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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Walking on the Dead

The practice of burying people in the church, known as intramural burial, goes back a ways. The churches in Florence harken back to the emergence of Italy from the dark ages--well, she really peaked out in a big way very early, then had a significant set back, which sent Dante packing and left Galileo under house arrest and in isolation from his fellow scientists. So it is not surprising that the practice of burying people in churches persisted into the modern era.
These two graves are in the floor of the Basilica of Santa Croce. There was a time when churches smelled of the dead buried beneath their floors--admittedly, it probably didn't smell that great outside at that time either. Bodies were buried in shallow graves, and if they died within the Christian faith, they were buried near the church. At some point, the problem of contagion from the dead to the living was pointed out--perhaps we shouldn't bury them so close by, and maybe deeper is better than just beneath the surface. I know, we are walking on graves all the time. We know not what lies below our feet. Whole cities are built upon the resting places of people who died before. The idea of digging up bones and sticking them in big anonymous piles in an ossuary is also a concept I am not settled in with either. But it strikes me as odd that people would want to spend eternity constantly under the feet of others.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Still Walking (2008)

The three generations gather together in this atmospheric, quiet, stirring film from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. They fit easily--and yet uneasily--under the same roof. There is enough physical space for them. It is the emotional space that causes tension. Set in a port city, though largely played out in the tight, boxy confines of a single home, the film turns on a melancholic, at times resentful and seethingly angry 15th-anniversary reunion to mark the death of the eldest son. Grief has brought the scattered family members together, and grief is what keeps them apart. The eldest son has been drowned saving a child from the ocean. He was the prodigal son,the pride of the father and the envy of his brother. When he dies, they are not only unable to resolve their grief, they are also unable to resolve their anger and unmet expectations. They cannot move on, and we see the effect that has on both parents, the siblings, and a glimmering of what the next generation might experience related to this loss. While the bulk of the film occurs over a 24 hour period, there is a flash forward to what the future holds. Which is bittersweet. The message to me was to resolve these problems, otherwise you are embittered for life, maybe even stunted in your ability to enjoy your own life--surely not what the eldest son wanted in his death--and it ripples out from there. Beautifully filmed, well paced, and very thoughtful.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chickpea, Potato, and Cabbage Curry

Coming off a wonderful cooperatively cooked Indian dinner for 70, I have been inspired to make more than my usual curried lentils and chana dal. Usually it is my husband who is experimenting with curries, but I am more likely to cook legumes than he is, and so there is a place for me in this paradigm. This is adapted from Madhur Jaffrey' recipe in 'From Curries to Kebabs' 1 cup dried garbanzo beans 1 cup chunked onion 4 garlic cloves ¼-½ teaspoon red pepper flakes 2 tablespoons oil 1 tablespoon hot curry powder 1 teaspoon just cumin powder 1 lb potato , peel and cube 1 -2 teaspoon salt (to taste) 4 ½ cups cabbage , chunks Directions: 1. Soak the chickpeas overnight in water to cover. Drain, recover with fresh water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered until very tender. Drain and reserve the cooking liquid. Add enough water to the reserved cooking liquid to equal 2 1/2 cups. 2. Put the onion, garlic, peppers and 1/4 cup of water in a blender and process until smooth. You can always add more pepper in the end, but you can't take it away. 3. Heat the oil over a medium high heat. Put in the onion paste and stir fry for 2-3 minutes. 4. Reduce the heat to medium low, then cover and continue cooking the paste. for another 2-3 minutes. Stir it frequently just to prevent sticking, and keep it covered between stirs. 5. Add the curry powder and the cumin, stir. 6. Add the chickpeas, potatoes, the lesser amount of salt, and the reserved chickpea cooking liquid. 7. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and cover. Cook gently, stirring occasionally until the potatoes are done to your tastes, 20 - 25 minutes. 8. Add in the cabbage and an additional 1/2 - 1 cup of hot water. Bring back to a simmer, cover and cook for an additional 10 - 15 minutes, or until the cabbage is just softened. Do not over cook the cabbage! 9. Taste and adjust the salt/ peppers to your tastes.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

Marcelo is a 17 year old who has an undisclosed diagnisis that is the the autism spectrum and his mother has allowed him to do exactly what he wants. He goes to a private school that meets his needs and doesn't push him in any way. He is smart, he hears music no one else hears, and he loves to work with horses. He lives in a tree house in his back yard and he does what he wants and doesn't do what he doesn't want. Enter Marcelo's father, Arturo, who thinks that Marcelo should go to public school and learn to deal with what the real world has to offer. He demands that Marcelo work in his law firm for the summer, and at the end of that time, they will negotiate his future. What Arturo doesn't reckon with is the jealousy of his partner and how that might affect Marcelo, and what effect Marcelo might have on the world. Marcelo is put in the mail room, working under Jasmine. Jasmine is a beautiful woman, which has no effect on Marcelo, but Arturo's partner's son is seriously interested in bedding her. Nothing more than that. He cares nothing for her, and Marcelo, while wanting to please everyone, realizes there is something majorly wrong with that, and resists getting involved with that. Jasmine, for her part, takes a real liking to Marcelo, and she likes him for who he is--no one in Marcelo's life feels that way, so that is a real plus of his summer job. He also realizes when the partner's son is using him, and that is good as well. The bad part is that Marcelo discovers that his father is not the knight in shining armor that Marcelo thought he was. Arturo also underestimates Marcelo in a way that changes their relationship forever. It is a well told story, with a complicated moral dilemma and an ending that has real world pluses and minuses. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Real Steel (2011)

