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Beauty Break: Welcome Autumn

Today was littered with tiny, ordinary gifts that brought me back to the present moment . . . a prelude to the autumn leaves soon to come. Sharing with you the gift of —

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

Autumn Leaves (1856), by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of WikiPaintings

* A succulent chicken roasting slow, redolent with the aroma herbes de provence and sliced shallots

* The first cool rains of autumn, washing away the dust and dry of summer

* Sipping the first spiced apple cider this fall

* Making pumpkin honey bread with chocolate chips and pecans, its scent in the oven warming the house

* My son excited, telling me how happy he is with the rain, and the cider, and the bread, and the chicken, and the season

* The voice of my child reminding me that it’s the little things in life that make it wonderful

* Feeling like I could BREATHE for the first time in a very long while

Hoping this day brought whispers and gifts of autumn your way . . .

Ode to Autumn, by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

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The Best Ever Pesto Recipe

Photo: BasilGardening.com

As summer wanes, I’ve been gifted with a bumper crop of basil, which is wonderful because I have the most awesome pesto recipe ever! With the weather here heating up beyond tolerable, school starting, and going back to work after a summer off, I’ve had little time or energy for much of anything, so it’s nice to be able to make something quick, without turning on the stove, with herbs fresh from the garden.

The traditional way to serve pesto in Italy’s Cinque Terre region, is with pasta cooked with potatoes and green beans. But if pasta isn’t your thing, or if you don’t want to turn the stove on AT ALL, pesto is fabulous on grilled chicken or fish and is perfect tossed with assorted grilled bell peppers or roasted potatoes. Freeze any leftovers in an ice-cube tray for winter or nights when you don’t have time to cook. 1-2 cubes per person is a good bet. Be sure and put the pesto cubes in a freeze zip bag — they’ll keep about 3 months. Buon appetito!

Trenette con Pesto alla Genovese (serves 6)

Ingredients

50 fresh medium basil leaves

2 garlic cloves

1 cup grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Parmesan-Pecorino Romano blend

2 Tbsp. pine toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

5 1/2/ tsp. sea salt

1/4 tsp. fresh ground pepper

1 Tbsp. creme fraiche (if creme fraiche is unavailable in your area, substitute soft cream cheese)

1/2 lb Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, quartered, and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices

1/2 lb. green beans cut into 1 inch lengths (I use haricot verts, but regular green beans will do. If using regular, you may want to use only 1/4 lb)

1 lb dry trenette or linguini

Place basil in bowl of food processor and chop fine. Add the garlic and continue chopping. Add cheese and pine nuts and process until the nuts are chopped fine. Gradually add the olive oil while the motor is running. Add 1/2 tsp. salt and the pepper and pulse to combine. Add the creme fraiche and pulse to combine. Do not over process — this whole procedure should only take a few minutes. (If you are making ahead, pour the pesto into a bowl, cover with a thin layer of olive oil to preserve color, and refrigerate until ready to use. The pesto should be used within one day of preparing or frozen.)

Bring 5 qts. water to a boil and add remaining salt. Add the potatoes and return to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. About 2-3 minutes before the end of the pasta cooking time, add the beans to the pasta and potatoes.

While pasta cooks, heat the pesto in a large saute pan with 1-2 Tbsp. of the cooking water from the pasta. Do not boil. Transfer pasta, potatoes, and beans to colander to drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Add pasta to the pan with the pesto and toss to coat evenly. Add reserved water as needed.

* This recipe is adapted from the Il Fornaio Pasta Book — a highly recommended cookbook with traditional regional Italian dishes. The dish will use all of the pesto, so if you’ve got enough basil, double the recipe and freeze the rest.

Bella Vacanza

My good friend, Todd Hansen, has graciously agreed to allow me to post his reflections and pictures from his recent trip to Italy! When I’m unable to get much beyond the confines of home, sharing armchair travel with friends is a breath of fresh air that satisfies the wanderlust — at least temporarily.  I hope you enjoy! And thanks again, Todd, for sharing your beautiful experience with others.

I have to tell you about a beautiful vacation to Italy that my girlfriend and I took this summer! It was way better than we anticipated and involved planes, trains, automobiles, and many boats.

We had a beautiful room on the island across from Venice (Giudecca) for 2 nights. Of course, this is where the boats come in: boat from airport to hotel, frequent shuttles to Venice, and a very nice gondola ride.

The view from the hotel at Giudecca. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

We both love the classic Italian preparation of Seabass (traditional Branzino) the whole fish, de-boned and looking at you, with lemon and herbs. So I ordered it 3 times on the trip! Each time was different, one being so lightly breaded, you could call it “dusted”. Each preparation was a savoury delight.

