Monday, November 30, 2009



Have you ever gone to the movies and watched the actors on screen eating a sumptuous meal or a burger with everything or licking a dripping ice cream cone and as soon as the movie was over you had to have whatever it was those characters were eating? Sure you have. Right?!

Well, the first time I clearly remember this happening was years ago when I was a young career girl living in Manhattan. My brother, Erica (a BFF at the time) and I went to an 11:00am “east side” showing of “Godfather II.” The movie had just opened so we met early, skipping breakfast just to make sure we got in. We were mesmerized. But, as soon as the movie was over we HAD to have spaghetti. I mean we really HAD to have spaghetti. Not accomplished cooks at the time, and not wanting to hunt for a ‘red sauce’ Italian restaurant, we grabbed some pasta, a jar of marinara sauce and a loaf of Italian bread in a neighborhood market and rushed back to Erica’s apartment and made ourselves the whole pound of spaghetti and baked the bread with butter and garlic salt. We devoured it all in minutes and loved every morsel.

Fast forward to 2009 and “Julie & Julia.” The minute Richard and I came out of that movie he HAD to buy Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” cookbook.

Why? Because he HAD to make Julia’s boeuf (beef) bourguignon! Following suit in Sacramento, the minute my brother came out of the movie he, too, HAD to buy the cookbook so that he could make the same dish. No more spaghetti sauce in a jar. No more garlic salt. No more instant gratification. They want to make the real deal. I’m all for that because I love eating the real deal.

So when Richard and I had decided to head to northern California for Thanksgiving week (a couple of days with Brother Bob and his wife Nguyen in Sacramento and then to Cousin Linda and her husband John’s for turkey day), Bob decided to make us the boeuf bourguignon.

We arrived in Sacramento last Monday just in time for the cocktail hour and as we walked into their wonderful California craftsman bungalow, the aromas of sautéing mushrooms and little white onions filled the air.

 Did I mention there was also an apple pie baking in the oven?

 My stomach growled with anticipation, but dinner wasn’t going to be ready for an hour or two, so we quickly put out a cheese plate and opened a bottle of chardonnay (for me) as the guys sipped some single malt while the red wine breathed.

Except for the onions and mushrooms, Bob and Nguyen had prepared most of the dish the day before. While it was warming hy made some wide egg noodles and the veggie side.

As I smelled all the different flavors, I imagined how the bourguignon would taste.

When the dinner was final ready and the Turnbull merlot had finished breathing, we dug in.

As wonderful as I imagined this dish, it was nothing compared to the actual eating.

It was simply perfect.  I loved every gourmet morsel.

Whether you saw “Julie & Julia” or not, if you’ve ever wanted to make this dish… do it! It’s worth every chopping, slicing, measuring, sautéing moment.

Bon Appetit!

Sunday, November 22, 2009



During the holidays the TV networks like to rerun old movie favorites like "White Christmas" or "It's A Wonderful Life"  It feeds into our holiday nostalgia for family and friends.  Well, my nostalgia has started a little early this year.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner and again this year Richard and I are spending the holiday with my family in Northern Calif.... something we haven't done in years.  As turkey day draws closer, I've been recalling past Thanksgivings and thinking a great deal about my mom... missing her and wishing I could hug her one more time.  This is one of the last pieces I wrote about her before she died - and in her memory, I wanted it to be my movie rerun for all those who loved her and to share "Vi" with all of you who didn't know her.  And to remind us all to remember to hug our parents - our kids - your friends -- Hell, hug everyone!!!  I wish you all a loving, happy Thanksgiving.


