Polpette di Melanzane al Cumino -Aubergine Patties with Cumin

These patties, or ‘polpette’ as they are called in Italian are quite simple to make and create a bit of interest taste-wise on account of ingredients that ‘pop’:  cumin, spring onion and fresh mint.  They’re dead easy to  make and are crowd pleasers because you can eat them as a finger food or serve them as a part of a main course.  I made them for the first time just over a year ago, on a whim, and have kept making them since, tweaking them this way and that.  There is no real recipe, if you see what I mean.  Just a bunch of ingredients thrown together.  There are countless recipes for aubergine/eggplant patties in Southern Italy and this one would not differ too much save for one ingredient: cumin.   I’ve never come across an Italian recipe calling for cumin.

Try them, you might like them.

Ingredients

Aubergines/eggplant, plastic bread, spring onion or ordinary onion, parsely if you don’t have mint, tomato paste, cumin, sweet paprika, salt, 1 egg, breadcrumbs, 1 tablespoon grated parmigiano

IMG_3131This is one aubergine, sliced, and cooked in the oven until it dried out a little.  About half an hour.  Wait for the slices to cool before proceeding.

IMG_3125Some slices of bread (this is what I call plastic bread).

IMG_3126Break up the bread.

IMG_3127Add the parsely.  And whizz the parsely too.

IMG_3128Add some cumin: a couple of teaspoons say …

IMG_3129Add 1 peeled onion, cut into quarters.  Spring onions are better, but I didn’t have any that day.

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This is a tube of tomato paste, tomato concentrate.  My fridge is never without one because this tomato can be added to so many recipes.  Just a squidge here and there.

IMG_3130Okay so here is a view from the top: I processed the bread and then the parsely.  After I added an onion, some cumin, a squidge of the tomato paste, a good pinch of salt and, last, the bright orange you see on the right, some sweet paprika.

IMG_3131Remember these?  Time to add them.

IMG_3133IMG_3134IMG_3135The end result was somewhat sticky.

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I transferred this mix to a bowl, and added Italian breadcrumbs, which are very dry, a tablespoon of freshly grated parmigiano, and 1 egg.   I used a spoon to bring the mix together, adding more and more breadcrumbs until I reached the consistency I was after.

A little on the laborious side but not rocket science, it was now time to shape the mix into patties .  I prevailed upon my husband to do this while he was watching some news on the TV.   If he can do this, anyone can.    (Not that I was idly lounging about, I hasten to add, I was otherwise occupied in the kitchen and getting our dinner ready.  The patties were just an ‘extra’.)

I left the patties in the fridge overnight.  I fried them in ordinary groundnut oil, the next day, and served them with some tahini sauce.

I had been asked over to a potluck dinner at a friend’s house and all was well.

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That’s some tahini sauce in the middle.

2I suppose you could also serve them with ketchup, why not?  A squeeze of lemon?  Leave the egg and cheese out, and these can be served as a vegan dish too.

To me … these polpette speak of summer and warmth and longer days.

Pasta Camilla: Courgette Advice and All Things Nice

We have “Pasta Alfredo”, I said to myself, so why can’t we have a “Pasta Camilla” (named after my favourite daughter …. and yes, I do have a favourite son too.  I’m so lucky that way) ?

When life deals you lemons they say you should make lemonade, hmmm.  Well, as it happened,  the other day,  I had a market shop and cooking class in Rome which saw me take the 7:30 train from Frascati to Rome and return at after 4 p.m.  My obliging husband came to pick me up the the last metro station closest to Frascati and reminded me that we had guests for dinner that evening, to celebrate our daughter Camilla’s birthday (one of several celebrations this past week).  I had completely forgotten and my initial reaction was one of dismay.  I was tired, and when I say ‘tired’ I mean really really tired.  The idea of having to cook for guests that evening presented me with a huge hospitality hiccough – and let’s not forget that I had to go and do some shopping for it too!  You get the picture.

Anyway … there is always some alchemical magic when it comes to cooking for people you love.  I wanted to cook something easy and special at the same time.  We ended up having the nicest of evenings.  And this was the pasta result.  We all loved it and, if you omit the sausage, it can also be vegetarian.  Omit the cheese and it’s vegan.

