Monday, October 31, 2011

The itsy bitsy spider

                                                                                                    Photo Diane Carnevale

Oh what a wicked web we weave... Happy Halloween!

Okay, it's not itsy or bitsy (whatever that means), but it is Halloween and a good day to introduce you all to this spider, which has been cleverly crafted from sticks and twigs by Hamilton artist Allan Brockenbrough. Shown below is probably the largest and certainly most most famous spider sculpture called Maman) that was made by the eccentric artist Louise Bourgeois. Her famous spider sculptures are an homage to her mother's strength—the metaphors being spinning, weaving, nurture and protection.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Apricot & tarragon cookies

Photo Diane Carnevale

The recipe for these apricot and tarragon cocktail cookies are in the latest Food & Wine magazine. At first it seemed like a really odd combination to me, but then I thought about how tarragon has that fennel-anise flavor...and then I thought about Italian biscotti with anise... see where I am going? Brilliant! And I absolutely love dried apricots, so I knew this cookie would be a winner. Trust me, the combo works magnificently.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mushroom agnolotti and brie

This is one of those flash-in-the-pan dinners you can pull together in a snap! Wild mushroom agnolotti (courtesy of Mr. Butoni, with no apologies from moi), with sauteed mushrooms in a light cream sauce (shallots, white wine, a splash of cream, thyme, salt and pep), a thin ribbon of brie cheese melted over the top and chive confetti sprinkles on top. Mushrooms are packed with micronutrients that are really good for us. Furthermore, (and since it's still breast cancer awareness month), did you know that eating just a small amount of mushrooms daily could reduce breast cancer risk by a whopping two thirds? Yup. Read all about it here.    Photo Diane Carnevale

Friday, October 28, 2011

October snow!

Here in the Northeast we're used to having frost on the pumpkin before Halloween, but snow? That's rare. So last night I was outside, spinning in delight, in the autumn snowstorm that caught us by surprise. This morning the yard was bathed in sunshine and the snow flakes and crystals left behind sparkled, twinkled, and I think, even winked. Above the snow is on a yellow nasturtium, and below on Montauk daisies and raspberries. Absolutely enchanting!


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Duck... duck... GOOSE!

It's not difficult to figure out how this unusual gourd got its name, is it? Attractive in fall and winter decorations, gooseneck gourds like this speckled one are beautiful either fresh, as shown here, or dried, when they turn a much paler color. One of these years I will grow these funny little gourds, but I found this particular one at Home Depot, and it's standing guard (gourd?) on my side entrance steps along with a few white pumpkins, a ruffly cabbage plant and some vanilla colored mums.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Our sunken garden

Our secret, sunken, four-seasons garden is a magical little spot to be in any time of year. We've spent many a lazy summer evening out there, sipping wine or having a bite to eat, and when darkness falls we watch the fireflies dance in the night sky, or watch the bats diving for bugs. On summer mornings this is a great place for a cuppa while listening to the the delightful trickle of the palazzo fountain or singing birds. Autumn is upon us now and it's a perfect time to be down in there, bundled in a sweater or a blanket, while flocks of squawking geese fly overhead. A magical time to experience the garden is after a snowfall in winter, with a warm fire pit burning and a thermos of hot cocoa spiked with Baileys Irish Creme. Every spring we pop champagne on a sunny day in April when we start up the fountain for the season—read more about that here.

Building the sunken garden was basically a very long "weekend" project. The entire job took us a couple of summers of random weekends and a sprinkling of vacation weeks to finish. This included achy muscles, the occasional pinched finger, blood, sweat, tears and our good friend, Advil. Oh and stones... pallets of Pennsylvania field stones, tons of pea gravel, truckloads of cobblestones, and and you don't even want to know how many arborvitae shrubs we planted. Hopefully the garden will feel more secret as the shrubs become bigger and bigger. 

