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Saturday, February 25, 2012

A trip to Roma

My husband and I took a recent trip to Rome to see the elevation of Cardinal Dolan. It was the trip of a lifetime, with so much beautiful art, history, churches and of course, food.

We had a wonderful experience at a private dinner at Aventino Palace, which is located high on a hill overlooking Rome. The view is spectacular, with the dome of St. Peter's Basilica shining in the background.
The view from Aventino Palace
The evening started with Prosecco and passed hors d'ouerves, the tastiest of which was the fried zucchini flowers, although the shrimp on bruschetta was a close second. At the lovely candlelit dinner, which was served in courses, the seafood risotto was the standout dish.

We were treated to a fantastic, authentic Italian dinner at Ristorante 34 on our third evening. Our host is a regular customer there, so the dinner started with our waiter (whom one in our party described as a "cross between Elvis Costello and John Turturro"- I found a photo of him on the restaurant website so you could see what she means) bringing our table Jerusalem artichokes, which I had never tried.
Our waiter- photo taken from the 34 website

They were crunchy and delicious, although the waiter came back to tell me I wasn't eating the best part! (I was just eating the leaves, which I honestly thought tasted better than the bulb.) It's not really an artichoke, it's more of a tuber, like a potato or onion.

Next he brought fried squash blossoms, which had a delicate outer batter and inside, the squash, mozzarella and anchovies. It was heavenly!

Another appetizer was sliced octopus with shrimp and pistachios. I was not brave enough to try the octopus, but our dining companions loved it.

Another course was brought out- pasta soup with cuttlefish and chick peas. I've never had cuttle fish, and if someone had explained to me what the fish looked like before I ate it, I would have missed out on a delicacy. It reminded me of pasta fagioli, but it had a more vibrant flavor.

After all of this, then it was time to order our meal! I was seriously full by this time, and most of our table shared entrees, like the rabbit and grilled calimari. The calimari was so beautifully plated, I wish I could have taken a photo, but I could not. It was not calimari as we usually see, in rings, but flat on the plate and it tasted as good as it looked.

My husband ordered veal meatballs and asked for pasta on the side, maybe some spaghetti. Elvis Costello shook his head at my husband and said, "No, no not that. I bring you something better." The table erupted into laughter.

The dinner lingered and it was such a great experience. At the end of the meal, our waiter spoke in rapid Italian to those in our party who understand Italian about the impact of the Costa Concordia cruise liner crash on Italy. He said that cruise ship traffic is down, which hurts tourism, including restaurants, and how embarrassed the country is about the conduct of the ship's captain. It seems many Italians feel his conduct reflects poorly on all Italians.

It was an unforgettable evening, full of mouth-watering food, wonderful companionship and we followed it with a walk to the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, which must be seen at night- so gorgeous!

My husband and I at Trevi Fountain
Other culinary musts when in Roma include cappuccinos at cafes, pasta carbonara and gelato. My husband would go to a cafe near the hotel every morning, stand at the counter and order his cappuccino and drink it there like the locals. Our dinner host said that one simply must have pasta carbonara in Roma, so I ordered it at Corsetti 1921, and it was simple fabulous. And the gelato in Italy tastes creamier than any gelato you can get in the US.
Pasta Carbonara at Corsetti 1921

Rome is a spectacular place and I hope to get back there again soon. If you have been to Rome, please suggest the restaurants we must visit for our next trip in the comments section.

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Deconstructing Super Bowl Snacks

If you have ever watched Bravos' Top Chef, you had heard the term 'deconstructing'. It involves taking a popular dish, breaking down its ingredients, and using them in a different way to evoke the same flavors.

This Super Bowl there were only three of us, and my husband wanted the traditional football foods- chicken wings, tacos, pizza. Instead of that, I deconstructed those snacks and made dips out of them.

