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.

IMG_3004
IMG_3026

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.

IMG_3023
IMG_3012
IMG_3013 (1)

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

Quinta from river
Ducks flee

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

United Douro families

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

Hillside collage

Terraced vineyard leading to their quintas.

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

What a life!

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

Ciao for now!

Mary




A Tease of Portugal

My beautiful, colorful Porto

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

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

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

I love color!

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

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

Church of Saint Ildefonso. Simply stunning!

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

Porto
Lisbon
Lisbon
IMG_5913

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

 

Pretty cork purses

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

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

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

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

Ciao for now,

Mary

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




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.

IMG_5704
IMG_5708

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 lightening 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!
    Lavender farm
    Butterlfy
  7. The light-hearted M & M signs that made me smile in Hackettstown, home of M & M’s and Mars candy.

    M&M Twins, Hackettstown, New Jersey

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

    Water Gap Trail

    Water Gap view, shared with Ali and Harry

    A view worth climbing for!

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

    Waterloo Village, New Jersey

    Deserted house

    Waterloo Bridge

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

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

    Brunch eggs all decked out.

    James on Main briny oysters with character and flavor.

    James on Main exquisite desserts.

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

Cousins and best friends!

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

“We live in America.”

“What does that mean?”

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

Ciao for now,

 




Caponata, Adele’s Way

Adele. The queen of Sicilian cooking and of caponata.

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

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

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

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

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

Caponata awaiting its transformation.

Adele’s Caponata

Caponata, Adele’s Way
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

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

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

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

 

Finished delicious caponata.

Ready to serve!

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

Adele and me sharing a moment.

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

Ciao for now,




Sicily, Seafood and Sunsets

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

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

Loving every minute of this dinner.

Roberto, my guide in all things culinary in Sicily.

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

Take your pick! It’s all good.

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

Sicilian crudo red shrimp. Fantastico!

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

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

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

Fried trio
Octopus
Warm tuna

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

The best mussels I have ever eaten!

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

Pauro
Squid ink pasta

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

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

A beautiful finale.

Trattoria Scalo Grande

66, 95024 Acireale

CT, Italy

39 328 883 2384

 

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

Ciao for now,




The Power of Agrigento

Temple della Concordia at Agrigento. Spectacular!

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

Check out the view of the ocean from the temples.

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

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

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

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

Cluster of columns
Hilltop ruin

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

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

One side of the irrigation system in Kolymbethra.

The water travels across and into the vegetable gardens.

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

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

 

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

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

Ciao for now

 




A 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 France.

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

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

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

Interior of Il Fiorentino, Pistachios are their specialty!

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

Trio of Bruschetta

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

Antipasto
Squash Blossoms

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

Pasta
mekJPG
Smiling face

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

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

Palate cleanser of cherries

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

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

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

Here is Franca’s recipe for the Pistachio Cake.

Sicilian Pistachio Cake
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

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

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

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

 

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

Pranzo – Lunch

Viene – Come, come in

Arriviamo – We have arrived.

Primi – First course

Certo – Certainly

Pomodoro – Tomato

Paise – Village

History of the Bronte Pistachio

Interesting article in the New York Times about the Bronte Pistachio

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

Ciao for now!




Scrumptious Sicilian Pastries

Sicilian Pistachio Cake

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

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

Tempting Sicilian Candied Apples

Sicilian Apple Tarte and Brioche – to eat with granita!

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

Sicilian Stuffed Lemons

Sicilian SalAmone Cake – stunning!

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

Sicilian Chocolate Cakes Almondine

Sicilian Cake Sveva. So gorgeous!

The perfect Sicilian Croissant!

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

 

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

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

Gelato 3
Gelato 2

 

 

Sicilian Coffee & Pistachio Gelato

Proud Sicilian Signore Gelato!

Sicilian Panna Cotta Cake with Berries. So sweet!

 

Sicilian Festive Semi Freddo

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

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

Ciao for now!

