Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Few Garden Moments (and a small rant) June 2015



  Back in the day, even though I knew better, I prided myself on the 'Big Moments' in my garden. Sure, lots of splash and color, but oh boy…did I use water. Lots of water. 

  It did look kind of awesome, though…. I must admit.


Just one of several walls of roses… now no more.


  I would rationalize my garden water use by not showering every day. When I do shower, I am frugal…ish. You know the drill if you live in California..turn the water off while you suds up, have a bucket to collect the water while you wait for it to get hot…that sort of thing.
  I mean, I try. Really. But.. I always feel guilty watering as much as I do. Even back then.
  Now it's the same drill- the water saving stuff- but on steroids.

  These days, more than half the roses are gone, and many of those that are still left are on the chopping block. To keep them looking great, it just takes too much water. 
  The keepers are the old gals. The heirloom climbers that only bloom once in the spring. These roses are champs, it seems, no matter what. They will stay. At least for now.

  So. Now I am growing things that don't ask for much. Much water, much fussing, much cutting back..Easy peasy plants.


  Can you say 'succulents'? And no big surprise to me…they can look as amazing as roses...




I can't get enough of this color combination.




Plus, the hummingbirds go nuts over the succulent blooms. Nice.




  My pal Tasha gifted me an old favorite of both of ours, a couple of weeks ago...Impatiens Balfouri, which is a reseeding annual that loves the part shade my garden has. By late summer, it will have done it's thing, and I'll pull it out. In the meantime, it will have spread seeds that will pop up next spring. If it rains, all the better. They bring lots of fresh color to the shade border, and don't ask for much.
  If it does get too dry, I'll throw some of my shower water on them!
   Along with variegated plectranthus and hellebores, the shade border looks lovely, and doesn't take much water at all.
  



Impatiens balfourii, here with a tuberous begonia just
starting to bloom, behind it.




   Some of my favorite 'texture' plants are in containers. These plants look beautiful together, and I water them with the water saved from the house. It's amazing how much water you can collect just waiting for it to get warm enough to do the dishes… Enough to water my potted plants once or twice a week, which is all they need.
  Again, these are pretty tough characters.




Asparagus fern and another type of begonia, also a gift from Tasha, each in it's own pot.
I just love these together.



More of the same.
The begonia blooms are a perfect shade of pink. Perfect.


  While I'm writing this, I am realizing how many very cool plants my dear pal Tasha has given me, either as cuttings, little babies, or gifts from the nursery. It just reminds me of one of the reasons why I love to garden. The 'sharing' aspect of it is so great.
  I need to keep reminding myself of this, because it's getting so easy to just say the hell with it all…sometimes. Gardens take bunches of water and work….I just want to run away…but I won't. I'm hooked. I'm a full blown junkie.
  Plus….the rewards can be pretty damn sweet. 
  


Thanks, Tasha. This begonia 'cutting' is about four feet tall, and growing.
Tough, too! Another one in a big container.



 A big reason why I put many of my favorites in containers..big containers mind you, is that our soil is very sandy. It doesn't hold water well. I have added enough compost, mulch, organic this and that…It helps a lot, but it's still difficult to keep things watered.
  Containers can be filled with shovels of awesomeness, and also mulched to help retain moisture.
  It seems to work for my garden space, anyway. I just keep saving up as much water as I can to use in these situations. 
  Sure, on super hot days, which are few and far between, thank god, many of these beauties suffer and wilt down. They come back, as soon as the heatwave ends. So far anyway. I just saw the new 'Mad Max' movie, and I guess all bets are off when the real shit hits the fan, drought wise.
  But, that's for another time. …..right…..? 
  I said…RIGHT? Yeah, right. We are so screwed.

  Anyway-


  This last little garden moment is from Johnny's studio garden, which is very sunny. The red trumpet vine is just a beast…and the Iochroma, with it's purple trumpets, is another super tough dude. Together, they bring a big bang of color to a very sunny, somewhat hot area. Both get cut back pretty hard from time to time, and this just keeps them looking good.
  Since a hard frost seems like a non-starter here, we just won't worry about that….for the time being.