I used to make this Taco Dip all the time when the boys were home and we had Mexican night.
Taco Dip
1 can refried beans
1 cup taco sauce
8 oz. softened cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
8 oz. shredded Mexican cheese blend
shredded lettuce
1 chopped tomato
sliced black olives

Directions: Spread beans on the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Top beans with taco sauce. Mix cream cheese and sour cream and spread on top of beans and sauce. Top with shredded cheese and bake for 20-30 minutes, until bubbly. Top with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and sliced black olives. Serve with tortilla chips.
Taco Dip

I made Chicken Wing Dip using Frank's Hot Sauce's recipe, which is just softening 8 oz. cream cheese and spreading it in a casserole dish, mixing 1/2 cup blue cheese dressing with 1/2 cup Frank's Hot Sauce and 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella, stirring in 2- (12oz) cans of chunk chicken breast and spreading that on top of cream cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve with celery and carrot sticks. My son also makes his own version of this dip, but he informed me that he uses shredded rotisserie chicken, not canned chicken.
Chicken Wing Dip

I did not make my famous Pepperoni Dip, which I got from a community recipe book many years ago, but it falls under the deconstructing umbrella. Everyone loves this dip, so I'll share the recipe here too.
Pepperoni Dip
8 oz. tub soft cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp.  dried oregano
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper
1/2 cup pizza sauce
1/2 cup chopped pepperoni
1/4 cup chopped green pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onion
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella

Directions: In a small mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, sour cream, oregano, garlic powder and red pepper. Spread in a 10 inch pie plate. Spread pizza sauce over top. Sprinkle with pepperoni, green pepper and green onion. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. top with mozzarella and bake for 5 minutes more.

I also made homemade peanut cups for dessert and french dip sandwiches with Johnny's French Dip sauce that we got in a lovely food basket from my parents for Christmas. It was delicious!

Homemade Peanut Butter Cups
11 oz. package of milk chocolate chips
1 cup peanut butter
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

Directions: Line a mini muffin tin with paper muffin cups. Melt 1/2 of the chocolate in the microwave for 1 minute, stir to melt completely. Spoon melted chocolate into paper muffin cups, drawing halfway up the sides until evenly coated. Cool in refrigerator til firm. In a small bowl, mix peanut butter, salt and confectioners' sugar til smooth, then put on top of chocolate. Melt the rest of the chocolate and spread over peanut butter to the edge of the cup. Chill til firm.
Homemade Peanut Butter Cups
What was your favorite Super Bowl snack this year?

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 978-0-06-206422-6
Hardcover, $25.99

I first read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre a few months ago on my Kindle while on the treadmill. I can't believe I had never read it, but better late than never, right? I loved it, and so when I heard that there was a retelling of Jane Eyre titled The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I was excited to read it.

The story's setting has been moved to Scotland and Iceland in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Gemma is an orphan, whose mother's brother and family took her in when she was a young child after her father died. Her mother died when Gemma was just a toddler.

Gemma's uncle, a minister, loved her and treated her well, but when he died in a tragic accident, his family began to treat Gemma badly. Her aunt and three cousins treated her worse than a servant, because according to them, Gemma was freeloader who contributed nothing to the household.

When Gemma was ten, her evil aunt sent her to a boarding school. It was hard to believe, but school was worse than living with her cruel aunt and cousins. The students beat and stole from her. The head of the school humiliated her in front of everyone. She was a 'scholarship' student, so she earned her keep by working like a dog.

She had only one friend, and studied hard, hoping someday to get a job as a teacher and return to her homeland of Iceland and find her real family. When the school is forced to close, Gemma takes the only job she can get as a tutor for a young girl on an estate on the Orkney Islands in Scotland, owned by the wealthy and mysterious  Mr. Sinclair.

So the first part of the novel hews very closely to Jane Eyre; if you read that book, you pretty much knew everything that was going to happen. This puzzled me somewhat, thinking that it isn't difficult to take the plot of a long beloved classic and make a few differences, updating it.

There is a big mystery in Jane Eyre, a big secret that Mr. Rochester kept from Jane that caused her to flee. Mr. Sinclair has a secret in this novel too, and this is where the author diverges from Miss Bronte's book and creates her own story.

