Summer

When I was young, my Mom used to take my brother and me to the public pool when it opened around 10 in morning, then pick us up when it closed around 6. They had a loud boomy speaker, and as our parents arrived at closing time, our names would be yelled out one by one. We would dawdle our way to the car, preferring to stay in the water as long as possible. I can’t tell you how many times I got burned, peeled, then burned again. We didn’t give a damn about sun screen, SPF’s, or what if. We just played.

Version 2

Those were long days, broken up only by the occasional errand-day or car-trip to my grandparents’ in Virginia. There, summer felt like something else. The smell of chlorine was replaced with the smell of ivy on old brick walls or the odor of freshly caught fish, slung into the boat from the waters of the Rappahannock River. The energy spent flinging myself from the high dive or cartwheeling off the low one, was spent running around with my brother, pulling our wagon over the bumps in the sidewalk where the tree roots pushed it up. Packed sandwiches and Icees gave way to my grandmothers’ amazing cooking. One, classic Southern with Smithfield Hams and homemade pickles. The other, continental or Creole. She was from New Orleans. But even with the change of location, there was a certain beautiful monotony to it. That was, after all, what summer was for.

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These are memories I can smell and taste and hear. I wonder, often, what memories my children will have of their summers. We have spent many summers in France, but what is beautiful for one person, isn’t always for another. One man’s relaxing is another man’s boring. I love the long walks and bike rides, the working in the garden, the observing the tiny changes that appear in the landscape and the village from year to year. It’s like a meditation. But that is me.

Version 2

My Mom was a big believer in boredom. She didn’t go out of her way to keep me busy. She figured it was my job to figure out how to fill my time with my head and my imagination. I remember being so bored it hurt. So listless I wanted to hurt her. (How could she let the precious minutes of my life go by like that?) I am grateful to her now.

Version 2

And yet, sometimes, it is still hard to be still. Difficult not to pick up the phone or the computer to check the latest polling results. Challenging to take a deep breath and say, It’s OK to be bored. It’s OK to relax. It’s OK not to accomplish anything right this minute.

Is this hard for you? What do you remember of your childhood summers? What did you do to fill your boredom? I wish all of you the summeriest of summers.

Version 2

 

 

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Brexit

Can’t tell you all what a sad, sad day it is over here. I think that over the years, so many of us have begun to feel part of this giant, messy, but courageous and, in my mind, necessary European project. To have Britain walk out, abandon the younger generations who already feel part of a larger world, to give into fear instead of the desire to be part of a community designed to nurture the well-being and the security of all concerned (remember WW2 anyone?)…well, I just feel sad, angry and, weirdly, personally hurt, because this will affect all of us.

I’ve had it with politicians taking people’s understandable fears and using those fears to further their own power and agenda. And I’m afraid I’ve had it too with people not being educated and aware and plugged-in enough to know how their collective decisions are going to effect those far outside their own neighborhoods and countries or how it is they are being manipulated by politicians who peddle in anxiety instead of humanity.

I hope the US doesn’t follow suit.

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Panzanella

Like a broken record, I’m repeating myself. It’s the tomato/onion thing again. Forgive me. I think it’s worth it. This time I’m singing the praises of a recipe that also features day-old bread, and I am always on the search for ways to deliciously use those left over bits.

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I’m talking about Panzanella. Have you ever had it? It’s an exquisitely satisfying, embarrassingly simple-to-make bread salad. Serve it up together with some of your favorite cheese and a glass of wine, and your summer lunch just might be done.

After eating it once in a Tuscan restaurant, I felt fairly sure I could reproduce it with no help, but I happened to find a recipe in my own kitchen which made the experience foolproof. It was in the cookbook, Polpo, a collection of recipes from a Venetian restaurant in the United States, where they seem to have held tight to Italian tradition.  (It’s such a beautiful book, I’d probably have bought it even if they hadn’t.)

