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,




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,




Beets – A Fresh Idea

Fresh and crunchy summer beet salad

I don’t know what happened but my beet crop was disastrous this year. The “golden” beets I planted in the fall evolved into knotty, dingy beige, woody and inedible roots. Thank goodness my neighbor, Sandy, who is an amazing gardener, gifted me with three beautiful ruby beets as well as the challenge of how to cook them other than the classic steamed or roasted. I immediately thought of my brand new spiralizer that I purchased from my dear friend Laureen who is a director at Pampered Chef. Her products are always top-notch but for some reason, I had procrastinated experimenting with this contraption.

Introducing the Spiralizer by the Pampered Chef

My garden re-landscape has consumed my life ( I just had to have a Fuyu Persimmon!) and I decided to take a break from the dirt to spend a day in the kitchen, my other favorite room. I started the morning baking David Lebovitz’s olive oil muffins, with my touch of added blueberries, then decided to tackle the spiralizer. It is much easier than anticipated! In fact, it is simple.  I choose the fettuccine blade and voila! I was impressed. From the outside, all Sandy’s beets looked the same but when unwrapping them, one’s color was a burgundy wine while the other a party pink.

Easier than a mandoline

I wanted to create something simple but tasty and beautiful. The accompanying ingredient that came to mind was pistachios. I love this green nut which I feel is so undervalued.
Once the beets are thinly sliced, they can be eaten either raw or cooked. I blanched some of the spirals and was disappointed that the brightness of color faded dramatically. I decided to use them raw but you can prepare them anyway you like.

Party pink fettucine of beet

My choice of flavoring was extra virgin mint olive oil, which I tossed into the beets to give them a light, summer flavor. Goat cheese, rolled in the mint olive oil then in chopped pistachios, added character. The cubed avocado provides extra color and a soft texture. I sprinkled around some leftover fennel for color and crunch. For the finale, thick fig balsamic vinegar was drizzled on top. This vinegar really does pair beautifully with the beets. The fun is in “painting” the plate with your ingredients. Feel free to share your beet creations and combos with me!

Ciao for now!

Mary




Late Summer Watermelon Salad

Mouthwatering collage of color. Perfect for Labor Day

Labor Day’s Swan Song of summer demands a final salute to the ambrosial fruits the season delivered. This recipe is so simple it’s embarrassing but I make it over and over and continue to receive rave reviews. Peach Balsamic Vinegar is its secret ingredient, drawing the flavors out of the watermelon and complimenting the mint. It also brings a sweet and sourness that makes this salad unique. The addition of figs is optional but the two fruits are the perfect union. Each bite is a mouthful of cool, crisp tang that will create a smile!

Late Summer Watermelon Salad
 
Ingredients
  • 1 medium watermelon, cut into cubes
  • ¼ cup barely chopped fresh mint
  • 2-3 Tablespoons Peach Balsamic Vinegar or White Balsamic Vinegar
  • 3-4 figs, sliced lengthwise into quarters

Instructions
  1. Place watermelon in a large bowl. Gently stir in mint, then vinegar. Fold in the figs.
  2. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  3. Be prepared for no leftovers!

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” 

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Ciao and Happy Labor Day Holiday!

Mary




Summer’s Arrival

Mar.sunset Mission BeachCAEvery summer has a story. ♥

What is it that is so romantic about summer? Is it the long hours of sunlight, its warm breezes persuading us to linger a little longer to drink in the day? Is it the fond memory and sentimentality stirred up of childhood vacations and days out of school spelled “PLAY” all day? Or is it simply a dreamy time of gazing at the setting sun and slowing life down for a while. I decided to share this Midsummer romance by having a summer solstice party.

Nicole and Laurette pick ripe boysenberries to add color and flavor to their favorite cocktail.

Nicole and Laurette pick ripe boysenberries to add color and flavor to their favorite cocktail.

Berries ended up in wine, champagne Trains and just for fun- to eat!

Berries ended up in wine, champagne Trains and just for fun- to eat!

Laurette approves of my newly planted grapes which are producing in spades! I didn't realize it but they must be champagne grapes. Even better.

Laurette approves of my newly planted grapes which are producing in spades! I didn’t realize it but they must be champagne grapes. Even better.

The Summer Solstice is always a special day for me. It signifies the longest hours of daylight and the launch of the warm days of summer. I chose to celebrate this day with a gathering of friends for a potluck of favorite summer dishes.

