Sunday, August 29, 2010

far from via de' tornabuoni

There was an afternoon I walked the streets of Florence by myself. Maybe it was that last espresso; I was energetic and wanted to shop a little. Spoke took a break. He's such a perceptive guy though, and a selfless guy; I'm sure he sensed I needed to hit the cobblestones alone for a couple of hours.

I walked, pretending I belonged. Dressed in my standard attire; black pants, black leather shoes, and carrying a chic bag, I hoped to look like the expat I longed to be.

I fooled no one but myself.

I did some window shopping until the stores reopened, as they do after the long lunch.

I walked into a leather goods shop, Bojola, on via dei Rondinelli. I walked out with a zippered 'banker's bag' for Spoke.

I explored narrow streets off the main paths, away from Gucci and Ferragamo. There's little foot traffic and you come across the most interesting shops.

A few days earlier, Spoke and I found ourselves in such a shop; Giulio Giannini e Faglio. They sell leather desk accessories and the marbled stationery Florence is known for, as well as some unusual things.
We bought these whimsical, handmade, handpainted, ceramic marbles. Marmi, marbles are called in Italian.

I keep them in a dish, and every so often, I pick a lucky one to sit with the bear on the desk. What a daily reminder of a glorious afternoon in Florence; a colorful, Italian marble, offered to me by a bear with wings.....

Next I walked toward the Piazza della Repubblica, a large piazza, where people flock like pigeons to the very famous Gilli. (It was a favorite cafe of the late Ismail Merchant during the filming of A Room with a View, he said in his book, Ismail Merchant's Florence.)

By luck, I found the nearby art supply shop we had passed another afternoon. I wanted to buy something for my sister, hoping to inspire her to paint again. I chose a beautiful oil brush then spent some time in the store, watching artists come and go.

The sun sets as early as 4:30 in the winter, so I headed back. There would be time for a foot rub and a glass (or two or three) of wine before Spoke and I once again stepped out of the hotel and into the night, in this city that I so love.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

make a wish

Speaking of birthdays....... 

The Nymans lived two doors down when I was about seven.  They were missionaries and had traveled the world, working in places I couldn't pronounce. 

They were different.  You didn't go 'over' to their house to color or roller skate or play any of the normal suburban games.  There were other things to do.  Like roll out the snake skin! 

That's right; we'd gently unroll the mighty, South American skin as we walked from room to room, seeing how far it would reach. 

I'm shuddering as I type this.  Why the heck did they want that huge snake skin

By age, I was between the older and the younger daughters, wanting to play with the big sister but usually ending up with the little one at my side.  She would constantly knock on our door and ask, "Becca can come out?" 

I forgave her the daily intrusion since I was invited 'over' whenever any of them had a birthday.  That meant cake! 

The Nymans introduced me to my first sheet cake.  With the exception of Jessie's glazed pound cake at our family reunions, all I'd known were layer cakes so this big, rectangular pan was exciting...  Until I realized........there were no roses. No roses! 

They seemed to know the best part of a birthday was the cake but didn't they know the best part of the cake was the roses? 

It wasn't like I was spoiled and had to have a rose every time.  I would gladly share.  I even liked getting a cut rose; when the knife had sliced through it cleanly, you got a view of what the inside of a real rose must look like. 

Even as I got older, my family carried on the tradition of the traditional birthday cake.  I tell you, the planning that went into those cakes..... 

I could spend days choosing the color of the roses and then deciding whether they should be circling the top edge of the cake or be clustered on one side, maybe cascading over the edge. 

It seemed very mature and avant garde to cluster them but that really screwed up getting a rose with every slice. 

I've a dear friend.....Ann, who adores birthday cake.  White cake.  Perfectly light, white cake with butter cream frosting. 

Her birthday is coming soon.  I wish I could bake her one of those and load it with roses. Pink, I think.  And definitely all around the edge.

Monday, August 23, 2010


FROM 3906 is three months along today!

I am thrilled to report not a single day of morning sickness and no fear about what the future holds for this baby of mine. For now, it is just way too much fun.

Thanks for reading.

The stat counter shows me there are a few viewers from far away places; several of you in Japan. Wow! Really?