Another killer combo.



  It may seem like I'm ok with all this garden change, but I'm not.
  I miss my roses, clematis, foxgloves, campanula…all the lovely cottage style and super thirsty plants I adore. It's just what I have to do now in California. I save every biddy drop I can to help water at least some of my sweet garden. It's a drag, and it makes me just a little sad.

  (rant alert)
  It also makes me want to firebomb the a-holes with their huge, chemically treated, water thirsty lawns who only come here for two weeks a year to f-ing golf. On yet another huge, chemically treated, water thirsty lawn. Arrgghhhhg. 

  Sigh.

  Think I'll go sip a glass of wine in my very pretty and small, but mighty…. and increasingly drought resistant garden.
   Oh, no. Am I going to have to give up wine? (whine)






Monday, June 1, 2015

A Couple Of Days In Florence 2015




  It's getting harder to leave Italy every year…the longer stays mean our roots are digging deeper into the soil of our adopted second home. 
  Back home for almost three weeks now, and we still find ourselves slipping into the "double-kiss" when we meet a friend on the street, or throwing out "grazie" "prego", and an occasional "mi scusi" while shopping in the local market or standing in line for coffee in the morning.
  Sigh. We miss it. It's true.
  But, hey…home in California is just fine, thank you. Could use a tad more sun, perhaps a few days of  gentle rain…It's great here, too, and I appreciate this place very much.

  Thankfully, I still have a zillion photos I can go through to keep the dream going, and several kazillion ideas for my little bloggy. 

  This evening, as I sit here in bed, I'm thinking it might be fun to head on back to Florence for awhile.
  



What a swell town.



  We like to spend our last couple of nights in either Florence or Rome, depending on where we fly home from. This year, it was Florence. (Coming soon…a post about a day trip to Roma!)
  The weather in Florence was stellar…very warm, but so pretty and so clear...




The Duomo is really looking fine, with all the exterior cleaning
over the past few years.



  For the first time in many years, we really didn't have a big plan of attack. There wasn't a special show we wanted to see, so we just caught up on some sights we had missed in the past, ate at some favorite spots, and found some new adventures just walking around town.
  It was pretty great, too. Nice to be relaxed…no big hurry to see this and that.

  The one place we did want to visit this time was the Brancacci Chapel, located inside the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Johnny especially wanted to see the frescoes here, which were done by various artists, including Panicale homeboy, Masolino da Panicale.

  For me, these frescoes are all about the color. I just love the sensitivity of the color and shadow. I'm the first to admit my almost complete ignorance of this work…Johnny was able to give me most of the lowdown, which is always a nice bonus, but I enjoy these excursions in my own way, taking it all in slowly with an eye for color, texture and line.
  









  Listening to the low hum of reverent voices is soothing, as I sit in a pew, remembering long hours spent in church as a youngster. I watch as groups large and small walk through, while Johnny takes his time to really absorb it all.
  I think my favorite aspect of these particular frescoes were the various structures that were in the background...














  We spent a good amount of time in the Chapel.

  Again, it was great to have no real plans for Florence. Art, food, wine….what can possibly be better?    Florence is a jewel, all the more beautiful to enjoy at a snails pace. Lesson learned!



  While deciding where to head next, we popped by I Due Fratellini for a quick glass of wine. This is a place we'll stop by when we are in the area. No tables or chairs, it's just a curbside wine and panini place. It's perfect for a hit and run glass of reasonably priced wine.
  
  


Always some good people watching here, too...


  All this stop made we want was an actual "sit-down"…my feet were beginning to speak out, and it was getting warm. Time for a more serious rest..

  Of course, that meant heading across the Arno to a new favorite, Le Volpi e L'uva.
  We love this tiny, off the main drag, friendly and tasty enoteca/cafe. What the folks behind the bar do with a couple of toaster ovens and a couple of cutting boards, well..it's outstanding. (thanks for the tip last year, Elizabeth & James..still love it!)