Gemma falls in love with Mr. Sinclair, agrees to marry him, but when his secret is revealed, she runs away. I didn't truly understand why Gemma ran away, as Mr. Sinclair did not have a mad wife in the attic, but his dishonesty drove her away nonetheless.

Her troubles begin when she is robbed and has no money or place to go. She, like Jane, is rescued by a mystery man, the local postman. His sister and her friend take Gemma in, and after a while, Gemma feels like she belongs.

She finds a job as a tutor for a young boy, and comes to care for the boy and his family. While Gemma feels that she has found her place in life, she still feels insecure, like it could all be taken away from her in a moment. She longs to go home to Iceland.

Gemma makes a few bad decisions, but ends up discovering her parents' family in Iceland. This part of the book really tugged at me, and the setting in Iceland added a unique aspect to the book. I have never read anything set in Iceland, and it made me curious to  learn more about it.

I liked the second half of the book better than the first; Livesey creatively uses the Jane Eyre template to  build a new story, with a scrappy young heroine who appeals to the reader. I fell in love with the people of Aberfeldy, the town in which Gemma ends up.  And Gemma's reunion with her family is so touching. The ending is familiar to readers of Jane Eyre;  how could it be any other?     

I loved the unique setting of Scotland and Iceland, although it seemed that the time of the 1950s and '60s was less relevant to the story. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a terrific companion read to Jane Eyre, and Gemma is a worthy successor to the great 19th century heroines in literature.

rating 4 of 5

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Weekend Cooking- A Barbados Food Feast

My husband and I celebrate our 25th anniversary this year, and along with his brother and his brother's wife (also celebrating 25 years), we took a trip to Barbados last week.

The weather in Barbados is perfect- 80 degrees every day, a nice breeze, and beautiful sunshine. My sister-in-law is curious as to why the sand is always cool to walk on, never too hot, but I don't know why- anyone have the answer?

Anyway, Barbados has some truly fantastic restaurants, and every one we went to, we thoroughly enjoyed. On Fridays, the town of Oistins hosts a Fish Fry. There are dozens of food stands and small restaurants lined up one after the other, most serving fish.

We went to Uncle George's, and even though we were told the wait in line would be about an hour (and it was), it was worth it. And besides, they take drink orders and bring you back a cold beverage while you wait. Banks Beer, the beer of Barbados, was a popular choice. (Don't try the Carib beer- it's not a winner.)

When we got to the front of the line, we placed our order for marlin, tuna and shrimp. Each fish is grilled and comes with cole slaw and a baked potato that is halved and grilled. Tartar sauce is served on the side. You make your way to a picnic table and dig in.

The fish was the best I have ever had! They brush on a seasoned oil when they grill, the same oil they brush on the potato. The big man working the grill was amazing; he had at least six different kinds of fish on the grill, plus the potatoes, and every piece of fish that came off that grill was cooked to perfection; not undercooked, not overcooked, just right. And it only cost $15.
Shrimp dinner at Uncle George's

Marlin dinner at Uncle George's

The atmosphere was fun too. They had stalls where you could buy jewelry ( I got two beautiful bracelets), art work, and souvenirs and everything was $20. The setup reminded me of the New York State Fair.

On Saturday we drove up the west coast to The Tides restaurant. There is an art gallery when you first walk in, filled with beautiful Bajan art work for sale. We got to sit in the treehouse section of the restaurant, right on the beach.
The treehouse

The scenery was gorgeous, and the food was delicious. My husband enjoyed his drink, the Sea Monkey, which was like a martini with raspberries. My favorite dish of the night was the lobster risotto, which they topped with lobster bisque. My chicken entree came with Lemon Cous Cous, a Bajan specialty made with cornmeal. My brother-in-law had the catch of day blackened, and he pronounced it just spicy enough. I highly recommend the Tides for a special occasion.

