The Charm of Smaller Places

On our recent trip to Italy, we toured many well-known places along the Amalfi Coast and in Tuscany.  We visited Pompeii, Capri, and other notable tourist destinations– and enjoyed them immensely in spite of the crowds.  Yet as the heat increased and “high season” arrived, our tolerance for the difficult pleasure of visiting places on the tour-bus route plummeted.  After a particularly hot day of trudging through the picturesque and much too lively city of Siena, we returned to the villa and recounted to our hosts the tribulations of driving, of parking, of standing in multiple lines, of trying to see the town’s marvels around or in-between the heads and shoulders of thousands of fellow tourists. ( I know, I know.  Everyone should have such problems.)   Nodding sympathetically, Joseph said: “tomorrow you should visit Sansepulcro and Anghiari”.  Despite not really knowing much about the towns, we took Joseph’s advice (and his list of things to see) and headed out on the road less traveled. On this little excursion, we inadvertently became “della Francesca pilgrims” and fell in love with the tiny town of Anghiari.   Continue reading “The Charm of Smaller Places”

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the simple things

As I was unloading the dishwasher this morning, I put away a few of these glass bowls and marveled at how often I use them and how much I enjoy them.  We purchased the bowls after attending a fairly elegant pot-luck buffet (yes, there are such things!) where our salad looked particularly tacky.  You see, the hostess had requested that I bring a salad with everything on the side.  The guest of honor was a notoriously picky eater who wouldn’t even eat tomatoes or green onions, let alone roasted beets or lemon cucumbers.  Being a vegetarian, I understand food preferences, so I was perfectly willing to accommodate the request.  I put together the ingredients for a greek-style salad, and–since everything was on the side– added a few options.  But when it came time to put these tasty ingredients into their little option-bowls, I discovered that I didn’t really have anything other than soup bowls.  For a household with four sets of dishes, the lack of serviceable containers was surprising.  We cobbled together a motley assortment of cups, miso bowls, and our smallest mixing bowls–hence the shabby showing on the buffet table.

Now, with my two sets of small glass bowls, I have eight perfectly matched containers for olives, sieved eggs, tomatoes, or whatever needs to circle the salad bowl. (I would have ten, but I left two at a party long ago.)  And of course we use them for much more than salads!  They hold the taco toppings or sauce options or nuts. We use them for mise-en-place when we cook.   Since our group of friends includes people who are sensitive to lactose and gluten (and those pesky vegetarians!), the bowls are perfect for holding ingredients for build-your-own-pizza night.  We use them for parties; we use them every day.  One is sitting on the counter right now holding blueberries that I picked from our bushes.

These little bowls might be simple, but their simplicity and their size are what make them so versatile and useful.  I love them.

Summer go-to Recipes

I love summer for so many reasons: I don’t have to work, warmer weather, long twilight evenings, outdoor concerts–the list goes on and on.  But one of the very best things about summer is the array of produce that becomes available at farmers’ markets and our local fruit stand.  My market bag gets so heavy because I can’t resist the beautiful veggies and fruits that are calling me to make some of my favorite recipes.

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When I see the first ripe tomatoes hit the market stalls, I must make Carolyn Wente’s Blue Cheese Tomato Galette.  When my own tomato plants start to produce, I bring the food mill out of deep storage and fill the freezer with quarts of sauce, frozen in plastic bags.  Ears of corn call for suppers of enchiladas or Corn and Green Chile Chowder (from the Greens Cookbook)  or the Pepper and Corn Soup with Basil from Fields of Greens.

Speaking of basil, my favorite pesto recipe is still this one from page 81 of The Silver Palate Cookbook.  When we make pesto, we often take Alice Waters’ advice and sauté some zucchini with garlic, toast some walnuts, and add those to pasta pesto for extra flavor and crunch.  The ubiquitous zucchini brings up several summer favorites:  zucchini bread (of course!), summer squash soup, ratatouille, and three other pastas besides the one with pesto.  Here’s one here.

Even thought it isn’t strictly summery, the recipe that I go to most often for a reliable, tasty, healthy, big pot of soup is Deborah Madison’s Lentil Minestrone from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  It’s one of those soups that gets better and better as it sits.  The last bowl is always the best.

And now, I’m going to go harvest some lettuce, some yellow pear tomatoes, and a small green pepper to make a salad to accompany that last, best bowl.

Any suggestions for other go-to recipes?

The cute kleptomaniac

We’re thinking about changing Marcus’ name to Fagan or Dodger because he’s such a little thief.  Just a few weeks ago when I’d  hear him play, I would think “Oh my sweet boy is having fun!” ; now I think “Uh-oh! What’s he got this time?”  I’ve found  him adorably tossing and batting something only to discover that he snagged it from the table, the nightstand, the bathtub, or even my purse.  He has a penchant for ballpoint pens–red ones, but we’ve also caught him with corks, earplugs, lip balm, Q-tips, and a ginger candy.  He likes to carry things around in his mouth, so things that belong upstairs wind up downstairs and vice-versa.