  We were happy to sit inside at the bar, as it was getting uncomfortably warm for us outside. Plus, watching the action is more than half the fun. We ended up going twice, once each day we were there. Why not? So many tasty crostone (open faced sandwiches) and salads to try.




Perfect to share with some good olive oil and garlic bruschetta..


    What a great spot to kill some time while chatting to strangers and watching the world go by. It was wonderful to relax, eat and drink…just chill for a spell. 
  We found out that the BBC was coming by the following day to do an onsite interview featuring one of the women who work there. She would be explaining why Chianti wines are so important, and just how they pair with different dishes. We had fun listening to their "practice" interview, and became part of the scene very quickly, as they all wanted our opinion on how it came across.
  Lots of laughs, teasing and nerves, too! We hope it all went well with the actual BBC crew the next day. I need to look for the video online…


  With the late afternoon ahead of us, we wandered back over the Arno to make a stop into the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, another must see that we hadn't yet seen. It is a Renaissance palace, built between 1444 and 1448. 
  On it's own, the building is impressive. It's known for it's rusticated stone walls, and inner courtyard, along with some outstanding interior frescoes, most notably by Benozzo Gozzoli.

  Ok, truth be told…this is all info I just gleaned off Google. 
  Sure, I enjoyed it, and the courtyard with all it's potted lemon trees is really beautiful….but…I was so happy that they were featuring some contemporary art in various rooms the day we were there.
  Paintings, photos, a couple of interesting installation works…all great to see. My favorite, though, was the outside garden room which had an amazing show of ceramic work by Marcello Fantoni.





One cool Italian dude.



  The space itself was a work of art, and how sweet to be the only visitors! It was a decent sized show, with lots of variety of form and color. 
  A seriously nice treat. I wasn't too familiar with his story, but had seen some of his ceramics while at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
  Me like, very much.












Captivating.




Hard to keep my hands off this work!


  



Classic Mid-Century Modern, Italian style.




  Well, that show was a real highlight for me. 




  Now, what's for dinner? 

  I'll tell you, I'm so glad I had made reservations for dinner at 5eCinque, another favorite spot, in the delightfully wacky Piazza della Passera. This little piazza has a fantastic vegetarian restaurant, a couple of other great restaurants, an artisan gelateria, and a small but very mighty bar.
  We go for all these reasons. A fun, fun place to spend a warm evening. Added bonus…benches all around, to make it all the better to hang out. It's just over the Arno, on the way to the much larger Piazza Santo Spirito.

  So, 5eCinque, which I have written about before, is the vegetarian place. Small, with small tables…I recommend reservations…especially for the two tables outside. 
  They set up a table for us on the sidewalk, bless their hearts, since the others were booked. I hadn't reserved for outside, not knowing if it would be too cool, but it was lovely, so they made it work. Grazie!!





We have sat at this table on past visits..It's just fine!





A menu sample from Trip Advisor…
I forgot to take a photo myself, but you get the idea..


  We were ready for something different, and that's what we went for. We both ordered different salads, which are always so good here.





Oh, yum…lots of toasty crunches on top..sunflower and sesame seeds,
as well as radishes and pumpkin seeds...






Don't know where they are coming from, but we were so happy
to taste a perfectly ripe avocado… Johnny's choice.




Also Johnny's choice…Rice with vegetables.
Not risotto, but with a more Indian spice profile.




Bad, bad photo…Good, good risotto with saffron.
Simple and tasty.



  We opted out on dessert, which isn't all that strange for Johnny and I. I know we didn't have gelato…I would have remembered. Guess we called it a night and moseyed on back to the hotel. 

  Travel is exhausting, even when you aren't really doing anything.


  Next morning we were awake early and ready to head over to the famous Mercato Centrale. This is always a must do, because I bring back loads of dried porcini to give as gifts to friends and family.
  Big changes this year, though! I had read that they opened the upper floor to house a "food court" type space, but wasn't prepared for just how modern it would be.

  There were a bunch of purveyors, some making the jump from food truck status, some just smaller versions of nearby restaurants. Tables are in the center, with stalls of deliciousness all around. The idea being..grab something yummy, get yourself a glass of wine, artisan beer, or juice, and sit down to enjoy.