The stone steps that lead down into the garden—flanked at the top by two antique limestone columns from the old Bartlett Estate in Beverly, MA—have cascading woolly thyme planted in the nooks and crannies, which is especially lovely when in bloom. The "four seasons" part of the sunken garden (quattro staggioni in Italianwas inspired by gardens we've visited in Italy and France. We revisited one such garden recently on the sunny isle of Capri. We planted four cobblestone-edged quandrants with pachysandra and boxwood, and we found our four seasons statues—made in cast iron—at an antique store in nearby Ipswich. 

Hidden benches and arborvitae lined pea gravel pathways lead you around the top perimeter of the garden. We joked that we made the paths wide enough for two walkers or wheelchairs to fit in for years from now, when we are old and need help walking. The back entrance has a custom made teak moon gate, which leads in to a Japanese maple grove. The pea gravel paths are lined with very old cobblestones that came from the old Beverly Salem Bridge. Apparently George Washington crossed this bridge in 1789, so we like to brag about having historical cobblestones—some worn smooth as marble—in our garden. We got the cobbles free from a landscaper friend who worked on the B/S bridge job. We hired some pros do about 18 inches of the top wall (where it's double sided) and they also did the cobblestone capstones, but we can proudly say that we did everything else. Dream big, and just do it! 

Excerpt from GeorgeWashington's diary

Below are some more photos of the sunken garden.

photos, Dan Ryan

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wake The Serpent Not

photo, Diane Carnevale

The inspiration for this creation—roasted delicata squash, maple syrup and 
pumpkin seeds—was the winding canals and arched bridges of Venice.

Wake The Serpent Not

Wake the serpent not—lest he
Should not know the way to go,—
Let him crawl which yet lies sleeping
Through the deep grass of the meadow!
Not a bee shall hear him creeping, 
Not a may-fly shall awaken
From its cradling blue-bell shaken,
Not the starlight as he’s sliding
Through the grass with silent gliding. 

—Percy Shelley

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cider donuts

photos, Diane Carnevale

Once a year when the leaves turn their day glow colors and the pumpkins show up at the markets we do something super indulgent—we buy some apple cider donuts from Russell Orchards in Ipswich (formerly Goodale Orchards). It's one of those incredibly guilty pleasures with absolutely no way to justify them, except to say that it's simply a decades-old tradition, and why break tradition, right? Plus I once read that a bagel with cream cheese has more than twice the calories and fat grams than a donut (click here for story), so there. I guess it's really a matter of being the lesser of two evils, and we only do this once a year for crying out loud. Back to traditions... The aroma of these unapologetically unctuous concoctions suck us in every time. They melt in your mouth and have capricious crispy bits when piping fresh and hot. Russell Orchard's motto is “Save the Planet: Eat Cider Donuts,” because they repurpose the oil used to make the donuts—turning it into bio-diesel fuel that powers their tractors. (Read the story in Edible Boston magazine.) All I know is that they taste good. We felt particularly guilty this year about indulging in this annual treat because as we were driving home, snarfing the donuts, we passed out neighbor Mark who was out for his morning jog, which was just wrong on so many levels! I wonder if he noticed we each had a half a donut in our hands as we waved to him. Well, at least it wasn't a bagel.

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As if that wasn't all naughty enough, I decided to push a little further towards the "cliffs of insanity" by experimenting in the kitchen with these apple flavored morsels. I dissected a donut into 12 tiny medallions then topped each with 6 unusual combinations from ingredients I found in my fridge and pantry. (You have to know that I have all sorts of weird and exquisite ingredients on hand most of the time.) The natural choice would have been to pair these donuts with a nice maple syrup, but of course that seemed too obvious for me! Shown from left to right are:

rose water and cardamom spiced sugar glaze, pink rose petal
skillet bacon spread, sharp cheddar cheese, small dice of tomato 
caramel sauce, toasted pecan, purple borage blossom
apple, orange and Szechuan peppercorn confit
with orange nasturtium blossom
gorgonzola cheese, Russian buckwheat honey,
candied walnut, lavender radish blossom
melted brie and Italian Truffle honey

Some combinations succeeded more than others, 
but they were really all good.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Scallops and blueberries

Scallops are incredibly versatile, and sometimes—if you're feeling adventurous—you can extend their culinary potential with a little creativity. Our lunch today was a lovely combination of seared scallops in a blueberry lemon shallot sauce served over baby spinach leaves and garnished with lemon zest and delicate broccoli blossoms. The fresh sea flavor of the scallops combine well with the acidic blueberry and lemon flavors.