Then, a high speed train out of Venice to Rome was a great idea. There, we picked up a rental Fiat for our drive to Sorrento, 3 hours South. It was a wonderful drive that took us right around the base of Mt. Vesuvius. My driving skills were tested coming into the sloping cliffs of Sorrento on a busy weekend. I didn’t hit one scooter!

The Sorrento Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

I was treated to a perfect birthday dinner in Sorrento overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. The next day we jumped on a large ferry to Capri for a daylong excursion of even narrower roads (with a great taxi driver), molta bella views of the Tyrrhenian, and a dip into the ancient waters.

Back at the Sorrento hotel lounge for a drink, we found ourselves devouring a complimentary plate of olives (one of many bar snacks). Seems they had a perfect blend of fennel seeds, peppers, and olive oil, one we would never be able to re-create on our own. And it gets better! The 30 year veteran bartender, Gemmaro, served me the best cocktail I’ve had in recent years: an Alexander — my first experience of the drink & also my girlfriend’s last name.

On our way out of Sorrento, we thought we would swing over to Positano for lunch. This is the famous Amalfi Coast where the homes and buildings are built on sloping, rocky hills right down to the water. It is a must see. And I recommend doing so from a nice little restaurant overlooking the coast with a plate of Pasta Carbonara in front of you — Scusi, more pepper please!

The Amalfi Coast. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Next stop: Pompeii. Not an easy park to find, but once we did our luck improved greatly. After walking around a bit, we asked a worker for advice and he proceeded to give us a quick guided tour of the highlights that we would never have found on our own. We saw a beautiful fresco, an ancient grape crusher, and to my amazement – actual human remains from that fateful day in 79 AD.

Once we got back to Rome we were quite exhausted from the long, hot drive. But our hotel was another pleasant surprise, with a wonderful balcony for 2. So we relaxed with some local olives and wine. Now we had to try to give Rome it’s due respect in one day! We set out for the Colosseum early the next day and again we stumbled upon a group tour that worked out for the best. The 2 guides were very informative about the Colosseum and nearby ruins.

The Roman Colosseum. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

Even though it was a national holiday, we thought we should go to The Vatican to push our good luck. Now, I’ve seen a lot of big Italian churches from my previous trip to Italy, but St. Peter’s Basilica is by far the biggest — OMG! Luckily, Lorna begged a scarf for her shoulders so that we could witness the magnificence of the Pope’s home turf.

After such a grand display, I needed a drink. So we hoofed it over to Trevi Fountain for a sip of water supplied by an ancient Roman Aqueduct (working almost continuously since 19 BC!) and some Italian Pinot Grigio. It was amazing to me how there are remnants of Roman Aqueduct all around the city. These are very old structures, proudly secure amongst buildings of steel and glass, quick moving autos, and time itself.

Todd and Lorna at Trevi Fountain, Rome. Photo courtesy of Todd Hansen.

So you can see we did a lot in a short amount of time thanks to my girlfriend’s expert planning. We both agreed on the highlight of the trip: the food. It was all so flavourful and fresh, inventive and classic, and yet you knew you were eating healthier than home.

Want to sample Todd’s authentic Alexander cocktail? Here’s the quintessential Italian how-to.

This post is dedicated to my friend, Ruth Nina Walsh, who has a great love of travel and art and who has always wished to visit Italia. Buon Viaggio!

Take Back Your Time

The Head of Nimue, by Edward Burne-Jones

“In terms of taking back our time, the first essential tool is saying no. No to our own greed and self-importance. No to the extra work we carry home. No to hearing without listening, looking without seeing; no, above all, to the insistent voice of advertising, which thrives on our restlessness and dissatisfaction, and does everything it can to exacerbate them. A Brobdingnagian NO to all those things makes space for an even more gigantic YES.

My private code for this is to refuse and choose.

We . . . can refuse to participate in the ‘mad race of time.’ We can choose to talk face to face with our friends instead of via email or on the telephone; we can play with our children, now, this very afternoon; we can go off for long walks across the hills. We can turn off the television once and for all. In short, we can rejoice in being one of the elite who actually does have the privilege of choice instead of complaining endlessly about our lack of time.

The Red Studio, by Henri Matisse

Of course it can feel difficult to drop out of the rat race: to stand at the side of the road while our friends and colleagues race on across the horizon. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. In Matisse’s painting, “The Red Studio,” the clock has no hands. We need to find a ‘red studio’ of our own, the studio of our own insistent heart, perhaps, in which to set up an easel or a writing desk, or pull a dreaming daybed towards a broad, wide-open window. It sounds so simple — almost too simple to be worth saying — but slowing down can be a tremendous source of joy.” (Excerpted from World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwan, pp.30-31)

What would you do if you had more time? Find one thing, and then find the time and make it happen.

