The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was previously blogged about by a fellow food blogger, Cara Nicoletti, whose page Yummy Books was one of the inspirations for starting my own food and book blog. The Vacationers is about a family’s secrets and dysfunctions that come out over two weeks when they are vacationing in their house in Mallorca. I know, I know, it all sounds very dramatic and mysterious, but ultimately, it’s not.

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Though I always try to give every book a fair shake, I have to say that this one was  boring. Franny and Jim, the two main characters/couple/parents, are celebrating their 35th anniversary during the vacation, their daughter Sylvia just finished high school and hates her family (wow, big surprise, a teenager hating her family), the token gay couple, and the son and his beautiful girlfriend that everyone hates. Pretty cardboard and standard characters – the wealthy family, the cheating husband, the unhappy wife planning to leave the marriage, the spoiled kids – to whom I had a very hard time finding any point of relating.

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I did like Franny’s foodie-ness (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) and her love of cooking to work out her irritations and frustrations through her culinary adventures. Kind of like me! It’s nicely written, don’t get me wrong. The descriptions of the beach, the ocean, the house, the food………all are beautiful and lyrical. But the characters really aren’t likable, other than Carmen (the girlfriend everyone loves to despise), and overall, it just didn’t grab me and stay with me, though this food passage made me start salivating a little bit.

 Franny and the boys were making dinner – bacalao on toast, shrimp in a garlicky sauce, wilted greens. Tapas at home.

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I didn’t have the wherewithal to soak bacalao for 24 hours before putting it onto toast, good as that sounded. However, some garlicky shrimp with tomatoes and wilted spinach  sounded very doable, simple, and tasty. I had a packet of tortellini that needed to be used, and so I combined them, thus evoking a summer’s evening overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 dozen grape tomatoes, halved
10 cloves of garlic, thinly slivered
1 small shallot, thinly slivered
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 lb partially thawed shrimp, tail on
4 cups fresh spinach
1 packet cheese tortellini

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METHOD
Boil a large potful of water, add a generous handful of sea salt, and cook the tortellini for about 5-7 minutes. Test it to ensure it is al dente, and save a cupful of the cooking water.

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In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently cook the grape tomatoes, garlic and shallot for about 10 minutes.

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Splash in the white wine, the lemon juice, and the red pepper flakes, and cook together another couple of minutes. Pour in a little bit of the pasta cooking water to help thicken the sauce and give some structure.

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Add the spinach, stir, and cover again, cooking for about 10 minutes so that it wilts.

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Add the shrimp to the mixture, cover and leave to cook for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently so the shrimp doesn’t overcook. When they are pink and plump, everything is ready.

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Toss in the cooked tortellini, stir and cook another couple of minutes, so all the flavors are mixed and mingled. Then serve and eat with happiness. Delicious, just like a day at the beach!

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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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Scenes from New Orleans

My vacation to the Big Easy was filled with gorgeous architecture, history, beautiful buildings, humidity (whew!), tasty cocktails, a few ghosts, and of course, food. Lots of delicious food. You cannot come to NOLA and not eat. A wonderful trip with lots of happy memories.

Below: oysters on the half shell at the Desire Oyster Bar.

Red beans and rice at Cafe Beignet. Soooooo creamy and delicious.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 – called the City of the Dead, for obvious reasons.

Barbecued shrimp and red wine at Pascal’s Manale in the Garden District. Messy but so delicious!

The cafe that protected us from the rain, provided great chicory coffee, and some lovely live jazz! A wonderful oasis in the middle of the French Quarter.

The colorful and fanciful mural above the bar at Cafe Sbisa, where we had some of the absolute best food I’ve ever eaten in NOLA. If you go to New Orleans, please try this place. You will not be sorry.

Shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage and a poached egg at Cafe Sbisa………heaven on a plate.

Some knock-you-on-your-ass strong cocktails at Hermes Bar inside Antoine’s Restaurant. Excellent atmosphere and terrific drinks.

Eggs Benedict with Tasso ham and greens at Commander’s Palace. WOW!

A nighttime view of the back garden of St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. Spooky and perfect for the atmosphere!

Shrimp, blue crab, and fried green tomatoes……and a Mimosa! Cafe Sbisa did not disappoint.

Chargrilled oysters with lemon, butter and Parmesan at Desire Oyster Bar. A delicious and decadent treat.