That Roman Feast

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AT HOME, CURRENTLY READING AMERICANAH, BY CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE — 2014 winner of the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize

Traveling to a faraway place with family, I initially imagined, would call for the kind of planning that precedes the typical Thanksgiving Day feast.  We’d gather to weigh possible venues, carve out a block of time from our calendars, which together, we’d fill, by brainstorming all the things we’d like to see and taste, before narrowing the list down to a do-able menu of sensory experiences.  All this would be followed by days and days of planning and preparation by me… to produce a main course and dishy side-trips too quickly consumed.

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But now that I’m back home, with a dozen days separating me from my family holiday — taken with oldest daughter, Kate, and our two better halves — I go on record to confess, that sometimes…. and in truth, more than sometimes… it’s good to be wrong.  Because though half of me shakes my head in wonder that such a long-nurtured thing could now be over…the better half of me is still savoring and digesting and thinking about the fifteen days of experiences I shared with loved ones.

I don’t often call attention to wrongs I commit, though it would be good for my soul if I did.   In the same way that it would be good for our world if everyone would admit their wrongs as they happen.   Like, say… when one blows up a commercial airliner out of the big blue sky, one day.

I’ll not soon forget that airliner full of families, surely some were holiday travelers like me, who lost their lives while we were wandering the great halls of the Vatican Museum with a local art history professor. The story aired in the background on television everywhere we went, for many days afterwards.

But that afternoon, still blissfully unaware, we were instead listening to our guide, Paulo.  As he pointed out famous statues… and the work of renown artists…and shared stories of past popes and their corrupt dreams of power along with their influence on the Vatican’s art collection, I couldn’t help but point my camera up.

IMG_2235Up.  And up again.IMG_2234Wondering, all the while, with each click of the shutter: What was it about these ceilings… that inspired artists to do their best work?IMG_2236

Yet, if you’re thinking that my visit to Vatican City was the highlight of my trip….you would be wrong.  The strangest thing about this trip, different from others I’ve taken, is that I cannot single out a particular place or attraction as a highlight, from all that I saw and experienced.

Take the Amalfi Coast.  The day was rainy.  But as it turned out, it rained only while we were traveling in the van.  Like magic, it would stop before our van driver stopped. Then, start again only after we were well on our way to our next destination.  The day was a series of photo stops.  Photo Stop  Photo Stop.  Shopping in Amalfi, then more photo stops.  Capped off with lunch in Positano and more photos.  Surely it’s not possible to take a bad photograph of this coastline and its cities.

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Then, there was our stop at Pompeii, which I included in our itinerary because my son-in-law Glen longed to go there.  Which is not to say that we all didn’t enjoy it because we did.  In part because of the place itself.  In part, because of the passion and knowledge of the site’s excellent tour guides, all who work as archaeologists on site.  And in part, because of Glen and his excitement and joy. Unfortunately, with a lot of ground to cover, our time there ended up being too short.

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As I think back upon it, I cannot recall a place visited that wasn’t worthy of being called a highlight.  The Colosseum, large sections of it surrounded by scaffolding.  The Spanish Steps, with its majestic building at the top, surrounded by scaffolding.  The Trevi Fountain, drained of its water and surrounded by scaffolding.

Yes, it does seem that the highlights of this Roman holiday feast had less to do with place visited and more to do with surrounding scaffolding. My own scaffolding, that is.  In other words, the highlight of the trip was all about time spent in the company of loved ones.  It didn’t matter where we went or what we did.  Sometimes we traveled as a group, and sometimes two would strike out on their own.  It was all good.

So it’s no surprise that I find that my favorite images were those that captured loved ones relishing life, one moment at a time, each in their own way.

IMG_2190IMG_2378IMG_2345While I was the one who planned most of the details of our vacation, it was my daughter Kate who dreamed it to life… when she posed this simple question to me, almost two years ago now:

“Mom…,Glen and I are taking a Greek cruise.   Why don’t you and Don come with us?

And to explain why this post is about Rome rather than Greece…would send us back to retrace the thought that travel to faraway places is much like sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast.  If traveling to Greece was our holiday “starter,” then Rome ended up becoming our six-day main course.