Beauty Break: “The Parisian” at Tavern On 2

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” — Benjamin Franklin

The above quote appears on the menu at Tavern On 2, a lovely little gastropub in Long Beach we had the pleasure of visiting for breakfast with a friend one recent early Saturday morning. Franklin’s quote is a worthy motto for, on my visit, it was once more impressed upon me that beautiful wine (or beer) and delectable food are two gifts that truly make life worth living.

Tavern On 2 is a tiny place. It’s got a great cafe atmosphere, with a small patio for sidewalk dining (complete with cozy space heaters that make it possible to eat outside even in inclement beach weather, which we did). Great old red brick walls and high ceilings line the long narrow dining room. It definitely borrows from the classic European cafe ambience and style.

The menu is ecelctic with a decidedly French twist. There is no bar in this little place; however beer, wine, and champagne are served all day. My friend ordered a mimosa, which appeared as a mix of citrus juice in a little carafe and a split of champagne, enabling him to mix the cocktail to his liking. And I was inspired to forgo the (unfortunately) lackluster coffee for a full flute of Lambertini Spumanti, a sparkling rose that paired perfectly with my dish.

And that dish is really the subject of this post because it was a truly lovely beauty break breakfast. So, beginning from the bottom up: “The Parisian” is a thick slice of toasted brioche smothered in a homemade bechamel sauce that would make Julia Child proud — it was perfect and carried just the requisite hint of nutmeg and the right amount of salt to make it truly divine. Atop this bed of brioche were two slices of fried ham, a slice of gruyere, and more béchamel. These layers were repeated one more time and then finished with perfectly scrambled eggs and a fresh sprinkle of bright green parsley. The dish was truly inspired — simple ingredients, put together artfully to make the best of comfort food on a cold, cloudy morning. It was not only beautiful to look at, it tasted magnificent. The sparkling rose — which I would never have typically ordered for breakfast — and a small bottle of Acqua Panna just put the meal over the top for me. For a brief moment, I was transported out of LA to a sidewalk cafe in Paris…….dreamy and so relaxing.

If you’re a SoCal local or happen to be in the area, be sure and stop by Tavern On 2 for a sublime culinary beauty break!

Gifts of Grace, Hope, and Beauty in the New Year

The new year opens with the Feast of the Epiphany (January 8) and the bestowal of gifts from the three Magi to the Christ Child, which calls to mind not only the hope and promise in the gift of a new year, but reminds me that my life is meant to be a gift as well, both to God and to others. Sadly, I am apt to forget this.

I’m not much for making New Year’s resolutions. But I noticed, when examining and thinking back over 2011, that as the year progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to be mindful of beauty in my daily life. Juggling home, job, and volunteer work along with my writing became a whirling abyss of speed and busyness that threatened to overwhelm me. When my life feels like I’m “going down the rails on the crazy train,” beauty eludes me. Giving becomes taking and I know it’s time for a reboot.

Clearly, some changes need to be made in 2012 and I’ve come up with a list that I’m hoping will help me regain my balance and make beauty more prominent.

1. Take Along My Trusty Blanket

I need to acknowledge when things are spiraling out of control inside me and put myself on a time out in a soft, safe place — preferably with my trusty purple blanket. There’s a very good reason why little ones have their blankets, thumbs, and binkies along for the daily ride. I would do well to learn from their example. Paying attention to the inner signs that signal the need for a time out will help me to avoid  becoming a destroyer of the beauty around me.

2. Plan for Extraordinary Family Time

This means two things especially: travel and music.

For Christmas I gave my husband this great book of themed California itineraries. Being that the three of us love the open road and have an eccentric streak that would lead to the moon and back again, I’m thinking this is the year we plan for manageable travel. Maybe we will each pick a trip from the book and try to do one every few months. They’re simply awesome and have adventure written all over them. Two of my personal favorites: the Alice Waters’ Culinary Tour and By the Book: Literary California. Of course, pondering A Burrito Odyssey has many possibilities, as well.

And about that music. . . . well, for Christmas, Santa brought a record player. We have inherited the record collections of both sets of parents, plus some from the grandparents, and we still have all of our own, from our childhood through the 80s. Some of our favorites are old radio theater recordings of The Shadow and Suspense, which Skippy has never heard but which we used to amuse ourselves with long ago when we lived in San Francisco and had an old turntable. Let’s just say we have a lot of records and, until Christmas morning, no way to enjoy them. This is the year of the record player! Skippy is enthralled and says over and over “Records are just so amazing.” Every kid should be so lucky.

3. Make Time to Experience the Arts

I find beauty and joy in experiencing the arts.  Unless I plan I am not exposed to nearly enough of it. The arts help me to keep life in perspective and to remember and enjoy the many ways human beings have been blessed with the gifts to create beauty in the world. This year, I plan to nurture this love by attending plays and concerts, planning museum outings, sitting in at literary salons, and watching art films. It may be in the company of a like-minded friend, relative, or my husband, but I plan to make time for these experiences even if it means going alone.