+ + +

6-8 scallops
grapeseed oil and butter
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
1 shallot, finely chopped 
the zest and juice of half to 3/4 of a lemon
baby spinach leaves or any mesclun greens
edible flowers for garnish

Place greens onto serving plates or platter.

Dry scallops on paper towel and sear them quickly (about 1 minute on each side) on high heat in oil and butter, then remove and place scallops on top of the greens.

Add shallots in pan and sauté for one minute, then add in blueberries lemon juice and half of the lemon zest. Let the mixture some to a boil, and gently crush some of the blueberries.  If you feel indulgent you could add in another pat of butter at this point. Add salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

Drizzle the blueberry lemon sauce over the scallops and top with the remainder of the zest and edible flowers (if you have some).

Enjoy with a glass of champagne!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

I'm your vehicle, baby...

A group of young boys were ogling over this sexy red Ferarri when Dan pretended to get into it. Very fun! We saw all sorts of flashy cars in Italy. In fact, parked near this Ferrari in Florence was a spectacular yellow Lamborghini—sweet! I was hoping to see a Masarati too, but never saw one, although I did see loads of Vespa scooters and Fiat cars. In a completely different sort of vibe, below  Dan is standing by a row of green, 3-wheeled work trucks in Rome. They kind of look like a cross between a scooter and a car. I'd really like to zip around Hamilton in one.

Here's a line of scooters in Florence. Since gas is around 
$9.00 a gallon in Italy, that's a pretty smart way to travel.

Like the song says, 
"I'm your vehicle baby, I'll take you anywhere you wanna go..."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Movie staahhs!

Click to enlarge!
Photo graphic by Diane Carnevale 

These beautiful faces from decades-old films are my Hollywood ideal, forever captured in miles and miles of celluloid film in the Turner Classic Movies vaults. I couldn't even begin to tell you my favorite films, but here are some of my favorite pairs: Fred and Ginger... Cary and Irene... Humphrey and Lauren... Spencer and Katharine...Clark and Vivien... all classics! Although these faces cover most of my favorite film stars, sadly I had to edit out many other favorites... Shirley Mclaine, Peter Sellars, Jack Lemon, Doris Day, James Mason, Tony Curtis,  Sidney Portier, George Brent, Ava Gardner, and so many character actors...on and on the list could go... all brilliant.

I work from home designing and producing educational school books for big publishers, and it's intense work sometimes. Currently I'm working on complex chemistry equations and illustrations on a 2-year long chemistry book. If I don't have some soothing classical music playing in the background while I work, then most likely I have the Turner Classic Movies channel on TV, as I love the sound of old films.  Robert Osborne (the host of TCM) is like a favorite uncle to me, and I am so exited for him to return on December 1st after his three month-long vacation. All of these familiar faces from days long past keep me company as I tap the mouse and and click away at the keyboard. Tap?... click?...Suddenly I have an urge to watch a Fred Astaire film!

So, can you name all these movie stars?
Lemme give you some help:

Ginger Melvyn Marlene Ray Maureen John Irene
Leslie Audrey Burt Judy Cary Deborah Gene 
Olivia Spencer Bette Clark Grace Rock Vivien
Laurence Rita George Katharine James Joan Gregory
Barbara James Jean Jimmy Claudette William Myrna
Rex Lauren Humphrey Marilyn Montgomery Ingrid Fred
Joan Kirk Sophia Errol Elizabeth Richard Greta

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From Sunset Boulevard:

Joe Gillis: You're Norma Desmond. 
You used to be in silent pictures.
You used to be big. 