Below I share recipes from a real Roman Feast, a four-course menu my husband and I helped prepare during a one-day cooking class in Rome.  You cannot go wrong by beginning with the simple pasta dish, Cacio e Pepe — as my husband and I did a couple of evenings ago.  We cheated, using De Cecco pasta as always, rather than making our own.  It was still delicious.

Ciao, now.

IMG_2302 1. Appetizer: Pumpkin Flowers with prosciutto/eggplant and mozzarella & Southern Style Pesto (Fiori di Zucca dorati e ripieni con prosciutto/melanzane e mozzarella con Pesto alla Trapanese)

Ingredients for 4 people:
– 8 fresh pumpkin blossoms
– 4 thin slices of prosciutto and/or eggplant
– 1 bowl of mozzarella for pizza or fresh mozzarella “Fior di Latte”
– 1 beer (very cold, almost frozen)
– 1 glass sparkling mineral water
– about 200gr/2 cups all purpose flower
– 1 teaspoon E.V. olive oil
– 1 teaspoon salt
– sunflower oil to deep fry

Instructions:
Clean your pumpkin blossoms very carefully trying not to cut or damage the flower and get rid of the pistil and stalk. Then cut thinly slices of prosciutto and/or eggplant and wrap them into mozzarella squares. If you can, I’d suggest you to avoid using buffalo mozzarella or bocconcini, as they have too much milk and they might splash back by the time you’ll deep fry them, so try to get mozzarella for pizza or Fior di Latte that would be better!
For the batter you have to mix all purpose flour and cold beer until a smooth and elastic compost, add the remaining of the sparkling mineral water and one teaspoon of E.V Olive oil and one teaspoon of salt. If you can I’d suggest to add few cubes of ice to make the batter crunchier, unless the beer you’re using is very cold (almost frozen from the freezer).
Heat up a sauce pan with frying oil (I usually use sunflower oil, which is lighter than any E.V. olive oil and healthier than canola one) at 180°C/350°F and dip the blossoms previously dipped into batter. Deep fry them for few minutes each side, then dry off the extra oil and season with salt and pepper. It’ll be very decorative and you can serve it as an appetizer.

Suggestion: If you want you can prepare a Southern Style Pesto, that you can use as a dipping sauce (or you could even use it as a pasta sauce). In a food processor, add cherry tomatoes, E.V. olive oil, almonds, salt, garlic (remember to get rid of the heart of it, which makes it heavier to digest) and fresh organic basil leaves. Blend it until smooth and creamy. If the sauce is too liquid because the tomatoes has too much water, add a handful of parmesan cheese and blend it again.

Ingredients for the dipping sauce:
– 500gr / 1Lb organic grape or cherry tomatoes
– 1 handful peeled almonds or walnuts
– 10 leaves basil (medium size)
– 1/2 clove garlic (remember to get rid of the heart, otherwise it will be heavy to digest)
– 1 handful grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
– 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (cold press unfiltered is preferred)
– pinch salt

Wine Pairing: Prosecco di Valdobbiadene – it’s a 100% Chardonnay grapes, grown on a sandy loam and it’s early harvested in the norther region of Veneto, in order to preserve both the acidity and the character of the varietal. Excellent to be served as an aperitif – from the local Winery Ca’Sisa – Treviso (Veneto region) – ed. 2012
2. First course: Homemade Fettuccine with Ragù Bolognese (Fettuccine fatte in casa con Ragù alla Bolognese)

Ingredients for 4 people:
– 4 cups / 400 gr of all purpose flour (if sifted the flour should be equal 3,2 cups)
– 4 eggs (large size)
– 4 pinches of salt

Ingredients for the sauce (serving 4 people):
– 500 gr / 1 Lb of grounded mixed meat (70% beef and 30% pork)
– 5 tablespoons of E.V. olive oil
– 2 tablespoon of salt
– one carrot, one stalk of celery, one yellow onion
– 1 cup of dry white wine (Chardonnay or Frascati are preferred)
– 500 gr / 1 Lb of whole peeled tomatoes (like San Marzano quality)
– fresh herbs: rosemary, bay leaves, and sage
– 100 gr / 1 cup Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese (to coat your pasta dish)