 

 

 

 

 

 




Granita – Sicily’s Sweet Secret

Mandorle Granita with a shot of espresso

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

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

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

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

Mandorle granita and brioche

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

Gelsi granita

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

Strawberry tomato granita

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

Tea with lemon granita

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

Strawberry pistachio granita

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

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

Ciao for now,




Sparky’s Southwest Adventures Told in His Own Words

traveling dog

Please Mom!

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

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

traveling dog
traveling dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ciao for now!

Sparky




La Festa

 

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

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

Davino Lazzarini

1947 – 2017

 

The Festa
A celebration of friends and food

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My incredible birthday cake!

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

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

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

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

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

Ciao for now,




Volare!

Volare sing-along

Place: Pulignano a Mare, Puglia, Italy

The True Italy

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

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

Domenico sings Volare!

Me and Domenico

Ciao for now!




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.

img_0039
img_0042
img_0058-1
img_0064

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!



Santa Fe Style!

View from the Casita’s porch. Stunning!

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

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

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

img_2985
img_5167

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

IMG_3038
traveling dog
IMG_7949

 

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

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

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

old Indian saying

Ciao for now!

 




Santa Fe – The Past Comes Full Circle

Glorious New Mexico Landscape

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

Me at the top of Acoma, 1977

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

Very old photo of lonely Acoma Pueblo

Weathered but still standing.

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

Our young guide gives us the tour.

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

The Old La Fonda Hotel, 1977.

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

Acoma M&M
IMG_5146
Acoma CU

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

Ciao for now!




I Write Because…

Simple steps adorned only with poetic messages. “The butterfly does not sing the years but the moments: For this reason, its short time is just enough.” Flaneur

I believe we all are writers. The only thing separating us are the filters we choose to use to describe an experience. Our filters may be color-driven, emotionally driven, memory-driven or personal belief-driven. It’s all these variations that make one moment in time appear in a thousand different ways. I write to hold certain moments close, to learn from the past, and to celebrate my friends and family.

I find it fascinating to take a snapshot of an event in my mind, capturing only my feelings and remembrances. Reviewing past photographs helps me to go deep within and unearth times in my life that mark a turning point. I can feel the salt on my skin after viewing photos of my early years rafting all day long at Mission Beach. I smell Jessie’s puppy breath, my first dog who was my constant companion while living in Australia, by just looking at a picture I have of her hanging in my bedroom. I feel gratitude and a sense of accomplishment after looking at photos of the tiny fig tree I planted not even four years ago and seeing how at home it now feels at a height of over seven feet tall. Always when I see photos of Italy, my heart pounds and I am in love again. All these moments were important to me in some way and by expressing in writing the emotion they carried, give me intense satisfaction. Sharing these emotions reveal our vulnerability and make us human.

Five years of blogging have taught me how to look within and not be afraid of who I am. This platform has given me confidence to keep writing, even more fervently. As I embark on year six, the camera continues to click as I change the lenses more frequently, fine tune my focus and always look for the unexpected.

To celebrate the past five years of my writing journey, I’d like to share some of my favorite stories.

A long ago past adventure in Paris: June 4, 2014  Time Travels

A recent Italian love:  May 18, 2017 Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

Inner feelings: March 25, 2015 My Life as a Leaf

My favorite pastime: April 12, 2016 Play Ball!

Family Stories:  June 18, 2014 A Drink of Nature
May 17, 2016 The Egg

Art!: Artful Traveling

Coming soon! A new look for this blog with easier navigation and ability to print recipes!

Writing frees my soul, grounds me in the present, and makes the fire of my spirit dance with delight. Mary Knight

Ciao for now,
Mary




The Music Of Food

Music and cooking both have a beat, a pulse, a flow of notes and a sequence of ingredients. Listening to music while cooking brings out the best in my recipes and in me. My spirit is light as I dance around the kitchen swaying to the tunes, singing along and feeling totally in the groove of the moment. It’s amazing how different styles of music influence my final product. My food can actually take on the character of the music being played and dictate how the recipe will develop. My favorite – Rock and Classic Vinyl of the 60’s and 70’s. What is it about the tinniness of the tambourine that makes my shoulders keep time with its beat? It brings out the edginess and risk-taking in my recipes. Sinatra’s cooing makes me slow down and go more mainstream. Maybe even create a new cocktail to honor the era. Another love – blues and soul music- touches my soul and sends me swaying into a nostalgic bliss.

