Biscotti X. (Pronounced “beece-KO-tea EEEKS.”) When I traveled back to Italy to help Nick with research for his Great Italian Desserts book, I had already been to that beautiful country four times. This time, however, a new perspective: seeing Italy from the kitchens of its bakeries, restaurants and pastry shops. We were warmly welcomed by chefs and pastry masters throughout the country, watching and photographing as they showed how they created their signature products. These X-cookies, made in the Sicilian tradition (almond paste “dough” wrapped around a citron jam, rolled out into a long “snake,” cut into two-inch lengths, then severed one-third of the way on each end, the ends then spread to form the X) were a simple standout, shown to us by Giulio Nostro of the Pasticceria Margherita, one of the nicest men in the world. Marks the spot and hits the spot, this cookie.
July 18, 2018
Look at those beautiful limes, those abundant oranges. Here in Havana’s central market, there were a limited number of items (no potatoes, for example, a rationed staple) but plenty of the items that were there. Tomatoes, bananas, plantains, various melons, pineapples, coconuts, yams, onions, cabbages...not surprisingly the very ingredients that we’d see in our meals throughout the country. The market is not the only place people were offering produce though. Once we left the city, we’d see people selling from the side of the road, from the backs of their cars or wagons. And some people buy at the central market here, then re-sell in other parts of Havana. As I was walking through a non-touristed, residential neighborhood (where I was later warned it was dangerous for a solo gringo to be...oh, well), I met a man who was hawking a few items from a pushcart, among them, beets. I asked him what the name of this vegetable was in Spanish. Remolachas, he said. Then I told him, “En inglés, se llaman BEETS.” He started to laugh and asked, “Beets?” Then he thought for a moment...and continued to laugh.
July 17, 2018
Some colors that seem so natural in warm-weather places just don’t fly in, say, New England. No matter how hard we try to make them fit in. Look at this magnificent tangerine stairwell with lemon trim here in a fancy Havana restaurant. Bright, vivid, citrus-flavored colors work so easily here. Just as they do in Tucson, in parts of Italy. As I type this, I’m in a small room of my house in Massachusetts that’s painted in Ralph Lauren’s “Driver’s Cap.” Kind of this burnt tangerine with some terra cotta, some grey to bring it down a few notches. The outside of my house, stucco, is painted in “Goldenrod” because I wanted to remember the Roman ochre walls in autumn sunlight. Especially when I was climbing my hill after a long walk home from work in winter. But I have to admit, I’m compensating. I’m forcing things. Foreign-speaking colors like this really need year-round warmth, light clothing and the ease that comes from both.
July 16, 2018
If you’ve got a good thing, go with it. Then go further. Witness the variety of offerings here, all fashioned of marzipan. Because Sicily abounds in almond trees -- and in craftsmen -- there seems no end to the shapes, sizes and colors used to mold these local treats. I wish I liked marzipan. I don’t. But etiquette required at least a polite sampling of the wares by each of the pastry chefs Nick and I visited on our research trip for his Great Italian Desserts book. After a week or so of Sicilian explorations, my heart would begin to sink as each new maestro would ask us where we had been previously. When we’d tell him, he’d proudly announce, “They know nothing there. Here we have a wonderful specialty...” and then he’d produce a big tray of -- you guessed it. Though I have to admit, those peas in the pod are mighty cute. (Wait. Are these papier maché? We saw a lot of those throughout Sicily, too.)
July 15, 2018
Meals in Cuba. I had been warned not to expect much in terms of variety and quality, so my expectations were set low. But I needn’t have worried. The food was just right. Because we traveled in a group to most meals, the service was buffet or family-style platters. Always a mojito was proffered. Rice and beans, salads (which my friend Lisa labeled Soviet because of the ever present shredded cabbage,) plantains, yuca, fruit. And usually roast pork, baked chicken, ground beef with spices. On the occasions where we got to choose our own entrees, as here at a waterside outdoor paladar in southern Cuba (which, by popular demand, we visited twice), there was usually fish, shrimp and lobster, too. Dessert was often ice cream, sometimes gussied up. (My favorite: Copa Lolita -- a scoop of vanilla ice cream AND a slice of flan, laced with chocolate sauce.) Only in the fancier places in Havana was the service individual and more self-consciously “presented.” No matter where we ate, I was never disappointed.