This is one of those recipes that are almost easier to make than to describe.  Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

Ingredients

Courgettes (think at least 1 per person), garlic, extra virgin olive oil, Italian sausages, skinned (I used 2), freshly grated parmigiano, fresh  mint and basil

PART 1 – Cooking One Half the Courgettes

PART 2 – Preparing the Courgette Sauce

PART 3 –  Cooking the other Half of the Courgettes

PART 4 – Bringing it all together

Here we go:

PART 1 – Cooking One Half the Courgettes

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The courgettes/zucchini on the left, two skinned Italian sausages on the right which I proceeded to roughly chop.2While the chopping of the sausage and the slicing of the courgettes was going on, I cooked a couple of garlic cloves in a puddle of olive oil.  I tilted the pan at one point, so that the cloves and the oil coverged into a ‘corner’ of the saucepan – that way the garlic cooked faster and better and I was able to control the cookingiand make sure the garlic did not go brown, only golden.

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It was then that I added the sliced courgettes.  Sprinkled salt over them. (Notice that the courgettes are sliced rather thickly.  There’s a reason for that.  Read on.)

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Once they were cooked, I transferred them to a bowl and set them aside.

PART 2 – Preparing the Courgette Sauce

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I cooked the sausage meat in the same saucepan.  I have a big wooden ‘fork’ – this is excellent for breaking up sausage meat, which is a bit ‘sticky’ at first and wants to clump together.

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If you don’t own a wooden fork, you can use the tip of a whisk to break up the sausage meat – works wonders, you’d be surprised.  I learnt this tip just recently from my friend Chef Luigi Brunamonti.  He does this to break up the meat when making a ragù.

Remember the courgettes I had cooked previously?

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I added a little water (about half a glass I suppose) to the bowl.

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And then I processed them with an immersion blender.8

I added the processed courgettes to the cooked sausages.  Switch the heat off and set aside for now.  Lovely bright green colour, don’t you think.

PART 3 –  Cooking the other Half of the Courgettes

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Please notice that I sliced these courgettes a lot thinner than the previous batch.  These are not going to be blended once cooked, that’s the reason why.

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Another saucepan.  Extra virgin olive oil, again, in the saucepan.

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Cook them for a little bit over quite a high heat.  Sprinkle salt over them.

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Then lower the heat and finish cooking them with a lid on.  Just for a few minutes, and do take the lid off now and then to keep an eye on them.

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I had a few courgette blossoms and shredded them a little and added them to the cooked slices of courgette.  Add salt and set aside.

While all this was going on, I had put the pasta water onto the boil and was cooking the pasta:

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All I had to hand is a type of pasta known as “paccheri” (pronounced pack-kerr-ee in English) which are actually not the easiest of pasta shapes to cook.

PART 4 – Bringing it all together

14I transferred the cooked pasta (well, it was slightly undercooked at this point) directly into the saucepan with the courgette and sausage sauce.

15The heat was on, and I kept adding a ladle of the pasta water to the mix, and tossing and/or stirring the pasta with the wooden spoon, until it was indeed cooked to a texture we call “al dente” in Italian.

16Now was the time to add the courgette slices.

17I switched the heat off.  And added basil and mint – just roughly torn with my fingers.

18A good grating of parmigiano (parmesan cheese).

19A twist of pepper, if you fancy it.

20And … job done! Ready to be served and gobbled up.

No one took a photo of the pasta served on the plate.  Sorry about that.  But I reckon you can get an idea of how delicious it was?  Courgettes aren’t the tastiest of vegetables, let’s face it, but they can be tarted up beautifully like this and deliver a deep gustatory satisfaction.

Let’s hear it for Pasta Camilla !!!

Please Don’t Call This Hummus: Paté di Ceci

I think that, just as with Neapolitan Pizza , Hummus (and yes I have spelled it with a capital H) ought to be placed on UNESCO’s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.  That is how much I love it and respect it.  So when I come across various patés or mashes dubbed ‘hummus’ just because the ingredients of the dish are puréed – I get really cross.  What I am going to describe below is a paté, okay?  A chickpea paté and NOT Hummus even though the ingredients are very similar.  The word for chickpeas in Italian is “ceci”, pronounced “chay-chee”.