Guess what? We aren’t the Waltons anymore! Few Americans live in family homesteads inhabited by three generations. Trains, planes and automobiles, as well as education and career opportunities have scattered the family. Baby Boomers may not be the first generation to watch with fascination and horror as our necks get crepe-y, our hair gets grayer and our eyesight gets dimmer, but we may be the first generation to watch our parents grow old from a distance. While we Zone, South Beach and Atkins our way into old age--- build more private “work out” gyms in the history of mankind--- continue to think it’s cool that Jack wears sunglasses indoors and still rush to Stones concerts, our parents are back in our home towns, often “downsized” into small apartments or retirement villages, or have moved to the warmer climes of Arizona or Florida. Our generation isn’t going to gather any moss sitting in our Barcaloungers (even if they now look like “British” club chairs) and watch “Nick at Nite” hoping our grandchildren visit once a year. We’re going to redefine old age. Though we play golf in record numbers, no madras shorts for us. We are prepared to face aging head on, fight the good fight and have a good time doing it. What we really aren’t prepared for is watching our parents grow old as we grow older and, though we dutifully call them on our cell phones, being separated from them doesn’t help prepare us each time we make the effort to see them.

Recently my husband and I traveled to Northern California to visit my mother known to everyone in our family, including our family of friends as "Auntie Vi."  Except for her mobility, my mom is in fairly good health. She takes her cane everywhere and huffs and puffs if she travels more than twenty feet on foot, but as she tells it, “What do you expect when you’re 87 years old?”

And that’s the rub. Home in L.A., I “see” my mother as a young widow of forty, five feet tall, brown pixie haircut, all of 98 pounds, working on Madison Avenue in advertising, then rushing home to Bayside, Queens, Long Island, New York in her pixie, Mia Farrow, haircut, sheaths and high heels to make dinner for my brother and me. I forget that she’s become heavier, shrunk a few inches, has silver hair and wears false teeth, and it’s a rude awakening each time I visit. Sometimes I lose patience just sitting in her apartment because she can’t jump in the car and go museum hopping or shopping on Fisherman’s Wharf. And, I get upset that she can no longer make those big family meals for us and my brother and his family. Then I get upset with myself for being upset with her. But Mom loves her apartment… especially sitting in her LaZ Boy watching the History Channel and those women on “The View.” At night she plays solitaire on a TV table to stay awake so she can watch old movies on TCM.

However, as soon as we walked into her apartment this past trip, I knew we were not in for a boring, sedentary visit. Her bathroom was flooded the day before and though a cleaning crew had sucked up the water and disinfected the carpet, there was a strong, “unidentifiable” odor--- an odor that my mother couldn’t smell, because along with her teeth, her sense of smell has left the building. So Mom retired to her recliner, feet up, as we lit scented candles, burned incense, scrubbed down the bathroom again and vacuumed everything in sight. The odor prevailed. The landlord came and confirmed to Mom who, in her infinite wisdom, didn’t quite believe us that, yes, there was an “unfortunate” smell coming from the bathroom area. He promised he would have it taken care of. Of course, while the mystery of the unidentifiable smell continued, the dishwasher pipes sprang a leak flooding the cupboard under the kitchen sink. As my husband retrieved and dried every wet bottle of cleaning product known to man that was stored under the sink (not to mention a bottle of scotch), Mom, not skipping a beat or ever leaving her chair, called the plumber then went back to playing cards, explaining to us that what old people need to acknowledge is their limitations. So do their children, something that is difficult to accept as we see our parents becoming more frail and our roles begin to reverse.

This was not the visit either of us had hoped for. Not enough time for all the hugs my mother misses and the arguments we invariably get into. I know she pines for me and wishes I lived closer, and that makes it more and more difficult for us to say goodbye.

As always, when it was time for us to go back to L.A. she walked us out to our car, her ever present cane leading the way. And, as we drove away and she leaned on the cane to wave goodbye, my heart filled with so much love as I looked at this little old lady--- my mother --- and I felt an overwhelming urge to stop the car, get out and hug her one more time, but I didn’t. Not long after that visit my beloved “Mommy” died.  I should’ve gotten out of the car.

Saturday, November 21, 2009



How many meals can you get from 10 pounds of potatoes for 99 cents?  So far, four and counting...

Bangers & Mash, Nancy burgers with french fries, potatoes au gratin... and last night creamy potato soup (which actually makes 5 meals to date, since we have enough leftover for Sunday supper).