A feast for the gods.

A feast for the gods.

Watermelon alla Maria. Recipe to follow.

Watermelon alla Maria. Recipe to follow.

The response was overwhelming! Creative and complementary dishes were packed like sardines on my dining table, each vying for attention. I couldn’t have planned a better menu!

This front dish was a tangerine-basil pasta and chicken. Bellissimo!

This front dish was a tangerine-basil pasta and chicken. Bellissimo!

Homemade ice cream and gelato topped off the evening. The hit was a fresh black cherry cheesecake. Second place-Vietnamese coffee ice cream with cardamom - silky and taste-tingling!

Homemade ice cream and gelato topped off the evening. The hit was a fresh black cherry cheesecake flavor. Second place-Vietnamese coffee ice cream with cardamom – silky and taste-tingling!

There were divine recipes I had never tasted, all made with love. I realized what incredible friends I have. I am grateful for this diverse and inspiring group of people who give my life meaning and depth. When in doubt, throw a party. It will set your summer in motion and bring laughter, love and balance back into your life.

My dear girlfriends bonding over good food and wine.

My dear girlfriends bonding over good food and wine.

 Jenn, the mixologist, makes killer "Trains," a mix of champagne, Saint Germain and sparkling water. Her cocktails were the hit of the evening!

Jenn, the mixologist, makes killer “Trains,” a mix of champagne, Saint Germain and sparkling water. Her cocktails were the hit of the evening!

It was smiles and laughter all night. My best friends Jenny and Alan truly helped me bring in the summer vibe.

It was smiles and laughter all night. My best friends Jenny and Alan truly helped me bring in the summer vibe.

One of the recipes I made and loved was so simple yet delicious. Here it is:

Minted Watermelon Salad
 
Ingredients
  • 1 ripe preferably seedless watermelon, cubed into 1 inch pieces
  • ¼ Cup Peach White Balsamic Vinegar
  • ¼ Cup packed mint leaves, sliced into thin strips

Instructions
  1. Toss vinegar and mint with watermelon. Let flavors meld for about an hour. Chill and serve. This is so delicious and refreshing. You will love it.

So here’s to all those summer nights when my feet hit the sand and the waves break my fall and all my friends around me out number the stars. – Unknown

Ciao and summer love,

Mary

 




Spring Green Freshness

“I am the broth of love. Make soup to me.”

Jarod Kintz, Love quotes for the ages.

Warm or cold soup topped with shredded mint and served with a glass of cold Pinot Grigio. It is delicious with a splash of lemon or herb olive oil!

Warm or cold pea soup topped with shredded mint and served with a glass of cold Pinot Grigio. It is delicious with a splash of lemon or herb olive oil!

As I contemplate this story, a wasp hovers in front of my eyes and harmonies of chickadees fill the airwaves in stereo. My garden once again kidnaps my weekend. The whispering warm breeze, swaying palm trees, fluorescent geraniums and darting hummingbirds contribute to a feeling of intoxication in my own personal paradise. A cricket suddenly chimes in to serenade me, adding to this fairy tale.

Dancing color.

Dancing color.

The Chickadees have invaded and I love it!

The Chickadees have invaded and I love it!

My faithful companion stands guard and loves the birds.

My faithful companion stands guard and loves the birds.

In this simplistic of moments, I dream of a fresh green pea soup, infused with mint and embellished with crème fraîche. I actually leave my garden writing post to make it and I am back outside with a glass of wine half and hour later!

It is so easy to make either as a starter or main dish. Here’s how to do it with very little dishes – my favorite way!

My secret - a handheld Cuisinart blender.

My secret – a handheld Cuisinart blender.

The handheld purees in minutes. Way easier and less clean up than the food processor in my opinion.

The handheld purees in minutes. Way easier and less clean up than the food processor in my opinion.

Fresh Pea Soup
 
Ingredients
  • ¼ diced sweet onion
  • 2 Tbls. olive oil
  • ¼ Cup white wine
  • 2 Cups Chicken stock or light-colored vegetable stock
  • 1½ Cups peas, frozen or fresh
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh mint, shredded plus more for garnishing
  • Creme Fraîche, sour cream or yogurt for garnish if desired

Instructions
  1. Saute the onion and olive oil until soft. Add the white wine and cover, simmering until onion is very soft. Uncover and let reduce until very little liquid is left. Add the stock and mint and bring to a boil. Add the peas and cook just until done, two minutes for frozen and five minutes for fresh peas. Turn the heat off. Using a handheld blender, purée until creamy and smooth. This should take about three minutes. Voila! You have soup! If hot, garnish with more shredded mint, chives, olive oil or crème fraîche. Warning: the crème fraîche will melt into the soup. I ate it cool garnished with shredded mint and a dose of Galantino Bel Tocco Olive Oil. It is so full of flavor with a hint of mint.

