Friday, May 27, 2011

Friends In The Garden

  Every May, we get a little spot of nice weather that coincides with the garden looking particularly fine. Our coastal weather is so unreliable, it's hard to plan anything in the garden.
  So this past week or so, I decided, screw it, I'm having some friends come over that have never seen the garden before. My close pals are welcome any old time. It doesn't matter if the garden is in the hell days of August, or the house is a mess. But there are some folks that we keep wanting to invite over, and I get all compulsive about wanting everything "perfect"... which is a big old joke.
  I do believe it has been said "life is short". So, in the spirit of letting go, and learning how to lighten up a bit, I had some people over. And the house wasn't perfect. And the garden wasn't perfect... and the weather wasn't perfect. But you know what? Our friends are, and we are having some big fun sharing our space with them.
  I believe I've had a breakthrough.

Johnny saw this recipe in the latest Sunset. Bruschetta (surprise!) with
pan roasted tomatoes. It ROCKED.

The hors d'oeuvre table. I tried the dried apricot, goat cheese and marcona almonds
from Food & Wine magazine.
You mix basil in the cheese, and drizzle with honey.

Love the fire pit, but it was toooo smokey. Looks good here, though.

Two of my little lovelies, enjoying. 

Almost didn't get a shot in time, the bruschetta went so fast! A smear of good ricotta
topped with the awesome tomatoes, fresh basil.

My new alternative to potato chips. Little roasted potatoes with olive oil and salt.
Addictive? You can't eat just one... especially dipped in spicy hummus...

             Dinner: Pasta with fennel, red onions and marjoram. Plenty of Parmesan, of course.                                                            
Johnny grilled lots of veggies, including portabella mushrooms and asparagus,
and a simple arugula salad with meyer lemon/olive oil dressing.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Panicale Lunch 2

  In a previous post (Panicale Lunch 1), I mentioned that there are some great places to eat in Panicale. We felt so lucky to have these options available without having to drive off anywhere.
  One Wednesday we woke to an overcast day, so it was a "stay in town" day for us. It was a pleasure to have a little fire in the fireplace, take it nice and slow through the morning, do some laundry, and look forward to a lovely lunch in town. I believe this was the day Johnny had his hair cut... but that's for another post!
  Albergo Restorante Masolino at Via Filatoio #4, just off the main piazza is classic Umbrian. The menu features local, traditional dishes, changing with the seasons. The wine menu is reasonable, with good regional choices... we hear the house wine is a very good option, as well. The house wines are always a good bet. The restaurant is family owned, multi-generational, and has been around for years. Inside, the dining rooms are comfy, and in good weather there is a terrace with killer views. 
  When we arrived, we had the pick of tables. Sweet, traveling off season! People did filter in as we ate our lunch, of course. Andrea, our waiter was so helpful with us... he made great suggestions for vegetarian choices, and also with the wine list. We decided to splurge on the wine. We had our usual starter... a mixed bruschetta plate. I know, we always order this... but each restaurant has it's own take on even the simplest bruschetta. The bread can be different, or the tomatoes may have some great herbs mixed in... we love to try them all. Here, we were served 3 types: olive oil and garlic, tomato, and chick pea puree. I can't get enough of the chickpea puree...

Enjoying our bruschetta with a wonderful red.
  For our main courses, I had the local "umbricchelli" pasta. This is a regional pasta made in house. This pasta is just made with water and eggs. I love the texture. It was served with creamy radicchio and walnuts...a classic combo in these parts. Johnny had ravioli stuffed with artichoke and ricotta, in a cream sauce... there was an herb in there, but I couldn't figure it out. Sadly, I did not ask... next time!

My umbricchelli dish.

Artichoke and ricotta ravioli.
  We also ordered side "contorni" dishes... grilled eggplant and a wonderful mix of roasted veggies. Andrea recommended this, and we were so glad he did. It was so tasty and warm. Roasted and seasoned perfectly. Wonderful.


We chose to share a creme brulee for dessert, which came to the table in all it's flaming glory. The photo didn't come out, sadly. It was crusty, creamy goodness. There were, as always, several items to try on the menu, so we will be back to enjoy Albergo Restorante Masolino as soon as we can. If you find yourself in striking distance of Panicale, you have to plan to visit one or all of it's great restaurants, with a stroll around the walls afterwards.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Me And Art 1