  I didn't take lots of photos, because it was very early in the day, and not much was going on yet.   Naturally, we enjoyed some proseco with the best cheesy bread sticks I've ever had. Breakfast of Champions! Well, it was like… 11:00 or so…
  Anyway, you can get an idea here. It's going to be fantastic, I imagine, once people get used to the idea of it all. It sure smells good in the morning, as all the stalls are making magic in the kitchens.

  Oh, and BTW…We were both knocked out by the Daniel Buren installation here! Having just experienced his mind blowing work in San Gimignano earlier in our trip, this was a most perfect last day surprise.



The Daniel Buren pieces are the small red/white and blue/white striped boxes
all above the main area…so cool!




It's all about the scale of it..

  Yes, I know…I should have more shots of the foodie end of the place, but that's what the next visit will be for!

  Afterwards, we strolled through all the market area, and then just took our time walking around Florence. It was great…I know we made it back across the Arno..at least twice…I wanted to head way up above for a shot of the city at sunset time. That would be my first photo of this particular post.

  We enjoyed another visit, this time lunch, at Le Volpi e L'uva, we checked out an antiques market in Piazza Santo Spirito, had wine behind the Duomo, did the requisite shopping at Zecchi, (the art supply shop of Johnny's dreams)….We really did so much, considering we had no big plans.
  That's what I love about having no big plans, now that I think about it.
  We just cruised around….




We found a new spot to have a glass of wine….
Ummm…do you all get the general theme here?





Discovered this interesting shot of the Duomo….




Took a fun "Mirror Shot"….






Saw more art….




Explored an area we hadn't been to before….
What a great visit to Florence!



  Naturally, we had one more dinner in Italy, last night and all that.

  We had promised our local pals and owners of Carmel's own La Balena, Anna & Emanuele Bartolini, that we would say "ciao" to their pal, Nicolo, at one of our favorite places in Florence, Coquinarius.
  We planned to have our "last meal" there anyway, so what a special treat to make this new connection so far from home.



See that very sad looking gal on the left?
That would be me.


  Sure, I was sad…who wouldn't be, eh? It was the last night of two magical months in Umbria…in Italy…sigh. Tough to leave, my friends.
  Ok, I know…I'm so lucky to get to…blah, blah, blah..it's still TOUGH! 
  That's all.

  The  good wine and great food helped….



I am officially in love with Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
This was recommended by dear Nicolo, and we loved it.




  I know we split an appetizer and ended with sharing a salad, but I guess the photos were not too good, because I deleted them at some point. Also deleted, Johnny's very good artichoke and potato torta, like a big slice of savory pie.
  I did manage to save one nice shot of my pasta, which was two large ravioli, filled with winter squash and served with a buffalo mozzarella sauce. No kidding. It rocked my sad little world. Put a happy smile where there had been a frown.









We ate and ate and ate.
And drank some, too. Again, last night and all that.



  A spectacular last dinner in Florence. Thanks Nicolo! Thanks, Coquinarius! Thanks dudes in the kitchen!


Dudes from the kitchen, taking a little smoke break.
Classic.



  We said our goodbyes as we walked across the River Arno, checking it out and holding it all close.
  We'll be back soon, I just know it.








  Until next time…Buona Notte, Firenze!!

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Few Last Moments In The Kitchen, Umbria



  Still here for a few more minutes….which means a few more bites.
  
  I do enjoy making a simple meal…and have had some good opportunities with some great ingredients!
  Take some locally baked bread, a few olives and good local pecorino cheese….You have a lunch to write home about!


No, I didn't make this bounty..
A wonderful local baker did. Thanks, Lia!




Just add olives, marmalade and pecorino...A perfect lunch.





  I do a lot of veg roasting. It's easy, and there's always something yummy to roast just a few moments away at the local market up the street.

  This year, we also purchased a couple of weeks of veg boxes from the local CSA, Sticky Farm. One included a nice head of Romanesco broccoli and half of a big cabbage, among other goodies.

  A nice match up, roasted veg and coleslaw!