 

 

Version One, warm with melting creme fraiche.

Version One, warm with melting crème fraîche.

Enjoy the new, young vegetables of early summer. Let me know what your creative spirit comes up with!

Ciao for now!

Mary

 




The Beet Goes On

My first tomato of the season!

My first tomato of the season!

I’d love to step into Op’s shoes, or whatever goddesses wear on their feet. While perusing websites relating to my upcoming trip to Italy, I came upon a dictionary of goddesses. This one caught my attention. Ops, rumored to be married to Saturn, is “an agricultural goddess of abundance personifying the earth’s riches.”*

Ops is the Goddess of the Harvest and Opulence

Ops is the Goddess of the Harvest and Abundance

Today my mom and I were the Ops twins; she cleaning up my raised beds and harvesting beets, Swiss chard, peas and red cabbage and moi; filling holes dug by my dogs, planting a new baby bay laurel tree, staking up my berry vines and eternally weeding.

red cabbageFinally ready to harvest after 5 1/2 months of TLC.

My Ops Twin - Mom

My Ops Twin – Mom

Giggling and chatting away like two teenagers who just love spending time together, the work energized our souls. The golden warmth of the sun embraced my body, almost magically pulling me closer to the earth. I was the goddess of agriculture if only for a moment. It felt really good.

These brilliant chard stems were too gorgeous not to share.

These brilliant chard stems were too gorgeous not to share.

In honor of my beet harvest, I decided to make something out of my comfort zone. My neighbor, Ione, makes delicious pickled beets. In fact, she is the pickling queen, using vinegar for everything from octopus to fava beans.

Roasted in foil at 400 degress for about an hour.

Roasted in foil at 400 degrees for about an hour.

I asked for her recipe. Roast, peel, then slice or cube the beets, she replied. Top with balsamic vinegar, a bay leaf and a sprinkling of peppercorns. That’s it! Marinate a few hours or a few days. I marinated one batch with a traditional red balsamic vinegar and one with a white balsamic vinegar from The San Felipe Olive Oil Company who makes thick and delicious vinegars. It has a slight sweetness that I think marries well with the sugar in the beets.

My salade compose. The darker beets on the left were marinated in red balsamic vinegar and the beets on the right drank the white balsamic with a dash of pomegranate vinegar. The peas are freshly harvested and so tender, I decided not to cook them.

My salade composée. The darker, velvet-colored beets on the left were marinated in red balsamic vinegar and the pinker beets on the right drank the white balsamic with a dash of pomegranate vinegar. The peas are freshly harvested and so tender, I decided not to cook them. Drizzle with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of fleur de sel. A beautiful lunch!

After harvesting nine large maroon rubies and roasting the root, there still remained the beet greens in plentitude. The leaves are tender and hold their shape when sautéed with olive oil, mushrooms and a shallot. For those whose taste buds require a softer taste in greens, or think the kales are too strong in flavor, try beet greens. You will be pleasantly surprised and by utilizing the entire plant, you are getting two veggies for the price of one!

A smart way to enjoy the greens and keep them fresh!

A smart way to enjoy the greens and keep them fresh!

As gardening connects the soul to the earth; cooking opens the soul to the arts; and believing expands the soul to the future. Mary Knight

Avec l’amour de ma maison à la vôtre, le bonheur et la bonne santé  (With love from my house to yours, happiness and good health)

Mary

* www.jesterbear.com/Aradia/goddesses.html#Diana

** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ops




Pucker Up! Lucious Lemons Rock

My baby planted last May.

My baby Meyer Lemon planted last May. Star is her guardian!

When I think of lemons, this folk tune often sings in my head, “Lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.”* The author, of this song, Jose Carlos Burle, must never have tasted a Meyer lemon or he wouldn’t have written this song!

My Mom's Eureka tree - the Mother Lode!

My Mom’s Eureka tree – the Mother Lode!