This is not vichyssoise - a wonderful, cold potato soup -- this is not a Gourmet Magazine recommendation or some fancy chef's potato soup, this is a 'middle-America' Better Homes & Gardens recipe...  Slimming?  No.  But if that's dinner, it's not all that fattening, either... AND it's healthful and hearty...  AND, it's cheap.  And in today's economic climate - cheap is the new black... Wake up and smell the recession...  It's even cheaper than fast food - actually many healthful, inexpensive meals are cheaper than fast foods if one actually cooks for his/her family... and most home cooked meals do not include high fat content that hooks its consumers like a shot of heroin, but I digress...

Counting one's pennies is important in today's world and, since there's no potato famine in America, buy a 10 pound bag of potatoes for 99 cents (or less - we just saw one for 69 cents) and augment your meals with these wonderful spuds or make a whole meal out of potatoes.  Have a baked potato for lunch.  Did I mention it's way cheap???  And it's way better for you than a bacon western, eastern, southern, northern calorie and fat festival.  And this creamy potato soup is plain delicious. 

Tonight meal #6 = boiled potatoes with baked pork chops and steamed zucchini.

(Better Homes and Gardens)

Prep: 25 min.  Cook: 35 min.

2 cups thinly sliced onions or leeks
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups milk
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced (we used the regular baking potatoes)
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
8 oz. Swiss-style cheese such as Gruyere or baby Swiss, shredded (we used Edam)
Snipped herbs (we got parsley & chives from our herb garden)
2 oz. baby Swiss cheese, thinly sliced - optional  (again, we used the Edam we had)

In 4-quart Dutch oven cook onions in hot oil over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes or until tender. 

Whisk together the milk and flour; add to onions.  Cook and stir for 5 minutes.

Add potatoes and chicken broth.  Bring to boiling; reduce heat.  Cover and cook for 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender.  Remove from heat; cool slightly.

Puree soup, half at a time, in blender or food processor. 

Return to Dutch oven; add shredded cheese.  Cook and stir over medium heat just until cheese is melted.  Season to taste.  Sprinkle fresh herbs

 Garnish w/ sliced cheese.  Serve at once.

Makes 8 (1-cup) servings
Each serving:  220 calories (see - not that fattening - you can have two bowls and it's still less fattening than a fast food burger and fries); 11 g fat; 31 mg chol; 441 mg sodium; 18 g carbo; 1 g fiber, 13 g protein.

Friday, November 20, 2009


a tasty, but healthful recession meal

Had a roast chicken the other night - always good for two, three meals (or more if you make soup) and decided to use the leftovers for a chicken pasta.

This is not going to be a long blog with wonderful European pictures or fancy recipes fried, boiled, baked, grilled, roasted or broiled by Richard -- this is basic, healthful cooking on the cheap --  the same principle I use when making my leftover salmon pasta... Simply put: use whatever you have in the fridge that's sitting on the fence between "keep" and "toss."

Last night's  "everything but the kitchen sink" pasta included a clove of garlic that was about ready to apply for Medicare, lemon juice squeezed from lemons shivering and shriveling in the fridge from neglect, wilting arugula that was dancing with its expiration date, frozen peas not quite ready for prime-time freezer burn, half of a very ripe red tomato, shaved parmesan cheese, mushrooms liberated from their little canned prison and the leftover chicken -- all sauteed in EVOO and poured over whole wheat spaghetti.  Doesn't sound all that appetizing, does it?  But it was delicious and we didn't need gravy or a cream sauce.

Voila!   Another light, healthful, tasty dinner for pennies!  And the kitchen sink?  We saved that for the clean-up.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Reggio Emilia, Italy


Soon after discovering the joys of eating white truffles, we left Alba w/ Charlie as our new driver and arrived in the town of Reggio Emilia in the Emilia-Romagna region in search of the one of the finest balsamic vinegars w/o any touring practice incidents (translation: we didn't get lost). 

After we checked into our hotel we met up with our lovely interpreter and guide, Paola, who wore the most wonderful fragrance. A down-to-earth woman with a terrific sense of humor, she bonded immediately with me when I asked about her perfume and found out. “Gia by Armani,” she said in her lilting Italian accent. I’ve been wearing it ever since, but I digress...

First on the guys’ agenda was a dinner shoot at Prater, a local restaurant where the chef prepared everything from soup to nuts (well, from appetizer to dessert) with balsamic vinegar.

