Category Archives: ITALIA!

Laying low

There are bats in the bat house but I’m thinking this is not a screech owl in the owl box…

Sunday was a perfect day, sunny and full of fun and good food with Rich and then friends. On Monday, Cathy left to go off to fused glass classes with her college roommate and between you and me? The timing was just right (hi, Cathy!) because I was talked out, socialized out, and over-fed, ready for some down time. No sooner had she left than this incredible low pressure front moved in so I was into my flannel pajamas and hunkered down in bed with Sophie, glass of wine, popcorn and TV. While it’s been mildly amusing catching up on a few shows after 3 weeks without so much as a glance at television, the political commercials are more off-putting than ever. I know why my friend, Ken, votes absentee and leaves the country during late October and the first week of November. All that money wasted on mudslinging!

Speaking of mud, how about this weather? I’m loving it, watching storm front after storm front roll across the mountains. It’s been raining in sheets and that’s fine with me because I have so many new plants in this fall, as well as about 600 Spring flowering bulbs. Every now and then there’s a break and the sun comes pouring through the clouds; the past three days this has happened right around 430 pm so at that point I go in to the bedroom where Sophie naps in her felted bed on the dresser in front of the window and I announce, “Time to get the mail!” She takes a few minutes to rouse herself and by then I have my shoes on and we head down the mountain to the mailbox. She always stops at the front of the our land where there are giant boulders and what I’ve come to call the “welcome garden” because it’s the first thing on our drive and it’s planted entirely with plants donated from my neighbors here in Sugar Hollow. Sophie sits on the biggest boulder and cries until I walk down to the mailbox and back and then we walk together back up. I usually stop at the garden and pick some peppers and herbs and maybe a green tomato- that’s about all that’s left. Many, many peppers still only half-grown. I wonder how long the weather will hold? Robin posted a picture of all her remaining tomatoes ripening on the window sill and I’m on the verge of picking the rest of mine. I’m hoping to have a few ripen because when I was in Tuscany I had this delicious dish. One taste and it’s one of those foods you begin to crave. Everything tasted better in Italy; must be the soil plus climate or maybe just the love of fine food. If you make this, use really good Italian ciabatta bread, excellent oil and so on.

Pappa al Pomodoro

INGREDIENTS

  1. 5 pounds tomatoes
  2. 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  3. 1 large onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
  4. 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  5. Pinch of crushed red pepper
  6. Salt
  7. 1/2 pound stale, crustless, 1-inch Italian bread cubes (4 cups)
  8. 1 cup basil leaves, torn
  9. Ricotta cheese, for serving

DIRECTIONS

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Cut a slit in the base of each tomato. Add the tomatoes to the boiling water and blanch just until the skins start to split, about 10 seconds. Transfer the blanched tomatoes to the ice water to cool.
  2. Peel and halve the tomatoes crosswise. Working over a mesh strainer set over a large bowl, pry out the seeds and press the tomato juice and pulp through the strainer. Discard the seeds. Coarsely chop the tomatoes.
  3. Wipe out the pot and heat the 1/2 cup of olive oil. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and crushed red pepper and season with salt. Cover partially and simmer over moderately high heat until the tomatoes have cooked down, about 30 minutes.
  4. Add the bread and the reserved tomato juices to the soup and cook, mashing the bread until fully incorporated, and season with salt. Stir in the basil leaves. Spoon the soup into shallow bowls, drizzle lightly with olive oil, top with a dollop of ricotta and serve right away.

This serves six so adjust accordingly and you can make it ahead and stick it in the frig. We had it at room temp and it was SOOOOO good. The side of the house where we stayed in Monte San Savino, as the sun was setting

Italy. People who have been say you can’t imagine how wonderful it is and that was true for us. We had no idea. We did indeed eat our way through the countryside and when we weren’t out in the local restaurants in tiny towns in Tuscany we ate in our little rental with the beautiful view. We figured out how to cook chestnuts, which are quite fiercesome before they have their spiny husk removed and we would peel them and drink Vin Santo, a Tuscan sweet dessert wine. Delicioso!

Although I was almost always thinking about food I also thought about wine and art and history and community and family and cats. I’ll post more photos in the next days but here is one of my favorites. There were so many great views that I started challenging myself to only take scenic photos that had cats in them.

(Where’s Gatto?)