I first tasted this paté in a restaurant in Northern Lazio over ten years ago.  It was served over toasted bread underneath a layer of dark green vegetables and topped with shavings of pecorino.  Another time it was served, again placed upon toasted bread, over a layer of melted lard.  Delicious combinations can be sought.

INGREDIENTS: 1 jar of previously cooked chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary, lemon juice, salt and pepper

Begin by draining the chickpeas.  I prefer chickpeas that come out of a glass jar rather than a tin can.

1Rinse the chickpeas well.  It dawned on me that this is a vegan friendly recipe.  And then I remembered that many vegans use the cooking water of the chickpeas as a substitute for egg whites.  They have called it “aquafaba”.  Even I, an ominovore, tried making it once, just for the fun of it, and it worked.  The cooking water when whisked looked just like beaten egg whites.  Then I came across an article that explained how aquafaba is actually not at all good for us, quite the opposite.  So if you are vegan and are reading this, or have friends and family who are, please stay well away from aquafaba.  See the link below explaining the whys and wherefores and providing an alternative.

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In a small saucepan, cook some garlic in olive oil and add a sprig of rosemary.  Make sure the garlic does not brown.

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Rotten photo, my apologies.  It was supposed to show that the garlic had turned golden over a low heat.  Switch the heat off at this point.  And transfer the saucepan to a work surface (i.e. away from heat).
Time to add the chickpeas.   Toss them around so that they become coated with the rosemary and garlic scented oil.

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Remove the rosemary.

If you are scared of garlic, and many people are (including Queen Elizabeth of England), remove the garlic at this point too.  But I promise you that cooked garlic is not so pungent and imparts a subtle je ne sais quoi to the final taste.  It’s always a question of balance.  It all depends on how strong the garlic is in the first place, and how much you actually add.

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Now you can switch the heat off.  Add a little water.  Not too much.  About half a glass? You can always add more water later.

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Add salt and pepper.  Blend the chickpeas until you get a texture/consistency that you like.  Taste.  Maybe add more salt or pepper?  Add some lemon juice.  Again, not too much, maybe 1 tablespoon.  Blend again.  Taste again.  Almost there.

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More rosemary. Slice it very very thinly and add it to the paté.

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Cover and store it in the fridge until you need it.  Remove from the fridge at least one hour before you do.

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That evening, we served the chickpea paté over squares of white pizza (pizza that had been baked in a wood-fired oven here in Frascati, a famous bakery by the name of Ceralli).  We added a teensy slice of celery on some of the squares.  (Don’t ask about what else is on the plate if you are on a diet: fried pizza buns containing porchetta and more white pizza containing sliced mortadella). They are just great as an antipasto – nibble – starter, whatever you want to call it.

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Here I am enjoying a Spritz with my friend Carla just as we were about to serve them.

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And here is a close-up of what leftovers looked like the next day – not very appetising, let’s face it.  So … the moral of this story is, serve and eat straight away.

And don’t forget the ‘other’ morality tale concerning aquafaba:

What Is Aquafaba and Why I Won’t Use It

Breathe in, Breathe out: Inspirational Cooking

Life happens in the kitchen.  Life may beget life in the bedroom but it is nourished, literally and metaphysically, in the kitchen. When there is communion engaging the cook with the food being cooked, the anticipation of a good-enough meal  (it isn’t always ‘fantastic’ or ‘superb’)  transforms the experience into an inward journey of reflection.  The kitchen is a place ‘to be’, then, and cooking should not just be a chore.  And there are definitely days when having to cook degenerates into an unwanted chore to add to an already busy or chaotic day. But there’s life for you, ‘stuff’ – not to mention shit –  happens.  In the kitchen as elsewhere.