Lemons are so happy. Their cheery yellow color radiate love, a freshness and an eagerness to be utilized to the fullest. This means the zest AND the fruit. I cannot bear to juice a lemon without first removing its fragrant and flowery rind or zest. For me, this is the flavor, and, hence from which all delicious tartness is born. The Meyer lemon, less acid, more mandarin-scented and thinner-skinned, than its brighter yellow-colored cousins, makes it the perfect flavor for desserts. Its mellow tang shines in vinaigrettes and desserts.

More orange-yellow colored Meyer is in the back and Eureka is in the forefront.

More orange-yellow colored Meyer is in the back and Eureka is in the forefront.

Lemons are as dear to me as chocolate. Their flavor absolutely makes a bold and intense statement. So pucker up!

Here are a few of my favorite ways to celebrate lemon season.

Lemon Vinaigrette

I love the simplicity of this vinaigrette. The lemon gracefully enhances the lettuce leaves. Feel free to embellish it with capers, fresh herbs or olives. I tossed it with warm vegetable ravioli (butternut squash would be good) and was delighted with the taste. Also I can envision this dressing a niçoise salad, or any tuna salad. Feel free to adjust seasonings, amount of lemon juice or oil.

Lemon Vinaigrette
 
Prep time

Total time

 

Author:
Recipe type: salad dressing

Ingredients
  • ½ tsp. Dijon mustard
  • Juice of ½ Meyer lemon or about ¼ cup
  • Zest of ½ – 1 lemon
  • Pinch Fleur del Sel (salt)
  • ¼ cup safflower oil

Instructions
  1. Whisk the lemon juice and zest into the Dijon mustard. Slowly add the oil, whisking constantly until the vinaigrette fuses together. Add salt to taste. Adjust the amount of oil if it is too tangy for your taste.

 

Lemon Herb Butter

Lemon Herb Butter
 
Prep time

Total time

 

Author:

Ingredients
  • Lemon Herb Butter
  • 4 Tbls. Unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbls. Fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. Meyer lemon zest
  • ⅛ tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbls. finely chopped parsley, basil, dill, mint, etc.
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped shallot or garlic

Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients. It is easiest accomplished with a food processor.
  2. Spoon butter onto a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper. Shape the butter into a log and roll it up in the wrap. Freeze until firm. To use, slice off discs and use as added flavor on top of chicken or fish, vegetables, pasta or rice.

 

Lemon Tarts with Candied Lemon Peel

I experimented with a few ways to “candy” lemon peel. I must say, it is not as easy as it sounds! My favorite way to create the peel I used for the tarts was to use very thin yellow-only julienne skins, simmered in a sugar syrup, then dipped in sugar. If you would like the recipe, I recommend the one from Epicurious at the bottom of this blog.

Sweet Pastry Crust

1 1/4 cups flour

½ tsp. salt

2 Tlbs. Powered sugar

10 Tbls. Unsalted butter (1 ¼ sticks)- I prefer Kerry Gold Irish butter

3-4 Tbls. cold water

1 egg yolk

In a food processor combine the flour, salt, and powdered sugar. Pulse until blended.

Add the butter. Pulse again just until butter and flour form small peas.

Mix cold water and egg yolk. Add to mixture. If you live in a dry climate or if the weather is very warm, you will probably need the extra 4th tablespoon of water.

Pulse just until combined.

Form into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour to rest the dough.

Roll dough to 1/4” thickness. Depending upon the size of tart mold you are using cut out rounds of dough and place in molds. Refrigerate or freeze.

I prefer these sweet little tart molds. They have such character!

I prefer these sweet little tart molds. They have such character!

Lemon Filling: (caution! This is an adapted recipe from a French version so don’t be intimidated by the gram measures)

Lemon Filling
 
Prep time

Cook time

Total time

 

Author:
Recipe type: lemon

Ingredients
  • 210 grams or 1 ¾ cups of powdered sugar
  • 2 lemons juice and zest
  • 5 eggs
  • ⅜ cup clarified butter

Instructions
  1. Mix together powdered sugar and lemon juice. Whisk in eggs. Stir in cooled clarified butter.
  2. Cook over low to medium heat for about 20 minutes or until lemon coats the back of a spoon.
  3. Pour into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate.