  Having been fortunate to have married an artist, I have had the opportunity to experience an ongoing "class" in art of all forms. Johnny has exposed me to countless hours in various museums, galleries, expositions of art in many forms. I love it.
  As a kid, I fancied myself as an artist. I was the one that sent in the "Draw Sparky" forms from ladies magazines, drew dogs and horses, etc. Then in high school, I actually got into large scale, contemporary painting. Our teacher was very forward thinking, super cool, and showed our work in a small San Francisco gallery. Then we moved, and the art teacher in the new school didn't go in for anything original, let alone "modern". His favorite students were those that could copy old paintings from books. He actually made fun of one of my paintings in front of the class. It was devastating at the time. I found other creative outlets.
  These days I get a whole bunch of pleasure from seeing art. In particular, I like contemporary art. If there is something textural or minimal about it, all the better. I am open to just about anything when it comes to installation art. I have not quite warmed up to all performance art, but I try to understand, even if there isn't anything to understand...
  When we went to the Venice Biennale in '07, it blew my little pea brain. Wide open. Art everywhere-so much, a week was not enough, so in '09 we spent over 2 weeks... still not enough time, but what a treat. I hold hope for going this fall, but we want to get back to Panicale in the spring... we'll see.
  The fantastic thing about the Venice Biennale is that you have the chance to go inside all these old Venetian palazzi (palaces) to see the different exhibitions. The juxtaposition of the very old and the ultra modern is my favorite thing to experience. It may be some bizarre video piece, or a broken Murano glass chandelier, or both. Love it all. And if you have had enough of the new, there is always the Accademia, Frari, etc. to see the good old gems.
  For now, here are some of my faves.. (forgive me.. I don't have my notes to tell you who the artists are. Shame on me!)

Two shots of the candy installation... licorice candy that you were encouraged to take.
Each night it was all redone.

This is made from black and white chalk, set on end.

Close up of above. I loved this..

People had to work their way through this took up an entire room.

One of several large pieces, 5'x6' or so. Not paint, BEADS...

Detail of the amazing beadwork from above.

Fantastic sculpture/light installation.

Another view of piece above. I liked how it went down the stairs.

This was so cool. It's a big pile of plastic bags filled with air.
 It was accompanied by a video of the artist blowing up the bags, closing them off and tossing them in the corner.

Giant wall of guitar amps turned up to 10. Just the vibration alone. The "sound" went into your bones.
 They had an earplug dispenser at the entrance. You needed them.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Strada Bianca (White Road)

  When we look at our trusty road map before a day trip, we always look for a good "strada bianca". The "white road" is almost always an adventure, one way or another.
  This can mean anything from finding the BEST YOGURT EVER, to a close encounter with near death. We are always game for whatever is in store when we venture onto one of these delights of the Italian driving experience.
  I have to thank my dear father for introducing us to the white road. My father loves to take a drive. Here, or in Italy (he is famous for getting a speeding ticket in Italy). The man enjoys being behind the wheel. He always has. As a kid, I have fond memories of driving "the long way" home from just about anywhere. The long way home from the store, winding along roads I didn't know existed in our very small town. Or once, the long way home from our family cabin.. which took us several hours through small towns along the Delta, showing me a whole new world. Just for the fun of it. To see something new. We don't get that many chances in our day to day life.
  When Johnny and I had the great good fortune of spending time in Italy with my folks in 2004, we gave up our car and let Dad drive. That is when he taught us about the wonders of the Strada Bianca. They are all over and well defined on good road maps. We like the Michelin maps. If you can't find the one you want here in the states, look for them in book stores in Italy. We went on some good adventures with Mom and Dad on that trip, and learned not to be afraid to go a little off road.
  The roads themselves are usually dirt with a cover of loose white gravel. It's driver beware, for sure.... they can turn to mud quickly. As long as you take care and have watched for weather, it's ok, most of the time. We once found ourselves way, way up a white road that kept getting steeper and narrower by the minute. At last I admitted I was getting a bit freaked out. Johnny let out a shaky sigh of relief. He had been freaked out, too. We thought the car would start sliding backwards at any moment, but were able to do a 10 point turn-around to head back down. Which was even scarier! Yikes...
  In Umbria we found some really great white roads. Nothing too frightful, and some with amazing vistas. Maybe we have learnt to be careful where and when to choose our white road adventures. Here are just a few...
Shot through the windshield.. near Porto, I believe.

This was cool, because we were up really high, and the
views were incredible. The building was abandoned, and fun to poke around.

If you EVER see a sign like this, consider it a gift, and take advantage of the opportunity.

Awesome farm fresh cheese, fresh and aged. This little gem of a place was a joy to visit.
We were there off season, and did not think it would be open. We were happy to be wrong.

The yogurt was amazingly good. We love European style yogurt, and this was the best.
They had it with  home made fruit compote, and also one with cereal. Sounds odd, but no.
 Really rich and creamy..every bite was like heaven. I wish I had some right now.
A real beauty, this one. It was near the end of the day and the light was perfect.
What I love, is the lack of "No Trespassing" signs in Italy. Always be respectful. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Panicale Lunch 1

  There are some wonderful places to dine in our beloved Panicale. For such a small town, it really packs a punch when it comes to culinary delights. This is the first of a few posts about our lunches in Panicale.
  One Sunday, after our early morning walk to Paciano for cappuccini, we came home to watch the skies turn grey. Soon it began to drizzle. This seemed to be working into a perfect afternoon for a long, leisurely lunch in town. We had been wanting to try "Osteria Il Gallo Nel Pozzo" in the main piazza, so off we went. So sweet to be staying just steps away from everything! 
  Il Gallo Nel Pozzo (The Rooster In The Well) has two rooms, one upstairs, which is where we sat. It's really warm and feel like you are in someone's home. And, like in so many Italian eateries, you are...kind of. Here, the husband/wife owners are both hands on. The wife, Lorena, is chef, while Simone runs the front of the house. When we told Simone we were vegetarians, he helped us with the menu. We love bruschetta, and they have an appetizer of mixed. Lorena sent out a wonderful veg version.
  We loved the very earthy tableware they use, and the whole feel of the place. We enjoyed an Umbrian white wine we came to love, thanks to Simone's advice. Once we had it here, we noticed it and ordered it everywhere. It's a grape from Greece, originally, but is planted throughout Umbria. "Grechetto Bianco". I will look for it here in the states.