Everyone knows that music is the Universal Language but recently I’ve felt an even deeper connection, an awakening as to how it enhances my everyday living and balances me like nothing else can. I even hear it in my garden with the songs of multiple birds and the sound of rustling leaves that the music of the wind creates. It’s like a spiderweb of energy that vibrates across the world, bringing hope and healing to all of us, everywhere.

Music pulls out stagnancy and draws in good vibes. It’s a tonic. It intoxicates and releases memories of old and brings them to the surface. My food always tastes better and is more attractive when listening to something that lights up my spirit and draws me in.

In honor of music’s tonic for the soul, I wanted to design a cocktail of vintage meets rock. My mom actually created this drink last night, under the influence of Frank Sinatra. I named it the Carrie Ann, after one of my favorite songs , (actually a Hollies song) by one of my favorite artists, Graham Nash. I recently saw Nash perform in Riverside and my love for him and his music was rekindled. This cocktail combines whiskey with brandied cherries and maraschino cherry liqueur. Whiskey lends the “vintage” feel while the music of Nash, inspiring the addition of the cherries, is the “rock.” You can drink it “neat” or over ice with a heavy dose of sparkling water as a delicious summer refresher. I was in love after my first sip. Thanks Mom for your superb bartending skills. I can’t wait for your next invention!

The Carrie Ann

2 brandied cherries*
1/2 teaspoon sugar or one sugar cube
1 1/2 ounces good whisky. We love Bushmills.
Dash of Angostura bitters
1/2 ounce Maraschino cherry liqueur**
1 Tablespoon brandied cherry juice
ice
Sparkling water
cherry on top for garnish

*I make my own brandied cherries but you can purchase them too.
**I used Maraska Maraschino Cherry Liqueur from Croatia. A gift from dear friends, Alan and Jenny, it is delightful and delicious.

ingredients

Start with great ingredients!

Cherries and sugar
Muddling
IMG_5073
adding ice

The Carrie Anne
 
Prep time

Total time

 

Author:
Recipe type: Cocktail
Serves: 1 drink

Ingredients
  • 2 brandied cherries*
  • ½ teaspoon sugar or one sugar cube
  • 1½ ounces good whisky. We love Bushmills.
  • Dash of Angostura bitters
  • ½ ounce Maraschino cherry liqueur**
  • 1 Tablespoon brandied cherry juice
  • ice
  • Sparkling water
  • cherry on top for garnish

 

 

 

Another version is to make as directed without the sparkling water and then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a cherry. A little stiffer drink but a great sipper.

“The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.”
James Joyce, Dubliners

There really is a kind of insane beauty around us all the time. It’s just a question of learning to slow down, take a deep breath and meet the moment.” Graham Nash

I couldn’t agree more!

Ciao for now,

Mary

 

 




“Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”

DSCN3744

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

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

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

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

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

Bucatello
IMG_0259IMG_0260IMG_2514

IMG_0257DSCN3790DSCN3741DSCN3780IMG_3991IMG_5412




Poof!

main

Mother’s Day soufflé brunch. It deflates the minute it is removed from the oven!

When was the last time you made a soufflé? That long? Let’s fix that!

Soufflés are one of those basic recipes that every chef is expected to master. It’s based on technique. Once you understand the basic bechamel sauce and how to properly whip egg whites, the world is your oyster. The recipe I am sharing today showcases a simple cheese soufflé with herbs. I love to delve into my collection of reference cook books when researching a recipe. In Larousse Gastronomique, one of the authorities on classic French cuisine, I counted 36 different variations on the soufflé including the addition of  puréed brains. Really!

Soufflés are a delicate matter. To achieve a light and airy product, concentration and timing are essential. I consider this a form of meditation as your mind cannot wander and must stay focused on the tasks on hand. The key is mis en place or having all the ingredients prepped and ready to go.