This is a movie that owes a lot to movies that have gone before it. Atom is a very endearing junk yard robot (think Wall-E), fighting against highly engineered robots (so he is the proverbial underdog, something that you can root for without feeling devastated if he loses). The robots remind me of what I would have hoped the Transformer movie could have gotten a little better. They talk less and express more. I wasn't irritated by them, which is always a plus when watching something that is ostensibly for entertainment. Wrap that up with an out of luck former boxer who can't seem to break a losing streak, and the son he abandoned before he was born coming back to have a 'Paper Moon' kind of father-child relationship. So what redeems this movie from being a mere retread of other fight movies that have been done before? The action is quite well done without being crazy violent (so you could have younger boys see it). Kids will love it--the fighting will be awesome and there is a romantic back story and a father coming to fall in love with a child he never really knew or valued that will keep the interest of the non-fighters in the family. The language is not super clean, and there is some grittiness that the most protective of parents would find objectionable, but I think this is a pretty good family movie for mid-grammar school on up.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Crispy Kale Chips

I had these at a friends house and they were fabulous. They taste like kale, but without all the toughness. The chips are crunchy and surprisingly fun to eat. 1 bunch of crinkly kale, torn into bite-size pieces, thoroughly dried 1 tbs. extra virgin olive oil kosher salt Finely grated zest of 2 limes, optional Mild chile powder, optional 1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Make sure the kale is dry; if it is not, it will steam rather than crisp in the oven. 2. In a large bowl, toss kale pieces with olive oil and kosher salt. Massage the oil onto each kale piece until the oil is evenly distributed and the kale glistens. Spread the kale out single layer onto 17-by-12-inch jellyroll pans (or do this in batches). Bake the kale chips until the leaves look crisp and crumble, about 10 minutes. If they are not ready, bake for another 2 to 4 minutes. 3. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature. If you like, toss with the lime zest, sea salt and chile powder to taste.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spring by Sandro Botticelli

Botticelli's best known work is 'The Birth of Venus', but I prefer this painting, housed in the same room at the Uffizi Gallery. As mythology paintings entered into Renaissance art, Botticelli broke new ground with his work. He was the first to create large scale mythology scenes, some based on historical accounts of mythology. Botticelli chose to center his mythology work on what the Medici family requested, as they were his patrons. In the time period that Primavera was painted, minds were open to new ideas. Religion no longer needed to be the main subject of artist work. If the mythological works had been painted 100 years earlier, they would not have been accepted by the church because the paintings were so different than traditional paintings. Many interpretations have been given for the Primavera. Research has complied over the years and the context in that Primavera was painted in has been found. The central theme of the Primavera is one of love and marriage and (when done in the right order--Italy was after all, quite Catholic) will bring forth sensuality and fertility. This painting, the largest mythological painting in the Early Renaissance, was hung in the bedroom of a bride to a member of the Medici family. The painting is set in a meadow complete with flowers and trees. It shows nine figures, all based on a mythological text. The man on the far left is Mercury. He is separating the clouds and moving the winter clouds away so spring can come. Cupid is above Venus and is known for his lack of morality and his attempts to take apart marriages. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, is in the center of the picture surrounded by the Three Graces. Venus is elegantly dressed obviously reigning over the land. She is no longer the young girl in the painting Birth of Venus. On the right, covered in flowers is Flora, the goddess of flowers and blossoms. The story about how Flora came into existence begins with her former self, Chloris. Chloris was in the woods when Zephyr, the wind god on the far right of the painting, found and raped her. To prove to Chloris that he was sorry for his violence, he married her and declared her Flora, the goddess of flowers. Botticelli depicted Chloris turning into Flora by literally painting flowers coming out of Chloris’ mouth. In this small detail, Botticelli was seen to have followed the mythology stories very closely. Venus is the goddess who protects and cares for the institution of marriage. The myrtle plant surrounds her is traditionally thought of as the plant that represents sexual desire, marriage, and child bearing. The Three Graces depict the female virtues chastity, beauty and love. Their long, flowing coverings are characteristic of Botticelli’s painting style. Also symbolic of love and fertility are the oranges growing in the grove. The Medici family had an orange grove on the family estate. The number of oranges Botticelli drew clearly represented the hope that this marriage would result in many offspring. Notice on the right side above Zephyr there are no oranges until the scene moves on and Flora is shown to be married and respected by Zephyr; only then will “fruit” be produced. The trees and fruit are mature showing that Venus has reached her own maturity. The land is being made fertile again after winter. The Primavera and the Birth of Venus paintings show two parts of Venus. Botticelli painted them to be companion paintings and hung in the same space. They both bring across the theme that love triumphs over brutality. In the Birth of Venus, Venus has just been born and arriving on earth. The trees have not yet produced fruit. The world is waiting her arrival. In Primavera, she is among large fruits and lush flowers. She has arrived at a mature state. She is presiding over the same world in each separate works.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Downton Abbey Season 2 (2012)

Yes, I am in a clear majority here. I adore Downton Abbey. So sorry to see the second season end--the ten hours just seemed to fly by, and my only consolation is that there will be a season three. My husband thinks I am nuts. He sees it as a soap opera set against an elegant British estate with eroding lines between classes and a war for added drama. I don't disagree with that, but it is richer than it appears on the surface. The first season opened with the downing of the Titanic, and the second with World War I in full swing. These are two iconic events, and they changed things in significant ways. Rather than read about those things in a book and try to contextualize them within the history of the 20th century, Downton Abbey allows us to see those changes through the eyes of those who are experiencing them. At that time in England there is a rigid class system that everyone seems to more or less buy into. The service staff have unrealistic expectations placed on them that they largely adhere to--they are on call 24/7, they rarely get any time off, much less a day a week, they are not to be married or have relations in order to stay in service, and they have to watch the people they work with break every rule and have almost no consequences, while they would be sacked immediately for far less reason. At the beginning of season two, the Earl of Grantham wants nothing to change. By the end, he has been through a daughter marrying the help, his house being taken over for the war effort, his eldest under the threat of a scandal, and he has testified at a murder trial. The times they are a changing. Like it or not, welcome it or not, it is happening. Can't wait for season three!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Winter Squash and Cabbage Gratin

