Adventures in Limoncello

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2013-11-22 18.16.01It all started with the black plastic bag that screams: “Hey world, I just came from the liquor store.”

Actually, it starts a mile before I got that bag. When I was in Italy a few years ago, a serendipitous turn of events landed me and Lola in the beautiful coastal town of Sorrento. Sorrento is far and away one of the most magical places I have ever been. The whole coast captured my heart, from Amalfi with the pebbly beach and strings of lemons hanging from the door frames and painted on every flat surface in homage. It is the stuff books are written about.

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Sorrento, on the other hand, is the kind of place where you could see yourself living. The winding streets and hidden alcoves of frescos and streets lined with vespas—the passages leading to hidden courtyards and the open town square complete with a bright yellow church and a glimpse of the rocky cliffs above the Mediterranean which is just a small swath of blue between Sorrento and the island of Capri. When we were there one rainy late morning the weather broke one and we took a walk. We wandered around and tried on backpacks and purses in deep greens, indigo, and jet black. We sorted through silk scarfs and fine linens, and we bought lace hankies tatted by nuns.  When we were though shopping we followed my patented method for avoiding tourist trap restaurants and getting an authentic meal—pick a street, then make the first right and the first left. Your restaurant will be right there (this method has never failed me—and you can never get lost). We walked down three stone stairs and sat at one of four tables in an empty restaurant. There were cruets of olive oil on each table. We stacked our packages to the side and we waited for whoever was rumbling behind a curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz to come out and take our order.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhen a man with salt and pepper hair emerged, he had a carafe of red wine and a basket of warm bread in his hands. I am sure we squealed. We ordered in Italian and the bashful man disappeared behind the curtain again. When he came back he was all apologies…”signora, no Bolognese.” Bummer. He was out of what I wanted. I touched his hand to stop the flow of “Mi, dispiace!” and I told him to bring me whatever he wanted. The bashfulness cleared and his face erupted in a smile. When our food came, it came with a vengeance. There were so many bites to try. I don’t remember all of it but I remember the lasagna. Mmm Mmmm. Lola and I talked and ate and revived.

We started to make a move for the check when our waiter, the owner it turns out, came out with a stout carafe filled with a vibrant yellow liquid. He poured us each a sip and one for himself. We all clinked glasses, said “cin cin!” and tapped our glasses on the table before taking a drink. It was an icy burst of lemon followed by the warmth of the alcohol sliding down your throat. When we out on our coats our host walked close to me and I held out my hand (such an American). Lola said, “Aw! He was going to ciao you!” And with that we did traditional kiss on each cheek and it felt like we were leaving lunch with an old friend. Lola and I still refer to giving a good bye kiss as ciao-ing someone 🙂

When I was first dating T I told him this story. This led to a Godfather movie marathon where he would wow me with caponata and I showed off with my ancient cannoli recipe, and of course we had to have limoncello, which I promised to get. The only problem was I couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched high and low and couldn’t find it. That is when I placed a forlorn call to Lola to tell her this tragic tale of woe. How? How could we possibly watch The Godfather without the limoncello?  We wouldn’t!  I got bottle in the mail a few days later  (three cheers for Lola!). It contained a tall frosted glass bottle of Limoncello and two tiny glasses with cherubic babies riding lemons with wings on them. It still makes me smile to think of sipping out of those glasses. Now we never have to have it delivered because we can make it at home!

On to the bowl of lemons…

I started with a recipe but I made some changes as I went:

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Start with ten washed lemons and a vegetable peeler. Peel the lemon skin (just the yellow, not the white). This part took a while. I actually ended up doing it in front of the TV (see my remote?). The long skinny, vertical peeler did the best job (I tried three).

2013-11-22 22.56.25When you have a bowl full of peels, cover them with 750 ml of vodka. I have read that a higher proof vodka (100+) does a better job of extracting the lemony color and flavor than a standard bottle of vodka. I don’t know if this is true, but what I chose (a triple filtered 80 proof, unflavored potato vodka) worked just fine.

Then you cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it out at room temperature for four days.

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On day four, strain the peel from the vodka. It will now smell like a lemon grove and have a pale yellow color. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan combine a cup and a half of sugar with two cups of water and melt over medium heat. The goal is to create a simple syrup here, so if you want it more or less sweet, follow your bliss.

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Pour the COOLED simple syrup over the vodka and lemon mixture. Cover and let stand overnight.

The last step is to strain out the lemon peels and pour your limoncello into a pretty bottle. It tastes best and is traditionally served ice cold.

