Sunday, September 30, 2007

Passionate Mondays

Whew! This is going to be one of my toughest posts yet. I'll jump right into it - my Mom has less than two weeks to live and I'm headed up to Santa Barbara to be with her and my Dad through these final days. What a genuine privilege for me. I've spoken or written to many people these last few weeks about death, and the saddest stories I've heard are about the people that could not be with their parents when they died. Again, I feel privileged, but also comforted, knowing that going through this experience, I am just like every other human being out there. So, my personal struggle is how to maintain my passion for life, my presence in the moment while going through this trying time? How can I inspire myself and others to lead passionate lives? (I will warn you now, given my fuzzy-state-of-mind, I'm not certain if I can express clearly enough what I am feeling, but will give it a try.)

Today, I am choosing doors as my way to find my passion. Right about now you are saying to yourself, "Doors! What the *(&%#$@ is she talking about?" Stay with me, okay? I have a friend, Christie, who is a beautiful writer and person. Like me, she is fascinated by doors and windows. I wish I had her exact words here, because they would be so much more profound than mine, but she describes doors and windows as portals or passages to...

the soul
incredible views
the future

At this moment in my life, I am poised on a doorway, about to leave this time period of summoning up courage and fearlessness as I help my mom and ready to enter another phase of life, sans mother. This doorway marks a specific passage in life and in time for me.

I also have another way of using doors as a metaphor to view this death and dying process. One of my favorite sayings is that whenever one door closes, another one opens. When one life passes through that portal where only the dying go, and the door closes leaving loved ones behind, I like to believe that they are leaving us another open door, or an opportunity. We have a chance to take the lessons learned through the dying process to help us live more fully - to walk through that new, open door. I know everyone feels this phenomenon when they experience the death of a loved one - those lessons that scream at us in the moment to make everyday count, to make life count, to live life to its fullest because we have no guarantee of time. Sadly, few hold onto those feelings permanently. I am praying that I will be one of those few.

Just the other day, my sister's spiritual teacher reminded her of a similar lesson about living fully, siting the example that we usually only greet dear friends and loved ones enthusiastically when we haven't seen them for a long while. Why don't we greet them enthusiastically, with passion, every time we see them? We never know when it may be our last chance to show them our love.

I feel comfort in knowing that I am not alone in either process - losing a parent or struggling with how to live more passionately. As human beings, we all share the same challenges. We all face the same doorway and have a choice whether or not to pass through it - the door marked "To a Passionate Life" or "Make Each Day Count". I hope I remember to always choose that door and to step through it everyday.

Which doorway are you poised to pass through? Which portal are you afraid to enter? Do you have an image of a window or doorway that inspires passion for life for you?

Have a passionate Monday (and life) and don't forget to make today and everyday count and let your loved ones know that you are happy to be sharing life's journey with them.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Fall Events in Italy

I just caught wind of a few more fall events should any of you be lucky enough to be spending some time in Italy in the next few months.

Festa dell'Uva a Capoliveri, October 5-7, Capoliveri, Isola d'Elba: Now this is one Festa I would love to attend - it is a celebration of the harvest involving tasting of local wines and produce on the beautiful island of Elba. Each quarter of the city of Capoliveri challenges the others, dressing in historical outfits from many different periods. See for more information.

Gusto Balsamico, October 19-22, Modena, Emilia Romagna: Yet another one that makes me drool! A Fair celebrating vinegars and pickles from around the world. The festival is supported by Slow Food Italia and of course will showcase the local Balsamic Vinegar. There will be celebrations all over the city including an auction of antique vinegars, concerts and pasta competitions. I'm hoping someone out there goes to this and reports on it! See for more on information.

Festa dell'Uva, October 20, Merano, Sud Tirol: Another celebration of the grape harvest in a breathtaking region - the Dolomites. The festival features a parade of citizens dressed in Tyrolean costumes, floats and concerts. See for more information.

Festival Verdi, October 1-28, Parma, Emilia Romagna: At the Teatro Regio di Parma, Teatro Verdi di Busseto and Teatro Comunale di Modena featuring the operas of Oberto, Luisa Miller and La Traviata. See for more information.

The Police, October 2, Turin: They're on their "Greatest Hits" tour after a 20-year hiatus. See for more information.

Buon Viaggio!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Passionate Mondays

Today I am feeling passionate about fearlessness.

