Category Archives: Food & Recipes

Sicily, Part 5 (Ciao! We’ll Be Back!)

Day 14-15

Since we have the parking garage from hell and are afraid that if we venture out of Taormina we’ll never get back in it,  we revise our plans to explore outside the city. No Noto… we’ll just have to come back to Sicily.

Getting to street level is a challenge (up/down many stairs, across hallways, a gate which inexplicably has the name Condominio San Giorgio on it) but we are intrepid. Or perhaps just desperate to get outside.

Highlights of these two days are buying fresh fish and veggies at the local market for dinner at home, the famous Greek amphitheater which is actually Roman, a lovely little park which is a calm oasis in the middle of this busy city (with interesting topiary, e.g. a reindeer – ? – ), shopping for some ceramics, lunching on fabulous squid/cuttlefish ink pasta, and the discovery of “brutti ma buoni” (ugly but good) cookies.

 

 

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A perfect rainbow for our last day

Day 16-17

Leaving Taormina Lux Apartments is almost as complicated. First we have to get all our stuff to the parking garage.  Then we open the security gate and DH drives outside.  Now I have to run BACK upstairs to the condo, leave the keys on the washing machine, go back down to the basement, and exit a side door because the automatic gate has closed.

Would it not be simpler for each unit to have its own number, which would also be on the keys, which could then be left in a drop box IN the garage? Just sayin’.

We drive back to Palermo and stay in a nice hotel near the airport. Have an excellent lunch, a longish walk, and repack our bags from tomorrow’s flight to Milan.

 

Day 18

We fly to Milan and check in at the Principe di Savoia, where we stayed when we were newly engaged. It’s now part of the Dorchester Group and not quite as special as it used to be but still very nice.

After checking in, we take their complimentary shuttle into town, do some errands (I need another hole punched in my new Hermès belt — even with wine, pasta and pastry I have still lost weight on this trip, woo hoo!) and explore the Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, a house shared by two very rich, very eccentric brothers and crammed with Renaissance tchotchkes and lugubrious religious artifacts.

Our favorite thing is the bathtub, which looks like a baptismal font but had hot and cold running water — the latest thing in the 19th century.

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There’s also a wonderful temporary exhibit of Jacques Henri Lartigue photos.

Returning to the hotel, we meet up with two delightful women before having dinner at Michelin-starred Acanto.

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“Deconstructed” (how I hate that word) cacio e pepe. Delish but prefer the classic version.

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After-dinner macarons and chocolates presented in this charming box.

Day 18

Fly home.  Why can’t our airports feature gelato and other treats like those in Italy?IMG-3193.JPGIMG-3214.JPGIMG-3215.JPG

Happily, all goes smoothly, the bags arrive quickly, and we immediately start planning our next trip.

Brutti Ma Buoni (Ugly but Good)

While the phrase could refer to friends, family or co-workers, in this case it’s a cookie we discovered in Sicily. Having now experimented with several recipes, I have a version to recommend.

These are very easy and would be a nice addition to the Thanksgiving menu as they are light, gluten free and delicious.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups hazelnuts  (aka filberts), about 8 ounces
  • 3/4 cup powdered (confectioners) sugar — I use Whey Low sugar substitute* Note: this yields slightly sweet cookies. If you prefer more sweetness, increase to 1 cup of sugar.
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 large egg white
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Spread hazelnuts on a baking tray and bake for about 10-12 minutes until they are fragrant, lightly toasted and the skins blister. Remove and transfer the nuts to a clean kitchen towel to cool. Then rub them together in the towel to remove the skins. Warning: this is messy!
  2. Lower the oven heat to 300 degrees F.
  3. Pulse nuts in a food processor until roughly chopped. You want some big pieces. (Alternatively, crush them in a bowl– takes longer but avoids pulverizing into dust.)
  4. Transfer nuts to a bowl and mix in the sugar and salt.
  5. Whip the egg white on high setting in a stand mixture until soft peaks form and then gradually add vanilla, continuing to whip until you get medium-firm peaks. Stir this into the hazelnut-sugar mixture.
  6. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spoon generous-sized dollops of the “dough”, leaving 1″ of space between cookies.  They don’t spread much, if at all. Cookies can be any size you want; this amount will make about 8 large (3″) cookies or over a dozen smaller ones.
  7. Bake at 300 for 30 minutes until golden, then lower the heat to 200 and bake for another 15 minutes so they dry out and are crisp and not sticky.
  8. Cool before serving.