I hope that sweet, Japanese girl I met on a train from Venezia to Firenze is reading. We were strangers but we were soul mates; connected by our mutual, intense love of Florence.
I still think of her.

And thanks of course, to you local supporters.

You all make me so happy.

Have a fabulous day, wherever you are.

Monday, August 16, 2010

attitude adjustment


That used to be me, complaining.

I told you back in June that it was getting hot in Dallas. Well, it seems now to have just been warming up for kicking our fannies come August. At 10:30 the other night, it was still 100 degrees. Nope, that's not a typo; one-zero-zero.

"Lawdy" as Papa used to say.

Although I'm in skimpy clothes at home, and our house is thankfully very cool, I still find myself mimicking Papa as I fan myself and exclaim, "Lawdy!" For effect, I usually say it more than once; "Lawdy, Lawdy!"

I love going to some of our local restaurants this time of year. I throw on my big straw hat to dash across the parking lot. I open the door and then....mercy me, I do believe I've died and gone to heaven.

There are cool tile floors, tall ceilings, maybe with a fan or two whirling. The window blinds are only slightly cracked and there's music---lots of music. Chilled drinks and firery food are waiting.

If it wasn't blistering hot outside, these places wouldn't feel the same. They simply wouldn't. See, that's the great thing about it.

So I say we all need to put on a little summer swagger, just get-over-it, and celebrate.

We do that at home by hanging chile pepper lights.

Strung across the kitchen, they greet Spoke as he pours his first cup of coffee at sunrise and they keep me company, writing into the wee hours.

Our neighbors no longer wonder about that ruby glow coming from 3906. It's become a tradition. The lights are our way of enjoying the season which, Lawd willing, will one day move us closer to fall.

Stuffed Bell Peppers

4 yellow bell peppers, washed, tops cut off and seeded (reserve tops)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/2 of a large, sweet, yellow onion, diced
2 medium zucchini, diced
4 medium tomatoes, diced on a plate to save the juice
1/3 cup of the bell pepper "tops", diced
4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
3 cups cooked white rice
a handful of wild salad greens
3 sprigs Italian parsley, chopped
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, grated
4 to 6 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano for topping

Here are the peppers before they're topped with cheese. Notice how the tomatoes turn the rice a bit pinkish.

Cook the Rice
Prepare the rice by your favorite method and keep warm.

Bake the Peppers
Wash and dry the peppers. Cut off the tops, remove the seeds and large pieces of membrane. Set the tops aside. Wrap the peppers in aluminum foil and place on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degree F. for half an hour. Remove from the oven, carefully remove the foil and pour any liquid in each pepper into a small bowl. Set the bowl aside. Allow the peppers to cool.

The Saute
In a saute pan, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onion, zucchini, and bell pepper "tops". Season with salt and pepper, cooking until the vegetables are softened. Set aside.

Transfer the cooked rice to a large bowl. Add the vegetable saute, tomatoes and their juice, pine nuts, salad greens, parsley, red pepper flakes, and cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.

Fill and Bake
Press the rice into each pepper, filling to the top. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Top with additional cheese and bake on a parchment lined pan for half an hour in a preheated 350 degree oven.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

the light of my life

S.M.N. Santa Maria Novella, the name of the church, the piazza, and the train station, in Florence, Italy.

Not the most beautiful entrance to the city, is it? That's exactly what I thought when I arrived the first time, on a cold and dreary December afternoon in 1995. But just one year later, when the train slowly chugged to a stop and I spotted the sign, I cried. I was back! I was back where I belong.

I envy people who live where they are at their happiest. Most of us, by fate or bad decisions, end up in one place, dreaming of another.

I like to walk the streets of Florence. Maybe I'm just sitting at my desk. I'll pick a starting place; let's say, the little wine shop Spoke and I used to frequent that's off Via delle Belle Donne. It was there that we discovered 1141 and Issasi, sadly no longer available in Dallas.

We would buy bottles for me to enjoy in the hotel. Most days, we'd come back to the room in the afternoon to revive ourselves, and Kevin would pour me some vino in one of those short bar glasses. Perfetta!

Wherever my mind decides to go, I walk slowly, remembering so many things along the route. The gray. The damp. Stone and iron. The beauty. And the light.....

