Southern Maine, Season by Season

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Memory and Montecatini

Memory and Time Travel

I've just finished a book by science writer James Gleick called Time Travel: A History. Here is the cover: 

This is a provocative, if not entirely satisfying, look at the idea of time travel, from the original publication of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (which, Gleick claims, is the first fully realized description of the exploration of time as if it were equivalent to space) to modern approaches to quantum theory that not only allow for time travel but may actually require it (the idea behind the recent film Interstellar represents a stab at imagining this).

While the possibilities and paradoxes of time travel are fascinating, to say the least, I'm not really concerned with the idea of either returning to an earlier epoch (a la Mr. Peabody and Sherman) or sampling the future (a Wellsian notion, to be sure, but one that's had a terrific recent reworking in Iain Pears's Arcadia).

I'm more interested in memory. In the final chapters of his book, Gleick ponders the idea that memory is a kind of time machine, although it's so necessary and familiar a function that we do not think of it in that way. Memory is certainly not an exact and unchanging look at the past - it is altered and colored by time, point of view, and subsequent information (but "true" time travel may also alter the past, as events are always changed by the presence of an observer. Mr. Peabody knew this!).

Down Memory Lane with Gourmet

Readers of this blog will remember my devotion to the late Gourmet magazine as a trusted source for all things epicurean. I have retained a goodly number of issues of the magazine from my 25+ years of subscription, and I have stored and sorted them by month. So the beginning of every new month is also, for me, a a period of re-acquaintance with the seasonal delights that were offered to readers 10, 15, even 20 years ago. These back issues comprise a fair cross-section of changing American attitudes towards cooking, eating, travel, sustainability, animal rights, the rights of migrant farm workers, and the changing idea of the family farm. The ads are fascinating (and sometimes cringe-worthy) time capsules of their own. Did women really wear big hair like that? Cigarette ads in food magazines?

And sometimes the ads carry a bit of personal nostalgia. There's one from the March 1994 issue featuring the superb Irish fiddler Kevin Burke, which implied that world-class talent like his could be found in any roadside pub in Ireland. I am devoted to Kevin Burke's music, and I'm consistently delighted to see his sly grin pictured along with a discussion of Rhone wines and one of my favorite Spring menus (lamb chops, risotto, asparagus, with a lemon-strawberry tart. Heaven on a platter!).

Naturally, even my fairly extensive collection could be expanded. I recently found that one could purchase single copies of Gourmet issues on eBay, and I succumbed to a couple of offers. I remembered all of the covers of the four issues I received, and all of them had some meaning for me : November 1983 (for the birth of my son), December 1983 (for his first Christmas, and our first in our house), April 1996 (because Easter is coming) ... and then there was this spectacular cover, from June 1984:

I remembered the brilliant photo well. But I did not recall the contents, until I sat down the other morning to a leisurely perusal of my new (old) issues. And there it was - a story for the series "Gourmet Holidays" by the venerable editor and travel writer Lillian Langseth-Christensen. It was all about a holiday in a northern Tuscan spa town, called Montecatini Terme. And suddenly, Marcel Proust and his "Temps Perdu" had nothing on me. I needed no shell-shaped cookie to return to the slanting golden light of that mountain town in October. I was back there, once again.


In October 2004, I had the opportunity to visit Italy - mostly Tuscany and Umbria, with a final foray to Rome - with a group from eastern Massachusetts. One of my friends, Barbara, had initiated the trip and recruited me, and I in turn recruited my good friend Mary. Our travel group was comprised mostly of women, and most of us were experiencing Italy for the first time. Our base of operations for the first part of the journey was - you guessed it - Montecatini Terme. I'd never heard of the place, but quickly became enthralled by its gracious hospitality and lovely surroundings. It is an old spa town ("terme" refers to the curative waters of the place), but it dates back only to about the 18th century, and not to classical Roman times. 

(Full disclosure:  the following photos are scans of actual film shots I took whilst in Italy. Some haven't the crispest focus; for this I apologize. My current digital does a FAR better job!)