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The ingredients are as follows: Left over bread (the recipe calls for 120g which is about enough bread for 4 people), extra virgin olive oil, 1 large red onion, flaky sea salt and black pepper, About 20 tomatoes of various sizes (and I would add types), red win vinegar and a handful of fresh basil.

A couple notes. First, while it is fine for your bread to be stale, it shouldn’t be rock hard. The fresh breads we buy in France and Italy, unless the weather is quite humid, become extremely hard within 24 hours. You be the judge. Feel free to use a mixture of breads. Sourdough, whole wheat, ciabatta, what have you (quite literally). Second, a variety of tomatoes such as those I showed last week, or whatever you have at hand, will work well. In fact, I think this recipe is enhanced by a mix. And those tomatoes that are just about to be too ripe? This is a good home for them.

COLLAGE

You’ll want to proceed in a certain order. Preheat your oven to 140 degrees C (285 F). Tear or cut your bread into chunks about 2 cm cubed. Massage a generous glug of olive oil into your bread pieces, then chuck them into the oven to crisp around the edges. Do not let them get too hard. Meanwhile, finely slice your red onion and sprinkle with sea salt. I like to massage it quickly so that the salt begins its magic and the onion slices break into the delicate arcs that will wind their way through the final salad.  Allow the onion to sit for about 10 minutes, curing, while you complete the rest of the preparation. The onions will become just slightly limp and more sweet than challenging.

Meanwhile, chop your tomatoes. I had only pomodori pachino, sort of like a large flavor-rich cherry variety, which I chopped into four pieces each. Gently tear your basil leaves and toss them into the tomato along with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. If ten minutes has elapsed, add this to your onions and mix lovingly. The last step is to toss in your crostini (toasted bread pieces). They will absorb the bright acidity of the vinegar and the warmth of the olive oil,  but maintain their resistance thanks to the time they’ve spent in the oven. Allow to sit for ten minutes before serving. (Or not, if you can’t wait. I never can.) Glorious!

COLLAGE 2

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If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading Salt or Ritual of Return.

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Tastes of summer

Monique and I walked down the street, eating tomatoes like apples. We each had a big one so sweet and juicy that there was no other alternative. Juice ran down our chins and fingers until there was nothing left. I can’t tell you what year it was or where it happened, because what my mind recorded was the important part: the tomato.

TOMATOES VARIOUS

When I was little, my grandmother served tomatoes at every meal. This was way before hydroponic and mass production, and the tomatoes tasted like tomatoes, but also like earth and summer. My favorite lunch was tomato sandwiches. Who needed protein when there were beefsteak tomatoes ripe for the picking, mayonnaise, and two pieces of bread, humble servants, ready to receive them.

I suffered when I left the South and had to content myself with hydroponics. These tomatoes looked like tomatoes; in fact, they looked too much like perfect tomatoes. They were too red, too firm and too round. Watery pulp. I was disgusted that they could sell you something that looked like food but betrayed every sweet, visceral memory you had of the way that particular food was supposed to be. Real tomatoes were a meal unto themselves. Real tomatoes weren’t uniformly red, but splotchy and lumpy like miniature pumpkins. Real tomatoes had streaks of green and patches of yellow, and often the uglier they were, the better they tasted. Real tomatoes blew you away with their earthy tomato-y-ness.

POMODORI NERI

Italy has restored my faith in the tomato, and, if such a thing were possible, raised it to a new level. When I moved here, my mother-in-law, Nicole, who was a goddess of the domestic arts, dedicated a week every summer to making and preserving the tomato sauce that would last all year. She bought crates and crates of tomatoes—pomodori piccadilly, I thinkOblong tomatoes with flirtatious little points at the ends, ideal for making sauce. Ripe, ripe, ripe. Bursting with flavor. Dense on the inside and low on seeds. She and Roberto, her faithful helper, would labor over tomatoes, steaming pots, grinders and cheesecloths, until hundreds of glass jars of sauce, with and without basil, were put up for the winter months. This labor of love took place in the torrid heat of August, under a canopy of wistaria. The cheesecloths, heavy with tomato sauce, hung over witch sized cauldrons, dripping and dripping, suspended from the beams of the pergola. The sauce slowly became more of a paste. Flavor, intensified and pure.