*A note on Whey Low. Developed for the inventor’s diabetic wife, this genius product is significantly lower in calories and glycemic index than sugar and tastes/cooks the same so no complicated calculations are needed. Only caveat: it’s pricey.

Sicily, Part 4 (The Forces Aren’t With Us)

Day 13: Surviving Taormina

We bid farewell to Sabrina and drive to our next home-from-home, Taormina, a few hours away.  This is where our best-laid-plans are totally shot to hell.

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The trip starts promisingly, as we get back to Caltanisetta without getting lost. But then…. We hit a double roundy-round and Betty wants us to take one of the exits. Well, that doesn’t work. We try EVERY GODDAMN EXIT until we realize that the one correct exit is the one that is blocked off.  Needless to say, there are no signs to help and we are stuck in Caltanisetta.

DH finally has a brainstorm:  Follow a truck because surely a truck is going to be headed for the highway, right? YES! We are out of the city and see signs for the A19 highway.

New crisis: I need a rest stop and there are none.  Betty steers us to a gas station, which has a hunk of concrete blocking the door to the restroom but do I care? No, I do not! Ignoring the man outside who is yelling in Italian (which mercifully, I do not understand) I hustle out of the john and get back in the Fiat.

Needless to say, 5 minutes after we get on the A19 there is a bonafide rest area. F’ me and thanks, Betty.

OK, our new destination is the promisingly-named Taormina Lux Apartments, with an address per booking.com of #46 San Pancrazio, which we enter into the GPS. We have arranged to meet Emanuel the condo agent and are now running 1/2 hour late but all things considered that’s not too bad.

We arrive in Taormina to see that San Pancrazio is a winding thoroughfare — very busy — with nowhere to pull over but I spy #46 and hop out of the car to ring the doorbell. Nada. It’s clear that this is not the entrance so now what??

We call and text the agent multiple times as we circle around and around in the insane traffic of San Pan-Crazy-O and are finally forced to travel up to a small area by a bakery where we can pull over.  This would be fine except that a cop keeps trying to shoo us away and a woman who has stopped for ice cream wants our parking spot.

Finally we get through to Emanuel who says he will meet us there in 10 minutes. 45 minutes later he actually shows up and we follow him to the apartment parking area which turns out to be BEHIND the street. How in hell were we supposed to know this?!?! We are now molto stressed out and more than a little irritated, especially DH who has had to drive around in circles for over an hour.

The complex itself is a maze and “helpfully”, none of the units are marked, nor is the key. But the apartment has a well stocked kitchen, 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, and a large veranda overlooking the pool with a view of the hillside and ocean. IMG-3085

It’s now getting late so we dump our stuff and go exploring for lunch accompanied by wine, which we both desperately need at this point. Sapori di Mare hits the spot.

IMG-3078Taormina has been a vacation destination for centuries and it’s easy to see why. Despite being very touristy even at this time of year, it is extremely pretty. You just have to look up above the stores and down the little alleys to catch a glimpse of its natural beauty.

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FullSizeRender (28).jpgWe buy some cheese, wine and pastry at Pasticceria D’Amore for a simple dinner later and go back to collapse.

Not so fast. Trying to find our room in this apartment complex is like being trapped in an Esher drawing.

Up 3 levels. Down 4 levels. Across to one elevator.  Down a hallway. Back to the other elevator.  We can see where our patio is (pool level) but damned if we can figure out how to get to it.

But we do, and vow to take careful notes tomorrow of exactly how to  retrace our steps. Zzzzzz.

A Sojourn in Sicily – Part 1

Traveling to Europe from Austin is usually an adventure unto itself, and this trip was no exception.

We’d opted to fly in/out of Houston to avoid the missed or much-too-lengthy connections that occur when landing somewhere else in the US.

After a last-minute switch of hotels (note to airport travelers: do not book the Houston airport Holiday Inn, which is filthy and reeks of smoke!), we check in at the airport Marriott and have dinner at highly recommended Chez Nous in nearby Humble. I learn that the town is pronounced “umble” – perhaps to avoid the obvious jokes about pie?