Facade of the Montecatini Spa building
 The architecture of the spa's public buildings is florid (as shown above), but residences and hotels are more restrained and practical in their designs:

Montecatini Terme street scene

The Grand Hotel e La Place (NOT my hotel ...)

Bougainvillea in front of a modern bank building in Montecatini

Some of the most memorable moments of the trip were spent in this small spa town. In the evening, everyone ventures out into the streets for shopping, socializing, and coffee. I skipped the shopping, but was charmed by the coffee shops, which often feature delectable goodies to nibble along with the strong Italian coffees. I discovered that nougat candy could be fresh and melting and redolent of almond, unlike the dusty dry tablets I'd tasted Stateside.  Walking the streets until early morning was a pleasure to be savored. A small group of friends decided we needed to return, and open an American-style breakfast establishment in Montecatini (the typical Italian breakfast of an espresso and a hard roll with a bit of cheese or salami was not to everyone's taste. I, on the other hand, loved it).  Sadly, I don't think any one of us has yet returned. That may change ...

Montecatini sits in the foothills of some lovely mountains, and it is linked to an older town higher in the hills called Montecatini Alto. Alto can be reached by funicular from the spa town, and I was fortunate enough to take the trip. I was immediately charmed by Alto - its colorful homes, medieval churches, slanting streets and friendly residents:

We were told that this is the house of a renowned cook.

Turning leaves on an old stone wall

The streets of Montecatini Alto can get pretty steep
A beautiful terra-cotta horse head near the door

Memories of Italy - another food column

Last month, I re-published a column I'd written for my home town paper. Here's another from that series, and it's about my Italian journey. Although photos and stories in old magazines may be excellent spurs to the memory - and even a means of returning to a time and place - there is nothing like a good meal to REALLY accomplish time travel. I offer the following - for those who have experienced Italy, those who have gone, and especially for those who (like me) can't wait to return: 
Whether in Rome or Not… Eat Like the Romans Do!

”Forget the churches. Go for the food,” a knowledgeable mentor advised my friends Barbara, Mary and me as we set out recently on a whirlwind tour of Tuscany, Umbria, and Rome.  Well, our friend was half right!  Whether it was the unbelievable frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue that grace the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi or Michelangelo’s breathtaking marble dome over St. Peter’s, we were dumbstruck by the magnificence to be found in the churches of Italy.  But we were equally impressed by the gustatory treasures we discovered.  And upon returning home, we were fortified by three simple goals: to rest our feet (beleaguered after tramping through half of the peninsula), to reconcile our sensibilities to the fact that our beloved Sox had FINALLY become the champions we always knew them to be, and to find the ways and means of recreating those exquisite Italian specialties we’d tasted and swooned over.

Well, my feet are once again functional, I don’t have to pinch myself every time I see a World Series Championship T-shirt, and I’ve been able to put together a half-decent Tuscan meal from the surprisingly lush offerings of nearby shops.  I still need to do a lot of experimenting and tasting before I’m satisfied, but here are a few suggestions for putting together a lovely meal with distinct overtones of Bella Italia.

We must start, of course, with an antipasto, and the best example of this course I tasted was in a rollicking trattoria in Rome.  At the beginning of an astonishing six-course meal, I was served a layered appetizer consisting of thin slices of delicious cured beef, topped with baby arugula and shavings of sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano.  The plate was dressed simply with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.  Something so simple and so luscious should be easy to recreate, right? Well, yes, if you can find the requisite ingredients.  And residents of Burlington can do just that, ever since Lorella & Famiglia opened on Cambridge Street.  They sell bresaola, you see, which is the cured beef I loved in that Roman antipasto.  It’s expensive, but you will need just a quarter-pound (sliced thinly) to serve six lavishly.  Fan four or five slices out on a salad plate, top with a handful of baby arugula (which is easily found at Market Basket or Roche Bros.), and shave some very good Parmesan cheese over the top.  I brought back a kilo of the real stuff from Italy, but Lorella & Famiglia carry what looks and tastes just like the hunk I am using.  For your lemon juice dressing, try and find a Meyer lemon (at Whole Foods, perhaps), for these are slightly sweeter than regular lemons and match beautifully with the meat, greens and cheese. With this course, serve a bubbly Prosecco (Italy’s wonderful answer to vintage Champagne, and at a fraction of the cost).  This is a delicious appetizer for almost any meal, but if you want to vary it just a bit, the dry-cured capicola that can be found at La Cascia on Cambridge Street works just as well as the bresaola.