I mentioned that I was getting a lot of plants in the ground this autumn. A first year garden is a thing of hope and promise and right now my garden consists mostly of small sticks with a couple of new leaves starting at the base indicating that these gifts have taken hold. There are daisies and asters and Joe Pye weed and phlox and monarda and dozens of others, all just getting going. And then, when I got back from Italy, there was a fine birthday gift from my sister. Betsy is pretty much the best gift giver ever; she puts a lot of thought into her gifts and then she wraps them so beautifully. A gift certificate for White Flower Farm is the perfect choice for a gardener because you can page through the glossy catalog and choose from hundreds of premium perennials that come back year after year, each strain more beautiful than the next. Betsy might have been thinking I would get bulbs but I jumped the gun and bought those in bulk at Costco because I wanted to get some naturalizing bang for my buck. I’ve been working on clearing my woods and several hundred daffodils are going in there this weekend. White Flower Farm is pretty pricey so you’re likely to get 6 tiny exquisite pale peach colored narcissus rather than the giant bag of King Alfred yellows I’ll start with. I think what I will get is an old-fashioned Bleeding Heart. I had one for 30 years that I dug up from my grandmother’s garden when she died and it was moved successfully from apartment to house to house over the years. I gave Betsy part of it when she moved into her Kalamazoo house but when it came time to move to Chicago the poor thing gave up the ghost. A city courtyard just didn’t suit and so I lost it. Now I’m going to order one from White Flower Farm and there will be enough left over to order a giant (I mean giant) blue hosta called Bressingham Blue. I grew it in Ann Arbor and it was the most impressive shade plant ever. I hadn’t checked the mailbox for a couple of days when we had company but yesterday there was another small box from Betsy with their homemade sour cherry jam and these lovely bird sticky notes. See what I mean? I wish we lived closer together so we would see more of each other.

Arrivederci, Italia. All I want for my birthday is a gun.

(The Von Trapp family walked over these. We just flew. Nice view, yes?)

Ha! Kidding, of course, but we are home, safe and sound after the trip of our lifetime together and now I have moved on to bear hunting. I need to do a very lengthy update- or better, a series of short, succinct posts with some stunning photography- but I hit the pavement running and haven’t had a moment to think, which I’m starting to suspect is the new 60. That bit about not thinking. 

(Flying first class has comforts. Getting settled into my “pod” with quilt, iPad, knitting and lavender travel pillow from a certain blogging buddy.)

I’ll definitely finish up with more on Italy because our final two days in Firenze (costing more than the entire rest of the trip) were so full of wonder and beauty and, hmm, 632 photographs but life will have to quiet here a bit first. That happens on Monday when the whole world and one of the two cats leave and Sophie and I can contemplate the fall mountain colors in peace. I will be much, much older then and in need of some quiet time.

Two or three days ago, whenever it was, we arrived at the spanking new, incomplete Sheraton Hotel at the Malpensa airport in Milan to catch a few winks before boarding a 7 am flight to London. Let’s see, 2.5 hour advance check in, no boarding passes or assigned seats yet, it’s so late all the ticket counters are closed…Malpensa airport combined with this new Sheraton that has crammed a zillion rooms onto 3 floors because of height restrictions put our room about 2.8 miles from the nearest fire exit, which wasn’t completed yet in any case. No sleep, from Malpensa to Heathrow to O’Hare. At O’Hare, Rich and I had to part ways as he was crazy enough to keynote a conference in Iowa (don’t ask) the next morning, so there we were, many pounds and bags overweight, oozing ourselves and all that olive oil through customs: “no. no agricultural products. no, not been on a farm. no, no food…” I had a mere 1 hour layover to get off the plane, get through immigration lines, gather the bags, go through customs, recheck the bags, ride the train to the next terminal, kiss Rich goodbye (we were making out like Italian teenagers crammed into the jam-packed shuttle, as though we were saying goodbye forever rather than 24 hours.) Then it was back through security lines that, for some reason, brought to mind the gruesome images of Hell on the Duomo Firenze ceiling, and I RAN another mile to the farthest gate in O’Hare to catch a tiny commuter plane home to Charlotte. And then a 2.5 hour drive back to here.

Here is where my good friend and fellow fiberholic, Kristen has been staying, minding the cats and spinning her heart out while we were away. Here is where she stood up one evening to look out the window because Cloudy had his hackles up and saw, not one but THREE bears two feet from the front door wrestling with the giant paper wasp nest in the dogwood I have been watching grow this past summer. It was a beautiful piece of architecture and the wasps were very peaceful, just going about their business building their own version of the Duomo so I was letting them be. So much for that. One bear stood up on his hind legs and tore it out of the tree and they then shredded it to bits, eating the larvae. I guess they ran out of ground hornet nests. The next night they stood up against the back deck picture window and torn down the heaviest metal bird feeder on the market and carried it off down the hill, smashing it in, along with a second one. But not before they crapped on the deck, in the garden, along the walkway. 