You will notice you now have ten peeled lemons and it would be a shame to waste them. Stay tuned for my next lemony adventure in the kitchen. Until then, ciao!

Holiday Plant Care | Melinda Myers Shares Her Houseplant Survival Secrets

As I am planting amaryllis #2 I am noticing that a. my house is starting to look like a florist, and #2, the poinsettias are in need of water…or maybe more light. Something.

I am glad I found this before they die on me 🙂

Garden Variety

Gardening expert Melinda Myers offers a little expert advice with GV readers on caring for some often-difficult holiday houseplants.

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Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving….while we still have it

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T just walked in and for the fourth day in a row, let our paper hit the floor with a “thunk.” Yesterday it came in two packages, a slim volume of news in a plastic bag, and an enormous tome of ads, fliers, and enticements from every retail outlet within a one-hour drive from here. It has been this way for days.

As we were enjoying being home, and reminiscing and writing :), other people were having a very different Thanksgiving weekend.

I am a big proponent of people following their own way to happiness. That is the beauty of this great country we are fortunate to live in, but I am sorry people had a choice last week.

Black Friday has been an extension of the Thanksgiving celebration for people for a while, but that wasn’t enough; retailers wanted our Thursday too. I am sorry that there was even an option for people to skip a day when more or less everyone can be free of deadlines and responsibilities. Those days are hard to come by. The clocks just keep rolling back, taking away more and more of our holiday, until it is just another day.

  1. In addition to robbing us of the time we have to do nothing—to find the dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) as the Italians call it—I have a problem with stores robbing the world of some calm. The constancy of the rush is overwhelming. We went out to return a movie at a grocery store the night after thanksgiving and we reveled in the ghost town that met us. For once, it was quiet. There was barely a soul out and that made me exhale and embrace the peace of it all. I bet the streets and stores and traffic lights can use a break too, as silly as that might sound.
  2.  In America, where we work longer days and with less vacation than any other first world nation, this one, completely American holiday stood out as a semicolon in a sentence; a pause before heading into the typical rush of the Christmas season. A day of football or board games, or long conversations, and naps. Now it is just another day, albeit with a big dinner—and for what? Christmas presents? It makes me sad that kids don’t get to spend long days in their footie pajamas on a regular basis, so to take away the days that is possible, seems almost criminal. And speaking of criminal…
  1. I love Christmas. I love surprising people with presents, but I don’t understand how that motivates people to behave like a pack of wild animals over something electronic. Especially when it is to give a gift on a religious holiday marking the beginning of the most selfless act in history. Someone loses their life every year at a Wal-Mart, and this year knives were brandished and shotguns were involved. No one should die over a Christmas gift, no matter how good the door busting deal is.

You don’t see people this worked up to go to the polls on Election Day, or to the blood bank when they’re running low. We don’t see people busting down barriers to get to friends or family in need. In fact, I can’t think of anything else that motivates this kind of frenzy today. Ironically, for most of us, I bet if you presented your loved one with the option to have a new TV and lose you, OR  have you but get no new TV, they would pick you (and if they don’t they go directly to the naughty list and don’t deserve a new TV). And for the life of me, how do people over look one tiny, lifesaving option: the Internet? Shop Cyber Monday, get what is on your list and save the possibility of bodily harm.

When you have the choice, I hope you choose peace over hurry. I hope you cho0se calm over hectic. I am wishing you pajama days, nights by the fire and the ones you love and short lines when you have to hit the stores. And lest I come off as the Grinch, please know I am wishing you presents too–ones with pretty bows and filled with love.

This has been a rant from my holly bough-draped soap box. I will get back to the fun stuff now–thanks for indulging me.

Let There be (Christmas) Lights!

2013-11-29 18.03.28HAPPY DECEMBER!

Two nights ago we kicked off the season of light here in Reston. Big white stars led the way to the dark Christmas tree where a sea of people–our neighbors–gathered. There were kids in Santa hats and teenagers in scarves and reindeer antlers. There were people holding hands and holding hot cocoa; ice skaters spinning and babies squealing. Dads had kids on their shoulders and everyone had a red nose and rosy cheeks because It. Was. COLD.

Everyone waited. The brass band was silent on their risers and the Reston Chorale stood tall and still holding their sheet music.   Everyone waited. At six o’clock on the dot you could hear a clip-clop in the distance. The crowd hushed to hear the jingle bells on Santa’s horse-drawn sleigh.