THis is adapted from the New York Times recipe, and is a great use of winter vegetables. You can just cook these vegetables in a skillet and serve them with grains for a great vegan dinner, or turn them into a hearty vegetarian (but not vegan) Provençal-style gratin. For the shredded vegetable sauté: 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 pound winter squash, peeled and shredded 1/2 cup chopped onion 3/4 pound green cabbage, shredded 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves 1/4 tsp. cayenne powder For the gratin: 3 eggs 1/2 cup milk Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 cup cooked barley, rice (preferably brown) or quinoa 2 ounces Gruyère, grated (1/2 cup) 1 ounce Parmesan, grated (1/4 cup) 1. If serving the vegetables with grains, begin cooking the grains of your choice first. 2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet or a wok and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the shredded winter squash and the garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until not quite tender, about 10 minutes, and add the remaining oil, the cabbage, sage, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Serve with grains or use the vegetables for the gratin below. 3. If making a gratin, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and oil a 2-quart baking dish or gratin dish. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk. Add salt to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon) and freshly ground pepper, and stir in the cooked grains (I used cooked purple barley, and it was a beautiful and tasty combination with lots of texture) and the cooked vegetables. Add the cheeses and stir everything together, then scrape into the prepared baking dish. 4. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top is lightly browned and the gratin is set. Allow to cool for 15 minutes or longer before cutting into wedges and serving.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Little Library in Iowa City

I absolutely adore this idea. Corner houses for books. Free books. Like a bird house only slightly bigger. Very cute--I would put one on my front lawn. And very functional--access to the written word is the key to a lifetime of of possibility. Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature. We are people of the book, and we are in very rarefied company. Dublin, Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Reykjavik are the other cities around the world that have this designation. So it behooves us to promote books. But for me the compelling reason is that books in your house predict future success. As few a 100 books in a home predicts who will graduate from college. Enabling people to have books is important. Then there is the whole recycling thing. If you give a book away it allows it to be reused--someone else will open it up and read it. You might have it sitting on your shelf for months, or years, or even decades without opening it again. But if you put it into a Little Library house, someone will read it again. And then they might put it back and someone else can have a chance at it. It is a way to share the books that you love with people and let them decide. Should they keep it? read it again? Or pass it on to someone else? Their choice. They could even rip it up, burn it, throw it away--but at least the book had another life. It affected someone else. We have a wonderful public library in this town. We were named #5 in the nation for being child accessible. People have access to books. The Little Library doesn't fill that gap. We can take books out and read them. The Little Library allows people to keep books. To own them. That is what makes it special.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Contagion (2011)

This film is a satisfying blockbuster directed by Steven Soderbergh. It is the tale of a highly virulent flu virus that is highly transmissible and fatal for 25% of those that contract it. The end result? It is almost TOO believable. This film will really, really make you want to wash your hands and not touch anyone. On top of that there is a star-studded cast--Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Laurence Fishburne, Elliot Gould--who help us through the life cycle of an epidemic, from the index case to the vaccination of the planet. The best part of this movie is that it doesn't get too much into catastrophizing. Or it stays right on the edge of believable consequences of an ongoing epidemic. People panic. The social order is disrupted. Houses are broken into, people don't go to work, and there are shortages as a result. The movie avoids what it would be like to live in a large city while this was going on, so they do not go over the top. It is a well done script, with an optimistic timeline from beginning to a vaccine being available. There are annoying side stories which don't much add to the bottom line, but overall this is a cautionary tale that is well told.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Litle Bee by Chris Cleave

I know, I am probably the last person who reads books that end up in book group circles to have read this book. In fact, I got it because my mother's book group read it and she shared it with me. None-the-less, I am going to write about it. After all, I have written about 'Anna Karenina" and that was written in the 1870's. Just because I am late doesn't mean I have nothing to say. This is not a happy book. Every story has a sadness to it, but there is also a bit of humor added, which makes the book easier to read, but in the end, you are left with the sadness. This is a modern tragedy--and the story reflects on the tragedy that characterizes Nigeria today. The story follows two main characters: Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who has traveled to London, and Sarah Summers O'Rourke, whose husband, a columnist named Andrew, has just killed himself. The story alternates between the two women's points of view, and a fair amount of it is told in flashbacks, because their shared story actually began two years before the book opens. Little Bee has to escape Nigeria, and when she does, she tries to get back to Sarah, a woman who saved her life. But she gets caught, and ends up in the illegal immigrant track out of England and back to where she came from. Much is made of how individual stories of being threatened hold no water for a country that is considered 'safe'. Little Bee is interested in survival, and her character comes off as realistic, practical, and thoughtful — the things that have happened to her, the revelations of which are one of the book's main mysteries, are hard to believe. Through her, the author tries — and largely succeeds — in making a statement about the horrors of internment that refugees who come to Britain face, and just how far apart life in the first vs. the third world really are.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Grapefruit and Honey Cake