(Who’s been pawing at MY window? asked Mama Cranky.)

Kristen had bearly recovered from that adventure and poured herself a glass of wine when she noticed the cats having a little confab in corner of the living room around what looked, at first glance, like another pile of bear crap. Closer inspection revealed it was a coiled up king snake, although until we confirmed that with a photo, she was convinced it was a Timber Rattler, aka, Canebreak snake. Sophie has the good sense to observe before jumping in with all four paws; McCloud not so much. He was busy poking it and it was busy lunging at him. Kristen screamed to a friend on her cell phone and then bravely shooed the cats and attempted to sweep the poor coiled snake out the front door. That took some effort as he seemed reluctant to cross the threshold to freedom but she finally got him out.

Let’s see, yesterday is a blur. Got to bed about 3 am, got up at 7 and unpacked, did 3 loads of laundry and then we headed out to the WNC Farm market. This was part of a plan to get me quickly back on EST because of events this weekend. Since not thinking is part of the new 60, we bought a half bushel of Roma tomatoes, a half bushel of ornamental gourds, a peck of apples, dried split peas and some southern form of cured pork butt. Then we went on to the WNC Arboretum and saw the bonsai, the handweavers exhibit, the quilt garden, the grass gardens and so forth. And then we came home and of course, something had to be done with those damn tomatoes. You know, she is much younger than I am so she should have known better in the first place, but no. So we canned tomatoes until it was time to pick up Rich at midnight at Asheville airport. 

(Some of Kristen’s carded fiber batts and, why,  tomatoes!)

Now it is 6 am and I’m getting ready to water the house plants and the deck plants before we head off to the long-awaited Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair. Florida friend Cathy is already heading to the airport in St. Petersburg to fly in for this annual event. The airport is across the street from the fairgrounds so I’ll just zip over and get her when she lands. You’ve been around here long enough to know that for me, this is three days of sheep, alpaca, fleece, yarn, wool, fiber and more fiber.

Only crazy people do this crap the day they leave for and the day they return from their long postponed honeymoon. But Italia? Crazy romantic. I will update, promise, promise. If you really want to read a funny series of posts about our adventures in Italy, complete with laugh out loud photos, check out where our neighbor Ken gives a full report. We met up with them for a few days while in Tuscany. Ken is the nut who rode his Vespa 150 scooter across America to raise money for a small school in Ecuador and wrote daily journal entries in his blog. His spelling is worse than mine, but he writes a very humorous, very informative blog. You can find him here at Europe 2010 Diaries.

Gotta run.

Il dolce far niente*

*the sweetness of doing nothing

For now we are enjoying leisurely drives about the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, taking in the sights and wandering the streets of the medieval “centros.” Soon enough we will see some of the art masterpieces of the world but as it is, there is more than enough to take in and the days are passing too quickly. Here, as in my day-to-day life, I am much more of a countrymouse and I am thoroughly enjoying experiencing small village life.

We’ve been joined by our good friends from St. Petersburg, Ken and Other Vicki. Rich is a sport, driving endless roundabouts on twisty roads with Ken directing; this is a blessed relief for me, not to have someone contantly nudging, “which way? which way” The roundabouts will have signs with no fewer than 8-10 small villages, all with similar names in a language I don’t understand, arrows pointing in all directions. Ken and Vicki have done this before and it’s nice to have someone point this way or that. Once we arrive at some small mountain town, Ken and Rich follow along patiently as Other Vicki and I window shop endlessly. There are SO many beautiful things to see.

This is a very typical small bakery although we were especially smitten with the size of the meringues. Meringues are Abby’s most favorite sweet in the whole world and I make them each year for her birthday instead of cake so we purchased one of these, measuring about 8 inches in diameter, and tonight we are going to try to find her on Skype and have her watch us eat it, in her honor. We have been stopping in local churches and gardens and important historical buildings in every town. The architecture and the art are simply stunning and the sheer age- what Ken refers to as the “OS”* factor sort of takes your breath away. And yet, we are never far from thinking about food. There are constant reminders everywhere.I know it looks as though I’m getting fat(ter) but I’m just bundled up and happy. We have taken to dining out at lunch and then buying food to cook for dinner. Tonight it will be fresh pasta, cheeses, prosciutto, greens and Roma tomatoes, Umbrian Chianti. Keep in mind that it is all fresh, fresh, fresh and immediately local. And for dessert, of course, is that mother of all meringues.
Il dolce far niente.

(OS= “old sh*t)

Wordless Wednesday