My mom, the cooking adventuress, made us soufflés after she discovered Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I’m sure she also referred to the copy I now have of Gastronomique, given to her by my babysitter Claudia, in 1966. The two of them loved experimenting and I was an eager guinea pig. The soufflé soon turned into a family favorite, my mom adding spinach or ham or whatever leftovers she had in the refrigerator. She called it “Sunday night surprise.”

In France, I learned the technique rather than the recipe of the soufflé. It begins with a basic bechamel sauce of just butter, flour and milk plus the seasonings. I use this foundational sauce as a springboard for many dishes including gratins, lasagna, mac and cheese and chicken pot pie. Once you master this simple technique, you can venture into all sorts of recipes you might have thought were too difficult to attempt.

bread crumbs

My mom’s 6 ounce soufflé dishes. Very vintage and very beautiful. They are buttered and breadcrumbed in preparation for the egg mixture.

So, why don’t we eat soufflé any more? I think most people are afraid of them! I am here to calm your fears. All it takes is confidence!

This menu was designed as a Mother’s Day Brunch, with the cheese soufflé as the super star. I paired it with watercress and parsley for the greens, papaya and raspberries, a rhubarb tea bread and a glass of Rosé wine. A little bit of everything good and healthy too.

I celebrate you Mom for giving me the gift of cooking, now for you!
Happy Mother’s Day!

Bay leaf souffle
bechamel
adding herbs

 

 

French Cheese Soufflé
Butter and dust with bread crumbs a 1 1/2 quart soufflé dish. Or, butter and crumb 6-8 (depending on the size) small souffle dishes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
This recipe makes one large 1 1/2 quart soufflé or approximately eight 6 or 8 ounce soufflé dishes.

Bechamel Sauce
1 cup whole milk
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour
pinch of ground nutmeg

4 egg yolks
2/3 cup grated Gruyère cheese

2 Tablespoons minced parsley
1 Teaspoon minced chives
1/2 Teaspoon minced chervil or marjoram

6 egg whites at room temperature

Combine the milk, bay leaf, mustard, pepper and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and then turn the heat off to let the flavors infuse into the milk. While still hot, strain the milk into a measuring cup to make it easier to add to the bechamel base.

Melt the butter in a saucepan until frothy then stir in the flour. Stir quickly with a whisk to create a smooth roux with no lumps. Cook for a few minutes to cook out the flour taste. Slowly whisk in the hot milk, stirring constantly so no lumps will form. Continue to cook on medium low until thick and smooth. Stir in the nutmeg. Taste for salt and add more if you like. Remove from the heat and stir in the egg yolks. Gently stir in the cheese. Cover with plastic wrap or waxed paper until ready to use. Remember to season the bechamel well as the egg whites will dilute the flavor.

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. In France, I was taught to hold the bowl of whipped egg whites over your head. If they didn’t spill out, they were ready.

Pour half of the bechamel into the egg whites and fold together the two mixtures. Add the rest of the egg whites and all of the minced herbs. Fold with care to keep the mixture light and fluffy. Do not over mix. All of the egg whites do not have to be completely incorporated.

Immediately pour into the prepared dishes and place in the hot oven. The small ramekins took about 12 minutes and the medium size, about 15 minutes. The 1 1/2 quart soufflé dish will take about 20-25 minutes. I look for a brown top. You want a creamy center so try not to over cook.

EasyRecipe

 

 




Rhubarb Marries Meringue


Lately I’ve been feeling disenchanted with the world. About the only thing I find enchanting is my lovely, colorful garden. This is just a phase I’m going through. We all have them.

To console myself, instead of watching evening tv, I crawled into bed with food. Figuratively, not literally!  I perused my cookbook shelves and started pulling notebooks and recipe books that spoke to me. I have a few treasured and tattered notebooks that contain my private collection of dessert recipes from my days as a pastry chef . I’ve relied on the basics from these books but really haven’t delved into the more serious desserts that lined my pastry cases. Suddenly, my enchantment with life was restored. Flashbacks of colorful fruit desserts filled my head and my creativity shifted into fifth gear.

A recipe for almond meringue caught my eye. “How could I make this special and new?” I asked myself. Rhubarb! And it was all over. I quickly jotted down my ideas and slept well, excited to start cooking and already tasting the combination I dreamed up.