Instructions for the fresh pasta:
To make the dough you have to place the flour on the table in a mound and make a well in the centre. Put the eggs and salt into the well, and start whisking the eggs with a fork without disturbing the flour. Then gently sprinkle the flour into the egg mixture a little at a time.
Once you have incorporated all of the flour together with the egg using a fork, switch to a spatula or use your fingertips to blend the mixture together well.
After the wet (eggs) and dry (flour) ingredients have been combined using the spatula, bring the mixture together with your hands to form a ball. If the dough seems too dry, add a little more egg mixture. If the mixture is too wet and sticks to your fingers, rub your hands with flour and form the dough into a ball.
Knead the pasta dough pushing down and away from you with the palm of your hand. Turn the dough ninety degrees, fold the dough over on itself and push down and away again. Continue this until the dough is smooth, about 5 minutes.
Now it’s time to use the pasta machine, which will be handy for rolling and cutting the dough. They are inexpensive and can be found at major kitchen stores or online. If you don’t have a pasta machine, a rolling pin will work just fine.
Flatten a little piece of the dough with the palm of your hand until it will be no wider than the slot of the pasta machine. With the slot of the pasta machine on its widest setting (usually 1), turn the handle while feeding the dough into the slot. Gently hold the flattened dough as it comes out of the pasta machine. After the dough has completely passed through the pasta machine, continue to do this, until the dough will result smooth and silky.
As you continue rolling the pasta into thinner settings, your sheet of dough will get longer and longer. Try to gently hold the dough as it exits the pasta machine so it doesn’t tear. This is a great time to have an assistant help you!
After rolling the dough out to the desired thickness, it’s time to cut the dough into pasta. Most pasta machines, come with an adapter that cuts the dough. If you are working on a table, you may wish to cut your dough in half to make it easier to handle. Feed the dough into the cutting blades. Try to have your hand under the center of the cut dough, so you can pick it all up in one bunch.
Immediately after cutting the dough, hang the pasta on drying rack or bed sheets or even trays with lots of semolina flour at the bottom that works great to make sure your pasta will not stick together. The pasta can be used right away or will keep up to a week.

P.S: Alternatively, if you don’t have a pasta machine, you can fold the rolled dough into a square or rectangle and place heaps of semolina flour between the layers. Then cut the roll with a knife and immediately unroll the pasta and lay flat.

Instructions for the fresh sauce:
In a large frying pan or skillet over low heat, stir in the “soffritto” made from finely chopped carrot, celery and onion with E.V. olive oil and cook until it starts to brown. Then you can add minced beef mixing with minced pork (we used prosciutto sausages in the kitchen, but if you can’t find them back home just get plain and unseasoned sausages or minced pork loin) and let it cook for about 10 minutes until brown. Turn on the heat over medium-high and stir in dry white wine and let it cook until it will evaporate (please never use any sweet wine, it’s disgusting!). Now you can add tomatoes previously chopped and cook it over low heat for about 1 hour and 30 minutes, up to 2 hours (depending on how much sauce you will be cooking). While cooking add salt and fresh herbs like rosemary, bay leaves an sage and remove it before mixing sauce with the pasta. You don’t want to have them in your pasta bowl!
Put a large pot of boiling water over high heat. When the water is boiling, toss in a couple of tablespoon of salt with the pasta. Stir to keep it from sticking and cook for a few minutes until a piece of pasta tastes cooked (if the pasta if freshly made, just cook it for 30 seconds will be enough otherwise it will result too soft and mushy).
When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the frying pan with the sauce mixture. I suggest that you use a slotted spoon to transfer the pasta to serving plates. Drizzle with cheese to coat the pasta. Season your dish with pepper if you like and garnish with some fresh herb leaves, and serve hot. It will be delicious!!!
3. First Course: Cacio e Pepe (cheese and ground pepper pasta)

Ingredients (serving for 4):
– 400g spaghetti alla chitarra (if you don’t want to make the spaghetti fresh using the guitar – chitarra wood tool – then the best brand to use back home is called De Cecco) – but alternatively you are able to make your own noodles which will be much better and tastier (see the recipe below)
– 200g pecorino romano cheese
– a large amount of pepper

Ingredients to make pasta dough (serving 4 people):
– 4 cups / 400 gr of all purpose flour (if sifted the flour should be equal 3,2 cups)
– 4 eggs (large size)
– 4 pinches of salt