3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup finely ground Fresh Breadcrumbs 2 medium Grapefruits 1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil 4 large Eggs at room temperature 1 teaspoon Salt 1/2 cup Sugar 1/4 cup Honey 1 1/2 cups All-Purpose Flour 2 teaspoons Baking Powder Preheat the oven to 350F. Oil a 9-inch round cake pan with tall sides, and dust it with the 3 tablespoons breadcrumbs. Using a grater, zest both grapefruits. Juice one of the grapefruits to yield 3/4 cup juice. In a small bowl, combine the zest, juice, and olive oil. Set aside. In a large bowl, beat the eggs and salt with an electric mixer until frothy and light. Slowly beat in the sugar and honey, and continue to mix until pale and thick, about 2 minutes more. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, the remaining 1/4 cup breadcrumbs, and the baking powder together. Then gradually beat the dry ingredients into the egg mixture. Fold in the citrus zest mixture until just incorporated. instructions Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Then remove it from the pan and let it cool to room temperature. You can drizzle some honey on the top, and sprinkle with toasted nuts. Serve with fresh fruit and/or vanilla icecream for an additional treat.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bronzini's Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552)

This painting by Angelo Bronzini hands in 1552 is on magnificent display the opera at Santa Croce in Florence. Bronzino was arguably the greatest master of mannerism, the highly stylistic and profane style that dominated Florentine art through the middle of the 16th century. He was born in 1506, and by 1527, Rome was about to be ransacked by Charles V, the Medici expelled from Florence and the Catholics counter-attacking the Reformers. Shuffled through these social and economic upheavals, art moved away from the classical ideals and equilibrium of the Renaissance to a new style later identified as ‘Mannerism'. The maniera moderna of the great Renaissance masters was emulated so as to create a style awkwardly strange and artificial as if removed from reality. The classical contrapposto was so exaggerated that figures look languid and overly sensual. Naked or clothed in tight garments, the bodies revealed their forms – they looked like shiny, rose-tinted porcelain. The cold light used by Mannerists and their juxtaposing of colours such as purple, apple green and orange also enhanced the weirdness and mystical aura of the painting. Not to mention that Jesus doesn't look the least bit unhappy in limbo. Not your typical religious painting. There is also an interesting anomaly in this painting: instead of Jesus alone rescuing the unbaptized souls from Limbo, a woman is helping them to get onto the rock. Grace in the form of an enticing female nude? I am not alone in this thought. It is the naturalist portraiture, which Bronzino included in his religious paintings that aroused criticism. Among the contemporary Florentines he portrayed in Descent into Limbo, he daringly included two great beauties of the day that he clothed in transparent veils and little more – a practice that religious extremist Savonarola condemned as an ‘insult to God’ in his Lentens sermon in 1496 (too early for Bronzini). This was backed up by the Council of Trent in 1563. Be that as it may, this is a spectacular painting, which has been gorgeously restored and should not be missed.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

Santa Croce is a beautiful church that stands out on it's own merits, even in a town that is repleat with gorgeous churches. It was rebuilt for the Franciscan order in 1294 by Arnolfo di Cambio, and is the burial place for the great and good in Florence. Michelangelo is buried in Santa Croce, as are Rossini, Machiavelli, and the Pisan-born Galileo Galilei, who was tried by the Inquisition and was not allowed a Christian burial until 1737, 95 years after his death. There is also a memorial to Dante, but his sarcophagus is empty. The church exterior is covered with a polychrome marble façade added in 1863 and paid for by the English benefactor, Sir Francis Sloane. It looks onto the Piazza Santa Croce, which is the site of the annual soccer game in medieval costume, the Calcio Storico.
There is great artistic wealth in Santa Croce; frescoes (1380) by Gaddi in the Cappella Maggiore tell the story of the holy cross, "santa croce", and beautiful frescoes by Giotto in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels show scenes from the life of St. Francis and St. John the Evangelist. An unusual relief, the Annunciation, in gilded limestone by Donatello decorates the south nave's wall. Don't miss the memorial to the 19th century playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini to the left of the entrance said to be been the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.
The church is gorgeous and it is clearly a special place because so many highly valued city residents. Florence was the beginning of the Renaissance, but it took a significant step backwards around the time of the the Spanish Inquisition, and sent Dante out of the city and Galileo was ostracized. But now, in the modern light of day, Santa Croce makes tribute to their glorious past.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Built very close to the Roman crossing, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) was until 1218 the only bridge across the Arno in Florence. The current bridge was rebuilt after a flood in 1345. During World War II it was the only bridge across the Arno that the fleeing Germans did not destroy. Instead they blocked access by demolishing the medieval buildings on each side. On November 4, 1966, the bridge miraculously withstood the tremendous weight of water and silt when the Arno once again burst its banks.
The stores on the bridge are really cute--overwhelmingly expensive, but really adorable. There have been stores on the Ponte Vecchio since the 13th century. Initially, there were all types of shops, including butchers and fishmongers and later tanners, whose industrial waste caused a pretty rank stench. In 1593 the grand duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici decided that this was too smelly. The problem was that the famous Corridoio Vasariano. It was built in 1565, when the Medici overthrew the competing Pitti family for financial control of Florence, and moved from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. They decided they needed a connecting route from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno that would enable them to keep out of contact with the people they ruled. The resulting corridor, high above the bustling masses on the street, links the Palazzo Vecchio to the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace – a handy escape route for the family, which passes over the tops of the then-butcher-shops: if you look at the top level of the bridge you can see an even row of square windows lined with pietra serena (grey stone). In order to not pass above odors of mature prosciutto and rotting greens, the Duke decided that the new occupants should be goldsmiths – more appropriate to the luxury of the ruling family, and jewelers is what remains today, as well. Cellini, a 16th century goldsmith, is honored with a bust on the bridge.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spaghetti with Bread Crumbs, Oregano and Parsley

