No Uscita

Last Tuesday warm wafts of star jasmine and lavender welcomed me to Palermo.  Though it was 93º Farenheit, a cool breeze kept me from knowing it.  There was a beautiful level of moisture in the air.  The humidity didn’t swallow me whole and I never felt sticky.  My hair just had more bounce and body than normal.  Then again, so did I after a few good meals.

San Vito Lo Capo  

lavender

sicily

Our first supper in San Vito Lo Capo was outstanding.  I had busiate which is the local pasta in Trapani.  The dried noodles look like this:

busiate

I ordered them alla norma which is to say with roasted aubergine the consistency of silk and topped with salty ricotta.  Henry had his noodles with urchin or as he calls them, the truffles of the sea.  Next up was a dish called tonno saporito.  It was grilled tuna with sauteed capers, olives, onions, tomatoes, oranges, and toasted pistachios.  Of course all this had to end with cannoli and eventually a walk on the beach.  

cannoli   

In Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, he writes, “Tancredi, in an attempt to link gallantry with greed, tried to imagine himself tasting, in the aromatic forkfuls, the kisses of his neighbour Angelica, but he realised at once that the experiment was disgusting and suspended it, with a mental reserve about reviving this fantasy with the pudding.”  This cannoli invoked all of that for me.  As did the late afternoon post-nap cherries and peaches I consumed.

Every day we were by the sea, I made sure to eat something from it.  Fish, octopus, squid, lobster, shrimp, you name it.  Then when we travelled south to Marsala and inland for a few days at a gorgeous baglio amongst the grillo vines, I ate scaloppine di vitello al marsala or al limone.  I snacked on olives and almonds from orchards I could see from our room.  I had prosciutto, melons, and blood orange juice at breakfast followed by espresso and chocolate muffins baked with roasted peanuts on top.

pesce

baglio pool vineyard

I watched England lose to Uruguay whilst sipping an aperol spritz and Italy to Costa Rica with a bottle of chilled frappato so evocative of pomegrante and blueberry I could hardly tell it wasn’t juice instead of wine.

I ate gelati like a school girl.

nocciola

I also wore respectable dresses when visiting churches and bared some cleavage when I wasn’t.

respectable

Madonna

outside the church

Sicily is full magic.  It’s the kind of place where stray dogs and tiny street cats appear out of nowhere and lavish you with love for a few hours.  Crazy men passionate about life will let you sample their private stash of wine that tastes just as it would have when the English first discovered it centuries ago and thought we can manufacture this into something fortified and call it marsala.  Butterflies will land on your shoulder.  The sun will shine where you’re sitting.  And even when multiple road signs point in different directions but supposedly for the same place, you will find your way.  When you get there, there will probably even be a perfect scoop of coconut ice cream with your name on it.

I did lots of things in Sicily.  More than anything, I just sat in the sand or on a breezy hilltop and enjoyed my husband.  Five years and a demanding toddler later, we still like each other.  We still slow dance without any music when no one is looking.  And we still find the other fascinating and funny and still have things to say.  I know five years isn’t a long time but at home in London, a beloved spouse’s words are sometimes lost in the noise of everyday life.  It’s hard to hear over the din of a two year old.  But in Sicily the summer wind blew our distractions away.  All we could notice and revel in was each other (and the amazing food and drink, obviously).

beach hair

wine Tomasi

piccolo

honeymooners

Below is a recipe for a salad I made this evening when we needed a little Sicilian calm.  I followed it up with a chilli and crab risotto of Nigella Lawson’s I’ve come to love.  I hope you do too.

Sicilian Summer Salad    

Ingredients:

2 fennel bulbs, sliced

2 oranges, chopped

1/2 a ruby grapefruit, chopped

a handful of green Sicilian olives (I used Nocellara because they’re my favorite)

1 jar of the best tuna you can find (I like tuna in olive oil best even though I drain the oil)

a handful of fresh chopped mint

Method:  Drain the tuna and set it aside.  Chop/slice your produce and put it in a large dish.  Add the tuna.  Garnish with mint.  That’s it.  Sweet like the citrus groves and briny like the sea.  This is a salad that would be a pleasing side dish for any Phoenician queen.

tuna lid tuna

sicilian salad salad salad close up

 

Slicily (or so I’ve called it after a few aperol spritzes) and the Sweet Life

Five years ago, I met my husband under a blood red moon while on a classic car rally in Sicily.  We were both there as guests of people who owned vintage cars.  Neither of us really fit in.  We were the strangers who came not knowing anyone other than the friends who invited us.  Still, what an adventure.