Norma Desmond: I am big. 
It's the pictures that got small.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Water hyacinths

Once we get our first frost these funny shaped water hyacinth leaves that are in our fish pond will turn black and die. So sad really, they put on quite a show all season, blooming on and off. This photo was taken sometime over the summer. I just bought some pink, fall blooming crocus bulbs to plant around the perimeter of this pond. Won't that be nice next fall, when not much else is blooming?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Heaven scent

I wish  you could sniff my wrist right now... a subtle melange of jasmine, lilac, rose, gardenia, peach, melon, and distinct notes of citrus and vanilla, are all combined in a soft and romantic fragrance... Delicious. The scent of it is bringing me back to Italy where I bought this heavenly fragrance.

One destination that I absolutely had to visit while in Italy this visit was the famed 800+-year-old Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Yup, a perfume shop—but it's so much more than that. Believed to be among the oldest pharmacy-perfumeries in the world, it was started by the Dominican friars soon after they arrived in Florence in the year 1221. They began a herb garden to grow the medicinal plants they needed to make preparations to treat patients at their infirmary. Word got out how fantastico their products were, so in 1612 Duke Fernado l de' Medici gave them permission to open their doors to the public. Their fame quickly spread all over the world, and the potions, perfumes and formulas that followed are still much the same as the ancient ones. One of the 33 scents (still being sold today!) was developed for Catherine de' Medici. The "Acqua della Regina" (Water of the Queen) was created for CDM when she went off to France to marry Henry II. Today, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella still sells traditional elixirs, along with more contemporary skin-care products, candles, perfumes, even toothpaste.

This noble store has a humble entranceway—there's no big sign, perpendicular to the street, and no shop windows in which any products are displayed. The first thing you'll see are beautiful tall wooden and glass doors that have the SMN name subtly etched on them. But look a little closer, above the doors—the name is also carved in marble under a spectacular marble mezzaluna shaped archway with a bouquet of round florettes. Aha!... a hint perhaps, at what treasures lay inside? And look under your feet—a marble mosaic spelling out the name for the third time... Santa Maria Novella. I was there!

I felt like I was visiting a secret, clandestine club during prohibition, or an exclusive restaurant—you know, the kind that doesn't need to have a sign out front. Upon entering the grand foyer, a checkered marble floor beneath my feet, I was immediately greeted by a lovely jumble of fragrances, which was pleasantly soothing after being in the crazy hustle and grind of the Florentine city. This was to be an experience for all of the senses. Inside the shop, the vibe was wonderfully decadent. I meandered through several warmly lit rooms filled with paintings, frescoes, sculptures, ancient implements of the pharmacy trade, and the lux goods were either perched on top of old world wooden counters or beautifully stacked in cabinets with glass doors. Looking up, I saw splendid vaulted ceilings with arches, stained glass rosette windows and gold leaf—lots and lots of gold leaf. Each room in this gorgeous old building is full of SMN's essences, pomades, spirits, balms, candles, waters, soaps and of course, their perfumes—which is why I was there! It all felt really special to me and much like a museum. It even felt as special as when I snuck into the Hotel Danieli in Venice to have a peek. I went to the perfume counter and sampled a few citrusy scented spritzes (my favorite aroma) and finally bought a bottle of Angels of Florence cologne. The fragrance was developed to honor the 40th anniversary of the 1966 flood that destroyed a million books in Florence’s Biblioteca Nazionale and to offer the proceeds to the Angels of Florence, a non-profit organization seeking to restore these lost cultural treasures. Every time I sniff the perfume it brings me right back to Florence. If you aren't going to Florence any time soon, shop here. Oh, the best part: The first time I wore this perfume out and about here in the USA a woman said to me "You smell really nice." That made my visit to the SMN shop and my purchase there seem so perfect.

Click to enlarge!