It was the perfect metaphor for the season:

The anticipation.

The lights in the darkness.

Those stars leading the way.

And a moment later, the tree was lit to a round of cheers and shrieks of delight. The lights seemed to strike up the band and the chorus!

This year's there were stars!

This year’s there were stars!

The family next to us sang along for the first three carols and then the woman I assume to be the mom said, “Ok, ready to go?” and started removing kids from their high perches when an older voice said, “No, I want to stay for my favorite Christmas carol.”  Grandpa sounded like he was from New York and he was wearing a well broken in Santa hat. So they stayed and they kept on singing until I’ll be Home for Christmas was through. And they smiled and sang along and their grandpa’s voice boomed and his smile beamed.

This made me think. What makes the moment is a cheerful giver. I imagine there were bunch of people in the tree lighting crowd who would have rather been on the couch watching football, or across the street at Best Buy elbowing the crowds to a discount computer, but they were there with the big and the little ones who really wanted to sing Silver Bells and see Santa and bask in the Christmas lights. And just by being there, by giving their time with a smile, they made the moment even better for the people they love (and I bet for themselves too). The same proves true in less fun moments. Its better to grit your teeth with a buddy who you can laugh with later than to not be having fun AND have to deal with sour people on top of it.

Another benefit of not being hurried though Christmas is being able to take the time to be a cheerful giver.

For me, there wasn’t a place in the world I would have rather been. Divine intervention stepped in for me to enjoy the moment with the one I love. You can see 100% of the pictures I took here. A minute after the tree was lit, my phone went dead, so I could just enjoy the season without putting a screen between me and the festivities. I am so glad it did, because the thing about moments is that you don’t get them back to do over. Sure you can make new ones, but why not make the most of the ones we have, while we have them. We could hear the Gloria all the way to the car. It was a wonderful night.

So long Thanksgiving. Hello Christmas Season!

Now where did I put my Advent wreath…

Ready, Set, Grow!

My Amaryllis  is a cheater. Its true. I waited until the day before Thanksgiving to open the box and get the planting medium set to plant the bulb on Thanksgiving, but when I opened it, I found this.

Ready, Set, Grow!

I guess every year of a tradition has its own story (see the backstory of mine here), and this year it starts with  this overachieving Amaryllis  already popping out of the papery brown bulb. I have righted it, placed it deep in its peat-y soil, and placed it in my own sunny kitchen window. Hopefully it will lose the bleached out green and keep growing. I will keep you posted. 

In the meantime, I would love to see yours too. Post photos here, please.

All Good Gifts Around us…

thanksgiving_turkey-6728Happy Thanksgiving!

I am thankful for so may things, but one of them is you. Thanks for reading a long through this

Unhurried Christmas.

Something else I am  really grateful for is my brothers.

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No matter what time it is, day or night, more reliably than the post office, in rain, hail, sleet, or snow, if I call, they answer. I couldn’t have been blessed with two better siblings and I want to let them know how much I appreciate them. Thanks guys for always lending your ear, your shoulder, and your expertise. I am thankful for you!

This post deserves a soundtrack. Because the musical Godspell will always have a soft spot in my heart, I will share my song of thanks, here.

 

T minus 8 Hours to Our Top 6 Thanksgiving Traditions!

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The last leaf! Thanksgiving walk 2012

The last few days have been busy ones and though they haven’t been hurried, they have been busy. I have had two work projects delay until they were happening simultaneously and between altered schedules, the unexpected, and the toil of everyday, we have been more of a tag team than a couple. While we’re a great tag team, I really don’t like it when that happens.

But now the leaves are raked, the fireplace is clean, and work; after tomorrow, work has been told to buzz off for the next four days. We are ready for what I have been calling the Thanksgiving Relax-o-thon. Our Thanksgiving isn’t traditional. For starters, it is just we two. Turkey is only involved as a leftover, and the main course is chow fun and spring rolls. Just saying it makes me smile. This is the most relaxed, low pressure holiday imaginable. Here is what I am most looking forward to:

6.      Being cozy at home with a fire crackling and a mug of cocoa. The pure joy of this is augmented by the weather we are having. Cold and wet and icy; perfect for being home and watching movies.

5.      Thanksgiving Dinner of Perfect Bites. Rather than an enormous thanksgiving feast we have decided to make just the perfect bites of the things we like the most. We like surprises, so I can only tell you mine–salty, green Sicilian olives and stinky cheeses. These will be an appetizer (more like evening grazing) before the dinner. The main course is Chinese food, T originated this tradition. Talk about no pressure Thanksgiving!