Not your ordinary, everyday supermarket balsamic, however, but Italy’s traditional fine balsamic vinegar. The Dom Perignon of vinegars… balsamic vinegar so fine that it’s categorized by red, silver and gold labels. The red label costs upward from $50-75 and is used for salads, vegetables and fish dishes. The silver label, starting around $100-150, is sweeter than the red label vinegar and is used in pastas, fish and chicken dishes. The priciest, of course, is the gold label balsamic ranging from $200-450 and is as sweet as port and often poured ‘straight’ onto desserts like chocolate syrup. And these are small bottles! Just 3.5 ounces! And, because the Italian government regulates this vinegar, the makers must participate in a government consortium “tasting” for color, thickness and taste, after which the red, silver or gold designation is bestowed.

At the restaurant, the guys shot the preparation and final presentation of shrimp and eggplant dishes with red balsamic vinegar; ravioli and pumpkin pasta with silver balsamic vinegar; potatoes stuffed with chestnuts and cheese sprinkled with red balsamic; sea bass with spinach drizzled with silver balsamic; and whipped cheese gelato, tutti frutti gelato and an assortment of berries all topped with gold balsamic.

 And, after it was all beautifully captured on videotape, we dug in. Jason (the cameraman) by now had lost all food inhibitions and didn’t hesitate to try anything. The rest of us never wanted to leave the table, and didn’t, till hours later when the restaurant was closing.

Bright and early the next morning we followed Paola to the L’aceto Balsamico di Cavalli plant where Aceto Balsamico has been made by the Cavalli family since 1920.

Richard, with Paola’s assistance, interviewed Giovanni Cavalli, the proud owner of the company, then the guys taped the bottling and official wax sealing.

After which we were led to a large room filled with the barrels and the taping continue. This is where the vinegar goes through a five barrel aging process as it is siphoned from one barrel to another. Each barrel is made with a different type of wood, adding its own distinct flavor to the vinegar… a process that’s been around for a thousand years and takes a minimum of twelve years before the balsamic is even tasted. Some of the finest red label vinegars can age for as long as twenty-five years; some silver label vinegars have sat in those barrels for fifty years; and the finest gold label vinegar has been known to age for as long a century.

One of my jobs that day was to “set-design” the various bottles and their labels to look like a high-end magazine ad. I found some old faded fabric, draped it on a few wooden barrels, added a few flowers then arranged the bottles on top of the barrels and, voila, they were ready for their close-ups.

After the taping was over, we were invited into the owner’s private “tasting room” for a late lunch of crusty Italian bread, fresh proscuitto and the regional parmigiano reggiano, the best parmigiano (“parmesan”) cheese I’ve ever eaten… plus glasses and glasses of Italian red table.

Because this show was to be aired on the Food Network, Paola was able to get government permission for us to attend the consortium vinegar tasting much later that night. Thrilled at the prospect, we rushed back to the hotel to prepare for the shoot. Translation: we all took a nap.

It was after 10:00 pm when we arrived at a 12th century castle (a castle!) for the tasting and I felt like Cinderella about to enter the ball.

However, as in Lyon, I'd been assigned once again the "sit in the van and watch the equipment" job, but Charlie promised he'd come out to do a shift in about 20 minutes.  I started at the entrance to this formidable medieval castle and let my imagination take over, but my imagination paled compared to what I was about to see.

True to his word, Charlie came out 20 minutes later and I went inside.  The first things to strike me were the amazing murals of landscapes, noblemen and angels surrounded by elaborate friezes and gilded frames that covered the walls and doors of the castle’s wonderfully ornate receiving room. Plates of cookies were set up for all those who entered. I grabbed one (OK, two!) as I spotted the men of the consortium sitting at the tables set up for this event… men who looked as if they had been extras in the Sicilian segment of Coppola’s “Godfather 2.”

 My Cinderella fantasy went out the window as I looked around expecting to see, not Prince Charming, but a young Michael Corleone burst through one of the hand-painted paneled doors. In front of the men were note pads, wine glasses and glass vials that looked as if they came out of my high school chem lab. This was serious business as they smelled the vinegar, held it up to the light, swirled it around and sipped it... all as the camera rolled and Jim (the soundman) recorded what they were saying and Paola translated.