This is an Indian mudra for fearlessness. Every time I use this hand position, or mudra, I feel fearless. My hand is relaxed and open. I am ready to receive and handle whatever comes my way in an open and calm manner. I also feel protected, with my hand in front of me, so that I can go through my fears, knowing that I am safe, eventually reaching the other side of the fear having received lessons and knowledge. Try it. What do you feel?

“The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.” - Louis Boone

“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” - Grace Murray Hopper

And this one I picked up from my dear friend Brian, who is one of the most fearless people I know and a real role model for me in my pursuit of fearlessness and passion. Tanti auguri, Brian Lane!:

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your rivers…meander through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl…”
-Edward Abbey

May you have a fearless and passionate Monday!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Banana Bread

Maybe it's all that is going on in my life, or maybe because it is fall, or some of both that is making me crave baking. Baking has always been such a soothing, zen-like activity that it calms me. So this afternoon, I baked Jeni's Banana Bread and Ilva's Prune Cake (go to June 2007 for her recipe), the former for my husband and the latter for me.

What does Banana Bread have to do with Italy, travel, Italian food and wine? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It does, however, fall into my category of "other things that make up la bella vita." I suppose there is one thing Italian about Banana Bread, my Italian husband is addicted to it, so much so that I make it at least twice a month. When we eat something that frequently, it had better be fairly healthy, or I won't make it. Over the years, I have developed a recipe that suits our tastes and is much healthier than the average version. I hope you will like it.
Jeni's Banana Bread
makes one loaf

2 eggs
3 Tbsp. softened butter
3 Tbsp. light olive oil
1/4 cup honey or sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla
4 very ripe bananas
1 cup white flour
1/2 cup wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup chopped walnuts

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a loaf pan with buttered parchment paper (this part is optional, but it never sticks this way!)

Beat eggs in a large bowl with the butter and oil. Add the honey or sugar and the vanilla. Mix in the bananas. Add the 1 cup of white flour and stir. Add the salt, baking soda and baking powder and stir. Stir in the wheat flour and nuts. Do not over stir. Pour batter in prepared pan. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into middle comes out dry and the top of the loaf is golden brown. Remove from pan immediately and cool on a rack.

Be creative and experiment: use other nuts, add coconut, add dried fruit, etc.

NB: When we have very ripe bananas, I throw them in the freezer (just as they are, do not wrap.) Then when I need to bake this bread, I take four of them out and they thaw in about one hour. They turn black in the freezer and look ugly, but I assure you the ripe fruit is perfect inside.

Tree as Animal

Tiger stripes....
and dragon spikes... Oh my!!!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Passionate Mondays

I was with my mother for the last five days in Santa Barbara. She is not doing well and we are all struggling in learning how to take care of her, help her, preserve her dignity and hopefully making it possible for her to live out her remaining time pain-free. However, taking care of her is not the biggest challenge. The most difficult thing to learn to do well is to take care of oneself while taking care of another. It is so easy to give your all to someone you love, and have nothing left over to nourish yourself. I have been preaching about this to my father for the last six years as he has cared for her, and now that I am spending more time with her, it is my turn to practice what I preach. Ha! It's not easy.
So, Saturday, a particularly demanding day, I took a walk, which is a daily practice for me. It was not my usual fast-paced walk in which my goal is to raise my heart rate and break a sweat. This one was a walk to unwind, give my body and mind some space and nourishment in the fresh air. I let myself notice the details around me, the smell of the breeze, the beauty of the Spanish style houses, the amazing diversity of flowers and plants. On my walk I realized that my "Passionate Monday" post was only two days away. I thought to myself, "how can I possibly feel passionate in the middle of all this? How am I going to post something when I don't feel it?"

Ah-Ha! The light bulb came on. The fact that I was finding the subject of passion difficult is exactly why I needed to post something about it. Whether it is a rotten Monday at work, your kids are late for school and screaming, your puppy messed on the floor, your having a fight with your boyfriend, or you are taking care of your dying mother, we can all find a way to put passion into our day. If we can succeed in making ourselves more passionate about life in general, life on this earth, then even on those difficult days we can find some peace, gratitude and reason to smile. As I have written before, I believe that life is full of suffering for all of us. It is precisely what we do with the suffering, with those lessons, that gives us quality in life and our opportunity to learn and grow.