We spent a week together with 50 or so other people, toodling around hill towns and rugged beaches, meeting up only for meals and parties.  Not until the last day did we actually talk to each other.

At Catania Airport, or Aeroporto I should say, Henry and I had our first proper conversation.  The ice breaker was of a sartorial nature.  He was wearing a stripy blue jacket with white chinos as was I.  His was paired with brown suede loafers and mine with red patent leather ballet slippers that criss-crossed and buckled around my tan ankles. We were like a his and hers page in a J. Crew catalogue.

It was there at the curb while checking luggage that Henry and I realized we had a really good rapport.  Sadly, he lived in London and I in L.A. so we both quit flirting parce que what was the point and said our good-byes.  Neither of us thought we’d ever see the other again.  But life is funny and we knew nothing of what the future held.

When I got back to Los Angeles the customs officer asked if I had anything to declare.  “Boredom, vice, and poverty,” I said.  I thought I was still nursing a grand-daddy of a hangover I felt so bad.  My sickness turned out to be food poisoning from something I ate on the plane.  Once at home, I crawled into bed and stayed there for a week.

My friend who invited me on the trip forwarded me an email.  It was a humorous account of the first breakfast in Sicily that Henry had written for the London Review of Breakfasts.  I enjoyed it so much and immediately wrote to him.  He responded by telling me how pleased he was I was the first person from the rally to comment on it.

From that day forward we were in correspondence.  Daily.  I sent him parcels full of candy, Nat Sherman cigarettes, and CDs.  He sent me books with endearing inscriptions inside.  The day Geoff Dyer’s “Jeff in Venice Death in Varanasi” arrived along with some Owl and the Pussycat vanilla biscuits, I knew I had to go to him.

I flew to London for a ten day visit and there at Heathrow we had our first kiss.  I remember holding his hand the whole of our train ride to Paddington and then the entire cab ride to Bethnal Green.  I remember looking at him and hearing Lord Tanamo’s “I’m in the Mood for Love” on a loop in my head.  Life was full of magic.

Henry took me for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, 32 Great Queen Street, where we’d later have a dinner party belatedly celebrating our marriage the following spring.  I remember potted shrimp and smoked mackerel and Bandol rosé, but what I remember most about that meal came after we left the restaurant.

As we walked outside and down the street all wrapped up in each other like new lovers do, an old man in a wheel chair outside a pub raised a tremulous arm and pointed to us.  “Love,” he said.  And it was.  So novelistically so.

At the end of those ten days, I never went home.  Instead, Henry and I survived a car crash in the South of France and he asked me to marry him on the Eurostar back to London.  A few days later he presented me with a diamond ring so I wouldn’t doubt the sincerity of his proposal.  The rest is history.

Tomorrow, we’ll be back in Sicily for the first time in five years.  Just the two of us.  No classic cars, no naughty toddler, no distractions.  Just the owl and the pussycat and a pea green boat.  Maybe a little Nino Rota on the iPod to keep us company.  And why not?  This is the sweet life.  Sweet and refreshing as any good frappato.

When I return I’ll inundate you with pictures of rugged coastlines and cannoli.  Until then, I’ll leave you with this.  My recipe for Swarthy Sicilian Chicken for Magical Realists.  Life is magical.  Sometimes it just takes a blood red moon and a distance of 5,437 miles to illuminate it for you.

 

Milk Chocolate-Hazelnut Cookies

In the immortal words of mezzo-soprano, Marilyn Horne, as sung on Sesame Street, “C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me.  Oh cookie, cookie, cookie, starts with C.”  Leave it to Sesame Street to class up cookies and make them feel fancy with a bit of opera. Because let’s face it, cookies are not innately either of those things.  They are a simple pleasure and generally a snack beloved by children.