Romanesco broccoli is one of my favorites.
Roasted with garlic, of course.

  


Dinner. 






  Another night, I added some tomatoes from the market, goods from the CSA box and left over local bread for a dinner of salad and more roasted veg. 
  What can I say, roasting is just too simple, helps warm up the house and tastes so damn great.
  




Tomatoes from Yolanda's market..




Potatoes and fennel from Sticky Farm CSA.
Thanks, Ruth & Tonino!!





Salad with home made croutons from Lia's bread...




One plate of goodness from many local hands...




  It seems like I didn't cook as much at home here in Umbria this year, But Johnny says I did. Maybe it's the wine…? I'm just glad I did take a some shots of things when I remembered to get out the camera.

  Anyway, one of the CSA boxes had leeks, which I must admit…I don't cook with much. 
  Well, why not roast them, too? Split down the middle, drizzle with olive oil. 
  Best. Thing. Ever.

  With carrots and potatoes, more coleslaw for good crunch. Dinner. Done.
  
  



More goodness from the market and CSA.
I will be using leeks a lot more, friends.




  Ok, it's not all roasted vegetables, honest…we do love our pasta, right?

  I got into making sauce from the jars of tomato puree that our dear friend/hostess Katia gave us. What a wonderful gift…
  I liked making a sweet/spicy sauce, with a little cinnamon, red pepper flakes and even cabbage chopped with onions. Throw in some herbs from my little "stoop garden", and it was a most tasty treat.




I'll be making this sauce back home, but it
won't be the same without Katia's tomatoes!




Served super simple with penne pasta and good parmesan cheese, of course.




  Sometimes we'll just get some fresh pasta and sauce, this time trofie and pesto, from Linda's market. So close…it only takes a minute to walk there. Ad some rucola with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of olive oil…parmesan again, and it's a five minute dinner that tastes like heaven:











  One evening, we got to our house and found an exceptional gift…wild asparagus, ready to be made into something special.
  Ok! I'm up for a challenge!



Thanks, Katia! 




  These wild asparagus are so tasty, but they tend to be pretty woody at the back end. I just trimmed them down, saved the inedible bits for broth, and went ahead with a leek and asparagus pasta.
  Never made it before, but why not try?

  I chopped up the leeks and the trimmed out asparagus and tossed in a pan with olive oil...









  After cooking down for awhile, I added some cream. Yes, cream…and I mean heavy cream. Hey, I'm on holiday, right?



Ooooooh…creamy.


  Toss with a pasta shape you love, throw some parmesan on top, and you have dinner. Tasty, tasty, dinner.





Seriously good…I must say.





  And the eggs…Love the eggs.
  Again, thanks Katia. All our eggs came from Katia's grandmother, and her chickens. Love these ultra orange and yellow eggs. 
  One night, I thought I'd make a big omelet to share between Johnny and I. It started out great...





Onions, tomatoes,  pecorino cheese, a little garlic..toss in the scrambled eggs..



  Somewhere along the line (perhaps after a glass or two of wine) I realized I was kind of burning the bottom? But, oh was it good!




Some would say burned.
I say caramelized…In a very good way.



  There were lots of frittatas, of course...




Agretti, yellow pepper, onions and cheese. Yum.



  But as the season changed well into spring, we went crazy over our fava bean and pecorino nights.
  We love this local tradition of peeling the fava beans, eating them raw with young pecorino and a little salt. Olive oil is always a nice add on. Everything is fresh and raw. Nice.

  Our addition to the party was honey from Sticky Farm and a nice fig jam, too.




The espresso cup holds Maldon salt I brought from home.
A very nice touch.





Some friends eat the whole bean, but I always take the outer skin off.
I just nick it with my thumb nail and squeeze out the "pea" inside.




The remains of a pile of fava beans.
A perfect light meal.


  Writing this now, I am in bed in a hotel in Florence. Last night in Italy for now. Head home tomorrow.
  Lots more to blog about over the next months…lots of food posts on the way.
  Thanks, Umbria. Miss you already!!
  See you soon!