After I got back from Florence and had not managed to get sick of eating pasta while there, despite eating it twice a day every day, I decided to get Mario Batali's new cookbook, Family Meals, out of the library. TIme to bring some of the pasta from Italy home. 4 cup extra virgin olive oil 1/4 cup homemade fresh bread crumbs Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 chopped Italian parsley 1 pound spaghetti Directions Bring 6 quarts water to boil in a large spaghetti pot and add 2 tablespoons salt. In a 10-inch to 12-inch saute pan, heat olive oil over slow heat. Add bread crumbs and cook, stirring constantly until golden brown (about 3 to 4 minutes). Remove from heat and sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside. Add chopped parsley. Drop the spaghetti in the boiling water and cook according to package instructions (8 to 13 minutes) until "al dente". Drain in colander and pour into pan containing bread crumbs. Toss over medium heat until coated and serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Duomo at Orvieto

This is one of the three best known duomos in central Italy (along with the duomos in Florence and Siena)--how did a mid-sized hill town get such a magnificent church? There are a number of theories about that--one is that this was the summer town that popes in the 13th to 15th century spent time in. So they attracted the best of the best artisans from the aforementioned Siena and Florence to build this magnificent structure. Another theory is that in the 13th century a miracle took place here, and that eventually precipitated the building of a memorable church.
There were two things that struck me about the church immeidately. The first is that we saw it in the late afternoon sun, and it was almost a golden color. The church appears to be built on the highest spot in town, so that when the sun has dissapeared from every where else, the light of the sun is still aglow on the church. The second, and for me the most stunning thing is that the whole front of the church is done in mosaics. The religious pictures are well rendered, but what I loved about it was the geometric designs that twisted up the marble columns. Remarkable.
There are four intricately carved marble pilasters that will astound you with both the craftsmanship and composition, with four bronze statues hovering over them that are well made--but the scope and beauty of the mosaics are what staid with me. It took most of the last half of the 14th century to complete these mosaics, starting around 1350 and mostly ending around 1390, and even then the capstone Coronation at the very top gable had yet to finish. The first Restoration started about 100 years later in 1484. They strike me as very Byzantine, and are the start of a path from that era to the Renaissance. Even if you are not much of a cathedral person, this one is well worth seeking out.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Visiting Orvieto

I very much enjoy visiting people when I am traveling, whether they are long term residents of the place I am visiting or have temporarily lived there. It is nice to see a place through the eyes of someone who is there longer than I am. My friends Barb and Ethan Canin and their three children are spending 6 months in Orvieto, Italy, a hill town near Rome. When I visited them, they were 2 months into their stay and it was such fun to tour the very walkable city with them and see it through their eyes. They have all been taking Italian, and with everyone we met they insisted on speaking it, rahter than allowing the conversation to take place in English--such fun to see, as that would be my approach as well. Suffer with me as I struggle with your tongue, otherwise I will never get the hang of it. It is a good way to build comraderie, to say that you will try hard to communicate. Orvieto is a wonderful town--it is up on a hill, but there is a funicular up the worst of it, so when you get to the top, there is very little in the way of up and down walking--so you are not winded going out to get bread each day. On the ride up to town from the train station you pass through groves of olive trees and vineyards. You know right away that you are in a place that grows things, and while Orvieto is a bit on the touristy side of things, the quality of cheese, wine, and olive oil from the region is wonderful. We brought home 2 Orvieto white wines and 2 local cheeses, and only wished we could have transported more--such a treat to have a taste of the town when we were far far away in the town that we live in.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Baked Radiccio with Chevre

I had two radiccio experiences e=recently. The first was in Italy, where I had a braised radiccio as an antipasto. It had a rich and complicated flavor and was much less bitter when it is baked. The other was radiccio packets filled with goat cheese and then baked--I thought this made an elegant appetizer, but the whole wrapping and closing the packets was too labor intensive, so I modified it to be more like how I bake chevre to go into a salad. 2 medium heads radicchio goat cheese, cut into 1/2-inch pieces 1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil 1 clove garlic, minced 1 teaspoon dried basil, crumbled 1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crumbled 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled Toasted bread crumbs Pepper to taste Sliced Italian-style bread Preheat oven to 400° F. Peel leaves off the head of radiccio--these are going to hold slices of chevre. Place radicchio in a large shallow baking dish. Arrange goat cheese over the top. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat olive oil; add garlic and saute approximately 1 minutes. Remove from heat and add basil, marjoram, rosemary, and pepper. Drizzle over goat cheese and radicchio. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake approximately 15 minutes or until cheese begins to melt. Remove from oven and serve with bread slices.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Il Palagio, Florence