4.      Baking. Even though I’m not making dinner, I couldn’t get through Thanksgiving without baking. This year I am making two things: a classic pumpkin pie, so I can call my dad and have a piece over the phone and a two loaves of brioche. One loaf will be for turkey sandwiches on Friday, and the other will go home with a great teenager who is coming over tomorrow after school to sort through our surplus CDs. I am pretty excited about making both.

3.      Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Confession time—I have been watching every sickeningly sweet, late night, cable channel Christmas movie I have come across for weeks. These uncomplicated movies full of twinkling lights and happy endings have been warming me up for the real holiday movies to kick off.  Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the official movie our Thanksgiving weekend. We quote the movie all year long and it never ceases to make me laugh almost to the point of tears. The end of this scene in particular makes me lose it every time. 

2.    Talking to my Family. I am hopeful that my mom has decided not to cook. I am crossing my fingers that she is ordering a turkey from one of the terrific BBQ places near her house, and then powdering her nose with flour before she brings the pie (and Redi-Whip) to the table to the oohs and aahs of my brothers. Just when I think I have swayed her to take it easy, she will change her mind (relaxing is not her style!). I will know all the details for certain when I call them with my own piece of pumpkin pie and I can’t wait.

1.      Thanksgiving Weekend Date Night. A long walk in the crisp air with the one I love is enough to make my heart burst with gratitude for the life I get to live. A few years ago, we started taking a Thanksgiving walk (I am sure we were motivated to burn off some of the pie we planned to eat) and now it has become a tradition. When the world starts to spin almost out of control and deadlines, and chores, and responsibilities come calling, were good at reminding one another to breathe and to laugh. In the quiet moments, it feels great to say thank you for that and to just enjoy being together.

 A view of the lake from our Thanksgiving walk 2012.

Geese on the lake;
from our Thanksgiving walk 2012.

I will get back to living in the moment, but for now, I am filled with anticipation for my top six–and right on the heels of Thanksgiving, the Christmas tree lighting and caroling. Commence the Christmas season!

“Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.”

imagesAt my house, we have been talking a lot about what it means to really savor the season. The conversation keeps winding back around to one thing: being mindful about how time is spent–and how it isn’t spent. Its amazing how refreshed I feel on the nights we put Christmas music and read in front of the fire, rather than putting on the TV. Reading is one of those activities that requires all of your attention. All of your focus. I think that is one of the reasons why it is so rewarding. It also allows you to wonder and imagine in a way that the Internet doesn’t. Of course, the Internet is on my top ten list of things I am thankful for. It is great to be able to search and find the answer to any question in the blink of an eye, and it is wonderful to learn about things far an wide from the comfort of your sofa, but it takes away time from seeing things with your mind’s eye.  Its good for the soul to just imagine, without having Google there to inform every nook and cranny of your thoughts.

I hope you find sometime to wonder and imagine and read. And so you don’t have to spend your unhurried moments looking for something to read, heres is one of my Christmas favorites: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. It is complete with off-beat relatives, the sounds of jingly dimes, a dose of reality, a touch of politics and the joyful, expectant feeling of Christmas.  Without further adieu….

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. 

To keep reading, click here. 

Chicken Wing Dip. Because Its Delicious and I am from Buffalo

I have long since given up finding good wings south of Buffalo. There was a brief and shining moment when we found good wings at a great old neighborhood restaurant within walking distance from our house. They had a fireplace, loud live music from time to time, and the bartenders knew our wing order as soon as we sat down. But alas, they lost their lease, and again, we find ourselves wingless.

Enter Buffalo Chicken Wing Dip. It takes ten minutes to make and it saves me a trip north, and saves my boyfriend my  impassioned  tirade about what real chicken wings taste like 🙂 I offer it to you as something quick to pull together for a party. It has also stood in for dinner more than once at this house.

Step one: Gather up chicken (this is canned chicken breast),  a cup of Franks Red Hot Sauce (there is no substitute),  a cup of Marie’s Blue Cheese Dressing (this one is “light” which is kind of funny when you consider this whole dip is predicated on a block of cream cheese), one block of cream cheese, a 1/2 cup of shredded cheese, and a big bowl.

Step two: heat the cream cheese in the microwave until it is soft (about a minute).

Step three: Shred the chicken and stir into the cream cheese.

