tree until Sandra’s research tracked my dad down!

My grandfather, James was born in this house in 1875. It sits on Knight Road.

My dad, it seems was the missing link Sandra had been searching for. He was a cousin to her dad and uncles. This discovery in 2001 brought our families together in a bond that changed my life, giving me insight into my roots. How grateful I am to know that adventure runs in our blood!

On a blustery, blue-skied day, Sandra and Maureen graciously accompanied me to the small White’s Cove cemetery so I could add my dad’s timeline to his family’s. Deeply emotional, with a cool breeze signaling the changing season, I also felt a shift in myself occurring. My dad’s spirit was watching over me and I was pleased he had this peaceful place to now call home.

To liven things up, Maureen introduced me to the lonely, rural and hearty way of life on Deer Island. Accessed only by a ferry-boat, the thickly forested island with its rocky, craggy shoreline is inhabited year-round by only the brave-hearted. Our Ferry Master, Dana, a Deer Island native, introduced himself and we quickly became friends. So rugged is this lifestyle that if you were ready to give birth in the depth of winter, you called the Ferry Master, who was on call, to transport you through choppy, winter winds and seas, to solid land and a warm hospital. Dana had been born and raised on the island and elected to continue his life journey there, with many jaunts to Europe and America and even San Diego. We shared a common bond and I admired his spirit.

Shipwrecked

Driving the island roads, we spotted a cottage with lime green shutters, sporting a mosaic, life-size pig on the veranda. Lured in by the display of fall decor, we pulled over to take a peek. Inside, we were greeted by hutches filled with a variety of homemade jams, pickles and sauces, along with baskets filled with just-picked apples and late-harvest vegetables.

With no shop keeper present, a chalkboard sign instructed you where to leave your money for items purchased. I lit up and felt happy inside, knowing that there are places alive that trust in people and that the honor system still holds true somewhere. Maureen and I each bought an apple – one of the sweetest and crunchiest I have ever eaten – and a few jars of freshly made preserves. These were my kind of people. I wondered if my grandfather’s family openly shared their bounty like this. I’ll bet they did.

This fall journey brought into focus my past as well as my present. My father’s plaque in the White’s Cove Cemetery now stands as a link between my two worlds just as my spirit will forever be linked to my Eastern Canadian roots. There is a peacefulness and a serenity, that I’ve not found elsewhere. I’ve also witnessed within its people, a comforting contentedness in spite of life’s hardships. The display of stunning autumn colors turned me inward to declare gratitude to Mother Nature for her last expression of brilliance before winter, and lightened my spirit for the tough tasks in life. The future? Well, it’s a mystery and a gift.

Long live Canada!

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.”
-Emily Bronte

Ciao for now,

Mary

 




Roberto Encore!

IMG_8488

Music Maestro Roberto

I love my friend Roberto, my Italian brother. We get together several times a year to share our two common interests – music and food. A Graham Nash song causes us to  stop everything we’re doing and break out in a sing-along. How does a born and bred Italian, actually, Sicilian, know so much about America’s 70’s rock icons? Well, he is also something of a musical icon himself with regards to Italian and World music. Following American music as a teenager inspired him to travel the world, learn to play guitar and deeply respect music’s evolution. As an expert in ethnomusicology, he teaches his art as well as makes his own instruments. I think his musical brain has also gifted him with exceptional culinary talents.

 

My music-infused kitchen, along with a bottle of Prosecco, provided inspiration for a few tasty new creations. A flank steak was bathing in mustard, tarragon, olive oil, shallots and white wine and we wanted the side dishes to be extraordinary. My culinary genius has been sleeping lately so this afternoon of fun and friendship was just what I needed to wake up the creative juices.

Roberto is a fine spontaneous chef. I love how he smells everything and carefully considers how one ingredient will influence the next. We took our time smelling and tasting several varieties of balsamic vinegar and olive oil before deciding which combination, for a vinaigrette, would add sweetness to the tangy pomegranate seeds in the salad of lettuce, fennel, and green onion. A Sicilian lemon balsamic vinegar, mandarin olive oil, and lots of chopped mint proved a winner. The colorful salad was nothing short of spectacular, with every ingredient in perfect harmony.

Salad ingredients

Patate e Broccoletti (Potato and Broccolini) turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to the grilled steak. Instead of just a side dish of boiled potatoes, and cooked broccolini, we combined the two. This is Italian! We cut red, purple and yellow boiled potatoes into two-inch chunks and boiled the chopped broccolini. Roberto sautéed garlic in olive oil, added balsamic vinegar, a dash of red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, then tossed in the cooked broccolini and potatoes. Fantastico! Again, terrific flavors and ingredients combined in a unique way to make its own song.

potatoes

After enjoying the fruits of our labor at dinner, Roberto took out his guitar and we sang “Helplessly Hoping,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, me in my totally off-key voice, but loving every minute. A mini concert of Spanish infused guitar capped off the evening. It was the perfect day and night.