Below is the Santa Maria Novella Product list.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Spaghetti and 'Rope'

My husband Dan likes to tell me a funny story he heard on TV when he was a kid. Robin Williams was just becoming a big star, thanks to the sit-com Mork & Mindy, and told an interviewer that his favorite comedian was Jonathan Winters. According to Williams, Winters had a character named King Kwazi of Kwaziland. At ten feet wide and 11 miles long, Kwaziland's top exports were... spaghetti and rope!

Saturday night was Spaghetti and 'Rope' night at our little house. We didn't plan our "dinner and a movie" night like this—it just turned out that way. We started with a plan to satisfy out post-Italy craving for spaghetti and meatballs. I made some tasty turkey meatballs—a little bit of fennel seed gave it extra flavor—and then I simmered them in sauce, just like my mom always does. Full disclosure: At the last minute, we decided to cook bucatini rather than spaghetti. Bucatini is a much thicker round-edged noodle than even thick spaghetti, and is widely served in restaurants in Italy. We had ordered a bunch from for a carbonara recipe. It looks like fat spaghetti so I think our theme stayed intact. Of course in true Italian style I finished the mostly cooked pasta in the sauce, a key method for integrating the flavor of the sauce into the noodles. So, that was the dinner portion of the night.

For the movie portion, we had just received Hitchcock's suspense thriller "Rope" from Netflix. This is one of my favorites, with Farley Granger, who is possibly best known for his role in Hitchcock's later film "Strangers on a Train," and the well know Jimmy Stewart. The whole film—inspired by true-crime drama—takes place in one apartment over the course of one night. Two college pals think that they are superior to all, culturally and intellectually, and are very certain that they can commit the perfect murder of one who is of the lower echelon of society. Glutenous with self-approbation much?! They have a cocktail party and among their guests, a former mentor of theirs (Jimmy Stewart) shows up... and... well, that's all I want to say. It's too delicious of a story to give any of it away. Rent Rope, and make some spaghetti to have with it! Or, if you want something that fits the movie even better, try champagne and ... chicken. But I don't want to give too much more of the movie away!   

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tuscan white bean soup

All you cooks out there will appreciate the fact that I brought home this heel rind of a chunky piece of Parmigianno Reggiano cheese that we consumed during our last week in Tuscany. I had plans for it. I actually declared it on our customs form and told the inspector my intentions of making a white bean soup with it. I'm quite certain that he was amused. When this cheese rind is cooked along with a soup it releases all its cheesy and salty flavors. Another depth of smokey flavor I routinely use in this soup is diced pancetta, but I saw a fine looking smoked ham hock at the market and couldn't resist. So into the pot it went along with the ingredients you see in the photo. I added chicken stock and let it all simmer away for a few hours, then served a bowl of the final soup with grated Romano cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. Mmm mmm good.

+ + +

This soup has morphed over the years—a mix of several recipes combined—but the bones of it originally came from a recipe I once tried in Cooks Illustrated magazine. Credit where credit is due. A couple of notes: Homemade chicken stock is best (Save those rotisserie chicken carcasses and "stock up" your freezer!) but of course a quality canned stock works fine. The beans will have much more texture if you use dried beans, but in a pinch, go ahead and use canned—Goya brand is good. For a rich smoky flavor, use pancetta, bacon, or even liquid smoke. I once made this soup after Easter using a Honey Baked Ham bone and it was absolutely delicious. Once I forgot to buy pancetta, but instead added in diced rosemary ham (thick slices, from the deli) at serving. I generally add in kale or spinach leaves just before serving. Oh the possibilities.