We lived on Nicole’s tomato sauce for years, never tiring of its flavor. But when Alzheimer’s rendered even the completion of her beloved annual tomato sauce production impossible, we turned to commercial alternatives. During this same period of time, we often had the pleasure of lunching with Roberto and his wife, Graziella, in their cozy kitchen. Graziella didn’t believe in sauces. She believed in tomatoes! She would pick them off the vine, chop them up, and throw them into the sauté pan, making her sauces on the fly. Seeding and skinning? Forget it!

CHOPPED

Now, quasi sempre (almost always), Graziella’s method has become mine. Sometimes, even before I have a fully formed idea of what the meal will be, I’ll have olive oil, garlic, sea salt and tomatoes working their unfailing magic over low to medium heat. They can cook for a little time or a lot, depending on your schedule and/or your palate. And you can dress them up and down with a variety of additions. You can add onion (in this case, sauté the chopped onion first). You can add capers. You can add capers and olives. You can add basil. You can add anchovies in place of salt. You can add peperoncino, red pepper. You can eschew garlic, and let the brilliant sweetness of the tomato sing solo.

OLIVE SCHIACCIATE

Lately, and quite by accident (my husband simply made use of what was in the fridge), we’ve been loving a new version. To the usual fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sauce made with oil, a smashed clove or two of garlic and tomatoes, I add crudely chopped olive schiacciate, smashed spicy olives preserved with peperoncino (above). If you can find them, or something similar, remove the pits, cut them up, toss them into the pan with the tomato base, then let the ingredients do a brief tango over a medium flame. Throw in the almost-cooked pasta of your choice, letting it perfect its cooking inside the juices of the bubbling sauce.

(Funny how heat loves heat. Here we are with temperatures rising, and what we want is more spice in our mouths. The bright acidity of the tomato keeps it seasonally relevant.)

This mixture simmers in the pan and fills your house with the smell of goodness. Appetites rise to the occasion and flock to the table. Something is happening, and it’s happening fast. No time to dilly dally. Time to fill the plates with steaming yumminess and dig in.

TOMATOES AND OLIVES

 

In our house, tomatoes and their derivatives have two other best friends. Sweet red onions—cipolla tropea—and green beans.

Green beans also remind me of the South, where they seemed to be accompaniments to every meal. Of course, then, they were cooked for more time and maybe even with bacon fat. In Italy, Nicole would cook up a huge pot of green beans on a summer morning, in nothing more than salted boiling water, taking them out and rinsing them rapidly to preserve their greenness. We would then munch on them all day, fitting what was left into our meals and salads. But fagiolini, or cornetti, deserve a space in this post because of how brilliantly they play the straight man to tomato’s funny girl. Often, when we are in the mood for a legume/cereal combo in place of fish or meat, I’ll take the already boiled beans and sauté them together with the olive oil, garlic, tomato, onion mixture I have perfecting in the pan. The flesh of the beans absorbs the sweet acidity of the tomato, and together, they make a light, savory dish. I don’t use this mixture to dress pasta, but serve a simple pasta on the side (such as olio, aglio, peperoncino), or a farro (spelt) salad.

BEANS

When time is short but tomatoes and red onions are plentiful, we simply slice them and throw them on a plate with a proper vinaigrette. No cooking, no fire, just the essentials. Perfect ingredients, left alone, doing what they were created to do: satisfy.

I hope you have a glorious and flavorful summer.

 

FRIENDS

 

 

 

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Where I write and work

My dear blogger-friend Celi at The Kitchens Garden has asked her fellowship to share the place where the write. Here’s my little hole. And there on my screen, is her website. My desk is in an old room, partly underground, with curved vaulted ceilings. Perhaps once upon a time it was a storage space or a wine cellar. The house was built in the 1600s, so who knows. My light, when it comes, comes through a deep welled window that looks up and out onto a courtyard made of round pebbles. The wisteria is in bloom. The vines are creeping and flowering.