The meal is excellent and we’re off to a good start.

Next morning, we check in for our flights: Houston to Newark and then on to Milan. Board the plane, settle in, and… nothing happens. After three “we’ll be slightly delayed” announcements we’re told of a “mechanical issue” (airline code for “we have no freakin’ clue what’s wrong”) and herded off the plane to scramble for new flights, as many on board are clearly going to miss their connection.

Several hours later we’re en route to Munich, where we’ll connect via Lufthansa to Milan. We arrive safely – still shivering from the insanely cold airplane – way behind schedule. Our luggage does not.

This necessitates another hour filling in paperwork while the lost luggage clerk tries to figure out whether United or Lufthansa is responsible for locating it and getting it to the hotel before we leave for our next destination.

BUT, intrepid travelers that we are, we head to our hotel, the very lovely Grand Hotel Et De Milan, and set off wandering this sophisticated and stylish city.

Day 1

Since we’re both opera fans, the main reason we’ve stopped in Milan this trip is to see a performance at La Scala the following night. Today, we head over to the opera house museum, which is pretty much a shrine to Maria Callas, patron saint of warblers worldwide. There are costumes, posters, videos, photos, portraits, you name it. Also set and costume designs from various other performances.

We scarf down a delicious dinner of trenette with pesto and cacio e pepe (here’s one recipe, though it’s even simpler and better if you use grated cacio cheese, olive oil, pasta water and freshly ground pepper) at nearby ristorante Salumiao, which we like so much we eat there the next night as well.

Day 2

Having been awakened at 1 a.m. by my dear husband (DH) who was obsessing about the missing luggage and wanting me to call someone (who in god’s name is working at that hour? but sure, why not!), I’m not as rested as I could be. Still, off we go to walk around and shop for a shirt and tie for DH to wear to La Scala in case the bags don’t arrive (it’s looking bleak).

Best discovery of the day: Museo Novecento, showcasing major art movements from 1910-1960’s, including some interesting political pieces.

After an afternoon drink at the hotel bar we return to our room to change for the opera and – mirabile dictu – bags have arrived!

At La Scala we see a silly opera (Von Weber’s Die Freischutz; about a hapless suitor, magic bullets, and the devil) with pleasant, mostly forgettable music, but we share a box with a nice couple and can now cross it off DH’s bucket list.

Days 3-6

We take the train to Florence – our 4th visit to this beautiful city, which is sadly overrun with selfie-stick-brandishing tourists even in October. Our hotel (a private palazzo nicely located near the Duomo) turns out to be lovely despite its unprepossessing exterior: ancient gate/courtyard with faint “eau de urine” from generations of animals and a dirty welcome mat in front of the battered industrial elevator which takes you upstairs to …

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Some highlights: Eating at Del Fagioli and Alla Vecchia Bettola, admiring fresh vegetables at the market and frescos at the Pitti Palace and Santa Maria Novella, and window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio,”considering” whether we need to buy the Buccellati lifelike silver crab serving dish that’s “only” 3600 euros after the VAT refund. Hey, let’s take two!

Day 7: Arrival in Sicily!

Alitalia seamlessly transfers our luggage from Florence to Rome to Palermo (take note, United!), where our Stanley Tucci lookalike driver takes us to our modern (aka no frills) hotel at 11:30 pm. I’d bought a sandwich to eat on the plane but DH has not eaten – he’s been fighting a cold and wasn’t hungry until now– and dines on minibar bottles and potato chips. Who says travel isn’t glamorous!

Next up: Palermo….

Go To The One Around The Corner

Inevitably, if you love to travel and love to eat, you’ll hit every destination armed with restaurant recommendations from foodie friends, bloggers, guide books and the like.

This is often a wonderful resource. But it comes with a downside: a place that’s already popular is often crowded with tourists – not quite the authentic experience you may have been seeking. Personally, I don’t want to hear my native language (especially when it’s LOUD) when I’m traveling abroad. Unless I’m in the UK, of course.