2 thick slices of pancetta, diced,
     (or a smoked ham hock, if you can find one)
1 large onion, chopped
5 or so garlic cloves, minced
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
5-6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade!)
1 bag of cannellini beans, soaked overnight
     (or 3 cans, rinsed well and drained)
3-4 plum tomatoes, largely chopped,
     (or a large can of peeled tomatoes)
1 bay leaf
couple sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 rind from Parmigianno Reggiano cheese
Grated Parmigianno Reggiano for sprinkling on at the end

Once your ingredients all all chopped and prepped, the soup will come together quickly. In a large pot or dutch oven, brown the pancetta until crisp and fat is rendered. Taste. Quality control, right? With a slotted spoon, remove pancetta to a plate and reserve. Remove all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pot, then toss in the onion, celery, and carrots. Sauté over medium heat until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook for about a minute, being careful not to burn it. Add pancetta back to pot, along with the rest of the ingredients—the chicken stock, beans, tomatoes, and bay leaf, rosemary sprigs, and PR cheese rind (if you have one). Partially cover the pot and simmer for about an hour or two. Remove rosemary, bay leaf and PR cheese rind, and then taste the soup. Add salt if needed, and plenty of fresh cracked pepper. To serve, ladle soup into bowl and sprinkle with grated cheese and a swirl of extra virgin olive oil. I usually serve garlic toasts with this on the side. Lightly rub a thick slice of toasted bread with a garlic clove, then drizzle good olive oil over it. Hope you try this recipe—if you do, let me know how it comes out, ok?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Purple veggies

Here are exquisitely exotic shapes and shades of purple veggies. Clockwise from the top are: purple oak leaf lettuce, purple cabbage, various Japanese eggplants, Peruvian purple potatoes, garlic with purple running through their papery skins, purple onion, purple string beans, and purple dragon carrots. Love the various shapes and color nuances. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bernini's Apollo and Daphne

Inspired by... Bernini's sculpture of Apollo and Daphne—which lives in the Borghese Museum in Rome where I visited in September of 2011. 

Commissioned by the Borghese family, Bernini starting chipping away at this phenomenal sculpture of desire and pursuit at the incredibly young age of 24. Here's the back story of the sculpture: Apollo, struck with the golden arrow of love (by Eros, god of love), pleads with Daphne to fulfill his desire, but she doesn't want anything to do with him, or any other man for that matter. In true Greta Garbo fashion, she just "wants to be alone."Apollo chases Daphne and almost overtakes her when he... he... breathes on her hair. Clearly he wasn't getting the hint, so to make Apollo stop hunting her, Daphne pleads with her father to make her ugly. Her father then transforms her into a laurel tree—her skin turns into bark, her hair turns into leaves, her arms to branches, and her feet to roots. After the transformation Apollo still loves Daphne, who is now eternally chaste, and he embraces the tree (remember, he was struck with that damn golden arrow of love). He cuts off some of her branches and leaves to make a wreath, and proclaims the laurel a sacred tree. The Borghese Museum was gorgeous, rooms and rooms full of of paintings, sculptures, and furniture, and this sculpture was a highlight for me to see in real life. Below are two paintings I made of this magnificent marble sculpture. On the left is a watercolor, and on the right is an oil painting (now in a private collection). 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Busy bees

See that honey bee there on the Montauk daisy? There was an absolute symphony of humming bees—dozens of them—on this late blooming flower bed this weekend. This fellah looks as though he's wearing little orange boxing gloves on his legs, but that's actually all the nectar he's collected. There is supposedly a bee colony collapse disorder happening around the world, but you wouldn't know it by watching all of these bees in action, busy making sweet honey! Below are various shades of local honey on display at this year's Topsfield Fair. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Purple Peruvian potato vichyssoise

Grab your stock pots, it's finally soup season! Now that the mercury is dipping a bit, we're reaching for sweaters and are pining for comforting warmth in our nourishment. This is a creamy purple Peruvian potato vichyssoise, garnished with chives, a borage blossom and playfully polka dotted with olive oil. I'd really like to find a scarf or sweater the color of that starry blossom!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tuscan hillside, Poggibonsi

A sea of golden hills that seem to roll on forever, buttons of enormous hay rolls, cylindrical green cypress trees and endless blue skies... I wish I was there now, back in Tuscany. Here is an oil painting I made of the beautiful landscape around the Tuscan villa that we stayed at, just outside Poggibonsi—I Melograni del Chianti in Localita Talciona, to be specific. If you stay there, tell Serena I sent you. 