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It is fine for me to be in a darkish place. I am often working on that big monitor you see, doing design or art direction work. Today, for example, I’m working on a lovely project, which must for the moment remain secret, for an agency in Minneapolis. When I get tired of thinking and writing and design, I go out for a walk or to grab a coffee. There are bars and cafés everywhere.

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Today is the beginning of Milan’s Salone del Mobile, the annual design fair. The whole city is in on it, beauty abounds. If Italians want to outdo each other at anything, it’s beauty. So, for the moment, we are surrounded. Whether you look right, left, down or, yes, up. Acts of creativity large and small, everywhere. Every. Where. They make me smile.

Have a lovely day.

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Springing lightly into Spring

Hello all. Haven’t blogged in forever. Life’s been busy and not in the kind of way you want to blog about. But Spring is here and along with it, enough of all that! Light, color, and, yes, a bit of frivolity are in order.
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These lovelies were in a shop window in Brera…a shop that sells high-end shoes and desserts. That seems to be a bit of a rage here, now. The combination of expensive consumer wearables with something edible. Spotted the same day, tailored suits and coffee.

BUTTERFLY SHOES

The shoes were in the 500-600 euro range; i.e., way out of mine. Who knows how much the cakes cost. But I find that my pleasure, in both cases, comes from gazing through the window, not consuming. I love it when fashion is pure theater. And I admire the people that “go there” for their daily outings. But I’m still a jeans girl, even though lately I’ve been making a concerted effort to do a bit better than that.

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Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

— e.e. cummings

FLOWER SHOES 2

I hope your Spring surprises and delights you. I hope it brings you energy and love. I hope it inspires and enlightens you. And, yes, Mr. Cummings, I hope nothing breaks, unless you want it to.

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From Italy with Love

A funny thing happened this year. I fell totally and helplessly in love with Milan. I’ve been here 18 years, so you’d think it might have happened sooner. I did love it, or I was in deep-like with it, but this year it just wrapped itself even further around my heart and insinuated itself into my guts. I realized, like it or not, that it is my home, in some ways more profoundly than any other single city has been. It has shaped me and ferried me into the deeper stages of adulthood. I had my children here, and that makes it sacred to me.

This love was growing daily when terrorists attacked Paris last month. And I have to say that I have been shaken to the core by that event and others that continue around the world and in the US. I was born both very scared and very courageous, if that makes any sense. As a wise woman recently reminded me, courage isn’t being unafraid; it’s managing your fear. And so I am a person who’s bravery has developed in direct proportion to her own fear. I have lots of both. But I constantly have to recalibrate and find my strong person. These are muscles we never stop developing. And mine have needed help lately.

These days, though, the media don’t always provide the information you need. In fact, more often than not, they are profiting from whipping us into a more lathered state of reaction. And people like me have to be very careful. But today, I read two lovely essays that I wanted to share with you. First, because my focus in this blog is usually something that relates to Italy or France, and these certainly do. And secondly, because they are both about perspective…and this is something we must cultivate right now. They are both written by Beppe Severgnini, an Italian journalist who loves (I repeat, loves) both his homeland and America. So he writes from the heart as well as his very well-informed head.

I hope you enjoy these:

Learning from Terrorism Past, 12/8/2015

What Italy can Teach America about Donald Trump, 9/18/2015

Mr. Severgnini is a very funny writer, and he has very funny things to say about America. If you are interested in getting more perspective and laughing at the same time, just click on the giant book below! Have a truly lovely day, Charlotte

CIAO AMERICA

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Cold weather bruschette with cavolo nero, or kale

Buon giorno! Ciao tutti! Come state? Che bello rivedervi! I’m pulling out all the standard phrases here and — Ma come siete belli! — and that last one for good measure, because I’m so happy to be back. At least for this lazy Saturday afternoon. Cold weather is coming, and I wanted to share one of my favorite, what-can-we-make-for-lunch-today-that-is-easy-but-isn’t-the-usual recipes. We work at home, on our nasty old computers, and this is one of our favorite savory, heart-warming fall/winter throw-it-together dishes. But first. A little song and dance:

CAVOLO NERO SONG

I provided that picture so you’d now exactly how to lift your legs, tilt your head and raise your apron. I’m sure you did it beautifully.