From the wine shop, I may opt to go to the river. I'll take my time and explore, venturing into little alleys like this one, knowing I can't get lost.

I'll hang out at the Arno, taking pictures from each of the bridges.

Then I might cross over to the other side of Florence, known as the Oltrarno, meaning beyond the Arno. The rhythm is different on this side. You feel less like a tourist walking the quaint, artisan streets, discreetly peering into the woodworking and framing studios.

I've convinced myself that our Italian cabinet came from one of these shops.

It's a wood cabinet with double glass doors on each facing side and drawers in the middle section. It's long and narrow. We stock it with pottery, china, and bottles of root beer and champagne. We waited eight weeks for it to arrive which it did---get this---on the very day we normally leave for Italy.

Deciding not to travel that year had been so depressingly sad but when it was delivered and I saw FIRENZE hand-written on the back of the cabinet, I said it must have come to us from one of the Oltrarno shops!

I know it isn't true; more likely mass-produced in some factory off the highway but I'm choosing to stick with this fateful tale.

I'll continue walking up the hill, toward Piazzale Michelangelo. From here you can see the breadth of Florence and it will take your breath away.

I'll soak up the views before I head back across to the historic heart of Florence, meandering along those dark, cobblestone streets, following the light.

Always following the light.....

Friday, August 6, 2010

a fig tree grows in...

It was just an ordinary Tuesday night.

Someone knocks on the door. There stands our friend with a plate of figs. Not just any figs; homegrown figs. And to boot, a jar of just made, fig preserves. Whoo-hoo!

That's our friend Nancy. Married to Ernest who is by heritage, Greek, and like any respectable Greek, has some fig trees. He wouldn't have it any other way.

Lucky for Ernest, Nancy is a good cook. I mean a good cook. Lucky for me and Spoke, we're often invited to dinner. You see, they're our cooking pals. We get together for evenings of wine and great food. And belly laughs.

These are of the "you had to be there" kind of nights.

One evening, the microwave which Ernest uses to reheat his coffee throughout the day (because it could never reach a point of being too strong for him) went on the blink. About every ten minutes, the buzzer would go off. Beep-beep-beep. As the night wore on and we'd had more wine (okay, Nancy and I'd had more wine) it became really, really funny. Beep-beep-beep. See, you had to be there.

Another evening, guy talk turned into serious, childhood comparisons of just how miserable both their mothers made them whenever they caught colds. One Greek, one Polish, but with similar solutions for how to cure their sons; the tonics they were made to swallow, the salves rubbed on their chests then weighted down with scratchy, wool cloths.

By the time Ernest said, "We tried never to sneeze at our house," I had tears streaming down my face. See, you really had to be there......

In 2003, I started keeping a journal of our dinners. Here's a few of my favorite.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
Homemade Bread
Fresh (perfectly ripe) Pears
Anise Cookies

Baked Olive-Cheese Balls
Orange-Pistachio Linguini
Chili Rojo Spinach Salad
Gelato Topped with Stewed Fruits or Kahlua Sauce

Crostini with Peppers, Onion, and Eggplant
Pecan Crusted Red Snapper with Chardonnay Sauce
Bread Pudding

Cheese Cookies
Spicy Bean Soup with Manchego Cheese
Jumbo Lump Crab Salad on Bibb Lettuce
Pecan Pie

Red Pepper Hummus
Green Salad with Goat Cheese and Herbs de Provence
Black Peppered Salmon with Wild Rice
Glazed Pound Cake
And then, there was the dinner that wasn't. We got our dates mixed up and by the time we realized what we'd done, it was too late to share the meal.

Lemon Risotto
Barbecued Shrimp
Wild Salad Greens with Strawberries and Toasted Pecans
Godiva Chocolates: Raspberry Crowns and Dark Squares

But, back to figs.....

I decided to be extravagant and use the preserves to make Fig Preserve and Black Walnut Cake from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. I mean often do you have a jar of homemade preserves to splurge on just such a cake? So, I crossed my fingers that being Charleston born would bring me luck and the cake would be delicious.....

If not, Nancy will just have to give me another jar. It's so nice to know she would.

It was!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

right place, right time

These pictures were taken last summer. It's even hotter now.