While the guys were shooting, I explored as much of the castle as I was allowed because most of it was crumbling and under renovation.

The rooms were seemingly endless and the remains of pastoral murals and friezes filled each one. I hope I get a chance one day to return and see this castle and its wall art in all its restored glory.

It was well after midnight when the tasting was over and my four guys and I wandered around the deserted piazza marveling at how we’d been transported back in time.

I looked at our van and car and envisioned ornately carved golden stagecoaches (back to my Cinderella images) with proud stallions ready to take us back to our hotel.

Ancient statues of nude warriors stood tall...

and beams of light glowed like candles on the façades of the old buildings, smooth to the touch from eons of weathering.

The piazza “pavement” was cobblestone and not a single tree was in sight. It was very quiet and pleasantly strange and eerie. It was also very late. Reluctantly, we got into our coaches and went back to the hotel.  Tomorrow we were off to Tuscany and the city of Florence for a little R&R where just up the Arno River from the Ponte Vecchio I would have the best cheeseburger since I left the States.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


FIVE GUYS & ME - Alba, Italy


I’ve been blogging a lot lately about the joys of white truffle oil drizzled on top of cheese spread on a slice of baguette, but that doesn’t compare to the tongue tantalizing joy you get from eating white truffles, an extraordinary culinary experience I had when my five guys and 'me' went to 'shoot' the truffle festival in Alba, Italy for the Food Network.

Unbeknownst to the rest of us (Jim and Jason in the crew van and Richard, Charlie and me in the Passatt), Barry, the show's exec. prod. and our driver had decided to take the long scenic route to Alba, our next stop after Nice.  Or that is what he told us.  With the van following closely behind us, we drove for hours in the mountains, but as beautiful as the drive was, the road's twists and turns made me a tad dizzy and anxious to get there or anywhere. 

With only one, well maybe two (OK three) wrong turns, we didn’t arrive at our hotel in this medieval city until early evening.

We then had to quickly unload the car and equipment van as we were expected for a special meal at a little inn up yet another mountain road outside of Alba.

Finding that road was no problem. Finding the inn was something else altogether. The sun had set and there were no street lights as we climbed the steep mountain (welcome to rural Italy). Half-way up we could see the lights of a village as old as the Crusades and assumed that that was where the inn was located. Wrong. We drove around the town. No inn. Charlie (the associate producer) called the innkeeper and was told that we were in the wrong place. Duh! The inn was not in town but further up the mountain. Then Barry (the exec. producer), our car’s directionally challenged driver, saw a narrow street no wider than a one-way back alley in Anytown, USA. His “directionally challenged” determination led him to believe that this was our passage back to the mountain road. He steered our Passat down the street. The crew van followed. We drove about an eighth of a mile when the road narrowed even more and we knew the van wouldn’t make it through. We were at a figurative dead end with no room to turn around. It was so narrow, in fact, that Jim (the soundman) reached out the van window and touched one of the buildings that lined the street. Barry glibly told us that these driving challenges made arriving at our destination so rewarding. If I’d had half a bottle of Barolo in me, I would have laughed, but I didn’t, so I didn’t.

I kept my thoughts to myself as Charlie went out to the van to discuss how we were going to get out of this predicament. Well, it was a very short discussion because the only way out was to back out the very dark, narrow street and pray that no Smart car would make the dumb mistake of entering it before we escaped. Jason (the cameraman) was driving and miraculously and precariously and very slowly maneuvered the van out of that street and into the town square. “Directionally challenged” Barry also got the Passat into the square without a single scratch – though my silent prayers might have factored into it. Fortified with the latest set of directions, we left the town and continued to climb up the mountain. Within 15 minutes we arrived.