As my walk continued up toward the Santa Barbara Mission, I decided to sit and contemplate on the beauty of the earth. In front of the Mission is a rose garden. It is at least an acre or two of as many varieties of roses as you could imagine. It is also a place that holds special meaning to me not only for its beauty, but it is where my husband and I were married. I reflected on our love, a very strong and deep love. I reflected on how the people that I am most drawn to in life are those that, like me, take joy in the little details of life and this earth. Many of those people are writers, photographers, cooks, who are instinctively drawn to the little treasures that life has to offer. They get passionate about a food ingredient, a bug on a sidewalk, a four leaf clover, a statue in a garden or dew on the grass.

Here are a few of those small details that I saw on my walk, most of which I would have missed would I have been doing my "exercise walk":

On this Monday (or Tuesday for my friends in Europe or points east), find your passion by noticing the little details around you and finding joy in them. It is precisely those small doses of beauty that make up the big, mysterious, magnificent, brilliant picture and that keep us going when times get tough.

Have a Passionate Monday!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Veritably Velvety & Versatile Varietal Verdicchio

I have been preoccupied caring for my ailing mother in Santa Barbara, so I haven't been posting as much as I normally do. I miss the blogosphere and all my blogging friends out there.

In the meantime, I have been meaning to post something about one of my absolute favorite white wine varietals - Verdicchio. Besides being velvety and versatile it is also viscous, vibrant, vivacious, and can even be virile! Okay, I've gotten carried away with the Vs but I think you get the picture - I am crazy about it. Verdicchio comes from the Adriatic region of Le Marche (my husband's home region) and there are two versions:

  • Verdicchio di Matelica from the hilly zone of Matelica in the province of Macerata extending into the province of Ancona. Also available in a Riserva version (with higher alcohol and longer aging.)

  • Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi from the same provinces but named after the commune of Jesi, which is north of Matelica. This Verdicchio can be produced in a Riserva version (with longer aging and higher alcohol) but it can also be produced as a "Classico" if it is grown in the original and oldest zone. You might also see "Superiore" on the label, which indicates higher alcohol.

Both can have small additions, up to 15%, of other white grapes like Trebbiano or Malvasia. In my tasting experiences with producers, I don't believe many of the top producers do much blending; most are 100% varietal. Verdicchio may be related to Trebbiano di Lugana (from Lombardy) or Soave (from the Veneto). I see similarities to both wines in Verdicchio.

There are slight differences in the two. In my tasting experiences- and this is very general, the Verdicchio di Matellica has a little bit more vibrant fruit, a mineral background and a touch more acidity. The Verdicchio di Castelli dei Jesi has richer fruit, is more round and velvety in the palate. Both can range from light and crisp to very rich and full-bodied, depending on the producer. Both are surprisingly age worthy and some can even age for 10+ years, becoming more like a White Burgundy. Verdicchio can have aromas of apricots, peaches or pears carrying over to the palate where the fruit flavors are complemented by notes of almonds and minerals. The wines are rich with fruit, without being overly powerful. They have just enough acidity to balance out the fruit.

These are the two brands of Verdicchio that I have been enjoying the most this summer - Fattoria Laila and Villa Bianchi from Umani Ronchi. Both are affordable, under $15 and both happen to be Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi. Other producers to look for are: Bisci Verdicchio di Matelica, Bucci Verdicchio and their Riserva - Villa Bucci - both dei Castelli di Jesi, and Sartarelli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, which has many single-vineyard versions.
A note about Le Marche (fair warning, I may be biased because we spend so much time there with my husband's family): I love it! I shouldn't spread that news around because at present time, it seems relatively undiscovered compared to the well-traveled regions like Tuscany. I am a traveler that likes to go where there are very few tourists, or none at all. In Le Marche one can still travel without seeing many tourists at all, unless you are at the beaches in the summer. The region has so much to offer from mountains, to rolling hills, to beautiful beaches, top salami and cheese producers, great food traditions (similar to Umbria's traditions) and the unbeatable Adriatic seafood. I hope to have some tours to the Le Marche in 2009. Stay tuned. In the meantime, you can be an armchair traveler by checking out Rowena's posts from her travels in Le Marche over the summer. See them over at Rubber Slippers in Italy (this link will take you to her first post and read the succeeding posts to see all of them on the region.)

Verdicchio is a great match with seafood, lighter pastas, vegetable dishes and salami. Try it with my Liguine con I Gamberi/Linguine with Shrimp. Salute'!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Another Dose of Something Passionate

I like this "Dose of Something Passionate" so much that perhaps I will make it a Monday ritual. Who says Mondays can't be passionate?

Passion as defined by Merriam-Webster is: "a strong liking or devotion to some activity, object, or concept; or an object of desire or deep interest; enthusiasm; zeal."

