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Gnocchi, Nonnas and Noels in Italy

When I was 16, my friend Peggy asked me to babysit for her regular babysitting gig because she had to take the SATs. Kristina was a 6-month old baby living down the street from me. I liked Peggy. I didn’t really like 6-month olds. But I agreed to babysit for “that baby” just once.

My relationship with “that baby” turned into one of my most treasured relationships, the kind that makes you smile when you see their name pop up on your phone. Kristina’s name now shows up on my phone as “Haley’s Mom” because she and her husband, Mike, had a beautiful healthy baby girl in February. Haley Noel is now the same age as Kristina was when I first babysat for her. That makes me a little misty-eyed. And the fact that they gave Haley my middle name makes me even more misty-eyed. 

Heart Full

 

In May, Kristina and Haley were going to Italy because Mike had a business trip there so I invited myself to come along for a few days. (Warning: If you mention you are going to a foreign country, I may invite myself.) Normal Amy-traveler would do tons of research on where to go and what to eat, but this trip I was going rogue. I did no research aside from smiling at photos of Haley counting the days until I got to meet her in Italy. 

Lovely Lesa

When I arrived in Milan, I drove to where Kristina was staying and finally got to meet Haley. Kristina and Mike are trying hard to not have a social media history of Haley but I did get permission to post this photo. 

Cutest foot of cutest baby of sweetest and most loving parents

Kristina and I loaded up the car for a few nights in Lesa, located on Lake Maggiore, close to the border of Switzerland. I normally avoid hotel restaurants but there weren’t a ton of choices and there was one down the street from our apartment. We both ordered fish from the lake and Kristina said that her purple potato gnocchi was her favorite meal the entire trip. I’m not sure if it really was the gnocchi or the fact that we were in this beautiful Italian town enjoying catching up and oohing and ahhing over the sleeping baby.

Amo il lago Maggiore


Un-Stressa

On our first full day, we headed to Stressa, which Kristina accurately said is inaccurately named because it’s the opposite of stress. It’s a resort town on Lake Maggiore and is the launching spot for visiting the Borromean Islands. In 1918, Ernest Hemmingway was wounded in World War I and spent 6 months in a hospital in Milan. When he was released he was sent to Stressa for 10 days of R&R at the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees and visited Pescatori, one of the Borromean Islands. Later he would include Stressa in “A Farewell to Arms.” 


Mind you, I didn’t know any of this until after I got home. I just knew that Stressa had boat rides to islands which sounded like a fun way to spend a day and Haley would have a great story to tell later in life when someone asked, “where was your first boat ride?”


Pescatori has a population of about 60 residents and they work mostly at the restaurants and shops. We found a great lunch spot and although we were only supposed to be on that island for an hour before moving on to the other islands, we were having such a lovely afternoon that we ended up staying there for three hours. 


We made it back to Stressa in time for dinner and had more fresh fish (very boney and difficult to eat perch) from Lake Maggiore and a pasta dish. 


PizzArona

The next day we headed to Arona for a pizza lunch with breathtaking views…and of course some gelato. We didn’t order the American pizza that came with hot dogs and French fries on it. 


 Arona had a wonderful lakeside trail lined with trees providing needed shade on a warm spring day. Most of the stores were closed during lunch time but it was still fun to walk on the old cobbled stones never knowing what would be around the next corner.

Cambiago 

Cambiago is the town where Kristina had been staying with her husband. His work colleagues stay for months at a time and eat at La Giara most every night. They recommended some standard pasta dishes but I was still definitely on my “I want seafood” kick so I ordered the skewer of fish which turned out to be a skewer of everything in the water except fish. It was lightly breaded, versus how we fry everything in the South, perfectly seasoned and I could identify only about 1/3 of what I was eating.


Our last night together we also ate at La Giara and I must have been missing Charleston food because I ordered polenta and pork which tasted like BBQ and grits. 



Bergamo Fun(icular)

Who doesn’t love a walled city? And even better when the walled city is on the top of a hill. Citta Alta looks over Bergamo and you get there on a slow-moving and stroller accessible funicular. We had lunch in the main courtyard of the Duomo, which was probably the only bad food decision we made. Aside from the view and the company, the best part of the restaurant was the Lego art in the cellar.




Two of the many Nonnas stopping to see the bambina


Dying to get to Lucca

Haley and her parents left to go home and I had a two days on my own. I originally thought I would head North to Switzerland to see the Matterhorn. But a storm was headed from Switzerland to Northern Italy with a prediction of snow in the Alps. I definitely was not packed to manage snow. I asked Mike’s coworkers for advice on where I should go and they recommended Lucca in Tuscany. When they mentioned it was a walled city, they had me hooked. It also looked like the only area on the entire boot of Italy where it wouldn’t be raining.