Roberto, you continue to teach me how to achieve depth of flavor, something I always strive to do. Thank you for sharing your songs and your happy energy. When can we repeat???

Insalata di Amicizia – Friendship Salad
 
Author:

Ingredients
  • 6 cups mixed romaine lettuce and herbed greens (or your choice of lettuces)
  • ½ cup chopped young fennel including the fronds
  • 2 skinny finely chopped green onions
  • ¼ cup pomegranate seeds
  • Dressing
  • 1 Tablespoon Lemon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons Mandarin or Orange olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons chopped mint

Instructions
  1. Combine all salad ingredients. Prepare the dressing. Do not toss until just ready to eat.

Enjoy!

“For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ciao for now,
Mary

 

 




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

 




My Tips for Hosting an Incredible Paella Party in 5 Simple Steps

Seafood Paella made with Love

Step 1
For me, the most important thing is starting with a great guest list. I choose family and compatible friends who have met before. This creates an intimate, comfortable atmosphere for all, and you, the host/hostess, need not worry about guests feeling left out because they don’t know anyone. You will be focused on making layers of flavor with the paella, with fleeting moments of conversation with your guests! Remember to read your guest’s facial expressions. Does everyone feel part of the party?
Oftentimes I encourage interaction between people who might not know each other well by taking photos of them together. This usually prompts a conversation between them and keeps the party moving along.

Step 2
Keep the menu simple. Paella, Green Salad, Plenty of Drink, Dessert. This is not a time to try a new recipe or overload your guests with too many appetizers. I usually ask one guest to bring light appetizers like olives and Manchego cheese. Something to snack on to absorb the alcohol while viewing the entertainment – me singing while stirring the paella! Making the paella on a grill outdoors keeps the party contained outside and creates a side show for the guests.

Involve your friends by asking them to help. Our Fire Man, Bob, kept the grill fire fueled. In between fire duties, he connected the Flamenco music to outdoor speakers and later in the evening switched it to good old rock ’n roll. When it comes to drinks, I have resorted again to keeping it simple. I’ve made Sangria for past parties but have found that most guests prefer their favorite cocktail or variety of wine. Pelligrino is a favorite sparkler to quench thirst between drinks. All beverages are on hand and within easy reach on a dedicated “bar” table. This year, my sister-in-law, Mirna, brought me a bottle of fine Vapor Distillery Rhok gin( formerly Roundhouse), made in Boulder, Colorado as a gift. It was a warm evening and suddenly gin sounded really good! I know this is not a traditional Spanish accompaniment to paella but Mirna started whipping up cocktails with the gin and they were such a hit, several of the guests were requesting her special drinks! This is when you just go with the flow and enjoy the moment.

Bob. The Fire Man

Step 3

Enlist a co-chef! What would I do without Eva who has been my co-chef for three years? Eva is able to co-taste with me and offer suggestions to improve the recipe or technique. Choose someone compatible that you work easily with, does not freak out and understands flavor combining. Discuss each other’s roles beforehand so you are not duplicating tasks. Two people cooking also helps keep the pace moving along so you are not eating at midnight!

Step 4
Prep all ingredients for the paella in the morning. Have them measured out and in bowls in order of appearance to be added to the dish. When you start cooking, there’s no need to look at the recipe. It’s all right there in front of you. Continue to monitor guests for engagement and over dinner, ask them to share a favorite summer food memory.

Step 5
End the evening with one spectacular dessert. I always make a traditional Australian Pavlova. It’s my mom’s favorite dessert and works well for a crowd. The mouth feel of soft and creamy meringue and whipped cream, accented by tangy lemon curd and fresh berries is undeniably one of the best combinations on earth. And, it’s different. Make the meringue and lemon curd the day before. The night of the party, just assemble by spreading the curd onto the meringue, lavishing whipped cream over all and sprinkling with the freshest berries you can find. Done. Your guests will thank you.

All the girls pitched in to help finish off the Pavlova. Such a great group! Love them all!

“He tastes of rice with a touch of saffron. He says I taste of seafood. I guess we’d make a good paella.”
Chloe Thurlow, Girl Trade

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

 

 

 

 




Koreatown Part I

A visual masterpiece. Galbi Jjim.

“I Love LA!” I sang, Randy Newman style, as I drove up the I-5 toward a city you either love or hate. To me, Los Angeles is a polar opposite of San Diego, offering everything from the glitz of Hollywood, and the Getty Villa, (my favorite LA hangout), world-class restaurants, and diverse neighborhoods brimming with authentic culture. I needed a fix. Here’s how it began: “Eva, I need to get out of Dodge! Let’s leave our comfort zone and explore Koreatown, LA,” I begged. Her spontaneous spirit kicked in and we were on our way. So, why Koreatown? Anthony Bourdain. I love his show, “Parts Unknown,” and since Los Angeles is just up the freeway, why not? Bourdain’s episode featuring Koreatown made my mouth water and aroused my curiosity. We researched some “not to be missed” places and found some new ones.