Years ago, my mother had a cat who must have been a magpie in a former life.  He’d collect shiny things and stash them behind a door.  When we noticed our Christmas tree was quite bare at the bottom, we’d have to retrieve Flash’s treasures and rehang them.

Now I’m dreading Christmas more than usual.  We’ll see how long Marcus can resist stealing his own stocking.

Ravello

In between the two uncomfortable flights described in my previous rant were fifteen pretty magical days of vacation.  Two of those days were spent in the indescribably beautiful town of Ravello.

We had just spent three lovely days in Sorrento where we dined on the water, took a boat tour around Capri, toured Pompeii, shopped, and generally basked in the deliciousness of Italian coastal life.  We drove the dizzying and spectacular Amalfi Coast highway (along with thousands of fellow vacationers) to get from Sorrento to Ravello.  The  hairpin tuns and the views left me dazzled and breathless, but I was disappointed at being unable to stop in Portofino along the way ( I wanted my Enchanted April moment) and at not being in a glamorous convertible  wearing a chic scarf and sunglasses.  However, any smidgen of feeling like I’d missed something vanished the moment we checked into our hotel room.  The room was cool and large (by Italian standards) with a tiny balcony that looked out onto this view.

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Being on a hill five miles above the coast, Ravello is quieter and more elegant than Sorrento or Amalfi or the other beautiful and charming coastal towns. As we walked, dusty and perspiring among the apparently more wealthy and beautiful visitors who don’t sweat, my husband and I felt both out of place and lucky to have decided to stay here.   Ravello boasts a number of past and present famous residents including Richard Wagner, Andre Gide, E. M. Forester, and Gore Vidal.  As we strolled the streets and gardens and admired the five-star hotels that should be featured in Architectural Digest if they haven’t already, I could easily see why artists would find inspiration in this city.

We were lucky enough to stumble (unobtrusively) upon a gorgeous bride being photographed in the Gardens (designed by Vita Sackville-West) of the Villa Cimbrone and to see several lovely members of her wedding party.  They looked wonderful against the flowers and statuary.  I walked away from visiting those gardens determined to add more colorful ceramic elements to my back yard.  Isn’t this pretty?

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As much as I admired the gardens at the Villa Cimbrone, I was blown away by our visit to the gardens at the Villa Rufolo.  I love bougainvillea and campanula and the other flowers, but look at this stage!

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Wouldn’t I love to be there for a concert!  This stage is temporary:  it’s erected every year as part of the Ravello Festival, something I knew nothing about until we entered the town.  Had we known that Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass would be playing this incredible venue the week after we left, we might have flipped the Campania/ Tuscany legs of our trip.

If you decide to visit Ravello, check out the schedule for the festival and stay at the Hotel Parsifal.  The three brothers who run the hotel are helpful, friendly, and charming.  And the restaurant is excellent!

The Unbearable Lightness of Being on an Airplane

We just returned from a wonderful, memorable vacation in Italy. We saw beautiful buildings, flowers, people, and landscapes. We visited ruins, beaches, museums, and gardens. We ate delicious food and discovered new wines. We had fascinating conversations with our friends and amusing interactions with strangers. The trip was really, really great, but every time I get on an airplane, I get off the plane swearing that I will never fly anywhere ever again.

Yes, I’m tall and I have long legs. However, I’m not too much taller than the average man, yet airplane seats are not even average. Airplane seats are now designed with just enough space for a ten year old—a skinny ten year old. My knees touch the back of the seat no matter how I sit. My husband sits with his knees apart to deal with the space issue, but I’m not comfortable in that position. Besides, my mother taught me not to sit like that! Then there’s the question of reclining. My husband sat in the aisle seat, and the young man in front of him reclined all the way. In order to get out of my seat for a bathroom break, Tom had to limbo out, then I had to wriggle up onto my seat and clamber over both seats into the aisle. Middle aged women should not have to attempt parcour moves in order to visit the toilet! And I’m not going to bother to discuss the shoulder issue.

After all the indignity that customers are exposed to at airports and on flights, airlines then taunt economy passengers with images of sleeper seats and first-class pods. It feels like an insinuation that we’re uncomfortable because we’re poor (or cheap). We did pay for “extra leg room” exit seats on the way over, but they were uncomfortable because they were right next to the galley with its constant stream of traffic, and they were slanted weirdly. I almost wanted something to brace my feet against to combat the sliding.

I’ll save my complaints about airline “partnerships” for another post. Thanks for reading. Have you had any tough flights? Any good ones?