Instructions for the fresh pasta:
To make the dough you have to place the flour on the table in a mound and make a well in the centre. Put the eggs and salt into the well, and start whisking the eggs with a fork without disturbing the flour. Then gently sprinkle the flour into the egg mixture a little at a time.
Once you have incorporated all of the flour together with the egg using a fork, switch to a spatula or use your fingertips to blend the mixture together well.
After the wet (eggs) and dry (flour) ingredients have been combined using the spatula, bring the mixture together with your hands to form a ball. If the dough seems too dry, add a little more egg mixture. If the mixture is too wet and sticks to your fingers, rub your hands with flour and form the dough into a ball.
Knead the pasta dough pushing down and away from you with the palm of your hand. Turn the dough ninety degrees, fold the dough over on itself and push down and away again. Continue this until the dough is smooth, about 5 minutes.
Now it’s time to use the pasta machine, which will be handy for rolling and cutting the dough. They are inexpensive and can be found at major kitchen stores or online. If you don’t have a pasta machine, a rolling pin will work just fine.
Flatten a little piece of the dough with the palm of your hand until it will be no wider than the slot of the pasta machine. With the slot of the pasta machine on its widest setting (usually 1), turn the handle while feeding the dough into the slot. Gently hold the flattened dough as it comes out of the pasta machine. After the dough has completely passed through the pasta machine, continue to do this, until the dough will result smooth and silky.
As you continue rolling the pasta into thinner settings, your sheet of dough will get longer and longer. Try to gently hold the dough as it exits the pasta machine so it doesn’t tear. This is a great time to have an assistant help you!
After rolling the dough out to the desired thickness, it’s time to cut the dough into pasta. Most pasta machines, come with an adapter that cuts the dough. If you are working on a table, you may wish to cut your dough in half to make it easier to handle. Feed the dough into the cutting blades. Try to have your hand under the center of the cut dough, so you can pick it all up in one bunch.
Immediately after cutting the dough into the spaghetti shapes (it’s the smallest and thinnest cut on all pasta machines), hang the pasta on drying rack or bed sheets or even trays with lots of semolina flour at the bottom that works great to make sure your pasta will not stick together. The pasta can be used right away or will keep up to a week.

P.S: Alternatively, if you don’t have a pasta machine, you can fold the rolled dough into a square or rectangle and place heaps of semolina flour between the layers. Then cut the roll very thinly with a knife and immediately unroll the pasta and lay flat.

Instructions:
You have to boil pasta in salted water. If you are using dry pasta, then the cooking time should be about 10-13 minutes, but if you are using freshly handmade pasta then the cooking time should be less than a minute.
Then in frying pan place a lot of pepper freshly grated. When the pasta is cooked “al dente” place in the frying pan with the pepper and add some water from the pot (it contains lots of starch, and this will be helpful to coat your dish and all the ingredients). Add the pecorino romano cheese with a few more spoonfulls of the water from the cooking pot, mixing until you have a creamy sauce mixture with the pasta. The recipe is easy, but you have to use the right quantity of water to make it creamy and not too dry or not too watery!

Wine Pairing: Frascati Superiore DOC – it comes from the Frascati DOC zone of the Municipality of Rome and it’s produced with 50% Malvasia di Candia, 30% Malvasia del Lazio and 20% Trebbiano. Has a delicate nose with moderate fruit and blossom. The palate is dry, fresh, elegant and appealing. It is produced by the local Winery Principe Pallavicini – Colonna (Lazio region) – ed. 2011
4. Second course: Veal Saltimbocca alla Romana (Saltimbocca roman style)
Note: Saltimbocca, the word translates as “jump in the mouth”

Ingredients for 4 servings:
– 1 lb / 500gr thinly sliced veal cutlets (scallopini or tenderloin)
– 10 slices thinly sliced prosciutto
– 20 fresh sage leaves, plus more for garnish
– 1 cup flour
– 1 glass dry white wine (Frascati from the region of Lazio is preferred)
– 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions:
Put the veal cutlets side by side on chopping board. Lay a piece of prosciutto on top of each piece of veal and cut it into small squares. Gently flatten the cutlets with a rolling pin or meat mallet, until the pieces are about 1/3 inch thick (about 0,5cm thick) and the prosciutto has adhered to the beef. Then lay the leaf of sage in the center of each cutlet square.
Weave a toothpick in and out of the veal to secure the prosciutto and sage.
Heat the oil and in a large skillet over medium flame. Lightly flour the veal in the pan, prosciutto-side down first. Cook for few minutes or until crisp it up and then flip the cutlets over and saute the other side for 2 more minutes, until golden. Pour the glass of wine and turn on the heat, let it evaporate and it will realease a nice cream at the bottom of the frying pan. Transfer the saltimbocca to a serving platter, remove the toothpicks, and keep warm. Don’t season with salt or pepper since prosciutto is salty and you don’t need to add more seasoning to your plate.
Pour the sauce over the saltimbocca, garnish with sage leaves and serve immediately.