On Sunday, we went to Champers, a restaurant we had been to previously. You sit outside, right over the water. You can even feel the splash of the water as it hits the rocks below.
My sister-in-law and I had the Crispy Vegetable Spring Rolls and Shrimp Mango Salad, both appetizers, as our meal. The spring rolls were so light and tasty, and the salad was so good, I made it for dinner when we returned home. It is a refreshing change of pace, and I found Bolthouse Tropical Mango Vinaigrette dressing at Fairway Market, so it was easy too.
Shrimp Mango Salad

My brother-in-law had the Parmesan Crusted Barracuda and it was his favorite meal in Barbados. Champers is very romantic, and overall, it had the best food. On the way home, our taxi driver told us he was going there next week for his birthday dinner. Always eat where the locals eat, they know best.

For lunch one day, we had the flying fish sandwich, a Bajan specialty. Everyone enjoyed them. My brother-in-law likes spicy foods, so he tried the Pepperpot, an Indian/Bajan specialty at the Waterfront Cafe. It was very spicy!

I brought home some Mango tea bags so I can have a little taste of Barbados in the afternoon. My brother-in-law brought home some Bajan hot sauce as a souvenir. 

It was an unforgettable trip, and if you have any favorite foods or restaurants in Barbados, be sure to share them in the comments section.

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Ali in Wonderland and Other Tall Tales by Ali Wentworth
Published by Harper Collins ISBN 9780061998577
Hardcover $25.99

Ali Wentworth's Ali In Wonderland And Other Tall Tales follows in the footsteps of other recent books by funny ladies, such as Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. Like those, it is not so much a memoir as it is a series of essays. Ali wanted to write a book about the advice her mother Muffie, a Democratic social secretary in the Republican Reagan White House, gave her and Muffie does play a big role in the book, but perhaps her next book will be all about Muffie. She is one very interesting lady, and any woman whose advice in most situations consists of "get to the Four Seasons" should have her own book deal.

You might think that Wentworth's most frightening tales might be from her days trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood. And except for one horrifying robbery/rape attempt where her male friend was stabbed, most of her scary tales came from boarding school. As someone who didn't grow up with anyone who went to boarding school, I find this concept odd. I don't understand sending your teenage child many states away to school where you don't what she is doing or who she is with. And there are some scary girls at her boarding school. Apparently some people send their seriously disturbed daughters away to boarding school rather than to a psychiatric hospital.

Wentworth's mother worked in the White House and her description of life in Washington DC is amusing. She describes a dinner party where she performed a Shirley Temple song and dance routine while staring at an unsmiling Henry Kissinger. Years later, her life comes full circle as she ends up back in Washington with her husband George Stephanopolis and two daughters. Her tale of a dinner party at Donald Rumsfeld's shows a different side to the serious defense secretary as he shares his love of dachshunds with Wentworth. It was a bit surreal.

There are many chapters that mention Ali's various engagements to different men. I'm not sure I could tell you how many different guys she was engaged to, but she kissed a lot of frogs to get her prince. I really enjoyed her story of her first date and quick courtship with George, but I guess when you've had many failed engagements, you know right away when it's right. She writes about how she never was the kind of girl who planned her wedding since she was a little girl, which worked out well since George's Greek family had the wedding all mapped out. (I do find it funny that the church hall where they had their reception is the place where I vote.)

Wentworth states that "names and faces have been changed to protect her innocence." But in one chapter, she describes a relationship she had with a studly British actor that was pretty one-sided. She gives some clues as to his real identity, even though she changed his name, and later in the book she pretty much confirms his identity when many years later when she is married, she is offered a job playing the actor's love interest on his series. Since it was an HBO series, she thought it might be weird to have to get naked with the guy who just up and left her abruptly all those years ago.

The book is funny, showcasing Ali's sunny, skewed sense of humor. I most enjoyed the later chapters where Ali describes married life with kids. (Maybe it's because I could identify with that, well except for her obsession with seashells.) There is not much here about working in Hollywood, just a small part about getting her role on "In Living Color", and I hope that her next book will be more about that part of her life.

rating 4 of 5 stars

If you liked Ali in Wonderland, you might like Kathy Griffin's Official Book Club Selection

Thursday, February 2, 2012

You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
Published by Amy Einhorn Books ISBN 0399157204
Paperback $14
Review reprinted from the Citizen

Short stories have fallen out of favor, but there has been a resurgence in the last few years, particularly with linked short stories. Linked short stories feature characters who have a major role in one story, only to appear in a supporting role in a later story.