Michelin stars are awarded for both exceptional service and cuisine, and are indications of a chef and a restaurant’s merit. Il Palagio, at the Four Seasons in Florence, and Executive Chef Vito Mollica’s authentic Italian cuisine with a contemporary twist were recently awarded one star. When we were in Florence last month the only day that Il Palagio was open was for Valentines Day dinner--they are undergoing a renovation, and it was otherwise closed for several months. So we did not get to order off their usual menu. We arrived at the exact hour that it opened--which is our norm in countries where the dining hour is late and we are only there a week or less (after a week we can be more or less on the country's time, and so waiting later for dinner becomes an option). It is an over the top gorgeous room, with painted murals on the walls, over-sized crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and a marble floor--in the middle of dinner when a waiter at a nearby table swept a glass off the edge of said table onto said floor, it broke into a thousand pieces with a deafening roar. Oops. We were almost alone in the restaurant for the first three courses, as a result of our being a bit jet lagged and everyone else being Italian. We opened with an amusee buche, which was quite delicious--my favorite was a pistachio shortbread, topped with a bit of fresh cheese and a small cube of flavorful salami. The combination was just perfect. There was a fish egg one and a liver pate one that were very good. We then went to the appetizer, which was a choice between a fine aged chingiale and oysters--we got one of each, and they were both very good. Next we had bass carpacio or beef tartar, and once again we had one of each. The main course was duck--a confit leg and a seared breast. Both were excellently prepared and served with an excellent sauce and very nice sides. The dessert, coffee and sweets were all well done. My only hesitation about recommending this place is that we could have been anywhere--including the United States--and when in Italy, I would prefer to eat food that resounds of the cuisine of the region I am in. Again, that might happen when it is not a special meal, so best to check the on-line menu before making a final decision about this very fine restaurant.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Borgias (2011)

This is a series about the Pope who ruled at the end of the Italian Renaissance and while Columbus was sailing to the Americas--a man who is credited with being possibly the worst Pope to date, and his family. But do not mess with him. Who are the Borgias? There is the patriarch, Rodrigo (Jeremy Irons), who by the end of the first hour of the first season becomes Pope Alexander VI through a combination of usury and bribery. Then there are his beloved illegitimate children (I warned you--not the model religious man) and their mother, a former courtesan (Joanne Whalley). Eldest son Juan (David Oakes) is a somewhat arrogant soldier who gets into brawls and thinks very highly of himself and his skills, without much to back that up. Middle son and family fixer Cesare (pronounced Chesare, and played by the broodingly handsome Francois Arnaud) has been forced to follow his father into the Church--he would rather take up the sword and get out of the gowns--which do not keep him from following his father's footsteps into the beds of women. Sister Lucrezia and brother Cesare have what appears to be an incestuous affection for each other. She gets married off to a brute in the interest of political alliances--which do not appear when they are needed so her misery is without political value in the end. Hence is the role of women on the dawn of the sixteenth century. We encounter the family at the end of a period of relative peace, before Dad grabs the miter and becomes two men — Rodrigo and Alexander, person and pope, confusing God's work with his own family fortunes and pet projects — and the strains and stresses of power complicate their days. That is pretty much the whole argument for our sympathy, for though the Borgias are understandable in human terms, it's hard to deeply care for them. Although the opposite side in the conflict leaves a lot to be desired as well. No one is without sin. That, more than the story — which is easy to anticipate, so clear are everyone's intentions and options — is what makes this series worth your while. Irons, an actor who seems draped in the accumulated vices of the odd ducks he's played over the years, lies back and steals the show with the music of his worn, woody bassoon of a voice, soothing in a way that also alerts you to be on guard against it. It is high class period soap opera at it's best.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Peposa a la Fornica

This is the food that Brunelleschi served to the workers who worked on the Duomo dome in Florence. He didn't want them to have to travel up and downing the scaffolding in order to eat. He worried that that would tire them out, and the building of the dome would take an unacceptably long time to complete. He did have a sense that this would seal his name in history--and he was right about that. So he provided them with meals and wine--simple, hearty, flavorful meals. This is a recipe which starts with a tough (and inexpensive) cut of meat, adds garlic, Chianti, and peppercorns in volume, and comes out with a richly flavored, melt in your mouth textured beef that is divine. Beef Stew, Kiln Worker's-Style Ingredients: 2 Lb. Beef stew meat, cut into bite-sized chunks 10 Cloves garlic, peeled, but left whole 1 - 2 Tbs. Crushed black peppercorns 3 - 4 Cups Chianti Classico Salt 4 1 in. Slices rustic bread 1 Clove garlic, peeled and halved Preparation: Pre-heat the oven to 250 F. Place the meat and garlic in an ovenproof casserole. Sprinkle the crushed peppercorns over all. Add enough red wine to cover the meat by approximately one inch. Bring the casserole to a simmer on the stove, then cover, and place the casserole in the center of the pre-heated oven. Cook, adjusting the heat so the stew barely bubbles, for approximately six hours. If the liquid reduces too much while the stew cooks, add hot water to compensate. At the end of cooking, the sauce should be thick enough to coat a spoon, and the meat should be falling apart. Taste, and season the stew with salt as necessary.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Vini e Vecchi Sapori, Florence

This is located very near the Piazza della Signoria at Via dei Magazzini 3r. You need to have a reservation and it is well worth loggin onto Skype before you go and setting up your dinner before you leave for Florence. You might want to consider a couple of nights here, as the menu changes daily and the prices are very good--as is the food. the thing about recommendations from Trip Advisor is that they really focus on food and getting value for your money. Atmosphere is a distant third in the reviewers consideration, in my experience. But we love sharing a table--if you can't muster enthusiasm for that, eat elsewhere, because the restaurant is very small and you definitely will not be able ignore your fellow diners. The house wine is reasonably priced and goes well with the food. And the food is fantastic. We opened with a salumi antipasto. The selections for the plate were sitting on the counter at the back of the restaurant, and were literally cut to order as we watched. For a primi I had fettucini with artichokes (cooked--for the first time of the trip)--it was rich and delicious. My spouse had pappardelle with a tomato rabbit sauce that was rich and full flavored. If we lived in Italy, we would have stopped there. The portions are very large and we would have been sated at that point. But I went on to have a segundi--stuffed cabbage--which was a blend of Parmesan, veal, pork, and spices encase in a cabbage leaf that had been reduced to a melt in your mouth consistency. Perfection. Our neighbor had a pumpkin soup started that had some olive oil drizzled on prior to serving, and looked divine. The other thing I saw that looked delicious was the stuffed artichoke. My only regret was that we ate here on our last night and we had no chance to go back--until next trip.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Gelato in Italy