Rhubarb is one of those indescribable flavors that if you love it, you really love it and count the days until it is in season. Rhubarb pie – who doesn’t love it?  Every year I wait for spring rhubarb and try all sorts of new recipes using this vegetable. Yes, it is technically a vegetable. Rhubarb is just beginning to make its appearance in southern California. My friend Di lives in Iowa and told me last week how she and her sister planned to pick the rhubarb in their backyard that grows like crazy and make strawberry rhubarb jam. I was envious. I became so whinny about her stash of rhubarb, she even offered to ship me some!

My vision for a cake with rhubarb turned out perfectly, in beauty and in bite. I assembled it yesterday afternoon, took photos and then my mom and I dug in, anxious to taste it, as our dinner cooked. “Dessert first?” We asked each other. We both nodded and could not put our forks down. And yes, we did have another piece each after dinner!

As beautiful as it is, because it is a meringue, has a short shelf life and when cut, does not hold its shape for long. Use a serrated knife for best results. There are just two steps to the recipe and each can be made a day ahead. The rhubarb compote will last for 7-10 days in the frig and once the meringues are baked, you can leave them in the oven (oven turned off) overnight so they won’t collect moisture and will stay dry.

This recipe is one of the very best, I think, I have ever created. I hope you make it and enjoy it as much!

Almond Meringue Cake with Rhubarb Compote
 
Ingredients
  • ¾ cup sugar, 150 grams, split in half.
  • 1½ cups ground almonds or almond meal, 100 grams
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
  • 4 egg whites at room temperature
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
Rhubarb Compote
  • 1 Cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 6 cups rhubarb cut into 1” pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
The Rest
  • 1½ cups heavy cream
  • 2 boxes fresh raspberries

Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 225 degrees.
  2. Line two sheet trays with parchment paper. Place an 8” cake pan bottom on the paper and draw a circle for your template. Repeat two more times. You will need three circles for the three layers of meringue. Turn the paper over so you can see the outline but the meringue will not absorb the ink or pencil!
  3. Measure half the sugar, the almond meal and cornstarch together. Set aside.
  4. Beat egg whites until foamy and starting to hold together. Slowly add the remaining half the sugar – 75 grams. Beat until glossy about 5 minutes total time.
  5. Fold in remaining sugar/almond mixture.
  6. Fold in almond extract.
  7. Place the meringue into a 14-16” pastry bag, fitted with a plain tip and starting on the outside line, pipe the meringue, working your way inward until the circle is all meringue. Repeat with the other two circles.
  8. I had a little bit of meringue left over so made these little buttons to use as added decorations.
  9. Bake 225 degrees for about one hour or until very dry. Turn the oven off and let your meringues sit there until you are ready to use them.
Rhubarb Compote
  1. Makes 3 cups
  2. Combine sugar and water in saucepan. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Add rhubarb and lemon juice.
  3. Cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes. The rhubarb will break down. This is the reason I cut it into such large pieces.
  4. Cool and refrigerate until ready to use.
To assemble
  1. Whip cream until soft peaks form. Place whipped cream in a pastry bag, ready to pipe.
  2. Place one meringue round on a cake plate or cardboard cake round. Spread about 1 cup of the rhubarb compote evenly on top of the meringue.
  3. Pipe a whipped cream border around the edge of the cake, then fill in the middle. You can go lightly on the cream in the middle. The whipped cream adds a creaminess but you don’t want the cake to be mostly cream!
  4. Sprinkle on about ¾ of the box of raspberries. I made sure some of the raspberries stuck out of the sides for the glamour effect.
  5. Repeat with another meringue, rhubarb compote, cream and raspberries.
  6. Place the last layer on top and spread with remaining rhubarb. Sprinkle the remaining raspberries on top and voila!
  7. This would be delicious served with chilled Prosecco.

 

“People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Julia Child

Ciao for now!

Mary

 




A Kitchen’s Best Friend

How beautiful and trendy! A piece of artwork for your kitchen.