Now, a proper Italian meal would continue on to one of several primi piatti.  I suggest a sumptuous risotto made with dried porcini mushrooms for this course.  Again, you can obtain dried porcinis at Lorella & Famiglia, but they are widely available in other locations as well.  For the risotto, soak between 1 / 2 and one ounce of dried porcini mushrooms in one cup of warm water for about 30 minutes.  In the meantime, finely chop one small onion, and sauté slowly in one tablespoon olive oil in a heavy saucepan until it is tender and translucent.  Do not allow the onion to brown.  Add 1 / 3 cup Arborio rice to the onions, and sauté the grain lightly.  Squeeze the mushrooms until they are almost dry, and reserve the soaking liquid. Chop the mushrooms coarsely and add to the onions and rice.  Turn the heat to medium-low, and begin to strain the soaking liquid into the pot, about a quarter-cup at a time.  Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the liquid has become thoroughly absorbed by the rice.  Add another quarter-cup of liquid and continue the process until the liquid has been used.  Add 1 / 4 cup dry red wine to the risotto, and stir until the rice has absorbed the liquid.  Add 1 / 2 to 3 / 4 cup low-sodium fat-free beef broth to the risotto in small amounts, stirring each time until the rice has absorbed the liquid.  The whole process may take 45 minutes to an hour, but it is worth the effort and care involved.  Check the risotto to make sure the rice is thoroughly cooked, and to adjust seasoning. Add salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste.  It may require up to 1 / 2 teaspoon salt or more. The result of all this stirring should be a creamy porridge-like dish with the deep aroma and flavor of mushrooms.  If you want to make it even more luxurious, drizzle a little black truffle oil over the top of each serving. 

Serve the risotto with a green salad and a slice of Tuscan bread (made without salt), and pour a Chianti Classico to complement the wonderful flavors.

Now, I would stop right here, and have some fresh fruit and a café for dessert.  But those who are truly eating in the Italian manner may wish to proceed to the main course!  Here I might suggest a grilled meat dish, perhaps chicken or veal.  Roche Bros. has offered some excellent small veal chops in recent days, and Lorella boasts some wonderful-looking well-trimmed chops.  Add some roast potatoes, and your Tuscan meal will be complete.

And if all this sounds like too much time given to both preparation and to eating a meal, recall that in Italy dinner is an event in itself, rather than a prelude to some other activity.  Dinner should be planned and cooked with care, and consumed slowly, spiced with plenty of conversation, laughter, and good feeling.  So, invite family and friends to enjoy an Italian supper. Get out the linen napkins, light the candles, spin some Renaissance dances or Puccini on the stereo, and enjoy good food and togetherness. Buon appetito!


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Shrove Tuesday

The End of Winter

Snowdrops bravely begin to poke through the mulch of dead leaves and pine needles

Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras, is the last hurrah of the winter holidays that begin (in the US) with Thanksgiving and end with the Carnival season. It's a time to enjoy one last blast - a waltz with a jelly doughnut and some Champagne if you're in a Viennese mood; or jambalaya, a Sazerac and some two-stepping if your preference is NOLA Style.

In any case, it's the end of winter and time to herald the first stirrings of Spring. For many of us still bound by snow and cold, that last claim seems a little preposterous. But - look around you. Days are lengthening. The sun is stronger. Gardening catalogs, which began to arrive around Christmas, now stuff everyone's mailbox - and produce vivid daydreams of green grass, bright flowers, and the first taste of garden lettuce and peas. Oh, yes - it's coming!