The inn was a rambling country house that overlooked the distant town of Alba and the little village below where we had nearly been stuck for the rest of eternity. A large, craggy oak tree gave the inn instant ‘curb appeal,’ as did the welcoming lamps shining in the windows. We were greeted with open arms by the mayor of the little village, some dignitaries from Alba and Mr. and Mrs. Innkeeper who led us to a large, round dining table. Because, as I mentioned, the guys were in Alba to cover the yearly truffle festival, the dinner was a feast flourished with truffles. We had a pasta course with white truffles (well, they're not actually white, but are described that way to differentiate between them and black truffles which are less expensive, but I digress) shaved on top, a fish course with shaved white truffles, a chicken course with shaved white truffles, a meat course with shaved white truffles as well as salads and vegetables and the region’s superstar wine – Barolo.

When the first course was served we all watched as “palate-challenged” Jason tentatively took his first bite of pasta. This was not a chocolate truffle. But he was becoming adventurous and he had liked the black truffle soup in Lyon. He chewed. He swallowed. He smiled. We laughed. Actually, none of us had ever had white truffles and didn’t know what to expect. We quickly learned that the white truffle flavor is not a subtle one, yet it doesn’t overwhelm a dish – it only enhances the other flavors. So even after a half dozen truffle-centric courses we never got tired of them.

The meal over, we made our way back to our hotel with no directional mishaps. Sated and happy, we fell asleep and dreamt not of sugar plum fairies, but fairies made of fluffy white, gnarly truffles… not the prettiest fairies, I grant you.

As was the case everywhere in Europe, our hotel laid out a huge buffet breakfast. So the next morning, fortified with eggs, meats, cheeses, cereals and cups and cups of caffeine, we piled into our vehicles and left for the Truffle Festival where chefs and restaurateurs from all over the world come to buy their truffles. Even Wolfgang Puck has been seen roaming the aisles.

Even before we entered the venue (a huge tent in the town square), the air was pungent with the aroma of truffles. Personally I love the smell...very musky, earthy, mushroom-y, times a thousand, but I gather a lot of people don’t. We were ushered into the tent by street dancers and accordion players (it WAS a festival, after all). Inside there were truffle vendors everywhere displaying their wares.

There wasn’t much for me to do as the guys shot the various truffle buyers bargaining with the vendors, so I walked around the floor checking out the action.

At $1,000 a pound, I was curious what they looked like. They’re not pretty… rather like gnarly, misshapen, humongous mushrooms.

During the lunch break we were invited to share in the vendors’ lunch which consisted of cheeses, proscuitto, and fried eggs with shaved white truffles. The mixture of running yolk and truffle scooped up on a piece of Italian bread: Bellisimo!

After the festival shoot, Charlie had arranged for another shoot: a genuine, certified truffle hunt with a genuine certified truffle hunter (“trifolau”) and his trusty truffle-sniffing dog.

 In the old days, pigs were used to root out the morsels because they can better smell them (they grow underground at the foot of certain trees). But the truffle aroma is very much like that of a pig’s pheromones, so when the pig DID sniff out a truffle, it was difficult to keep the poor pig from going hog wild and scarfing the truffle down. Dogs, on the other hand, are not “enamored” of the truffle, so even though they aren’t as good at sniffing them out, they have no desire to eat them when they do. The dog has also been trained not to damage the truffle because the trifolau gets a much better price for “mint condition” truffles. Truffles are the diamonds of the food world, making hunting these pungent mushrooms a dangerous job for a dog. Rival trifolaus have kidnapped them for ransom and, sadly, have even hurt these dogs. But today our dog was in loving hands as we watched him sniff around. And, when he actually found a truffle and carefully dug it out, I thought he smiled with pride.

When that shoot was over, we all toured this medieval city with its family flags flying and imagined a world of colorful cavelieres and raven haired beauties dancing in the moonlight and feeding each other truffles under the stars. 

Next on the shooting schedule: balsamic vinegar, our last shoot in Europe.

As we left the city and headed for the ancient town of Reggio Emilia in the Emilia Romana region, my five guys were whittled down to four.  Barry needed to get back to the States for production office matters, leaving Charlie in the driver's seat.  Richard moved into the navigator's spot and I had the back seat all to myself.  Jason and Jim still followed behind as we headed off to find a vinegar so sweet and thick that the locals pour it onto their gelato.