July 14, 2018
I went through lots of stuff that week, in preparation for my entry into my town’s annual event of more than 80 yard sales on May 5. And I found lots of things hidden for years, lots of memories. Like this autographed LP that reminds me of the first time I met Andy Warhol. At Drew University, Madison, NJ, in 1969. A group of college friends (Nick among them) and I attended his presentation of some of his films and were appalled during the Q&A at the crowd of obnoxious yahoos asking things like, “You call that a movie, you faker?” No wonder Warhol let his accompanying minions answer. Though he did answer my question when it was clear that I was familiar with his film work. (I blush.) Afterwards, backstage, we had a great conversation, he (and his “superstar” Viva!) signed my Velvet Underground & Nico album, and he invited me to come visit him at The Factory. This was not the only time our paths crossed over the years, but it was the first, and 43 years later I still hold on to the memory. And the LP.
July 13, 2018
On my lovely walk through non-touristed neighborhoods in search of Havana’s central market, I traveled along many arcaded sidewalks (built to provide shaded protection from the fierce sun) and smiled as I came across this hot-dog sign. I love that the name of this universally popular food is here a literal explanation: bread w/ dog. And why not? Alas, I didn’t stop for one, mainly because the only currency I had was the tourist convertible pesos. And in this neighborhood (which I was later told was too dangerous for me to have walked alone through; news to me), only the Cuban residents’ moneda nacional is used. Still, my mouth watered at the thought of a Cuban sandwich mated with a hot frank. Next time.
July 12, 2018
I love olives. Almost as much as I love European markets. So how lucky was I to find this stall in Málaga’s mercado central. Look at all those varieties. Well, it is Spain, after all. I thought I was blessed living in Watertown, MA, home to not only a sizable Armenian community, but also more than a half dozen excellent Middle Eastern markets within blocks of my home, each of them offering at least ten different varieties of olives. Cured in oil, in brine, in salt. Green, purple, black. (My favorite at the moment is the Moroccan oil-cured selection at Massis Bakery just down the hill from me.) But look at the selection here in southern Spain. And this photo only shows about one third of those on abundant display.
July 11, 2018
Bologna is the mouth of Italy, some say. And some of the most remarkable culinary experiences can be found there. During my first trip in 1980, my friend Dali and I ate at Al Pappagallo, and I recall a total starch moment called tortellini in pasta sfogliata (tortellini in puff pastry.) Imagine. Sadly, Al Pappagallo had changed owners and was less interesting on a later visit. But not to worry, another of Bologna’s treasures continues to amaze and delight: Atti. A trio of stores back to back to back, Atti serves up bread, cakes, pastries and gourmet prepared foods. Here’s a look in the window at some of Atti’s bread offerings. Simple loaves as well as some more fancy and twisted offerings. “Bread is fantasy,” as the sign says. “Love...make of it what you will!” (A note to the prurient. Because of Bologna’s association with fine eating, the term alla Bolognese is often used in personal ads to mean pretty much one thing only. Just saying.)
July 10, 2018
Triple staircase. Beautiful and fascinating. And somewhat difficult to comprehend. Which set of concurrent stairs takes you to which floors? This one is in the Museo de Pobo Galego in the pilgrim town of Santiago de Compostela. It kind of begs a photo, no? The only other multiple staircase I’ve encountered in my travels was a double one in the Château de Chambord in France’s Loire Valley in 1972. That one, it’s said, was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. True? (It allowed two people to ascend or descend at the same time without encountering one another, which came in handy when the king didn’t want to see his servants. And vice versa.) This one bore no such historical import. It was just a beautiful puzzling treat.
July 9, 2018
Laz cooking, aka Black Sea cuisine, comes from the northeast section of Turkey around Trabzon. When I expressed an interest in trying some Laz dishes on my most recent visit to the City of the World’s Desire, food enthusiast and blogger extraordinaire Cenk offered to take Jay and me to Klemuri, a cosy spot in a backstreet near Taksim Square that offered an assortment of such dishes. Like this one: muhlama, a fondue-like creation made with cornmeal, cheese and lots of butter. Yes, please. Also on the table that wonderful lunch: fried hamsı (the Black Sea anchovies then happily in season); stuffed chard leaves with yogurt; a molded bulgur pilaf; a mixed salad of fried bean pickles, potatoes, onions and walnuts; a regional kind of kibbee and much more. Most satisfying and memorable? Finally meeting Cenk and enjoying the pleasure of his company and his kind generosity.
July 8, 2018
Five years ago today, the man I love and I were married. The ceremony (we asked the Justice of the Peace for the shortest available that was still legal) lasted about 35 seconds and was performed in our home by a man named Mr. Whynott. Seriously. Also on that day, in Manhattan, our friends Roberto and Marco were married. (I take great pleasure each time forgetful Marco asks me what's the date of his wedding anniversary. It's an easy question for me to answer.) All best wishes to Roberto and Marco and to all the other Americans who are now able to marry the people they love, too.