Lent, the Christian penitential season that begins tomorrow, is derived from an ancient word meaning SPRING. It's also a lean season; a welcome change following the weeks of hearty holiday and winter fare. We are encouraged - whether for the good of our souls or the health of our bodies, or (better yet) both - to plan smaller meals around fish rather than red meat, or to eschew animal products completely.  One of the old traditions for Shrove Tuesday was cleaning the house and discarding the preserved meats and winter vegetables left over from the harvest and butchering times of the autumn. A sound practice! Dairy products are usually also in short supply on traditional Lenten menus. Milk and eggs, along with sugar and butter, were often used up creatively before Ash Wednesday. One of the alternative names for Shrove Tuesday in Great Britain is Pancake Day - pancakes are made by the dozen and topped with rich and creative (and sometime boozy!) additions. Some towns (such as Olney in Buckinghamshire) hold Pancake Races, which involve women running a course from the town center to the church, flipping pancakes in pans as they go.

Lent, though it heralds spring, is certainly still prone to winter weather and its attendant gloom. It's hard to wait, sometimes, for the coming season! I recall, as a young girl in Minneapolis, trying to wear my green spring coat to Mass on St. Patrick's Day, just because it was green and therefore seasonal. I about froze my butt off. And I did that TWICE. Hope does spring eternal, at this time of year!


Speaking of freezing, we had a major snow storm or two a couple of weeks ago - lots of shoveling and worries about the weight of snow on the roof and suchlike. I ventured out, at the end of the week, determined to see some sun and blue sky. I went to Portland to walk around the Back Cove, a pleasant 3.5 mile walk around an arm of Casco Bay. Well, a usually-pleasant walk. This day was sunny but very blustery, and the path ranged from merely snow-covered to ice to slush to deep puddles. It took me a good hour and more to do the walk, but it WAS lovely. Here are a couple of photos:

Back Cove, east side

Thawing beach, west side of Back Cove


Lemons, recipes, and a look back at a food column

One of the most welcome Christmas gifts I received was a box stuffed with fresh Meyer lemons, from my stepson and his wife, who live in California. Meyer lemons have a peculiar (to me) scent, but a wonderfully fruity and even mildly sweet lemon flavor. But the scent of their rind smells to me like pine sap; very resin-y. Perhaps it's just me! But the freshness of the fruit, and the wonderful taste of the juice is too much to resist. I began making lemon-based desserts and salad dressings immediately. I thought of chess pie, which often is flavored with lemon juice. And then I thought - well, I've written about this before! 

You see, I used to write a regular column for the local newspaper when I lived in Burlington, Massachusetts. It was a while ago, but I sometimes like to look back on some of those columns. Okay, I'll reproduce one right here. It has some local references (I was trying to support a wonderful Italian provisions shop in town, but - sadly- it didn't last for long ...) but the recipes are still good. And it does suggest a good version of chess pie, with lemons. So, here goes: 

Meyer lemons!

Stand in the Place Where You Live … Now Face South (original title)

            Okay, I couldn’t take another minute of the cold and the snow. I had a strained shoulder from shoveling, and so help me, my beloved Packers were gonna lose big.  It was Florida time, and no mistake.

            Ah, Florida. A pilgrimage to Bahia Mar (required of all Travis McGee devotees), mind-numbing trips to erstwhile art galleries (that’s art? Are they kidding?) and lots of horizontal time by the pool with a good book and a tropical drink at the elbow.  It might be the end of the world as we know it, but I did feel fine.

            Part of that good feeling had to be from the fare provided us at the local restaurants.  From traditional Cuban specialties to stone crab to incredibly fresh tuna and a superlative vanilla bean ice cream – I found a lot of reasons to visit the gym.  But the good news is that many of the best dishes were low in fat but big on flavor and satisfaction.   Since I’ve been back in the chill of New England (and yes, just in time to cheer on the Pats at the Razor) I’ve been experimenting with some Southern flavors to try and recreate the feel of Florida in January.  I’ve hit upon a fair recreation of a signature appetizer offered by the outstanding Fort Lauderdale oceanside restaurant 3030: seared scallops with garlic-flavored sautéed spinach, wine-braised mushrooms and a balsamic vinegar glaze.   Since this dinner is delicious, but low in fat and calories, why not splurge just a bit for dessert with a classic (but slimmed-down) version of a Southern specialty: chess pie?