Step four: add all other ingredients and stir until smooth

Step five is choose your own adventure–you can either bake it and make it all bubbly, put it in a crockpot to serve warm, or dive in as is. I prefer the last option 🙂

Letting Christmas Traditions Bloom

AmaryllisI was talking to my mom about slowing down and unhurrying the season and we were trying to figure out the last time I wasn’t working around the clock for Christmas. We were on the phone and it was a long conversation, which is a new benefit of the unhurried Christmas.

My mom usually gets the brunt of my busyness. She always takes the time to call to make sure I am taking the time to sleep and eat and do something fun now and again, and she is met with “Can I call you back after…” or “I can’t talk, I was just about to…” or “I have been meaning to call you but by the time I slow down it has been too late.” She tells me the housework will wait when I am running on 5 hours of sleep. She tells me she will call me to wake me up if I decide to take a nap between work and an evening commitment.  Mama Mia, if you are reading this, thank you.

But I digress…

There was one time I slowed down a while—when I moved back to upstate New York and moved in with my grandparents. I worked part time raising donations for a television auction. I didn’t have a car or an alarm clock, I just fell into the staid, calm of their routine.

Every morning my grandfather said my name at the closed bedroom door and 30 minutes later there was a cup of coffee on the table for me between his mug and my grandmother’s tea cup. We bundled up and headed out in the icy air of a Buffalo winter, and listened to old music on an am station in the car. From January to May my grandfather drove my grandmother and me to work and picked us up at the end of the day.

There was not much quiet in my big, rambunctious, Italian family, but my grandfather was a font of calm for me. Somehow when I moved back I got this focused time with my grandparents that I hadn’t had since childhood, before all of the cousins and siblings were born. For the first time, I was an adult to my grandparents (or as much as a grandchild can ever be an adult to their grandparents) and our relationship grew.

Amaryllis12707That winter I bought an amaryllis and when I showed it to my grandfather, he adopted the whole project. We’re both gardeners in a family that is kind of annoyed by the mess dirt creates. Before too long, the plastic pot the bulb came with was abandoned in favor of a recycled ice cream tub. As the bulb sprouted, he stuck pencils in the soil to prop it up. And then the pencils were replaced with yard sticks. The whole operation was in the window next to his chair at the dinner table—the sunniest spot in the house for many reasons. And that bulb, our Christmas experiment, thrived.

By the following Christmas, I had moved out of their house. I had rented an apartment a little closer to the city, got a promotion and started working full time, finally gotten my license, and was on the verge of getting engaged. In all of that, I stopped to buy two amaryllis bulbs—one for his sunny window and one for my apartment. I loved having this thing we just did together—me and him. I remember running out of my uncle’s house as my grandparents started to pull out of the driveway after a visit. I almost forgot to give it to him. I handed the blub to him through the car window, standing on my toes to avoid the slush at the curb. He was genuinely happy about it. “I’ll go home and plant it now.”

Not long after that, after a quiet, eyes-forward conversation as we drove together, my grandfather, my papa, told me that he had lung cancer. I brought him a tiny Christmas tree in the hospital. He was home and back there over the Christmas season. I would go and sit with him and talk with him for the few minutes that he would be awake and he would smile and laugh and ask me to turn on the news. That was the last Christmas we had together.

I found those bulbs at the foot of his basement stairs in the spring when he passed away. The bags said “Christmas bulbs” and the year they were first planted written in his handwriting. When I went back for them a week later, someone had already thrown them away. I have planted an amaryllis and thought of him, no matter where I have been, every year since them.

My mom started planting them too. Somewhere in there, I started sending them to her for Thanksgiving and we would plant them—on opposite ends of the country—at the same time. We then spend the whole Christmas season sending one another pictures of their progress and then of the big, breathtaking blooms. I have gotten a lot of Christmas memories and cheer out of this unintentional tradition.

Slowly it bloomed...

Slowly it bloomed…

I am posting this a bit early because it is on my mind—and because I want you to take the time to plant one too. Last year I kept meaning to get to it and I didn’t. It wasn’t until my mom told me she gave my brother one to plant for the first time at his house that I eventually bought one at Target. It was the last of the batch, it was busting out of its torn paper package and it was already stunted and contorted. It did not have a good start and I didn’t have my grandfather’s sunny window. It took forever to get rooted. I was so behind the others. It bloomed around the New Year and it was gorgeous, but it wasn’t the same as taking the time to do it right. I said never again, so here is where I own up to that.

This bulb will hit the dirt on Thanksgiving. And with it will spring up another year of memories and the warmth of the season.