 (Search my blog for more of my Tuscan landscape paintings.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Behold, the chestnut

This chestnut was planted between a fig tree and an olive tree (Such bountiful treats!) 
on a hillside just outside of Moltalcino in the Val d'Orcia region of Tuscany. 

Chestnuts and chestnut products are very highly revered in Italy, but unless you have some old school Italian (or European) roots in you, I tend to think most people in America only scratch at the surface of their culinary potential—using them only for chestnut stuffing at Thanksgiving. They are missing out of course, because chestnuts can be used in any course of a meal—from soup to, um... nuts! The starchy treats are not only delicious roasted as a snack, but they also make for good soups, savories and sweets.  In addition, busy bees make a wickedly rich and dark honey from chestnut's highly fragrant spring blossoms. Here's a sampling of the possible bounty: chestnut soup with crispy prosciutto...chestnut ravioli... chestnut flour crepes filled with ricotta and drizzled with chestnut honey... chestnut cake, caramelized chestnuts... or how about a handful old roasted chestnuts with a nice 20-year old tawny Port? Hmmm? Here are two excellent pieces about chestnuts written by Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Mario Batali's NYC restaurant, Babbo—one on chestnuts, and one on chestnut honey.

I remember chestnut trees in our neighborhood growing up in Beverly, Mass. The textured husks (not the spiky, sea urchin-like husks shown in these photos) were always a mystery to me as a young girl, and the prize inside—the silky smooth skinned nuts—were always a treasure of sorts. We would carve an X on the bottom of each chestnut and roast them in the oven before eating. Sadly, disease killed off a lot of the chestnut trees in the U.S.A., though thankfully some survived, and they are making a comeback. I have a spindly little 5-foot tall chestnut tree in my yard that came from a volunteer seedling that a squirrel had planted in my my mom's yard, and I am hoping for my own bounty of chestnuts... one day. My friends Elissa and Harper Della-Piana have an enormous, half a century old (at least) chestnut tree in their yard in Wenham. I was lucky enough to visit this tree last spring to smell the heady blossoms. Devine indeed,  though difficult to describe. Elissa and Harper collect baskets of the nuts each fall, wrestling them away from greedy squirrels, and make several chestnuts treats, most notably Monte Bianco—a mountain shaped dessert made of a milk infused chestnut puree, that is layered and drizzled with chocolate, and finally covered with whipped cream. (I am not sure if Elissa incorporates chocolate or not. Still how bad can that be?) Even if you aren't going to Italy any time soon you'll see chestnuts at the markets very soon, and you can buy chestnut honey or chestnut flour through Amazon. You'll find a Google of chestnut recipes on the web, so get adventurous and creative with chestnuts!

I'll always remember the smokey aroma of chestnuts roasting in the streets of Rome! 
We bought a bag full of warm chestnuts from a street vendor there, and nibbled 
on them while doing some serious people watching on the Spanish Steps.

Baskets full of gorgeous chartreuse chestnuts collected by Elissa and Harper Della-Piana

a jar of Italian chestnut honey

Monday, October 10, 2011

British Soldiers

Anglophiles, this one's for you. We find inspiration in the most unusual things, don't we? I do anyway. Here is an fun little pasta creation that I made, inspired by a lichen called British Soldiers (see photo below). I actually own a nearly 3-inch thick, 828 page book on lichens called Lichens of North America. I hear you snickering but it's actually fascinating, and imagine what other inspirational photos I might find in it?! Even more fascinating, I am delighted that this beautiful lichen is growing on our cedar shingled shed. Aside from the perfectly named soldier reference, this lichen also reminds me of an underwater barnacle of some sort. To make this pasta dish I cooked a wide, tube-like pasta, filled it with a velvety ricotta cheese mixture of goodness, spooned a thin basil pesto sauce on it, then "capped" each soldier with a small, roasted tomato.