Wine Pairing: Cesanese di Olevano Romano – it’s a 100% Cesanese grapes grown in and around the area of Olevano Romano located east of Rome, in the foothills of the central Apennines. To the nose is a wine with a complex perfume – gracefully flowery, reveals a strong aroma, cherry and other red berry fruits, forest fruits and spices. To the palate is a wine with a concentrated and rich flavor – with sweet and thick tannins, lasting and lingering aftertaste. It is produced from the family Winery Azienda Agricola Proietti – Olevano Romano (Lazio region) – ed. 2010
5. Side Dish: Roman style zucchini with cream of pumpkin blossoms (Zucchine romanesche e crema di fiori di zucca)

Ingredients (serving 4 people):
– 1 fresh onion (please try to avoid golden onions, and get a fresh one as the flavor will be more gentle and smooth)
– 5 tbsp etra virgin olive oil
– 1 bunch pumpkin flower
– 6 roman style zucchini (with the flower attached)
– 1 clove garlic
– peperoncino (hot pepper seeds as you please)

Instructions:
In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, saute garlic with extra virgin olive oil (remember to leave the skin on and do not burn the oil, just wait for garlic to get brown). Than add diced zucchini and allow them to cook and saute. In the meanwhile add salt and a pinch of crushed pepper seeds to add some spice to this dish (quantity depends on how spicy you want the dish to be).
In a separate frying pan saute fresh onion with extra virgin olive oil, add water in case they getting stuck to the pan as you don’t want the onions to turn brown (especially fresh onions are very delicate and tends to brown pretty quickly). Once the onions are soft and smooth, add both pumpkin and zucchien flowers previously cleaned, washed and deprived of their pistils, and add a glass of water in case you will see that the sauce is too thick and dry.
Once all the flowers have cooked down for 5 to 10 minutes, use an immersion blender to smooth it up and turn it all into a nice light green cream. At this point you can use it as a bed of cream at the bottom of your plate, and adjust zucchini over it and garnish with some fresh greens from the garden, sliced tomatoes or even some radishes (just some ideas of decorations!) to garnish your dish.
6. Dessert: Torta di Ricotta e Visciole (Ricotta and homemade sour cherry jam pie)

Ingredients for one pie/tart that will serve up to about 8/10 people:
– 280 gr / 2.25 cups of all purpose flour (remember to sift it first before using the cup measurement)
– 155 gr / 1.3 stick unsalted butter
– 100 gr/ 0.5 cup granulated sugar
– 2 egg yolk (large size)
– lemon zest

Ingredients for the filling
– 500 gr / 1 Lb fresh Ricotta Cheese (preferably from cow milk, rather than sheep milk as it’s heavier and stronger taste)
– 100gr / 3.5 Oz / 0.5 cups sugar
– fresh sour cherry jam (homemade is always preferred)

Instructions:
To prepare the dough you have to mix (if you want you can use a bowl and mix all the ingredients at the same time) all purpose flour, softened unsalted butter (just leave it put of the fridge for a while until softer), sugar, egg yolks and lemon zest. Mix everything powerfully on a slightly floured marble surface and knead everything together (but don’t over knead it otherwise the butter will turn the dough into a tougher crust), then leave in the fridge for min. 2 hours to let your butter become more stiff and the dough more suitable to stretch and easy to handle. Heat the oven to 350°F/180°C (moderate temperature). Split the dough in 2 halves, and roll the first half over the bottom of a spring pan using a rolling pin, then place a border around the edges and fill it up with 2 layers: the first one made of sour cherry jam, and the second one on top made of ricotta cream mixture. Then roll the remainder dough very thinly and use it to cover the pie with a thin layer over the ricotta cream mixture. Bake in the oven for about 30-35min.