The other day as I was whipping up a lemon chiffon cake in my Kitchen Aid, I felt this rush of love and adoration for this appliance that has been the stronghold of my various kitchens for over 37 years. I know it sounds crazy to be in love with a kitchen appliance but really, it’s about the stories it harbors. The Kitchen Aid has assisted me in making pasta, grinding meat, kneading dough along with basic mixing for cookies. This work horse deserves a tribute.

It’s a family love affair. My mom purchased her first Kitchen Aid in the early 60’s after being enticed by the ads in her cooking magazines. An avid cook with a fetish for cooking gadgets, the latest avocado green Kitchen Aid soon graced her kitchen counter, matching the decor of bold blossoms of orange, yellow and green wall paper that peppered her kitchen. Mom wasn’t the only one who embraced this new time-saving appliance. I latched onto it too when my teenage sweet tooth took over and chocolate whipped cream-stuffed angel food cake and pineapple upside down cake became my specialties.

This is what my mom’s Kitchen Aid looked like circa 1964.

I received my first, very own Kitchen Aid at the ago of 23, as a gift from my grandmother who was proud of my culinary accomplishments from La Varenne cooking school. So this tribute is to you too, Grammy, a fine cook and wonderful Bohemian pastry maker who influenced my cooking style from early on.

As a pastry chef, my Hobart, made by Kitchen Aid, was my best friend, cranking out Italian meringue by the gallon, kneading pounds of brioche and mixing tart dough for the next day’s pastries. It was the boss of the kitchen.

A baker’s must-have appliance.

Because I have a curious nature, I researched a bit more about this amazing appliance to see just exactly how it came to be. Here’s what I discovered.
The first mixer was produced in 1919 by the Hobart Corporation and was called “the Hub.” It was designed by Herbert Johnston after observing workers making dough by hand and thinking there must be an easier way. The Kitchen Aid continued to evolve, getting exposure in Good Housekeeping and Harper’s Bazaar. It was in vogue to own one of these time-saving machines. In 1955, five vibrant colors were introduced: Island Green, Petal Pink, Sunny Yellow, Antique Copper and Satin Chrome. Now you really wanted to invite the ladies over to see your kitchen! Cooking became a lot more fun!

Vintage Kitchen Aids

Talk about an appliance that transcends time. The style has changed very little and it has continued to be center stage for the home cook as well as the professional. I decided to write about this fabulous appliance because I have recently renewed my relationship with it. It sat in a cabinet with little use for years. Now that I have moved it to my counter, I am enjoying its power a couple of times a week. My Kitchen Aid inspires me to want to test just one more recipe and I’m having a lot more fun in my own kitchen!

Do you have a favorite memory of something you created when your Kitchen Aid first joined your kitchen? Please share!

Stay tuned next week for a recipe for Almond Meringue Rhubarb Cake. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Click here to watch a great video on the history of the Kitchen Aid.

“You may feel that you have eaten too much…But this pastry is like
feathers – it is like snow. It is in fact good for you, a digestive!”
― M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating

Ciao for now,

Mary




Honestly Good Food

Looks good, doesn’t it? Good enough to eat but it’s for your dog!

Last month I received a copy of “Dog Obsessed,” written by Lucy Postins, founder of the dog food empire, The Honest Kitchen. Full of pet health information and funny stories all of us dog-crazed people can relate to, I could hardly put it down. Inserted into each chapter are her recipes using The Honest Kitchen’s dehydrated diets as a base for a delicious home-cooked meal for your dog.

Inspired, I took Lucy’s basic ideas and made up my own recipes for my dog Sparky. For giggles, I included a surprise in the center of each loaf for boosted nutritional value and eye appeal. You can feel good about every ingredient in these recipes and they are so simple to make. Each loaf makes about 2 1/2 pounds of food and is a complete and balanced meal. Have fun and treat your dog to a special dinner today!

Turkey Pot Pie
 
Ingredients
  • 1 Cup The Honest Kitchen Keen (turkey and oats)
  • 1 Cup warm water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 pound plain ground turkey meat
  • ½ cup peas
  • ½ cup diced carrots plus 2 Tbls.