I was in Italy during the worst winter they have had in over 30 years. The temperatures were cold. The windows in our apartment were ancient and did not keep the warm air inside and the cold air outside. It snowed. Not just once but several times. so it ws not what I would consider peak gelato season. But despite that, there are gelato stores on almost every block in the Renassiance era part of Florence. And it is glorious to look at. The Italians know how to make everything look good and ice cream is no exception. Gelato has much to recommend it--first of all, it tastes richer than ice cream in the United Staes--even though it has a butter fat content of 4-8% instead of 14%. It has very intense flavoring. The fruit flavors pop with fruitiness, the chocolate is chocolatier, and the nut flavors are spectacular. The mouth feel is also a plus--gelato often has egg yolks in it, which add to the silky feel of it. Even without egg yolks, it is more satisfying, maybe because of the the higher sugar content. Less is more with gelato. So wide availability is a plus, regardless of the season.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What's Your Number? (2011)

This is a romantic comedy--not the best and not the worst. I watched it on a plane, and that is probably the perfect venue for it. If you were to make plans to go out with someone (even your spouse) to see this movie, you might be disappointed. But here is why I liked it--the couple involved actually become friends before they start a relationship with each other. One of the complaints about the movie from critics is that the couple have no chemistry, but in real life, lots of successful relationships don't start with that. If you are looking for someone to sleep with, then your ability to like them is not all that important. if you are going to spend a year or more in a relationship with them, then you need a lot more than chemistry. And let's face it, enjoying someone out of bed is a lot harder than enjoying them in bed. But you don't see that much of that in movies. This one could have benefited from some snappier writing, but in a lot of ways I liked it better than 'Friends with Benefits' (which did have a more upscale script). So here is the story. Ally (Anna Farris) has been skating through life without really finding herself attached to someone--she is more likely to go out, drink too much and find herself in bed the next morning with a guy than work on the longer term relationship. She hasn't gotten to the point where she can envision herself in a long term relationship, and it only occasionally bothers her. Meanwhile, her younger sister. Daisy (Ari Graynor), is getting to marry a guy she went out with in high school but then broke up with--but is now a good looking successful guy who seems to be head over heels in love with Daisy. On top of that Ally's mother (played pitch perfect by Blythe Danner) is all too eager for Ally to make a 'good' match (there are a lot of cautionary tales for mother's of marriagable children--a veritable manual of what not to do). Every romantic comedy has a leap of faith moment and here is the one for this movie--Ally reads an article in a magazine that sets her off balance. In what is undoubtedly methodology that wouldn't stand up to scientific peer review, it reports that women have an average of 9 sexual partners over the course of their lives, and, most damningly, women who have more than 20 sexual partners are unliekly to ever marry. Ally quickly does the math and realizes she is at 19. Uh oh. She panics. Then she asks her mostly married girlfriends what their life totals are--and they are predictably half her number. So she decides to go back over her past lovers, and try to find one that she can live with. Literally, like for the rest of her life. She gets her very hunky neighbor, Colin (Chris Evans), whose personal number of sexual partners is in triple digits, aas evidenced by the stream of different women leaving his apartment in the same clothes they arrived in the day before, to help her track these guys down. And the rest of the story unfolds in pretty much the way you would predict. A light diversion with some good lessons underneath.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Accademia Gallery, Florence

The museum was essentially built to house the iconic statue of the Italian Renaissance--Michelangelo's David. In this endeavor they were spectacularly successful. David is not unknown to me. I have seen several copies of the original (none quite as large), and I was not blown away by them. So in some ways I was ill prepared for just how spectacular the original David really is. He is larger than life, and the museum he is housed in sets him off to his best advantage. He is up on a pedestal, with his toes more or less at eye level, so you look up at him--which is how Michelangelo expected us to see him. The hall that you approach David through is lined with unfinished carvings that Michelangelo did for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
David stands under his own dome at the end of the hall, so the hall opens up onto him. You can walk around him, and look at him from a 360 degree perspective. Which is spectacular because he looks remarkably different from different vantage points. From the front he looks confident, almost cocky, leaning back a bit with his hips thrusting forward--but from the side he looks wary. How is he going to manage downing this much larger opponent? He is not so much beautiful as he is complicated. I think that suits a tribute to a man who went on to write Psalms. There is a semi-circular bench to sit on so you can contemplate David at your leisure. Without being distracted by aching feet (a reality in the art-saturated world of Florence). I wouldn't have predicted that I would respond this way. I have heard that people become overwhelmed, even psychotic, due to the magnificence of art in Florence. I didn't get it. I do love art--I have it in my house, I travel to see it, but I didn't see being moved by a particular piece. David is such a work of art that it can take your breath away. it is worth seeing in person, and it is worth making an effort for.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pasta in Italy