What they failed to tell me was that the road to Lucca was over a mountain range with limited guard rails, tons of trucks and long mountain tunnels with blinding neon lights…and it was pouring down rain the entire time. There were times when I considered turning around but dreams of a walled town pulled me through. I paid for the tolls with my credit card, even though I had enough Euros, because I figured there would be a trace of where I was if they needed to send out a search party to find me. (Me? Dramatic?) But, the minute I pulled into my parking spot in Lucca, the rain stopped and I found my new favorite place in Italy.

Lucca is a jewel of a city to get lost in for a day…or five. Many people use it as a base to visit Tuscany but if given the opportunity, I would find it difficult to leave Lucca for the hustle and bustle of Florence. In other Tuscan cities, the city walls were torn down when they were no longer needed for military purposes. But Lucca turned the walls into a pedestrian promenade and people stroll on it, ride bikes on it or just sit and enjoy the views. Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini so music comes from every nook and cranny of the city. And I had my most favorite gelato of the trip…pear, chianti and cloves. #geniusgelatomaker




Last Stop Brescia

My final day in Italy was in Brescia, at the foot of the Italian Alps in Lombardy. I picked it because it was about an hour away from the airport and the bold print on the map indicated to me that there would be things for me to do for a few hours in the morning before I went to the airport. Again, normally I would have done weeks of research to determine how to spend these last three hours but not this trip. I got to the hotel rather late and the restaurant was closed, but they were kind enough to make an exception and whipped up a meal for me. I know. Two hotel restaurants in one trip to Italy breaks all my rules.


As you are prone to do while on vacation, I had forgotten what day of the week it was until I saw the Saturday market. I tried to remind myself I only had three hours to stroll around but Saturday markets draw me in and the first time I checked the time, I had spent four and ½ hours…and couldn’t find my car.

Tried so hard to eavesdrop….


 

I eventually found a police officer who spoke English to help me find the parking garage. I then had to rely on this phone map to make my way to the airport because my GPS on my phone decided to quit. Stressa, where are you when I need you?


Italian Lessons Learned

One of the reasons I always encourage people to travel is because you end up learning things about yourself that you may not have learned sitting on your couch. I learned a few things about myself on this trip.

  1. Brace yourself. It’s not always about the food. Although I greatly enjoyed all my fresh fish and trying different gelato flavors, my favorite memories of this trip will always be just spending time with Kristina in her new role as mom. I love that we made these memories and cannot wait to one day share with Haley stories about her first boat ride and her first funicular ride.
  2. FOMO No Mo’. One of the reasons I have also over-planned trips is a fear of missing something that is only open on an afternoon, or something that is only 20-minutes away. But there is something wonderfully freeing about deciding where you are going in the morning based on the boldness of the letters of the town on a map. Next time I plan a trip, I will be sure to include days where nothing is planned. (Is that still considered planning?)
  3. Gratitude overflows. I am so thankful to still have Kristina in my life and that I have had the privilege to watch her grow from a sweet big-eyed 6-month old baby to a dynamic, practical, intelligent, funny, loving, strong and beautiful mom of her own sweet big-eyed 6-month old. 

Ciao, Italia, for now. Amy Noel and Haley Noel will visit you again. 

I’m Amy. And this is my feed. 

 

 

 

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Review: Sorghum & Salt

I’ll save you the Google search. Sorghum is a drought-tolerant grain commonly processed into either sweet sticky molasses syrup or ethanol…quite the range! Apparently it’s cheaper to make ethanol from sorghum than corn so I imagine we will be hearing more about sorghum in the future. I am equally certain we will be hearing more about Charleston’s month-old restaurant Sorghum & Salt.

Chef Tres Jackson must have crazy wild dreams because I am not sure how else he could come up with his menu’s amazing flavor combinations. I usually like to do a little pre-planning before going to a new restaurant by reviewing the menu. But Chef Jackson’s menu demanded more than just a peek. There were all sorts of new Scrabble-worthy words.