How can we infuse passion, or more enthusiasm, into our everyday lives? Some ways that come to mind are: making every moment count, cooking with love, do something out of our ordinary routine, pick some flowers, or just stop and smell them, doing mundane tasks with our mind devoted to the task, or doing something nice for someone and not letting them know who did it.
Do you have any practices that you do to make your life more passionate?

I have a friend who was forced to come face to face with himself when his wife left him abruptly about five years ago. He opened himself up fully to the challenge, looking in all the deepest parts of his soul and being, searching for meaning, for answers. He emerged from that difficult process a more passionate and happier human being. He found his enthusiasm for life, for family, for his profession, for friends, for the spirit, and eventually, for love again. As he was coming into "his own" he wrote me a note that I've never forgotten. It said:

"Life is…too short…too strange…
so precious…so precious…
there is no time not to express
love…so Love!"

I can't think of anything more passionate than that sentiment.

Have a passionate Monday. Oh, why not make it a passionate week?

Pizza Margherita Two Ways

Yes, a Gemini's dream - not having to make up her mind, but having it both ways! Yes, I admit it, I torture my poor husband when we are trying to make a decision. Being Gemini has its good points, but pity the Geminis' significant others who have to wait for the twins to make up their mind. A simple question like, "do you want pizza or seafood tonight?" can turn into a mental debate inside my head that could last for hours, unless someone steps in and makes up my mind for me, which I love! Yes, I couldn't be happier when someone takes the reigns and says, "Let's have pizza!" Ahhhh, I can relax.

The other night we reached a fairly painless decision to make pizza, which we like to do once or twice a month. When I have had a rough day or week or just feeling the need of a mental vacation, I like to make it a "pizza and movie" night in which we eat while watching a good movie. I must digress here for a moment to say that every other night Antonio and I relish our peaceful meals at the table together. It is a sacrosanct ritual - the coming together over food and wine, listening to some nice music with candlelight. It is a perfect ending to a day. However, the other night - after 5 nights in the hospital with my mom - was a definite P&M night. Still, I could net let the easy pizza decision ruin a perfect Gemini mentality. I had to make my Pizza Margherita two different ways, while my husband rolled his eyes and insisted on making his own.

We have been tweaking our pizza recipe and preparation methods for several years now and I think we have finally come to a near-perfect pizza. (At least a near-perfect pizza which can be made in a conventional oven and not in a pizza oven.)

Pizza Margherita - a la Gemini or Two Ways!
Makes three 10-12" very thin crust pizzas

The dough should be made well ahead of time, even the day before is okay. It needs at least 1 1/2 hours to rise.

3 cups 00 "pizza" flour (we like this much more than all-purpose flour and it can be found at gourmet grocery stores or Italian delis.)
Just under one cup of warm water (105-155 degrees, or like bath water to the touch)
2 packets of instant yeast
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt

Stir the sugar into the warm water then drizzle the yeast over the top of the water. Let stand for a few minutes until it appears creamy. Stir in the yeast until dissolved.

I use a food processor for the initial blending, but this can also be done by hand. Blend flour and salt. Slowly drizzle the yeast mixture until a dough forms. At this point I turn out the dough unto a clean surface to knead just a bit by hand. I find when you do this you get to know what the dough should feel like and can adjust it by adding a bit more flour or warm water should it be too wet or dry, respectively. Form into a ball and place in a bowl covered with plastic or a moist towel. Place the bowl in a relatively warm spot, free from drafts. (I actually pre-warm my oven just a touch then shut it off.) A few minutes later I put the bowl in the oven. Let rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising make the pizza sauce. Empty a box or can of chopped tomatoes (without seasonings!) into a saucepan, add a glug of good olive oil (maybe 1-2 Tbsp.) a generous sprinkling of salt and some oregano (maybe 1/2 tsp.) Simmer for at least one hour, stirring occasionally, until reduced by about 1/3.


We have tried using all kinds of mozzarella and have come to the conclusion that Mozzarella di Bufala is the best tasting, even on pizza. Yes, it is more expensive, but then we go to all the trouble to make everything else perfect, why not have the best cheese? If you can't get the Bufala, use fresh mozzarella.

Dry the mozzarella very well then cut into as thin of slices as you can. Lay out ahead of time on a plate to drain. Before using on the pizza, drain off any excess water.

Chop finely a small handful of fresh basil. (Some will be used while baking and some for finishing.)

Pre-heat oven to its hottest temperature, preferably 550 degrees.