            For this menu, the quality of the main ingredients will really decide whether you have a merely good meal or a really amazing one. If you can find fresh sea scallops, (try Roche Bros. or a large seafood market) by all means buy them – and use them immediately.  If really fresh scallops are scarce, try the large frozen ones offered by Trader Joe’s – but thaw them quickly before use, in ice water.  A pound of scallops will feed four diners.

            But begin with the mushrooms.  Purchase about one pound of large white mushrooms, clean them, and cut them into quarters. Melt about one tablespoon of butter in a sauté pan, and add the mushrooms.  Sauté over low heat until the mushrooms begin to give up their liquid.  To the liquid add about 1 / 4 cup dry red wine, and cook slowly, stirring, until the liquid has been absorbed and the mushrooms are glazed a deep brown-red. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper and keep the mushrooms warm over very low heat. 

            Next, turn to the balsamic glaze.  This, very simply, is good balsamic vinegar that has been reduced to a light syrup.  Pour about 1 / 3 cup balsamic vinegar (Lorella & Famiglia can provide outstanding balsamic, but the 10-year old Modena at Trader Joe’s will do just fine as well) into a very heavy small saucepan, and begin to reduce the vinegar over low heat. Watch this well; it can caramelize in a flash.  When the liquid coats the sides of the pan when you swirl it, the glaze is ready. Keep it warm at the back of the stove.

            Now, prepare the scallops.  Heat a heavy skillet or griddle, and melt about a tablespoon of butter on it.  Blot the scallops well with paper towels before placing them onto the hot skillet.  Sear the scallops until they are a deep brown on both sides, and then lower the heat to cook the seafood thoroughly.  Do not overcook! Check the middle of the scallops to ensure they are just opaque all the way through.

            While the scallops finish cooking, quickly toss two peeled and minced garlic cloves in one tablespoon olive oil that has been heated in a sauté pan or a wok.   When the garlic is sizzling, add one large package cleaned baby spinach leaves, and sauté until the spinach has just wilted and heated through.

            Serve the scallops on a bed of the hot spinach.  Scatter the braised mushrooms around the scallops, and make a puddle of the balsamic glaze in one corner for dipping the scallops.  Serve this elegant, quick dinner with chewy ciabatta bread from Lorella, and a sophisticated Fumé Blanc.
            For dessert, try a very simple, quite light version of Chess Pie.  Prepare your favorite pie crust in a 9-inch pie pan. Press foil and pie weights onto the crust, and bake it at 425 degrees, until light brown, about 12 minutes.  Let the blind-baked crust cool.  Mix two eggs, two egg whites, one cup sugar, two tablespoons flour, the grated rind of one lemon, two tablespoons fresh lemon juice, and one teaspoon vanilla.  Slowly add one cup lowfat buttermilk, whisking constantly.  Pour the mixture into the baked shell, and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until the center is just set.  This pie is delicious on the day you make it, but it is even better a day later, if you can wait that long!

            Ah … the flavors of Florida. It should hold me ‘til next time



More food photos

Lemon meringue pie - without the crust. Try it! 

King Cake - for Mardi Gras!


Some Seasonal Flowers


How can you go wrong with primroses? 



  A Preview

  Are you ready to plant a garden yet? Okay, it's a bit early. But here's something to get you thinking both of the garden AND the pollinating insects that make the wonderful fruits and vegetables and flowers possible, year after year. Bees, especially honeybees and native bumble bees, are having a hard time of it. It is to our advantage to plant and maintain gardens that will attract and support these critical pollinators. I will be making available, through my web site ( embossed paper disks impregnated with seeds for bee-friendly plants. Just plant the paper disk for a small meadow of mixed flowers. Here's a preview of what they look like: 

Bee paper
 Watch for the launch!