As I get older, I also find that simple meals of fresh ingredients meticulously prepared are infinitely more pleasurable than course after course of “fancy” food at Michelin-starred restaurants. That’s because: 1) I’m no longer interested in making eating a multi-hour activity, no matter how creative the chef is. 2) I can’t eat that much at one sitting. 3) Too often, the food is so rich that I feel vaguely queasy – or more than vaguely – after consuming an elaborate meal.

Hence, the new “Corner” philosophy.

Simply put, instead of the place everyone’s been telling you about (which may, of course, be fabulous), look nearby for an unassuming restaurant that’s frequented by the locals. Better yet, get a recommendation for a non-touristy place by asking a friendly shopkeeper for suggestions. Chances are, not only will the food itself be memorable, but there will be a story or experience attached to the meal. Bonus: there’s a good chance the local favorite is a lot less expensive than the tourist trap.

Here are a few places we stumbled upon during our recent trip to Milan, Florence and Sicily. As I found out later, they’re all highly rated on Trip Advisor — proving that if you trust your instincts they’ll lead you somewhere good, even if it’s not “undiscovered”!

Alla Vecchia Bettola, Florence

My husband and I collect antique prints of fish and shells for the guest bathroom (although, truth be told, we are running out of wall space). This gives each trip a shopping focus and often leads to interesting experiences as we search for our “souvenirs”.

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In Florence, we made our way to a store we’d located online, only to discover that their prints were all reproductions. Even though we weren’t buying anything, the owner generously steered us to another shop that did sell original prints. And when we asked about nearby places to eat typical Florentine food, she suggested this restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful lunch (charcuterie to start; risotto carciofi for me and pasta bolognese for my husband) with a murmur of Italian in the background.

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Alla Vecchia Bettola before the lunch crush

Nuti, Florence

Two days later, we wandered into Nuti, after bypassing the restaurant a friend had recommended which had an impossible wait time and seemed to be full of Americans.

Although hardly “non-touristy”, as the menu is in both English and Italian, Nuti’s food was delicious (beautiful grilled eggplant, zucchini, red and yellow peppers — all sliced very thin and seasoned with garlic and olive oil; fritto misto di mare for me and zesty pasta cinghiale for my husband) and the atmosphere was calm and relaxing; again, with a Florentine clientele.

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The restaurant’s charming and charismatic manager

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Isn’t everything better when it’s fried?!?

Piatti Primi, Palermo

Tucked in a side street near the famous Quattro Centi but off the main drag, this “typical” restaurant offered simple Sicilian cuisine (more grilled veggies, pasta with swordfish) that was simply terrific.

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Finally, one of the best meals we had was the squid ink pasta with anchovy sauce my husband cooked in the kitchen of our condo in Taormina. It not only tasted amazing, it combined the fun of shopping for local ingredients, the leisure to eat at a time that was convenient, the flexibility to get our bread from a wonderful bakery and our dessert from a different pasticceria, AND we didn’t have to dress up.

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A sampling of treats from Pasticceria D’Amore, Taormina

 

A Day in Victoria BC

Well, it’s been two months since we took this trip but my excuse is that you may find it more enjoyable to visit now that the summer high season has ended. (How’s that for turning procrastination into a benefit?) Fewer tourists and cruise ships make it a lot nicer to maneuver through downtown. On the minus side, though, it’s more likely to rain so the crossing could get a bit rough.

I won’t begin to attempt a comprehensive travelogue, especially at this late date. There’s a ton of info online, after all. The lovely thing about Victoria is that you leave the very American city of Seattle and three hours later it feels as though you’re in Europe. Heaven for an Anglophile like me.

We stayed in Seattle the day before and the day after, which made for a nice little getaway. There’s plenty to do in both cities if you have time.

But if you only have 24 hours, as we did, here’s a quick snapshot.

We board the Victoria Clipper ferry in downtown Seattle. Food and drink options, plus a basket of free chewable Dramamine. Because who wants to be sitting near someone who’s seasick for three hours? (Tip: half a tablet keeps your stomach calm without making you too sleepy.)

(Can we say “Bad hair day?!?”) Arrive at Victoria’s Inner Harbour around noon. Check in at our hotel, the Grand Pacific, which is modern and spacious.)