Instructions
  1. Line the bottom of a loaf pan with parchment paper
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  3. Mix together the Keen and warm water.
  4. Stir in the 2 eggs. Mix well.
  5. Stir in the turkey meat.
  6. Add half the mixture to the loaf pan. Sprinkle a layer of carrots, then peas. Spoon the remaining meat mixture over all and pat down slightly. Sprinkle the 2 Tablespoons of carrots on top.
  7. Bake for 45 minutes or until juices run clear.
  8. Serve immediately or let cool, then cut into slices. The slice will hold together better when cool.
  9. Watch your dog drool as you serve him!

Blue Plate Salmon Special
 
Ingredients
  • 1 Cup The Honest Kitchen Brave grain-free wild caught fish diet
  • 1 Cup warm water
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 13 oz. cans salmon. I used Rawz canned dog food Salmon because it is a great company with reputable sourcing.
  • The Honest Kitchen Fish Proper Toppers

Instructions
  1. Line the bottom of a loaf pan with parchment paper
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  3. Mix together the Brave and warm water.
  4. Stir in the eggs. Mix well.
  5. Add one of the cans of salmon to the mixture and stir well.
  6. Pour half the fish into the loaf pan.
  7. Spoon the other can of salmon into the pan and spread evenly.
  8. Add the rest of the fish mixture.
  9. Sprinkle the Fish Proper Toppers on top – like croutons!
  10. Bake for 45 minutes.
  11. The fish aroma will fill your house for a while but your dog will appreciate it!

 

My forever friend Sparky.

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.”
― Milan Kundera

Ciao for now,
Mary




Sunday Breakfast Brioche

Brioche. It sounds so intimidating. A rich, buttery, egg bread with so many possibilities for creativity. I was feeling ready for a challenge and scoured my cookbook collection comparing recipes and looking for ease of preparation. Finally I settled on one from my alma mater, La Varenne. The recipe itself is not difficult although it is a yeast dough so does require some time. After the initial mixing, a nap overnight in the refrigerator will awaken it refreshed and ready to mold into all kinds of shapes. This is the fun part.

In Paris, I learned how to make brioche dough by hand, slapping it on a cold marble surface as I added the butter, piece by piece. This traditional method is an art in itself. This time I let the Kitchen Aid do the work. It huffed and puffed as I added the butter, until I thought it would faint with exhaustion. “Just three more pats of butter,” I whispered with encouragement. The poor thing was warm after the workout and I promised her a long rest in-between the next recipe.

Three different breads were the results of my efforts. Because I am still craving oranges, they all have an orange twist. The first recipe is a take off on monkey bread, one of my favorite childhood breakfast breads. I added candied orange peel (from King Arthur) to the dough, then rolled pieces of dough into small balls, dipped them in melted butter, then into an orange zest and sugar combination. The balls were placed in a deep dish pie pan, left to rise, then baked. Bellissimo!

Next I made a braided loaf and sprinkled the orange sugar on the rolled out dough before I made the braids. Again, delicious and beautiful. While baking, the sugar peeked out from the dough causing a speckled effect. It slices very nicely.

The last recipe, and the simplest, was my favorite. I had some of the orange peel dough leftover and made rolls. Each dough piece was weighed, then rolled into a ball and placed in a well-buttered muffin tin. After they had risen, I egg glazed each roll and sprinkled them with Sparkling White Sugar (again from King Arthur). The texture of this bread is soft and airy, buttery and irresistible.

The best part about this recipe is that you are free to unleash your creative genius in any way you like. Shape a bunny or an Easter egg. Add cinnamon or lavender. Just remember to let the fine texture and flavor of the bread speak for itself so go lightly with the added flavors.

Brioche
 
Ingredients
  • 2 Tablespoons luke warm water (105-115 degrees)
  • 1 Tablespoon dry yeast
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 4 Cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 8 eggs – beaten lightly
  • 12 oz. unsalted butter, ( 3 sticks) softened and cut into ½” cubes NOTE: Please use a good quality European style butter like Plugra, President or Kerry Gold. Because this is a butter bread, it really does make a difference! Also there is a lot of water in inexpensive butter and this can change the dynamics of the recipe.