Wow. This is the real highlight of Italy. Even when you consider that the wine is fabulous and affordable, and the slow cooked entrees are spectacular. The pasta still comes out way ahead in terms of impressive cuisine. The average pasta dish is so much better and more interesting than the vast majority of pasta you can eat in the United States. The pasta itself is very good, but what stands out is what is put inside the pasta and what the sauce is made with. It is true in top tier restaurants but it is also true in diners. Some highlights of my recent trip in the pasta arena included a red wine sauce that was slow cooked and reduced down to a more viscous sauce that benefited from the long cooking time, so it had a very rich flavor. Fantastic. i hope that i can reproduce something like this at home. Ravioli is a favorite of mine, and three ravioli stand out. The one that was the most surprising was a polenta ravioli-- this is a wonderful option for leftover polenta. The resultant ravioli has the earthiness of corn, and the silky texture of polenta. Much a nice marriage and when paired with a simple sauce, it is memorable. Another great ravioli I had was stuffed with mash potatoes. This is another great reuse of leftovers, and when paired with a long cooked meat ragu sauce it is a great meat and potatoes meal with a special feel. The third great ravioli is a classic--wild mushrooms and ricotta stuffed into the ravioli with a rich tasting porcini mushroom sauce. Delicious.
We had wonderful pappardelle and tagliatelle sauces--artichoke and asparagus are two that we haven't made at home and will try in the future. Even the tomato based sauces tasted better than they taste at home. My goal was to have pasta twice a day, and I managed to be successful at that. The thing that I didn't manage to accomplish was to get sick of pasta while I was in Florence. Something to aim for in the future.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mercato Centrale, Florence

I love it when a city has a big indoor market where there are numerous food vendors under one roof. Pike's Place market in Seattle is a great example, as are the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, the six city markets in Baltimore (my SIL used to live a few blocks from the Cross Street Market, and I have many fond memories, most of them involving crab cakes, from there), and the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles--where I first fell in love with this style of market as a child. The essential components are the overwhelming volume of fruits, vegetables, cheese, wine, as well as fish and meats. It doesn't hurt if there is a good place or two to eat, but that isn't critical--the most important thing is that you could assemble a spectacular meal without having to exert much effort to do so, the available ingredients are so spectacular.
The Mercato Centrale in Florence is just such a place. I still ache with residual envy when I think about the options at the cheese vendors, and in particular the butchers. I am not much of a cook when it comes to things that require modifying the meat--my spouse does all of that preparation. I would cook the chicken whole any day of the week to avoid having to cut it up into parts (I am much better at that once it is roasted), so I am limited in what I can prepare. That would not be true if I lived in Florence. There were so many enticing things at the butcher counter, and I am not much of a meat eater, so it was particularly impressive.
Cheese is the next reason to go to the central market--I love to look at all the selections, and the ability to taste several cheeses before selecting the perfect one for whatever purpose is another perk. The availability of wine at the central market is also very good, but no different that what you can find in a dozen other wine stores in the neighborhood--there is a surfeit of wonderful and affordable wine in Tuscany that I also envy. I bought several things to bring home with me--spices, dried porcini, sun-dried tomatoes, and dried pastas that don't appear on my supermarket shelves at home, and longed for this sort of a place at home.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Donatello's David

If Michelangelo was the artist of the Italian Renaissance, then Donatello was it's harbinger. These two sculptures are at the Bargello Museum, and they are well worth seeing, as well as Bernini's rendition of the young and future king.. Michelangelo's version is truly awe inspiring, but these other three make a more complete story of Italian sculpture in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Donatello's bronze David is age unknown but thought to be from about 1440, and is considered to be the first bronze of the Italian Renaissance. It was almost shocking to me to see this statue. David looks like a girl--and you should see the shot of the back--it is even more suggestive of a female figure. He looks almost coquettish, his eyes glancing downward and the half smile on his face. Which belies the head of Goliath under his foot, all the while he is wielding Goliath's sword.
The bronze David makes me wonder about Donatello's sexual orientation, but his earlier work in marble (1408-1409) has a different quality. First of all, David is dressed--so the Italian Renaissance tolerance and even encouragement of the return to the days of the Greeks and nude statues is not yet upon them. David looks young, but not sassy young. He is more serious and contemplative. The bronze David lived in a private home--if you can call the Medici's private and where they lived a home. They entertained on an impressive scale and their houses don't strike me as homes, but this was not a statue in a public square. These statues are both in the same room, so you can move between them ad go around them. Very thought provoking.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Trattoria Mario, Florence

This is a wonderful bustling restaurant right around the corner from the mercato centrale. You do not have to be in the neighborhood to make this worth your while. The day we went, we visited the mercato, and bought so many food items to take home with us that we needed to return to our apartment in order to not end the day feeling like pack mules. No problem, it is less than a ten minute walk back to the neighborhood, and after several days in Italy, it is a very good idea to have an excuse to walk around the block a few times. Even then, it is tough to off set the calories that every meal presents. So many choices! At Mario's you will definitely be at a full table. It is jam packed with tables, and when we walked in about 15 minutes after it had opened for lunch (and it is only open for lunch) and we couldn't see an open table. Fortunately the wait staff are used to this--they pointed to a table in the back of the trattoria, and we sat down at a table for six. We wedged our way into the back corner, and as soon as we had ordered we had three Germans sitting with us, and a minute after that we added a woman from China and we were full up. Our waitress presented the items from the handwritten menu (it changes every day) that she thought would meet our needs. Joel had a Florentine steak (which when translated means 'huge 2 pound steak) and I had ravioli filled with mashed potato and covered in a ragu meat sauce. Delicious! I really love good ravioli and mashed potatoes are a personal favorite, so I was bound to enjoy it. The meat sauce was flavored with Tuscan red wine and I savored every bite. My entree was 6.5 euros. If I had wanted wine, I could have gotten the house chianti for 4 euros a liter. This place is well worth searching out at Via Rosina 2r in Florence.