That said, there’s no reason cookies can’t be sophisticated.  That’s why I love Joanne Chang’s milk chocolate-hazelnut cookies.  The recipe for which can be found in her cookbook, Flour.  They’re not your pre-schooler’s cookie.  They take a kinder classic and turn them into an adult favorite.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.     2014-06-02 20.08.39

Ingredients:

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (1 1/2 sticks plus 1 tablespoon or 185 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

2/3 cup (140 grams) granulated sugar

2/3 cup (150 grams) packed light brown sugar

2 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups (210 grams) blanched whole hazelnuts, toasted

1 1/2 cups (210) grams) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

12 ounces (340 grams) milk chocolate, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces

 

Method:

Using a stand mixer, cream together the butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar on medium speed for approximately 5 minutes (10 minutes if using a hand mixer), or until the mixture is light and fluffy. Stop the mixer a few times and use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl to release any clinging butter or sugar.  Beat in the eggs and vanilla on medium speed for 2-3 minutes, or until thoroughly combined. Scrape the bowl again to make sure the eggs are thoroughly incorporated.

In a food processor, pulse 1/2 cup of the hazelnuts until ground to a fine powder (stop grinding once they are powdery; if you continue, they will become a paste).  Roughly chop the remaining 1 cup hazelnuts.  In a medium bowl, stir together the ground and chopped hazelnuts, the flour, baking soda, salt, and chocolate. On low speed, slowly blend the flour mixture into the butter-sugar mixture and then mix just until the flour mixture is totally incorporated and the dough is evenly mixed.

For the best results, scrape the dough into an airtight container and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight (or at least for 3-4 hours) before baking.

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When you are ready to bake, position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees F or 180 degrees C or Gas 4.

Drop the dough in 1/4-cup balls onto a baking sheet, spacing them approximately 2 inches apart. Flatten each ball slightly with the palm of your hand.

Bake for 20-22 minutes*, or until the cookies are golden brown on the edges and pale and slightly soft in the center. Let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to the rack to cool completely.

* I thought the cookies were great when baked for no more than 15 minutes.  Once cool, they were really good and crunchy.  I should also add that I couldn’t help myself.  I know this recipe calls for milk chocolate and while I used some, I also used some dark chocolate chips.

The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days. The unbaked dough can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

2014-06-02 20.14.33

Beet Greens Salad

Some people love beetroot.  I am not one of them.  Though I have always loved a good borscht, I have never loved beets.  In fact there was a time when I wouldn’t even eat them.  Not until I was 25 and my kid sister’s nanny always made them for her–roasted and served with balsamic vinegar, was I able to eat them without grimacing or furtively giving them to the dog under the table.  But what I have always loved are beet greens.  Sweet and delicious and packed full of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and protein.  They’re also really pretty with bright purple veins running throughout.  It’s a shame but most supermarkets sell beetroot without the greens attached.  To get them go to a farmer’s market or just grow them yourself.  You won’t regret it.

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Ingredients:

1 bunch of beet greens, washed and chopped

a bunch of dill, chopped

1/4 cup toasted chopped almonds

the juice of 1 lemon

a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

salt & pepper

 

Method:  Put all the ingredients into a large dish, toss ,and serve.

2014-05-25 14.34.58

 

 

Raw Chocolate Truffles

We all know chocolate is the food of the gods.  The Mesoamerican ancients taught us this.  And thank Quetzalcoatl they did because it’s delicious.  Especially raw.  That’s why I’ve been working on a raw truffle recipe so I can enjoy that rich, dark, bitter goodness in its unadulterated form.  That and my toddler adores chocolate.  While I’m not anti-candy in anyway (believe me–there are days I wake up and just want a handful of Sour Patch Kids for breakfast), but I do like the idea of her eating raw homemade cacao treats with more frequency than anything manufactured by Cadbury.  Below is my recipe.  Please let me know what you think.