Mizuna: an Asian lettuce with crisp green leaves

Shiso: another Asian lettuce that kind of tastes like basil

Garganelli: tubular pasta

Cremeux: dense pudding

Financier: almond cake

This is a menu written by a chef who doesn’t need to come up with clever names for his food. For example, his fried chicken isn’t called “I’m not chicken to order this fried chicken.” It’s called “Crispy Fried Chicken-Fermented Collards-Chili-Sweet Potato-Ginger Honey.” This is also a menu of items screaming to be shared with other adventuresome eaters. Luckily I was there with my husband and our foodie friend, Michelle. Neither one blocks me when they see my fork creeping toward their plates.

The menu is divided into Gardens & Grains, Meat and Fish, Larger Plates and Dessert. While we studied the menu to make our final decisions, we ordered the bread service which was a sharable loaf of brown sugar bread with pork butter. Yes, Chef Jackson combined pork with butter…which may make him eligible for sainthood. Then we each picked two items for our dinners and three different desserts.

Crispy Brussels sprouts, root vegetable bolognese and cured steelhead trout started off our meal. The order-again winner here were the Brussels sprouts. The cooking time on these must be measured in seconds because just a few more seconds and they would have tasted burnt. Instead, every bite had a crunch of smokiness  complemented with some feta and local buttermilk. (As an aside, I always appreciate when a menu correctly lists the vegetable as Brussels sprouts rather than the incorrect Brussel sprouts.)

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Brussels sprouts, bolognese and trout…oh my

Next up were the panzanella, a smoked carrot and lamb ragu and the aforementioned fried chicken. Now fried chicken would be the last thing I would order from this innovative menu but thankfully my husband ordered it. It was hands-down the best bite of the table. It was the true trifecta of good fried chicken: sweetness from local honey, heat from the chili and juicy, perfectly cooked boneless chicken. No remorse over leaving a tasty morsel trapped on the bone. The whole, golden, crispy, sweet/hot delicacy was devourable. The panzanella was definitely not your traditional Italian bread cubes-tomato type panzanella. It was a little on the fancy food spectrum but it was fun to try different flavor forkful combinations with the creamy ricotta, the sweet bread cubes and different types of lettuces. The ragu was a very rich dish and the serving was huge for something that wasn’t on the “Larger Plates” section of the menu.

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Panzanella

For dessert we ordered the beet cremeux, the blue cheese cake and the chocolate cake. The chocolate cake was the one dessert not on the menu but it’s definitely the one that should be put on the permanent menu. The beet cremeux was the texture of pana cotta and didn’t have a strong beet taste. Which I guess is a good thing in a dessert but I was hoping for a more intense flavor. The blue cheese cake had the opposite problem…it was TOO intense. It was reviewed by our friend as “something better served at the beginning of a meal with some crackers and a nice glass of wine.” It was more blue cheese and less cheesecake. We attempted to morph it into a dessert by combining it with the beet cremeux and then with the chocolate cake but it just didn’t want to grow up to be a dessert. But it would be an amazing first course. The chocolate cake, served with pistachio butter,  was the perfect ending to this meal and thankfully my husband knows how to share.

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Aptly named Cheese Cake… definitely not Cheesecake #allspacesmatter

Sorghum & Salt’s concept is to highlight local ingredients in innovative ways. This isn’t your typical farm-to-table restaurant. Chef Jackson is more of a “Buckle up, you farm fresh ingredients. I am about to take you for a ride.” Our server (server name on the receipt said Babes) was exceptionally friendly, knowledgeable, funny and charming which always makes a great meal even better. Chef Jackson even stopped by our table to welcome us and share a little bit of his story with us.

I will be keeping my eyes on their website to see when they change their menu each season so I can make a return visit. And as an extra bonus, I am pretty sure I will pick up some more Scrabble-worthy words.

I am Amy. And this is my feed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Noble Meal Fit for a King

Chef Jim Noble opened The King’s Kitchen & Bakery  in 2010 as a non-profit restaurant in downtown Charlotte, NC. Chef Noble’s concept is to provide job training and other life skills to folks who may need a second (or third) chance. He donates 100% of the restaurant’s profits to feed the poor. With all that goodness in the backstory, I seriously doubted that there was any goodness left for my plate.

I have never been so happy to be so wrong.

I was a guest at a group dinner.  We ordered from a pre-set menu, which is a good thing because I would probably still be there deciding what to eat. Chef Noble prepares southern cuisine with (mostly) local ingredients and he keeps the preparations simple and the flavors delicious. This isn’t fancy food with drizzles and smears on the plate. Who needs fancy when you can have your choice of: mouth-watering, juicy fried chicken named after someone’s Aunt Beaut, no-knife-needed pot roast or perfectly grilled Wild Alaskan salmon?