210 grams or 1 ¾ cups of powdered sugar

2 lemons juice and zest

5 eggs

3/8 cup clarified butter

Mix together powdered sugar and lemon juice. Whisk in eggs. Stir in cooled clarified butter.

Cook over low to medium heat for about 20 minutes or until lemon coats the back of a spoon.

Pour into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate.

Zesty lemon just waiting to be savored.

Zesty lemon just waiting to be savored.

To make the tarts:

Carefully fill the cold tart shells about ¾ full with the lemon filling.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 15-20 minutes or until the shells brown and the filling is bubbly.

Le tart citron

Le tart citron. Almost too pretty to eat!

Let cool. Filling will “settle” meaning it ends up sinking a bit in the shell. Don’t worry. It will still taste fabulous. Either top with a candied lemon slice or pipe a bit of lemon mousse on top. For the mousse, I just add a little of the lemon crème to whipped cream and fold gently. Pipe mousse on top of the tart and garnish with slivered candied lemon peel, candied violets or mint leaves.
I love these tarts  for a refreshing springtime dessert or any season for that matter.
They are a delightful treat for baby or bridal showers or for an afternoon tea party.

100 things to do with a Meyer Lemon from the LA Times: Hhttp://www.latimes.com/features/la-fo-meyerlemons16jan16,0,5003872.storyere are a few more sites for ideas with Meyer (or any variety of) lemons:

My favorite recipe for candied lemons: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Candied-Lemon-Peels-232352

 A good story on Meyer Lemons from NPR:http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100778147

How to make clarified butter from Joy the Baker: http://www.joyofbaking.com/ClarifiedButter.html

Avec l’amour de ma maison à la vôtre avec l’amour, le bonheur et la bonne santé  (With love from my house to yours with love, happiness and good health)

Merci mille fois! (Thanks a  million!)

Mary

*The song compares love to a lemon tree. “Lemon Tree” is a folk song written by Will Holt in the 1960s. The tune is based on the Brazilian folk song Meu limão, meu limoeiro, arranged by José Carlos Burle in 1937 and made popular by Brazilian singer Wilson Simonal.




Leaves of Green

50 shades of green

50 shades of green

Living in southern California has its perks and one of them is being able to grow vegetables and fruits year round. My summer garden produced less than an abundance of tomatoes, probably due to the unusual heat, and the zucchini took over. I much prefer my winter garden that is thriving in the cool weather. Bunches of soft and ruffly butter lettuce flourishing in shades of eggplant and emerald, co-mingling with stately romaine which ranges from soft grassy greens to more pronounced pea greens.

Dense ruffles of buttercrunch

Dense ruffles of Butterhead “Marvel of Four Seasons”

The oak leaf lettuce, their tender fingers of olive fusing to deep wine, is almost hidden underneath the large, sculpted circles of nasturtium leaves.

Delicate oakleaf hiding under the umbrella of nastursiams.

An umbrella of Nasturtiums pushed aside to reveal delicate and tender Oak Leaf Blend.

At every glance, my eyes engage in the vibrant colors and I am grateful these greens have chosen to share their beauty with me.

My bounty is shared with neighbors and friends and I am always finding new ways to introduce them into my cuisine du jour. One thing I have done for years is to layer greens underneath my main course, creating a one dish meal. In this photo, I made gnocchi with a fresh garden tomato sauce and mounded it on top of a bed of lightly sautéed greens. I love how the border of green frames the main course.

Butternut gnocchi hugging greens.

Butternut squash gnocchi hugging greens.

Often times I just use salad greens without cooking them. The food heats and wilts the greens and infuses them with the dominant flavor.

Lemon risotto warming two varieties of freshly picked baby kale and swiss chard greens.

Lemon risotto warming two varieties of freshly picked baby “Nero Toscana” kale, “Red Winter” kale and “Ruby Red” swiss chard greens.

Fresh greens topped with winter pears and a drizzle of homemade balsamic glaze. Delectable!

Fresh greens topped with winter pears and a drizzle of homemade balsamic glaze. Delectable!

The options are infinite! Be creative. Love the diversity of baby greens and let your imagination run free.

Am I tempting you to plant your own winter garden? It’s not too late! It really is easy. You can even use one large pot if you have limited space. Visit your local nursery or farmer’s market for starters or start seeds in a sunny window indoors before transplanting in outside beds or pots. I’d love to see how your garden grows. Please share yours with me!

Merci mille fois! (Thanks a  million!)

Mary