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Cooking is a love affair. Most people, I presume, cook for other people more so than for themselves and that means they cook for spouses/partners, friends, children, neighbours – which is to say that they cook to bring pleasure (as well as health) to those they care for.   My dear friend Clarissa, who lived in India and ended up dying there (too soon! Too soon!) told me of how many Indians she had got to know regarded eating out with a raised eyebrow of suspicion.  It wasn’t so much about the hygiene or the quality of the food being presented to them in whatever eatery but , rather, the ‘energy’ that went into the cooking process.   Mothers/wives/sisters cook with love – cooks in restaurants or on the street will prepare meals to make money.  With food being regarded as the prime source of energy, it has to be as ‘pure’ and as fresh as possible (which is why, in Indian cuisine, reheating is frowned upon).  The bottom line is that we have to be ‘conscious’ while we are cooking, aware of our feelings.  And when the feelings are not of the best kind … well, then, it is best to take a wee break.  Go to the loo. Throw away the rubbish.  Make that quick phone call you were putting off.  And then return to the kitchen, restored, and drink a nice glass of wine or other soothing drink of your choice.  Even a slight improvement in one’s mood works wonders.  So yes, one should wash one’s hands before starting in the kitchen.  But one should also take a look at one’s soul and ‘wash’ that too, if need be.

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I don’t know whether any of you have seen the 1992 film ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ set in Mexico? Well, the protagonist is Tita, and Tita doesn’t get to have the easiest of lives (I won’t divulge more because I don’t want to ruin the film for you).  Anyway, one of the most engaging scenes in this surreal film is when Tita is preparing the food for her sister’s wedding with Nacha, the family nanny. As they prepare the food some of Tita’s tears get mixed in with the batter. This results in an emotional riot that happens after the family eats the cake. Everyone feels smitten and is pining for their one true love. This happens again after Pedro presents Tita with some flowers. She uses the roses to prepare a sauce. As they are eating dinner everyone feels an intense passion. Her sister even sets the shower on fire with all of her passion.  And in another scene, when Tita is feeling sad as she cooks, the food, though delicious, has disastrous consequences on the bowel movements of the diners.  Well, I am not saying that we should all be like Tita or that we are even capable of such prodigious gastronomic magic but a little bit of that secret ingredient, love, never hurts.  Which is why I keep a postcard on my kitchen backsplash.

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Obviously, I wish I knew what I now know when I first started to cook on a daily basis – but I have also learned so much from kitchen disasters.  Making artichokes is a memorable one.  I didn’t peel enough leaves off the carciofi and though I cooked them for what seemed like an interminable hour, they were so tough I had to throw them away.  Adding wine to a beautiful sauce only to have it turn quite unpalatable:  yes! That’s because the alcohol content of the wine is bitter, so that’s why you have to turn up the heat to encourage the bitterness to evaporate or, alternatively, why it’s not a bad idea to cook the wine before adding it to a recipe.  I was making fish stock, once … taking time to crush the carapace of the shellfish for a better finish, and adding all the ingredients required for a bisque-type result.  I tasted it and pronounced it yummy.  And then I went to drain the fish bones and shells and shallot and parsley and black pepper corns etc … but instead of draining the precious liquid into another pot, I drained the stock straight into the kitchen sink and down the drain pipe.  Oh the dismay!  You can imagine.   Another time, my husband’s cousin visiting from Turin asked me to make the very Roman carbonara pasta for him, as a treat.  He did make the supreme effort of eating it, bless him, but he laughed as he said to me: “Jo, I love your food but … carbonara is just not for you!”.  And that naturally prompted me to keep at the recipe until I got it down pat..  Practice makes perfect, so I suppose we have to encourage mistakes.

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Accidents in the kitchen are a reminder of the resilience we need to build in other areas life, I suppose?

The film ‘Zorba the Greek’ has a beautiful message for us all, to encourage us.  Towards the very end of the film, the investment of Zorba and Basil, the man he calls ‘Boss’, results in utter financial ruin for both of them but especially for Basil.  Zorba, however, is drawn to resorting to laughter, calling this event a magnificent ‘catastrophe’, a ‘splendiferous crash’.  The pair of them end up dancing, in that memorable scene which is a choreography to life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlLChcOlLK0).  We all need a little madness, as Zorba recommends, in order to be free.  I very often cook barefoot in the kitchen.  And I’m not one for aprons, don’t ask me why, and don one only when I am giving cooking classes.  I assume aprons reassure the client … and I wouldn’t want to disappoint.

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The above is a photo of me, dancing … towards the end of a cooking class.