Instructions
  1. Put water in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast on top. Let set for about 10 minutes to activate the yeast. It should look puffy and bubbly. I usually add a little of the sugar to this mixture to feed it, just to make sure my yeast is active.
  2. Combine remaining sugar, flour and salt in a Kitchen Aid mixer fitted with a dough hook. Add risen yeast and eggs to mixer. Beat dough until all ingredients are well combined and the mixture is sticky.
  3. Add pieces of butter (I smash the pieces between my thumb and finger to flatten) one by one, incorporating each piece before the next is added. This is the most time-consuming part of the recipe! Do not leave your Kitchen Aid as mine wanted to jump off the counter near the end because it was working so hard.
  4. When all the butter is incorporated, you will have a beautiful shiny mass. Form a ball and place this in a buttered bowl. Cover with a damp dish towel and let rise in a warm place for about 1½ hours.
  5. Punch the dough down, replace with the damp towel and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, your dough is ready to play with!
  6. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Shape dough as desired, place in well-buttered muffin tins or molds and let rise until doubled. Give each piece a light egg wash and bake. The small rolls (I weighed each at about 1.5 ounces) only took about 12-15 minutes and the braid took about 25 minutes. Watch carefully and look for a beautifully browned crust.
  7. These are best eaten warm but keep very well and even freeze well.

 

 

The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight…

[Breadmaking is] one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells… there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of
meditation in a music-throbbing chapel. that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”
M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating

Ciao for now,

Mary




Orange Blossom Special

The life in my backyard is so breathtakingly alive right now. I am especially drawn to my two 60-year-old orange trees who greet me everyday with bursts of intensely perfumed orange blossoms that permeate my backyard. So heady is this fragrance, I find myself making excuses to stay home, just to linger in my garden. This heavenly smell is reminiscent of springtime in my home town of Riverside, California, where, in my earlier days, the orange trees possibly outnumbered the residents!

Not to neglect the brilliant oranges that are a part of this scene, they too deserve attention. It’s as if they are asking, “ So, what will you create with us today?” As much as I love eating them ripe off the tree, I came up with this easy recipe which also uses the prolific Swiss chard making a strong appearance in my garden right now. The flavors interact perfectly – some tang, some crunch, some sweetness. It’s colorful and delicious. I love it as a side dish or make it a main by tossing in some cannellini beans for vegetarian or sweet chicken sausage slices for a meatier meal.

Orange Blossom Special
 
Ingredients
  • 5-6 cupfuls of sliced Swiss chard, stems removed and cut into pieces separately
  • 1 large shallot, sliced into rings
  • 2 large, fresh oranges, cut into 1” cubes
  • 3 or more Tablespoons roughly chopped pistachios
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt & pepper

Instructions
  1. Saute the chard stems in 1 Tablespoon olive oil until tender, about 10 minutes. Salt to taste.
  2. In a small pan, saute the shallot in 1 Tablespoon olive oil until deep brown and almost crispy.
  3. Add the sliced chard to the chard stems and cook on medium heat, tossing frequently until just beginning to wilt. Do not overcook or it will lose its beautiful green color. Salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Toss in the shallots and oranges.
  5. Sprinkle in the pistachios.
  6. This is especially good when drizzled with Orange or Mandarin Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Add a splash of Fig Balsamic Vinegar to take it over the edge.

Voila! Tasty and nutritious!

“Did you ever sleep in a field of orange-trees in bloom? The air which one inhales deliciously is a quintessence of perfumes. This powerful and sweet smell, as savoury as a sweetmeat, seems to penetrate one, to impregnate, to intoxicate, to induce languor, to bring about a dreamy and somnolent torpor. It is like opium prepared by fairy hands and not by chemists.”
― Guy de Maupassant, 88 Short Stories

My feelings exactly! Take deep breaths and drink in the beauty of Spring!

P.S. I named this story Orange Blossom Special after the bluegrass song that stole my heart when I lived in Southern Illinois. Here is a fun rendition of the “Fiddle Player’s National Anthem.”

Ciao for now,
Mary