For the ricotta cream mixture you have to take a bowl where you will mix fresh ricotta and natural sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon or whisk until the compost will become creamier and smoother, making sure there won’t be chunks of ricotta. If you can’t make it smooth just stirring with a wooden spoon because the ricotta might be too dry, then I’d suggest to use a double boiler to melt the ricotta cheese with some double cream or milk all together in order to avoid chunks of cheese in your recipe (otherwise the chunks will turn lumpy in the pie).

After layering a thick layer of homemade sour cherry jam over the base of the pie, you can spread the ricotta cream mixture, and then roll the remainder dough very thinly and use it as a cover for the pie. After baking, let it cool down and place on a serving dish. Sprinkle with icing/confectioner sugar and serve cold or room temperature!

Wine Pairing: Moscato – it’s 100% Malvasia del Lazio gleaming golden yellow grapes, that has ripe tropical fruit on the nose, with hints of vanilla. It has a balanced, generous palate, with elements interweaving well and it suits perfectly all kind of sweets. It is harvested in late October and it is produced from a late harvested wine produced from the famous Frascati. It comes from the Winery Cantina San Marco – Frascati (Lazio region) – ed. 2012

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Remodel Redux

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IMG_1909Memories of the first time I walked through my home have washed over me this week…. in small part due to the nearness of my third anniversary of moving here…in larger part, due to the onset of our main bath remodel a week ago.

So what have I been thinking?  Bittersweet thoughts, mostly.  About how starting this bathroom project means that I’ve finally reached the bottom of a very, very long to-do list.  About how happy and fulfilling these last three years in my life have been… whilst fixing and “uppering” this and that.  Even when not actually working on such tasks, I was planning and imagining all the lovely and not-so-lovely details of some succeeding project…one or two rungs down the list.

All this as a way of confessing that I’ve never been happier living anywhere, anytime… and I write this with eyes wide open, at the risk of trivializing all that’s good that has come before.  Who can say where and how such deep feelings are born?  Only that they are, and that sometimes, love and affection for some special person or place or thing… followed almost immediately by a sense of responsibility and commitment towards it…. rises up within us… almost at first sight… often without realizing it till later.

The immense joy felt from the birth of children and grandchildren….is somewhat akin to the joy I’ve felt while remodeling and living in this sixty-three year old house and its surrounding gardens.  It’s as if the love and appending commitment I bear for this home… is weighty enough to live and breathe on its own… very much like children and grandchildren… separate and apart from me.

Surely, the power of such feelings cannot help but redefine and reshape and remodel me… and what I once believed true about myself and my preferences.  How easy tastes can change with times and circumstances.  Up until it happened, I never “in a million gazillion years” imagined myself living in a fifties California Ranch.  Until, that is, my need for a one-story arose.   Until I noticed that lingering for-sale sign, in front of what seemed a well-cared-for buff-colored limestone house situated on a corner.  Until attending its Open House.  Until stepping on the worn marble-tiled floor of the small entry, and hearing for the very first-time, the snappy plop of a sixty-year old spring-loaded screen door closing behind me.  I always wanted to live in a house on a corner, I remember thinking.

“All it needs is a lot of love,” I later told my husband, while walking out the door towards our car.  As I rattled off the many remodeling possibilities on the way home, my husband countered with talk of “paybacks” and “exit strategies” and “economics.” While he spoke of being sensible… of making wise choices… of the do-WE-really-want-to-buy a house only to REDO every square inch of it…. I thought of color schemes… and weighed whether to go retro in style… or bring the place into the twenty-first century, with a small nod to its glorious fifties past.

IMG_1911Economics wasn’t part of the equation… my husband eventually understood.  Somewhere between that sweet sense of nostalgia felt while standing in the small entry… and smelling the not-so-sweet scent of leaking gas from the living room fireplace… I knew I wanted to live here.   It didn’t matter that the house had seen better days…. that much of its fifties fabulousness had been stripped away by previous and (somewhat recent) kitchen and main bath remodels.

Previous owners surely must have imagined their remodel as a step in the right direction…. just as I have with mine.  But what joy I take…. in that no one ever quite got around to undertaking a wholesale remodel of our utility bath.  Would you believe it still has all of its original tile work, including a cute cubby of a built-in shower that reminds me of the very one I used as a child.

Oh, the memories… they do wash over me.

Déjà vu, Déjà Voodoo

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IMG_1839The weather, the weather, what can one make of it?