Speaking of practice makes perfect.  Conversely, it is also true that there are many pitfalls in striving for perfection at all costs.  I was reminded of this in recent blog post by Dwight Furrow from whom I would like to directly quote:In modern culture we are too easily seduced by perfection. We want the perfect job, seek the perfect look, strive for the best life we can achieve. We try to eliminate all the rough edges and imperfections until in the end we achieve—uniformity, everyone pursuing the same ideal. We strive for that ideal because we fear being different or showing weakness.

That’s boring. There is beauty in the imperfect and incomplete.

Asymmetry, simplicity, raw, unadorned austerity have their own attractions. Drinking from an old, cracked coffee cup, a face marked by an unusual line, a chilly, fog shrouded shoreline, or parched forbidding desert—when something is not quite right we not only experience a sense of  profundity but witness the source of vital creativity in life. A system that is too perfect lacks the diversity to cope with uncertainty. Only systems that allow for imperfection can evolve. There is no growth without adversity.” (https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2017/03/13/in-praise-of-imperfection/)

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We think we need the perfect kitchen to cook the perfect meal.  True, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with a big, fully equipped, modern kitchen.  I can’t tell you how many times I have caught myself moaning and groaning about the size of my kitchen.  “Why?”, I have wailed out aloud, more than I care to remember, “Why is it that I who love to cook and make meals for a nice crowd find myself having to cook in such cramped conditions?”   So much pining on my part.  And yet I have cooked countless meals in our galley kitchen, for up to 16 people no problem. I am glad that the last 30 years have seen a marked shift in the way houses are now conceived, with the kitchen being seen as the hub of the home and being allotted more and more space compared with our mothers’ generation. And yet statistics would show that people cook less now that they have better, modern,  fully equipped, larger and sexy kitchens!  What does that say about people’s attitude to cooking? The  meaning of cooking?  We all watch TV programmes with celebrity chefs and cooking shows, and salivate over the recipes being prepared but … but … spend less time actually cooking.  Why do we prefer the vicarious experience of watching food being prepared as opposed to the real-life experience of actually making the meal?  I think that maybe we have lost a little of our childlike propensity for playfulness.  Cooking has to be about playing, not just delivering.  The gadgets and the utensils should be regarded as toys, not just tools.  And if we can’t afford the more expensive tools, there are ways to make do with what we already have.  I used kitchen scissors for years before investing in a proper chef’s knife.  Lack of said knife didn’t stop me from cooking.  And I often still do cut the parsley in a big cup with the scissors, what’s wrong with that?

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When my husband and I first started living together, we were bequeathed a pretty good sized kitchen in terms of apartment space.  Four people could eat comfortably in the kitchen, six required cosy quarters. I remember when the oven temperature dial went crazy.  There was no way to fix it, the man said, so I ended up having to gauge the temperature on a hunch!  I would turn the oven on at full blast, put whatever roast in it, and then turn the oven on and off, as I saw fit, until the dish got cooked.  The stove top had only four burners.  I learned how to cook dishes in a particular succession, because four burners weren’t enough with the bigger saucepans taking up all the room, and not allowing me to use the four burners at the same time.  It was like playing musical chairs with the pots and pans, and I had to have a clear idea of how the menu would fit in.  I indulged in a stove with six burners as soon as we could afford it: ah, bliss! Also, I never seemed to have enough countertop space for the preparations or the food.  So I invested in trays.  I would place the food and utensils on trays, resting on the floor.  More musical chairs. Mark, my daughter’s guitar teacher, who came once a week for the lesson used to laugh his head off when he saw trays lying around the kitchen floor or on top of other non-kitchen surfaces.  But he conceded that it did solve the problem of lack of space.  You gotta laugh!

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A few years ago, I was asked to run a few cooking lessons for American students doing a summer session at an international school in Rome.  The person employing me warned me that the school’s kitchen was being refurbished so I had better check with the chef before starting. What she failed to inform me was that there was going to be no kitchen whatsoever during the time I would be teaching, and all I would be supplied with would be a fridge and an electric oven!  Now, there’s a challenge.  We used the school’s desks as countertops. Thank goodness I had been on a few girl scout camping trips, and had some experience of cooking outside.  I had a few propane gas cookers and managed to pull off the cooking classes by filling up my car with all the pots and pans and cutting boards and utensils etc that were needed.  Now that I think about it, it was just crazy, and think I should have been awarded a medal of sorts.