This red capped lichen is called British Soldiers because of it resembles the uniforms worn by English soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Lichen is not just one organism, but a fungus and algae living together to form a new organism.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pink beet soup

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so it's good timing for this pink soup. With the addition of cucumbers this cold beet soup  (borscht) is refreshing in warm weather, or on an Indian Summer day like we just had here in New England. I found the recipe in Saveur magazine many years ago. The story goes that after a restaurant lost its air conditioning on a hot summer night they created this soup, and it was so popular that they couldn't take it off the menu for months! For a warm winter version of the borscht you could swap out the cucumbers for potatoes. The history of this Ukrainian-Russian-Polish peasant soup is that it was made from kitchen scraps of root veggies generated throughout the winter, and kept outside in the cold in a kettle or pot. When the spring thaws came, a pot of this soup would be made. Gotta love any soup that's pink!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Of dahlias and sea anemones

Cool autumn nights mean that the days are numbered for this yellow cactus dahlia. With floral spikes that remind me of sea anemones—the flowers of the ocean—it screams for attention... Hey, look at me! In the Greek, the Ἄνεμοι (Anemoi) were the gods of winds, and so the anemone wafts gently, slowly, deliberately, in the deep blue currents. Sadly, dahlias are more stationary, but still, they are real showoffs in the garden, and I couldn't imagine a season without them. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Seeing red

Faux red seems to be a popular hair color for women in Italy. And not just there, mind you, because I've seen a preponderance of red(ish) dye jobs in other European countries over the years as well—most notably in Baltic countries such as Poland.

The hair color is sometimes flaming red (think Pippi Longstocking!), pinkish red, rusty red, purplish red, and sometimes...hmmm... a very odd mix of red and black. Whatever the shade, it's rarely a natural looking color. I even saw one mother and daughter team with this red hair. The hair cuts on these red heads are usually quite sleek and stylish, though occasionally the hair was a sad frizzy mess (think Bozo the clown). I snapped most of these photos surreptitiously and candidly, but occasionally I'd ask the women if I could take their photos, and they always proudly obliged. I love that these women are playful enough to color their hair with such reckless abandon!

Click to enlarge!
All photos by Diane Carnevale 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Procession of the Magi

Click to enlarge!

While in Tuscany, we made a day trip to Florence. I was extraordinarily excited to see a Renaissance era fresco (that I have been enchanted with forever) painted by Benozzo Gozzoli called The Procession of the Magi —Three Wise Men. Even though this was my third visit to Florence, I hadn't see this fresco yet. It's a large fresco in a relatively small chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence. To me it's always seemed like a fairy tale of sorts, including princes, emperors and majestic horses, all in richly vibrant colors. The painting was commissioned by the Medici clan, and so several family members have been painted into the fresco. Nice nepotism, huh?...  but then again they had all the money and were supporting the artists, so they could do whatever they wanted. Perhaps it was the conception of the narcissistic selfie craze?

In Gozzoli's frescoes we see these noble faces. Shown below starting clockwise from the top left are Piero de' Medici, Lorenzo de' Medici as a young boy, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, who would later become the Duke of Milan, and Cosomo de' Medici. The photo at the top of this post shows a detail from the Magi Caspar, who was rumored to have idealized features of of Lorenzo de' Medici. Benozzo was pals with a few other other creative Italian Renaissance rock stars such as Vittorio Ghiberti, whose biggest claim to fame is the gold Baptistry doors, and Fra Angelico. Good company indeed.

Off we went to this small museum to see this glorious fresco. So imagine my disappointment when I found out that one day that I was in Florence—a Wednesday—the museum was closed!! (I confess, tears were involved.) We do our homework before traveling, but somehow missed the memo on this mid-week museum closing. Who closes museums on a Wednesday anyhow? Just another reason to go back to Florence, right?

I finally got to see this chapel and view these glorious frescoes. 
Click to read all about it.