4. Nurture the Artist Within

“Do something creative every day.” That is the motto of my favorite stationary store where I purchase many supplies. I find I am more attentive to the beauty in daily life if I nurture my own artistic gifts and talents. While the list of things I need to do every day as a wife, mother, and teacher is literally endless, nurturing my own creative life is just as important as any of those things. And I find I am a happier wife, mother, and teacher if I don’t neglect those gifts. I will make time this year to write every day, cook interesting and healthy meals, and plan for and work in my garden — all essential things that feed my heart and soul, but which often go neglected in the mad rush to get other things done.

5. Curl Up More Often With Good Books

Reading relaxes me and feeds my mind and my soul. Other moms ask me how I have the time to read. I always wonder how can I NOT read? It’s easy to feel guilty for taking time out to read, but this isn’t a luxury. It’s a sanity preserver that helps me to maintain my equilibrium. Most often, my personal reading is done in bed and is the very last thing I do for the day. Some people nap; I read. This year, I also want to make it a priority to spend time each day reading aloud to Skippy. When we don’t make this a priority, days and weeks can go by before we get back to our read-aloud. It’s time we both treasure and too soon it will be gone.

6. Appreciate and Learn From the Gifts of Others

My friend, Christina, had the inspired idea for her New Year’s resolution of reflecting on the people closest to her and asking herself what qualities in those people she would like to try to learn from or emulate — this struck me as genius. Everyone has gifts and brings something unique and beautiful to the table. No one currently in my life is there by accident, but for a very particular reason. This year, I’d like to follow Christina’s example and ask myself: what particular gifts and qualities is God trying to share with me through the people whom He has placed on my path? And along those same lines, what is it that I am supposed to be sharing with them?

7. Cook My Way Through France

Many people I know have hobbies or other creative pursuits. Cooking is mine. I love to cook, eat, and feed people. I read a cookbook like any other regular book and I especially appreciate literary cookbooks. For my birthday, my husband gave me two: Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan and The Way To Cook, by Julia Child (both culinary heroines and beloved writer friends). I find that cooking is a good time for me to slow down and reflect, to be mindful of the foods I am using and where they came from, to be amazed at simple tools, to revel in scents and textures and the nearly miraculous transformations that happen when ingredients are brought together just so.  France and especially Paris have been beckoning to my heart with increasingly intensity over the last few months. So I’ve decided to give in to the inspiration, embrace my inner Collette, and embark upon an armchair cook’s tour!

8. Practice Mindfulness Throughout the Day

If I do not make an effort to find beauty, it will elude me. Everything is a grace and everything is bestowed by God for my benefit. I will find beauty in the ordinary circumstances of my daily life to the extent that I am willing to put in the effort to look for it. Brother Lawrence was a simple Carmelite monk who taught the practice of the presence of God in daily life. He writes: “The most excellent method of going to God is that of doing our common business without any view of pleasing people but purely for the love of God. We ought not to grow tired of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”  While it is extremely difficult for me to do, I find I need to redirect my attitude and efforts towards their proper end. God Himself is the author of Beauty and every good thing. It is this mindfulness that will allow me to perceive beauty in everyday events and to receive the gift of beauty He wants to give to me, as well as enabling me to hopefully share that same gift with others. But I cannot give what I do not possess.  It is my hope that taking the time this year to nurture the different things I have listed here will help me to make my life more of a gift to those around me and to the One to whom it belongs. 

Do you have plans or resolutions for the new year? Please feel free to share them here!

Wishing all my regular readers and new visitors a healthy, peaceful, and blessed 2012.

Lavender Lemonade

This was our first experiment with the dried lavender from our garden. If you decide to make this lemonade, use regular “sour” lemons — sweet lemons don’t provide the right flavor profile. Its great icy cold — enjoy!

Lavender Lemonade (recipe adapted from Victoria magazine, May/June 2010)

4-5 large lemons

1/2 gallon water (2qts)

3/4-1 cup lavender simple syrup (see below)

Optional garnish: lemon slices and fresh lavender sprigs

1. In a large, nonreactive bowl, juice lemons (or better yet, use a juicer!) and strain through a fine mesh strainer into a pitcher.

2. Combine lemon juice with water and lavender simple syrup. Stir to blend, add the lemon slices if using, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

3. Pour lemonade over ice and garnish with fresh lavender sprigs, if desired. The recipe can easily be doubled to make 1 gallon of lemonade.

Lavender Simple Syrup (makes about 2 cups)

3 cups water

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/4 cup dried lavender

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and scraped, seeds and pod reserved

1. In a medium saucepan, combine water, sugar, lavender, and vanilla bean seeds and pod. Cook overmedium-high heat, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved.

2. Remove from heat and cool completely; strain.

3. Pour syrup into an airtight container and refrigerate. Syrup can be stored for up to 3 weeks.