Cavolo nero is kale. The Italian version. And you can’t always find it. So when it’s in season, you grab it and you run with it and you unscrupulously and carelessly toss it into soups whenever possible. Or you juice it (though that seems almost disrespectful of the vegetable’s leafy loveliness). Or you make an exquisite risotto out of it (with salsiccia, of course, if you’re not feeling vegetarian that day). Or, you do this very simple, humble, utterly delicious little plate of bruschette, even though it’s not summer any more. The tomatoes you used all summer, are replaced here, with eloquent, self-respecting kale leaves.

CAVOLO NERO CROSTINI 4

Here’s how you do it. 1. Whip your cavolo nero or kale out of your crisper, or out of your shopping basket in the event that you have rushed straight home from shopping to make it, which often happens to me. 2. Wash it well, looking out for those little wormikins that like to make homes in leafy things that haven’t been assaulted with chemicals. (I always tell my girls that bugs in the veggies are probably a good sign and, if nothing else, an excellent source of protein.) 3. Chop it up. 4. Meanwhile, in a frying pan or skillet, sauté a couple cloves of garlic, a chopped red chile pepper (or flakes) and three anchovies (the preserved Italian kind…if you like anchovies, of course.) The anchovies will disintegrate almost completely in the hot oil permeating the dish with a rich, surprisingly unfishy saltiness. You’ll, of course, adjust your use of sea salt afterward accordingly.

AN INTERRUPTION ABOUT GARLIC

NOTE 1:

Many Italians take out the anima (literally, “soul”; figuratively, the fibrous beginnings of the sprout buried in the heart of each clove of garlic) because it is said to cause indigestion.

NOTE 2:

You can finely dice your garlic. Squash it, skin-on, under the blade of your knife, removing it from the pan after it’s infused the hot oil but before you add the kale. Or, you can simply squash it, flick off the skin, cut it roughly and leave it like that. This is what I tend do.

5. Toss in the kale with the water droplets from washing still clinging to the leaves. And cook, moving it about constantly, until it has reached your desired level of tenderness. I sometimes raise the heat and throw in a scant splash of white wine about now. Other times I let it go. Adjust flavor with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. 6. While your kale is cooking, prepare 2 slices of hearty bread for everyone who will be sharing the table with you. I like to slice it off loaves from the bakery. Or use hearty farro (spelt) bread, for an extra peasanty experience. Grill the bread you’ve chosen and lay it on the plate to await its match made in heaven. 7. Place a heap of sautéed kale on each slice of bread, add two slices of the most excellent mozzarella or bufala you can get your hands on. (You could probably get creative with cheeses here, but this is the way I first had this dish.) Drizzle with the best olive oil you have at hand. And dive in with knife, fork and unfettered appetite. 8. Serve with wine and scintillating conversation woven artfully around sighs of contentment.

CAVOLO NERO CROSTINI 2

Forgive my photo. On the day I took it, I’d accidentally put the mozzarella under the kale. (Imbecile del giorno!)  You will not make this silly mistake, and your bruschette will be much more glamorous than mine.

 

 

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Old beauty.

That make-it-pretty gene? The French have it too. Let things get old. Honor them. Live with them. Stack them. Layer them. Let them be. The hilltop town of Vézelay is the proof.VEZELAY 5 VEZELAY 6 VEZELAY 1 VEZELAY 2 VEZELAY 3 VEZELAY 7 VEZELAY 4 VEZELAY 8

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A different sky

It was sunny and hot for weeks. And then as intensely as it had been feverish, it was the opposite. Sweaters out of the mothballs. And a chance to look at things under a different sky.IMG_2186 IMG_2187 IMG_2192 IMG_2191 IMG_2189

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