Sun Nong Dan’s entrance in a mini mall – Koreatown.

First stop, “Sun Nong Dan,” highly recommended by The LA Eater, Jonathan Gold. Open 24 hours a day, the cozy, maybe 15 table eatery, serves up strictly Korean dishes featuring steamy hot stews and bowls of soup, family style. An open doorway leads to the narrow kitchen where wafting aromas of spice and chili linger in the air, mingling with the sounds of sizzling dishes meeting the tables. Letters of gratitude from Korean celebrities?, taped to the wall are part of the decoration. Also on the wall, a mural of knife-yielding women and their somber observers. What are they doing?

Eclectic decor!

Closely knit tables wedged us between students, families and professionals. Feeling a bit conspicuous with our white skin, we were still afforded the beautiful hospitality which defines this culture.

We took Gold’s advice and ordered the #24, Galbi Jjim, braised beef short ribs. Our server advised that this special dish would take 20 minutes to prepare. To ready us for this eating adventure, accompaniments of pickled green onions, cabbage and radish were placed along the side of the table to be shared and we were given our own bowl of pickled jalapeno dipping sauce and bowl of black rice that turns purple when cooked. Eva and I watched the other diners to see how they ate the dish. “Were there rules?” we asked our server. He shook his head no.

The feast.

Voila! A large cast iron pot of the Galbi Jjim was placed between us. It was a show stopper! The brilliant garnet color of the stew had the appearance of shimmering, glossy lipstick. Mounds of hearty, thick short ribs, slices of beef, chunky potatoes, rice cake sticks, onion and chili combined for a beautiful presentation. We waited for the steam to subside before timidly taking our first bite. Sweet is the first taste which then becomes spicy but not too hot. You make your own heat with the jalapeno dipping sauce and chili paste. The onion gave it a sweetness while the rice cake sticks delivered an unexpected chewy texture. The depth of the layers of flavor was indescribable. It was impossible to discern the spices embedded in the stew. Not trying of over-analyze, we simply enjoyed every savory bite. The marrow in the flat bones was most likely meant to be eaten but there was so much food, we didn’t attempt it. The pickled vegetables were a cool bite during an intermission from the heat. We loved our experience at Sun Nong Dan and recommend it to anyone seeking truly authentic Korean cuisine.

Eva’s first bite.

We were now initiated into Koreatown! With full bellies, we continued the adventure. More next week so stay tuned!

“For me, food doesn’t just taste sweet, sour, spicy, what have you—it tastes of feelings, it invokes memories.”
Renita D’Silva, The Forgotten Daughter

Ciao for now,




Peachy Keen

My very favorite summer dessert.

I’ve always had a thing for peaches. I think it’s because my mom said when she was pregnant with me, she craved them. This love must have been passed along in utero because I too, delight in the season of stone fruit.
Every summer at the beach, we would excavate the old-fashioned, wooden sided hand crank ice cream maker and churn out quarts of fragrant peach ice cream, our favorite flavor. We took turns cranking the handle till our arms ached, all the while anticipating the best part – licking the paddle. It was a summer ritual.
Besides ice cream, peaches consumed our summertime baking activities: peach jam, peach pie, and my personal favorite, peach kuchen. I don’t know where the recipe for peach kuchen came from but I’ve been making it for over 45 years and still love it as much as I did as a teenager. Maybe it brings back fond memories of those care-free summers, swimming for hours in the warm ocean by day and baking with peaches by night.

Sweet and juicy ripe peaches from the farmer’s market, the best kind, are the foundation for my Peach Kuchen. The recipe comes together easily as there is no dough to roll out, just a crumble that you pat into the bottom and sides of a pan. Slice peaches on top and sprinkle with sugar. A top sour cream layer adds depth of flavor when paired with the juicy peaches and buttery crust. It is irresistible and great for breakfast too!

Peachy Keen
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

Note: Although this recipe is called a “Kuchen,” it is not the typical German yeast dough Kuchen. It must be a modification perhaps by my grandmother.
Author:
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Serves: 8 servings

Ingredients
  • 2 Cups flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 4 oz. butter or 1 stick, cold and cut into ½” cubes
  • 5-6 ripe peaches – I leave the skin on
  • ¾ Cup sugar, more or less depending on the peaches and your sweet tooth
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 Cup sour cream
  • hearty sprinkling of grated nutmeg

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Mix all dry ingredients into a bowl. Cut butter in with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Pat into the bottom of a 7 X 11” pan.
  3. Slice peaches and arrange over crust.
  4. Combine sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle evenly over peaches.
  5. Bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven and turn oven down to 325.
  6. Meantime, combine the yolks and sour cream. Stir in the nutmeg or you can sprinkle it on top of the custard mixture.
  7. Pour the sour cream custard mixture evenly over the peaches.
  8. Bake another 30 minutes or until crust is brown and custard is set.
  9. Serve warm or cold.
  10. Makes about 8 servings.

An apple is an excellent thing – until you have tried a peach.
George du Maurier
Ciao for now!