July 7, 2018
Meet my friend James. He and I met more than 15 years ago when we both worked at WGBH-TV in Boston. His offbeat sense of humor (which he readily admits doesn’t appeal to everyone) and his fine values (honest to a fault, accountable, admirable work ethic, just to name a few) are traits that the best of my friends all share. Also, as you can see, he loves animals. For many years now, he’s maintained a summer garden at Codman Community Farms in nearby Lincoln, MA, growing a rich roster of vegetables, flowers and fruits that recently has included cantaloupe, radicchio, tomatillos and potatoes, in addition to some seasonal standards like tomatoes, green beans and a variety of lettuces. (I’m happy to report that he generously shares his bounty.) This shot was taken with some of the critters who live at the farm. James is on the right.
July 6, 2018
I confess. I thought this tuxedo’d guy was nice looking, so I maneuvered around the area for a short while, angling to take his photo. Only later did I notice the other people, the colors, the story on this corner in Old Havana. Who is the military guy, what’s he protecting and are his slacks really lavender? Why is that guapo all duded out in black tie in the middle of this Havana heat? And what is he looking at? Or, as I’ve sometimes noticed with attractive men and women, is he deliberately turning his head away so we can admire him with impunity? Narratives abound in Cuba. When my friend Stephen saw this photo, he said, “I want to see this movie. Not the American remake.”
July 5, 2018
Whenever I visit my friend Nick in Manhattan, I always make sure there’s time for a walk through Chinatown. Past the shops of herbalists, the intriguing grocery stores with their scary looking fish and produce, the dozens and dozens of eyeglasses stores. And, if I’m not dining with Nick at our favorite NY Noodletown, I manage to make my way to the fried dumpling counter at the storefront on Mosco Street -- five dumplings, one dollar -- and then go sit and have my snack in the Mott Street park nearby. Also on Mott, a number of Chinese florists and funeral parlors. Seen outside one, this intriguing if odd arrangement. On wheels no less.
July 4, 2018
This deteriorating photo is from another life, a somewhat spontaneous and almost forgotten trip to Montana to visit a friend who’d returned from Boston to his home state for a summer job. Most of my travels up to that point had been European, so it was a wonderful chance to travel through the beautiful all-American Big Sky country. Beartooth Highway into Red Lodge. Down into Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons. I recall one night when several police cruisers came storming into the parking lot of a gay bar in Billings, all sirens and flashing lights (the cop cars, that is), and patrons became quite tense. Scare tactics that yielded nothing. Also, a memory of a “Beware of Rattlesnakes” sign at a tourist hiking spot. And, of course, I remember this beauty salon in the middle of nowhere that begged a photo. The picture is terribly faded (as is the friendship.) The attitude, alas, remains.
July 3, 2018
In all my years of traveling and eating, I have only twice encountered any kind of stomach problems. Once, a case of Montezuma’s Revenge was the result of my foolish decision to opt for iced tea over canned soda at a lunch counter in the Mexican border town of Nogales, an hour south of Tucson. I spent the next two days pretty much moaning and staggering around Simon and David’s house and consuming nothing but (American) water. The only other unfortunate occasion was in Barcelona, this time, I believe, my ill-timed case of Mediterranean Tummy the result of having to try the Mallorcan specialty sobrasada, shown here. A paté-like sausage that’s cured by drying in its casing, it was perhaps an unwise choice at a hole-in-the-wall workers’ restaurant far off the tourist trail in this island city. I’d wanted just a taste. Instead, these three sizable red flags appeared and I didn’t heed the warning. And neither did Jay. Oh, well, live and learn. Twice.
July 2, 2018
After each morning’s run along the Bosphorus or the Golden Horn, I’d reward myself on my return to our small apartment via the simit-seller. One of hundreds here in Istanbul. Sometimes I’d buy a simit (on the left), sometimes an açma. Simit -- known by different names and slightly different recipes throughout Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania -- are small “fun size” circular breads coated with sesame seeds. Chewy, crispy, depending upon where you happen to be. This one was chewy. Nice. Açma, which I prefer, are also yeast-risen, but slightly sweet, enriched with egg and consequently more cake-like. Because I live within a few hundred yards of Armenian bakeries here in Watertown, MA, I have access to these bready treats all the time without having to locate my passport. Simit? Açma? Can’t decide? Have both.
July 1, 2018
As this summer of 2018 has already brought record heat waves with it, perhaps it’s time to reexamine another joy of living in New England. Witness this one, a multi-day mega-blizzard seen less than halfway through its delivery. The good news: I no longer commute through country roads to the middle of nowhere to work. The bad news: There was so much snow this winter, storm upon storm, more than 80 inches, that at a certain point there seemed as if there was no longer any place to move the snow. Scoop, shovel, lift, aim, throw it high. It was tough. But the other good news: The melting snows provided so much moisture to the plants below that they flourished mightily come spring. Which, as we all know, please God, can never be that far behind.