Side dishes were served family style in large bowls; generous mounds of black-eyed peas, smashed sweet potatoes and collard greens. Living in Charleston, I have had my share of those three classic sides. They can sometimes be over-prepared with someone trying a little too hard to make them something they aren’t. But these sides were prepared with limited ingredients so you actually tasted the black-eyed peas (rather than smoked ham), the smashed sweet potatoes tasted like sweet potatoes (rather than brown sugar) and the collard greens tasted like greens (rather than bacon). I did add a little hot sauce to the collards so they wouldn’t taste too healthy.

Like any good southern meal, we ended our meal with some dessert. The two choices were banana pudding served in a little mason jar and a three-layered coconut cake. I had the banana pudding which could have done without the large heaping pile of toasted marshmallow cream. But the pudding tasted homemade, the Nilla wafers weren’t soggy and who doesn’t love a dessert served in a little mason jar?

Was this the most memorable southern food I have ever eaten? Maybe not. Is it one of the most memorable restaurants I have ever been to? Absolutely. Will I be coming back to King’s Kitchen in July when I return to Charlotte? You betcha.

Maybe then I can find out who Aunt Beaut is and get her recipe for the pan fried chicken that everyone was raving about.

I’m Amy. And this is my feed.

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Fit for a King (or a Queen) Indeed

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Decisions…Decisions

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Sometimes You Just Need a Cookie

I am a Brownie dropout.

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My one and only badge ceremony.

My Brownie troop met in the cafeteria of Villa Marie Elementary in Erie, PA on Saturday mornings. I remember thinking that I would be doing the “cool” activities like my brother did in the Boy Scouts. You can imagine my disappointment (and that of my feminist mother) when our activities involved baking and crocheting unusable oven mitts. So after months of home-ec-ish activities, my mother gave me the option to change our Saturday morning ritual from Brownie meetings to visiting our library. Books beat Brownies.

I never made it to that coveted green uniform with the pageant sash. I never went through the rite of passage of guilting my parents’ friends and coworkers into buying cookies. And I always rolled my eyes a bit in the spring when I walked by Girl Scouts selling cookies.

Eight years ago this month while I was at work, I found out my mother died. My coworkers rallied around me offering me everything they could to comfort me, including one sweet woman who had to write for me because my hands were shaking so much I couldn’t hold a pen. I came up with my immediate plan for the day which was for my best friend to drive me to my mom’s apartment and my boyfriend (now husband) would meet us there.

But we weren’t able to leave for about an hour. I had no idea what I was going to do for an hour. I couldn’t just sit in my cubicle while my loving coworkers looked at me with such sad eyes.

My boss at the time had suffered the tragic and sudden death of his wife less than a year prior to my mom dying. I had watched him stoically deal with his own grief yet I was avoiding him because I didn’t want to hear the adages that spill out of well-intentioned people during times like these. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “It will get easier with time.” “She isn’t in any pain anymore.”

But my boss asked me into his office and after sitting quietly for a few minutes staring out his window, he asked me if there was anything he could do. I looked around his office and saw boxes of Thin Mints. I asked him if I could have a cookie.

He opened up a sleeve of cookies and I began eating them…the whole sleeve. Maybe he had a few. I’m not sure. I just remember sitting in his office, staring out his window, eating Thin Mints and neither of us saying a word. When it was time for me to leave to go to my mother’s apartment he handed me two boxes of Thin Mints which I gladly accepted and neither of us spoke a word.

Now every spring when we see those girls with their moms selling cookies outside of the grocery store, my husband (who is the last person I know who carries cash) picks up a few boxes of Thin Mints for me. This past weekend we picked up some cookies on the last day of sales.

At some point this month, I will have a sleeve of Thin Mints with a cold glass of milk. I will toast my mother for all of her quirks, flaws and mostly for how much she loved me. And I will toast my former boss for knowing exactly what I needed that day…just some cookies and some quiet.

I am Toni’s daughter. And this is my feed.

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My mom and me being ironic at the Juliette Gordon Low house, the First Girl Scout Headquarters, in Savannah in the ’90s.

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Chicken Soup for the Soul and the “I’m not sick”

I hate being sick. I hate my husband being sick even more. He is empathetic and caring when I am sick making sure my pillow is cool, bringing me ginger ale and leaving me alone on the couch to watch random shows on Bravo. I wish I could be his Clara Barton when he is sick. But he never stops working long days and frequently says, “I’m not sick” as if admitting he was sick was the actual cause of his illness.