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6The pupils were fantastic, however, and I do hope they will retain fond memories of their experience.

Another great source of joy was cooking for events at our kids’ school – a sports day, for instance – together with other parents.  Sharing food is always inspiring, seeing the expressions of satisfaction and enjoyment on people’s faces.

So, yes, joy can be transported from our home to another space.  Just as a taste of ‘something’ can transport us back to our homes, our sense of security, our sense of self, our sense of rootedness, our community, even our purpose in life.

My husband happens to become addicted, let’s say, to the cantucci biscuits I make.

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The recipe calls for quite a big batch, so I get to make them about twice a month.  It’s what he has for breakfast.  It’s what neighbours and a visiting friend will have to accompany a cup of coffee or tea.  It’s what my daughter will take with her, to nibble at the office with her colleagues, when she comes to visit.  They are not particularly sweet and are full of almonds, and are light and filling at the same time.  I suppose that’s what their pull is, I don’t eat them.

Anyway.  Towards the end of January, a good friend who was going to be celebrating an important birthday chez other friends in France, wondered whether my husband and I would be coming along too, she needed numbers (naturally) in order to organize this weekend.  There were a number of reasons that were making this trip uncertain but fortunately, almost at the last minute, we were able to confirm our attendance.  And we also decided to drive there, it was not very far from Nimes, and we turned this into a little road trip for us to enjoy as a couple.

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We were to sleep in Genoa for the first night on our way up there, and in Sanremo on our way back.  It turned out to be a very enjoyable trip, the birthday celebrations superb and unforgettable(!), and the six-hour drive in two stages not bad at all.  As we had left our confirmation so late, our friend managed to find room for us to stay only in a small ‘gite’, some sort of holiday inn, because the hotels had already all been booked.  I didn’t know what to expect and so got to work.

I brought along a duvet (you never know, the place might be cold).  I also brought along our coffee maker, coffee, sugar, tea, mugs, honey and … some of my blessed cantucci for favourite husband. He thrives on good coffee, and he feels ‘restored’ by the cantucci.  When we got to the gite, it turns out they had a kitchenette so the propane gas stove I had brought along was not necessary.

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The duvet did help, however.  And my husband got to have his favourite coffee, in bed, together with the cantucci.  Home from home.

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I had also packed a rucksack with goodies for a picnic lunch after Genoa.  Wine too, bottle opener, fruit, the works.  We had dinner in lovely restaurants in both Genoa and Sanremo.  But the enjoyment of the picnic lunch was, well, somehow a thrill.  You get to feel alive, eating out. Eating outdoors. Two for the road.  A trip is all about adventure and novelty.  Bringing along some biscuits is all about finding comfort in the known. Somehow, you feel as if you have no cares in the world.

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Have rucksack, picnic rucksack, will travel.

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Have food, will cook.

Jules Blaine Davis’s mother chided her for relying too much on take away/take-out meals in the course of a week.  She told her “We need to make the kitchen a place where you can BE, not a place where there are things you have to DO.”

So many of us do sports, go to the gym, do yoga, or simply walk the dog.  And we all know how important breathing is for our well being, both physical and emotional.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Slowly does it.  Breathe in through the nose, not through the mouth. Breathe in gently, as if you were taking in the scent of your favourite flower: and that will make your sternum open and the diagphram allow more oxygen to be drawn in.  In and out, like the waves of the sea.  The sea I love so much to swim in.

The word inspiration comes from the Latin for ‘breathing in’.  When things come to an end, they ‘expire’ … from the Latin for ‘breathing out’.  I hope my food blog brings you some inspiration in the kitchen, or encourages you to want to BE there more often.  The recipes I make are not that hard, do not necessarily involve expensive ingredients (although I quite understand that some ingredients like extra virgin olive oil are more expensive outside of Italy), and are meant to encourage you to create your own recipes, your way, coloured by a bit of fun and games, the odd giggle and  yes, even the odd tear. We are only human after all.

In Chapter six of Zorba The Greek, he says to Basil: “Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.  Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humour, and others, I’m told, into God.”

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I don’t know about this turning into God business, but I think we can make do with celebrating life, no?

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P.S.  The photos of statues, frescoes and paintings are from the Palazzo Corsini in Rome.