Vegetarian bruschetta- tomato with olive oil and garlic, artichoke pesto,
porcini mushroom, and a soft cheese with truffles.

  For our main dishes, I had the most amazing pasta- made in house, of course. I had heard of "spaghetti alla chittara" before. It is a pasta that is made by pushing the dough through thinly spaced wires strung taunt on a box frame. Like a "guitar", or, chittara! The texture, like so many fresh pastas, was dense and a little chewy... in a good way. I love this aspect of hand made pasta. The way it feels in your mouth.
  Johnny had gnocchi (small potato dumplings), which is one of his favorite things in the world. They are also made fresh in house.

Spaghetti alla Chittara, served in a sauce of purred ceci (garbanzo beans) with a touch of rosemary.
A wonderfully regional dish.

Gnocchi with pear, pecorino, and walnuts, served in a creamy sauce.

  We decided on a cheese course for dessert. Simone recommended we try it, and we loved it. The local cheese were served with a lemon-ginger compote to die for. I am so mad at myself because I forgot to see if they sold it in little jars to bring home. I imagine it is made by Lorena. They have a small counter right as you enter the osteria, where they sell some of the home made sweets and things.
   Well.... one more of the hundreds of reasons to go back to Panicale!

Local cheeses with lemon/ginger "jam".

  We hold our time in Panicale very close to our hearts. Simone and Lorena's "Osteria Il Gallo Nel Pozzo" is one of our very favorite memories.
  Thanks to both of them, and if you guys are reading this...See you in 2012!!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Going Home

  Even though I'm in my 50's, have moved several times, own my house, and live 150 miles away- for me "going home" means going wherever my Mom and Dad live. And they've moved several times, as well. Sometimes I think it's because I don't have kids, so I'm in the sweet spot of being a perpetual kid myself. Our house is home, too ... but not the same.
  It's been years since I've brought my laundry to do, and I've started cooking more for them on these trips.I guess as we get older it's a natural progression to want to do more and more for our folks. After all I've put them through, it seems only fair. And I never take it for granted that I have both my parents around, ready to have some fun at the drop of a hat. It's a true luxury.
  This week, we needed to drop a painting off at a gallery in their area, so we stayed for a little visit. This means food, drink, dominoes. The weather was gorgeous, and we were able to hang around outside, talking about our recent trip as well as the time we spent together in Italy a few years ago, all over a beautiful Brunello we had brought back, while playing dominoes and munching on Dad's homegrown and cured olives. I LOVE this.
  I decided I wanted to re-create the wonderful onion and sage flatbread we enjoyed in Umbria, so that's what we did. There were some nice vine ripened tomatoes at the market, and I made a nice Caprese salad to go with. The flatbread turned out great... not quite as tender as Umbria, but we liked the slightly burnt edges and crispiness of the dough. Lots of olive oil, of course, Mom's fresh sage - and a very hot 500 degree grill helped. A warm evening, good wine, and candle light made for a perfect dinner.

 I just wish we could do it every week....

Mom, Dad, Prosecco and dominoes. My idea of a perfect combo.

Dinner at Estate Restaurant in Sonoma ... a favorite.

Early summer Caprese salad, with thyme in place of basil.
I always like to serve this on a bed of arugula.

Caramelized onions with sage and lots of olive oil. Ready to go into the grill.
 This was the first time I used a pizza stone. Not the last!

It was pretty dark when we took this photo, but you get the idea.
Crispy edges on the crust. The sage looks burnt, but it was perfect.
 No cheese, just plenty of olive oil.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day, 2011

  It's so lovely today. A real Spring day... without the gnarly winds we've had earlier this week. Blue sky, warm sun. Just wish I could be in the garden, instead of at my work desk. Instead, I'll share a few shots I took this morning, before coming to work.. and I'll look forward to spending a bit of time in the garden this evening.
  Happy May Day!

English rose "Tamara"

I've always loved old fashioned cottage pinks. The fragrance is something between
cinnamon, vanilla, and fresh baked cookies.

I love this rose.. "Lavender Lassie". It looks so good climbing through
the burgundy leaved Dodonaea.

Finally! Blooms on my variegated iris. I've waited 3 years.

I love my Japanese maples.

The new growth is always stunning on the maples. 

One of the "cento uccelli" (100 birds) our house is named after.