Cut the dough into three equal portions. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface. We use a rolling pin as we like the crust very thin. Transfer dough to a cookie sheet or, if easier, the back of a cookie sheet. Once you straighten the dough out, form a border. Bake the crust for about 3 minutes until just set so that it can be transferred easily. (We pre-bake the crust so that it is firm enough to bake directly on the oven racks. Otherwise, if you bake it on a pan, it stays a bit mushy.) Do the same to the second and third pieces of dough, depending on how many you want to make.

At this point we transfer the crusts to a pizza paddle - a very handy tool.

PIZZA MARGHERITA VERSION 1 (Antonio's preference): Sprinkle a little olive oil over the crust. Apply sauce. Then apply cheese and a bit of the basil and a sprinkling of salt.

PIZZA MARGHERITA VERSION 2 (Jeni's preference): Sprinkle a little olive oil over the crust. Lay on slices of tomatoes. Sprinkle with the basil and salt. Or, on this night, I was feeling very Gemini and made the pizza half Version #1 and half Version #2.

Slide pizzas off paddle directly onto oven rack (should be middle rack.) Bake until crust is golden brown and cheese is bubbling - approximately 7 minutes.

Before serving, drizzle with more good olive oil and a sprinkling of the fresh basil.

Be sure to enjoy this with an Italian red wine/a rosso Italiano, like Chianti, Rosso di Montalcino, Nero d'Avola or Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.

Buon Appetito!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Watching Our Parents Age

I miss writing into this amazing universe called the blogosphere. I put thoughts, recipes or photos into the world wide web and a magic thing happens - other people out there respond. Beautiful connections to people from all around the world are made. Yes, indeed, blogging is a lovely gift of the computer age.

I have been a way for a while - in Santa Barbara helping my parents. I know, like many of you, you are either watching your parents age, or watched them age and then pass away. I feel truly blessed to be a part of my parents' lives and be able to watch them age, and in addition, to actually like them and love to be with them (an added bonus!) However, watching a parent suffer is so painful. My mother has been suffering in pain for six years - chronic headache pain. She has days when the pain is less, never a day when the pain is completely gone, and most days the pain is moderate to severe. For the last ten days, here pain has been severe and there is nothing that modern or alternative medicine can do about it. She has been to every kind of specialist that one should see. She spent three years going to a top-notch pain clinic, she has no less than three doctors on her case at all times. We feel that we have tried almost everything. There is no explanation except that it is most likely an auto-immune disease. (That catch all term for diseases that no one can figure out.) It seems as though her nerves are damaged and sending a continual message to her body that she is in pain. Add to this the fact that she has a form of Alzheimer's called Lewy Body Dementia, her situation is sad, to put it mildly.

Watching my father watch his wife go through this pain and become someone different everyday is also torture. The whole thing is heartbreaking. Those of us trying to help end up feeling helpless, like our efforts are futile. Even the doctors feel this way.

Witnessing my mother's changes and pain have brought different qualities out of me. I found out that I am a really good caretaker and nurse. I have an ability to just accept what I am seeing as a part of life and not try to fight it. I have a hunch years of meditation and yoga are helping me here. I have a reserve of calm and fortitude that is deeper than I could have ever imagined. I am learning (mostly by reading a lot) how to deal with my mother's dementia in a way that preserves her dignity and how to reach her on an emotional level when rational thoughts and conversation no longer work. I have learned more gratitude for what I do have and what we still have as a family. I take things less for granted. Don't get me wrong - I am not an expert in any of these things, but I am constantly learning by being in the thick of it.

So, while I wish my mother was out of her pain, I am fishing around for the tiny pearls of wisdom to be learned from this experience. Admittedly, there is another side to me that feels like a lioness - I want to roar and demand justice. I want someone to come up with a solution to help her. I want to protect her at all costs - even if to the extent of wishing euthanasia was legal.

I am not writing this for pity, but to, as always, make connections with others out there who must have experienced or are experiencing something similar.

My mother on a particularly good day three years ago, being feed one of her favorite foods - ice cream - by one of her granddaughters. While not a good photo, it is a happy one.

An added afterthought: I believe that suffering in life is a given. Whether it is emotional, mental or physical suffering - we cannot escape it. But as African Vanielje says in her comment below, it is how we deal with it that counts. It is through these lessons we have the opportunity to grow, learn and deepen our connection to others and the great spirit.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti 1935-2007

Arrivederci to il maestro! He died this morning at home with his family by his side.
He will be missed by all.