 

Image

 

 

Ingredients:

200 grams of pitted medjool dates

1/2 cup raw cacao powder (plus a little extra for dusting)

1/4 cup raw cacao nibs

1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds (save a few to top the truffles)

2 teaspoons maca powder

2 tablespoons shredded coconut (raw is fantastic but dessicated also works)

1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

4 tablespoons light agave syrup

1 tablespoon coconut oil

1/4 teaspoon Maldon sea salt (put a little extra aside for topping the truffles)
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Method:  In a food processor, mix all ingredients until they form a thick paste.  Now roll spoonfuls of the paste into balls.  Lightly dust these truffles in a little cacao powder.  Be sure to knock off the excess.  Then gently roll just the tops in a little sea salt and dip them into the toasted almond slivers.  Set the finished truffles on baking paper and chill them in the fridge.  Serve cold or at room temperature.  I prefer the latter.
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Whole Wheat Israeli Couscous Salad with Turmeric Vinaigrette

Despite being from Los Angeles, I am not a health nut.  Sure I drank juice elixirs laden with spirulina during my teen years, but I did so because they tasted nice.  That and you try ordering juice in Southern California that doesn’t already come with added super foods.  It’s damn near impossible.

My reason for using whole wheat Israeli or pearl couscous as it is also known is not health related.  Though it’s true whole wheat has more fiber and iron than the regular stuff, I really don’t care.  Its nutritional value is just an added bonus.  The reason I use it is because it tastes better.  I love its nutty flavor.  I also prefer its size as I think big grains are better in salads.

Given the grain’s natural nuttiness, I thought the salad should be decidedly nutty.  Which is why I added toasted almonds and hazelnuts.  They’re my favorite nuts but you should use what you like.  Same with the herbs.  Experiment.  Discover a combination you like best.

 

Ingredients:

150 grams whole wheat Israeli or pearl couscous

1/4 cup fresh chopped herbs (dill and flat leaf parsley)

1/4 cup toasted roughly chopped hazelnuts

1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

1 sweet red Ramiro pepper, diced

Turmeric vinaigrette: 1 tablespoon dijon mustard, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup cyder vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, salt and pepper to taste

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Method:

First, boil the coucous for about 6 minutes.  Make sure there is still a tiny bit of chew when you take it off.  Strain it and rinse with cold water to prevent further cooking.  Set this aside.

Next, toast your nuts over a low flame.  Sorry, the 9 year old in me can’t stop laughing over that last sentence.  But seriously, toast your nuts over a low flame.  Make sure they do not burn.    You only want them slightly browned.  Generally, I use my nose to tell me when they’re done. The moment you can smell warm hazelnuts and almonds, they’re probably ready.

Now chop your herbs and dice your red pepper.

Add all ingredients to a large bowl and gently mix.  Be sure not to smash your couscous.  Spoon over the vinaigrette.  I do this a tablespoon at a time so as to not get too much dressing on your salad.  A soggy salad is never good.  Season to taste and serve.

2014-05-19 17.19.29 2014-05-19 17.20.33

Orange and Purple Summer Salad

Summer happened overnight.  Which is really rude when you consider how unready I am for summer clothes.  All I’m saying is perhaps a milder spring could have cajoled me into running around Greenwich Park a few more times before it became so hot you just want to walk around with as little on as possible without getting arrested for indecent exposure.  No matter.  All this heat and humidity will make me sweat my way to my target weight in no time.

That said, Sunday lunch needed adjusting.  A traditional roast just ceased to be weather appropriate.  So after I finished my first run of the season, my family and I headed to our local Farmers’ Market and bought the makings of a proper summer lunch.  A dressed crab (we named him Jeff on the walk home), avocados, a German seeded loaf, and the ingredients for my favorite salad–red cabbage, carrots, ginger, and sesame seeds.  While I fixed the salad, Helena enjoyed a homemade blueberry banana popsicle and played with a bucket of water on our balcony, as children with no pool do.  Henry read with his feet up in the shade.

playing in water popsicle smile

Below is my salad recipe.  It’s so simple and incredibly fresh.  I especially like the palate cleansing ginger.  Really nice with something like crab.  It’s also a really pretty salad, provided you like purple and orange.

 

Ingredients:

3 carrots

1/2 head of a small red cabbage

3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

3 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2 teaspoons honey

1/2 teaspoon grated ginger

Method:

In a large bowl, grate the carrots and cabbage together.  Next, toast your sesame seeds over a low flame just until their oils release.  Add those to your vegetables.  Finally, mix the last 4 ingredients together in a small bowl.  Flavor to your taste.  Pour over the salad, toss, and serve.

salad lunch

laughing jeff the crab horned snakey