This time around he got some meds from the doctor early on but this creepy crud just won’t go away. Paging through the March issue of Dr. Oz’s The Good Life magazine, I found a recipe for “Chicken Soup with Lemon and Orzo” which reminded me of the soup found in Greek restaurants. With most of the ingredients on hand, I decided to give the “feed a cold; starve a fever” adage a whirl.

These were my shortcuts to the recipe below. I know it’s cheaper and more flavorful to do some things differently. For example, I have been given about four different “it’s so easy” types of stock recipes. But I am still emotionally scarred from my last attempt at stock where I absent-mindedly poured the hours-in-the-making stock down the drain rather than in a bowl. So boxed stock it is for me.

  • I had purchased pre-chopped celery and carrots earlier this week for snacking so it made it super easy to prep the celery and carrots.
  • My husband doesn’t like onions and since this soup was for him, I kept them out.
  • I used regular orzo rather than whole wheat orzo.
  • I used prepackaged stir-in paste dill.
  • I used a grocery store lemon pepper rotisserie chicken and boxed chicken stock.

The result was lemony delicious and it tasted better the next day (as all soups do) even with mildly soggy orzo. Next time I will cook the orzo seperately and just add it to the broth per serving. The dill paste made the broth taste delightfully dilly fresh without dill specks getting stuck in my teeth. And (best of all) it took only about 20 minutes to throw this together, but it had the flavor of something cooking all day. I credit the rotisserie chicken from Publix which I patiently stalked the deli counter for in order to get one fresh from the oven.

I wish I could say that John said he felt instantly better after a big bowl of this soup. But that would mean he would have to admit he was sick. And that’s about as likely as it is for me to make my own chicken stock.

I’m Amy. And this is my feed.

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Chicken Soup with Lemon and Orzo

Serves 4 

Ingredients

1 Tbs olive oil

1 onion

2 celery stalks

1/2 cup diced carrots

1 tsp coarse salt

3/4 cup orzo

6 cups chicken stock

dill (to taste)

juice of 1 lemon plus 4 thin slices of lemon

pepper (to taste)

2 cups baby spinach leaves (I used an 8 ounce bag of spinach)

Directions

Heat oil over medium heat. If using onion, cook for 4-5 minutes and then add the celery, carrot and salt. Cook until all the vegetables are soft (about 5-6 minutes).

Add the orzo, stock and some dill. Bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer until the orzo is cooked (about 5-10 minutes). This gives you time to pull apart the chicken.

Add the shredded chicken, lemon juice, lemon slices and some pepper and simmer until the chicken is warmed. Throw in the spinach until the spinach is wilted. Give it a taste and add some more dill if so inclined.

Recipe adapted from: Spungen, Susan. “World’s Best Chicken Soup.” Dr. Oz The Good Life 4.2 (2017): 97-101. Print. .

 

 

 

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Happily Ever AFTTR

Most nights I am cooking for just me and my husband, John. Aside from having to finely mince onions so he doesn’t see them in his food, he truly will eat anything I put in front of him. His tolerance for new recipes is why I became confident in cooking after decades of only using recipes with a maximum of five ingredients.

While this blog is the first hobby I have ever had, John has had a lifetime of hobbies including reading about military history, collecting fire service memorabilia and working on his HO scale model train board. When I started obsessing about not having a hobby, he encouraged me to try painting the model figures for his trains. But that’s his “thing” and I am pretty sure I would go mad painting a figure on a 1:87 scale.

John includes his other hobbies on his train board with a few fire stations and a war memorial with cannons. He has also built two buildings incorporating our adventures together at home in Charleston and while on vacation. The first structure is a greenery green restaurant named AFTRR, Amy’s Farm to Table Restaurant & Market. It is loosely based on the Stono Market and Tomato Shed Cafe located on John’s Island minutes from our house and a few other places we have come across on our travels like the Franklin Mercantile Deli in Franklin, TN. Folks inside AFTRR are enjoying their lunch while the chefs are on a break on the back porch and a farmer is delivering some deliciousness from his pick-up truck. Next to AFTTR is a winery, Amy’s Winehouse, with friends enjoying a tasting amid vats of wine. The truck parked next to it is from the Napa Valley Wine Train that we went on a few years ago.

Model training and food blogging are pretty much solitary hobbies. But just as John includes memories of our life together in his hobby, I hope to do the same with this blog. I am pretty sure you will enjoy getting to know him but please don’t let him know about the onions.

I’m Amy. And this is my feed.

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Yes, I sing “Rehab” every time I see this.

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My happily ever after