Two weeks ago it was central heat, turtlenecks and sweaters.   Last week…., central air conditioning, shorts and flip-flops.  And today, today, like some sort of déjà voodoo, I find myself living in a text-book springtime sort of day, seventies and sunshine, like Alice in Wonderland herself.  Or maybe her companion, the Mad Hatter.

How often I’ve wished I could “read” the bursts of spring-time weather as signs of  summer-weather-to-come, like some fortune-teller that “reads” tea leaves to predict the future.  Could that “colder-than-normal” spring day mean a “cooler-than-usual” summer?  Might last week’s “hotter-than-normal” spring heat flash mean a “hotter-than-Hades” summer?   Who knows… except that I’m thankful our extremist spring spells of weather cannot spell out their summertime forecasts into words.  Why just think about it… if springtime weather could talk, wouldn’t their rhetoric resemble the extremes offered by hard right-wing and far left-wing talking heads after some big political event?  One shouting “HOT” with the other yelling “COLD.”  One shouting “GLOBAL WARMING”, the other yelling “BAH, HUMBUG!”

I suppose flip-flopping weather — winter-like lows mixed with occasional summer-like highs… is what the passage of spring is all about… the way it gracefully and, too oft with a hard jerk, transitions us from one extreme season to the next.  All the while, offering us the gifts of the season, in new life.  Flowers, and flushes of new soft green leaves on shrubs and trees.  New surprise seedlings to share, to pass along to friends and family.  Weeds to pull and toss away.  And in a way I cannot begin to explain, offering a new lease on life to me, too… from hope and joy too dense to weigh.

Who cares if books in my reading stacks gather dust on their dust jackets?  Or that home-cooking is practically nonexistent when there are gardening chores to do?  Springtime, more than any other season, requires easy eats, which too often translates to eating out or thawing something quick from the freezer.   What a wonder of wonders, then, that I recently stumbled upon the best sort of déjà vu, a recipe for beef tacos that reminds me of those once prepared by my former father-in-law.

I’m not sure whether Jack’s taco recipe was ever written, though I watched him prepare tacos (from afar) more than once.  Small mountains of chopped onions. Ground Beef and spices.  Tomato sauce and beer.  All made from a secret recipe he received from a Hispanic neighbor — shared with one small stipulation —  that Jack, on his honor, would never pass the recipe on to others.  As far as I know, Jack never did.  He died keeping his word, even though many of us longed to have that recipe.

Well… who knows why but that one day, during the dregs of last winter, I began thinking of Jack’s beef tacos.  Which led me to wondering whether I could find something close to Jack’s tacos with the help of my favorite Internet search engine.  I sit down in front of my computer.  Carefully spelled out the three-word phrase,  “beer beef tacos.” Tapped the return key.  And up came many, many pages of possibilities to weed through before hitting something close to “paydirt.”  The result shared below may not be an exact reincarnation of Jack’s tacos, even after my few changes.  But it’s close enough to my memory to conjure up the best sort of déjà vu on my tongue.

Why not double the recipe and freeze “just-right” serving portions in small batches… to thaw and heat up for supper on those days when you don’t want to come inside and cook?  In or outside of springtime.  In or out the garden.  Or whatever your own particular lost in time or space or wonderland looks like for you.  Enjoy.  And pass along.

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Drunken Beef Tacos

In a large sauce pan or dutch oven, sauté over medium-low heat for 5-7 minutes, or until translucent:

1/4 cup olive oil
One large onion, chopped
Add 2 minced cloves garlic during final minute of cooking time.

***

Add following ingredients and simmer for 5 minutes without covering with a lid:

1 finely-chopped fresh jalapeno  (more or less to taste)
1 15 oz. can of petite chopped tomatoes
1 8 oz. can of tomato sauce
1 tsp salt (or less — add gradually to taste)
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
3 oz. beer

***

Add remaining ingredients in two stages:

1 1/2 lbs of extra-lean ground beef, broken up with your hands or with a spoon or spatula
3 tsp chili powder
3 tsp ground cumin

Cook for a 2-3 minutes, continuing to  break apart beef, before adding:

3 oz. more of beer
1/4 cup water

Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, until liquid is almost gone.

Serve in your favorite shells or tortillas topped with chopped lettuce, onion, tomato and cheese.