Lunch: Steamship Grill and Bar. Waterfront views and delicious seafood in a beautiful Beaux Arts building. A glass of wine and now I really feel that I’m on vacation. Check out this adorable water taxi!

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Walk off lunch: Victoria’s easy to get around on foot. Other attractions, such as the famous and gorgeous Butchart Gardens, are a short ride away.

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IMG_2573Up Government Street past Parliament and Royal BC Museum…

FullSizeRender (3)to Market Square, lower Johnson St. shopping area (LoJo to the locals) and Canada’s oldest Chinatown.

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After sampling a couple of chocolate shops, my recco is Pure Lovin’ Chocolate in twisty, cramped, Dickensian Fan Tan Alley, named after a popular gambling game from the 1940s.

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Rare photo of husband looking relaxed!

IMG_2561 (1).jpgThere are flowers everywhere!

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Amble back to hotel via Wharf Street to enjoy views of ferries and seaplanes.

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Cocktails and dinner: If you don’t opt for the Empress Hotel’s lavish and pricey afternoon tea — or aren’t staying there — grab a drink before dinner in the Q bar and scarf down their yummy charcoal-dusted popcorn.

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IMG-2563The restaurant is good too.IMG_2567.jpgIMG_2569.jpg

 

After dinner, stroll through the public spaces and lavish grounds of this venerable grande dame, and see the government buildings all lit up.

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The next morning, we grab some coffee and explore the neighborhood, which is quiet and peaceful. IMG-2578IMG-2577Winding up with a scenic walk along the Foster pathway, named for (and presumably funded by) David Foster, Canadian musician and ex-husband of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ Yolanda.

We catch the 11:30 ferry back to Seattle, which arrives at 2:15 pm — time to enjoy the city!

The Joys of Improv

Leftovers! Why does that word have such an unfortunate connotation — “sad”, “dreary”, “unwanted”? For example: Last to be chosen for softball (that would be me in 6th grade). Late to losing one’s virginity (also me… age 20). Third tier invitee to a wedding or party (not me I hope, although I’ve never found out if I was on the C list.)

But in fact you can make amazing things out of leftovers because they invoke your creativity. Only downside… you’ll never make that dish the same way twice.

I refuse to take credit when a recipe I’ve read in a book turns out ok. All I had to do was read and follow instructions. (On second thought, maybe credit IS due because I suck at following instructions; just ask my Long Suffering Husband.)

Still, isn’t it much more fun to wing it without a net and make something up? That’s what we’re faced with at this point in the season, when we’re close to shutting down the summer house and have to invent recipes based on what’s in the fridge/freezer that needs to be used because I have some weird Puritanical Streak or Jewish Guilt telling me it’s a SIN TO WASTE FOOD!!!!

Last night, the LSH combined basic rice with leftover salsa, leftover cheddar and mozzarella, turmeric, salt and pepper, paprika, chili powder and moribund sliced jalapenos to create Mexican rice. Probably not authentic, but definitely tasty and it hit all the points for Using Up Crap In the Fridge.

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Below is an adaptation of a favorite recipe, tweaked to use up various bits of excellent cheese that were malingering in the fridge. Feel free to substitute other nuts and adjust based on your own leftovers; there’s pretty much no wrong way to make this.

Cheesy Shortbread Leaves

Ingredients

  • 3.5 ounces crumbled cheese (about ½ cup), e.g. gruyère/cheddar/conté
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon
  • 1/3 cup almonds, finely chopped

Preparation

  1. Blend cheese and butter in food processor until creamy.
  2. Add flour, cornstarch, mustard, tarragon, salt and pepper. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal.
  3. Add nuts and process just until it forms moist clumps.
  4. Gather dough into a ball. Flatten into a disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
  5. Preheat oven to 325° F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. Roll out dough between sheets of plastic wrap to 1/8″-1/4” thickness. Remove the top sheet of plastic and using a 2” x 1” leaf-shaped cookie cutter, cut out leaves. Note: if you don’t have a cookie cutter, you can roll the dough into a log, chill until firm enough to cut but not super-cold, and then cut slices instead. Gather dough scraps and re-roll to make additional leaves.
  7. Transfer leaves to baking sheets and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Makes about 4 dozen, depending on thickness of dough and size of cookie cutter.

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