Elizabeth Stout’s “Olive Kitteridge: A Novel in Stories” told the story of  a middle-aged, cranky schoolteacher. Some stories featured her prominently, some peripherally. The book was on many best-of lists and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009.

Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel was Jennifer Egan’s “Tales From the Goon Squad” which told several characters’ stories, revolving around the music industry.

Siobhan Fallon’s linked short story collection “You Know When the Men Are Gone” is worthy successor to those books, and has also earned much well deserved praise. This is her first book, and she writes about what she knows.

It is set at Fort Hood, Texas and tell the stories of women left behind in military housing to carry on at home while their spouses serve overseas. Fallon herself lived at Fort Hood, and today lives in the Middle East, where her husband is currently stationed.

Writing short stories is difficult; you have a much shorter time to tell the story and develop characters whom the reader will care about. Fallon succeeds on so many levels; she creates memorable characters and crystallizes a moment in time for them, one that is emotional and wrenching.

There are seven stories in the book, each one more honest and heartbreaking than the last. The title of the book comes from the first story, and that first page captures the reader immediately. “You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for early morning formation… Babies still cry, telephones ring. Sunday morning cartoons screech, but without the men there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.”

In this story we learn about the support system for the spouses left behind. They have luncheons, teas, play groups, and participate in the Family Readiness Group, which helps the women by providing information and support.

Fallon draws the reader into the world of the military spouse- the loneliness, the worrying, the every day of a woman who has to get on with life while waiting for her husband to return home safely.

Another story, “Remission” deals with Ellen Roddy a military wife who has breast cancer, a young son, and rebellious teenage daughter. Because of her disease, Ellen’s husband has been allowed to serve at Fort Hood while his unit is overseas.

Her husband is conflicted over this; he wants to be there to support his wife, but feels he is letting his unit down. Some women feel sorry for Ellen’s illness, but also jealousy that her husband is home while their husbands are in danger. The irony is that Ellen is dealing with danger at home, instead of worrying about dangers abroad.

Women serving in the military are dealt with in a unique way in “Inside the Break”.  When Kailani’s husband’s unit is getting on the buses to head for deployment overseas, the last supply bus contains the support team that will be serving with the unit.

As the wives watch the buses leave they see “that supply bus held a threat that had never occurred to any of them when they thought of faraway insurgents and bombs and helicopters crashing. That supply bus with its fifteen women.”

Women aren’t the only ones who face feelings of jealousy.  In “Leave”, Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash doesn’t tell his wife that he has gotten leave and is coming home. Instead, he sneaks home and hides in the basement of his own home, staying there until he can discover if his wife has been unfaithful to him. Fallon ratchets up the tension as we wait to see if Nick will go completely over the edge. The end of the story is surprising and sad.

We go overseas in one story, “Camp Liberty”, where we see Moge, a soldier who feels like he is two people- Sgt. Moge in Iraq, responsible for the lives of the men in unit, and David Mogeson, a young man with a loving family and sweet girlfriend back home. Can he reconcile the two into one man or will he have to choose one life over the other?

Kit Murphy, a severely wounded soldier, is dealing with his physical and emotional pain in “The Last Stand”, as he looks forward to returning to his young wife. Kit pops up again in “Gold Star”, when he visits the widow of his sergeant, the man who died in the humvee explosion that injured him. That explosion reverberates throughout most of the stories in this book.

“You Know When the Men Are Gone” is brilliantly written, taking the reader into a lifestyle most of do not know. Fallon’s book is a realistic portrayal of life on a military base, featuring ordinary people who are asked to do extraordinary things to serve our country. You will finish this book not only appreciating the sacrifice of these people, but also the skill of the author. I can’t wait to read a full-length novel from her.

Rating 5 of 5