Don’t Pass Up this Great Offer from Starwood (SPG)

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I know that I have mentioned in the past how happy I am with the American Express SPG card, where you can earn points that you can exchange for some incredible hotel stays all over the world.  For a limited time, they are offering a generous sign up offer of 30,000 SPG points when you spend $3000 in the first 3 months!  That’s equivalent to about $800 worth of hotel rooms!  If that’s not reason enough to sign up, here are some pics that I took on our stays in these wonderful hotels!  If you decide you want to apply for the card, send me your email and I can have them send you a private invitation!

Here are some of the great rooms we’ve had in Italy!

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The Westin Palace, Milan

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Westin Excelsior, Rome

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Hotel Danieli, Venice

Not only have we stayed in these great Italian hotels, but other hotels in lots of other places in Europe and North America!  All of them have been spectacular, and best of all, they know how to treat their loyal customers!

Italian Fascination with USA’s National Parks

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IMG_3813Every time I hear of young Italians coming to visit the USA, they all want to make trips to see our National Parks.  I know that our country has some magnificent sights and these are truly gorgeous places to visit, but I’m still a bit confused why they are on everyone’s to-see list.  Come to think of it, it’s not just Italians, but Europeans in general.  I remember taking a trip to the National Parks in the Southwest a few years ago, and everywhere we went, we heard either French, German, or Italian being spoken.

Perhaps someone can clue me in why they have become so popular!  And it seems to me, that this has been a recent phenomena (perhaps within the last 5 years or so).

Juliet – A Book Review

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I just finished reading this very enjoyable novel by Anne Fortier.  It’s long, but it keeps you hooked the whole way.  It switches back and forth between present day and the “real” story of Romeo & Juliet which dates back to the mid 1300’s.  According to legend, Romeo & Juliet lived in Siena, and not in Verona, so the story takes place there!

Modern day Julie goes back to Siena after her aunt dies to  uncover the mystery surrounding her parents’ deaths and also to find a missing treasure.  She finds manuscripts written in code, and meets up with descendants of the warring families involved with Romeo and Juliet ‘s sad saga.  Those she meets believes that she is the direct descendant of Juliet.  With this, comes danger as well.  Someone is out to get her and steal away the treasures that she is finding.  She doesn’t know whom she can trust, even though she is starting to fall for the handsome Alessandro.

The story takes lots of twists and turns, but it finally comes together at the end.  We are just as confused as to who the good guys are, and it’s interesting to read this new tale of Romeo and Juliet.

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A Reminder of My Childhood – Vitello Tonnato

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When I was a young child, we used to visit Italy about every 3 years – mostly to see my grandparents, cousins, and aunts.  During those visits, I spent a lot of time with my Nonna Luigia.  Nonna was an excellent cook (in fact, she had owned a restaurant while my dad was growing up).  Every night we would be invited to Nonna’s house for dinner.  I was always amazed how she could cook up some great meals – all without having an oven.  She only had a small cooktop, but she’d whip up some delicious dinners.  One of those delicasies was Vitello Tonnato!  This is the perfect dish to enjoy on a warm summer evening.  Last night, on another warm summer evening, I decided to try my luck with this recipe.  As soon as I took my first taste, I was transported back to my Nonna’s little apartment many years ago!

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Vitello Tonnato

The first part involves preparing the roast.  This should be done in advance so it has time to cool.

900 gram Veal roast, tied up (ask the butcher to do this for you)

2 carrots, cut in half

1 onion, cut into pieces

2 celery stalks, cut into pieces

Small bunch of parsley

1/4 liter white wine

Salted water

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the meat, wine and vegetables to the pot.  Cover and poach gently for approximately 1 hour.  Take the pan off the heat and allow the veal to cool down in the broth.  Reserve some of the broth for the sauce.  Wrap the roast in foil and place it in the refrigerator until it is completely cold. 

For the sauce:

200 g of tuna fillets packed in oil

3 – 4 salted anchovies

2 hard boiled egg yolks

2 T. capers

4 T. olive oil

Juice of l large lemon

4-5 T. of veal broth

Salt & pepper to taste

Blend together the tuna, anchovies, egg yolks and capers in a Cuisinart.  Pour in the lemon juice and olive oil and blend until smooth.

Add the broth bit by bit until you have a nice spreading consistency.  Season with salt and pepper.

To serve:

Cut up the veal into thin slices and arrange them on a large serving dish.  Coat with the sauce and sprinkle some capers on the top.  Cover and place in the refrigerator for a few hours for the flavors to blend.  Bring to room temperature before serving.

Tangy and delicious Italian Antipasto

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A few weeks ago, I helped my mom make and can this recipe.  We made about 12 jars, which we’ll begin savoring in a few months, after the flavors have melded together!

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1 cauliflower – cut into bite size pieces

1 red bell pepper – cut into strips

1 pound long skinny string beans – sliced about 2 in long

1 lb mushrooms – quartered

1 lb carrots – julienned slices about 1/4″ thick

1 bunch celery – cut into bite sized slices

64 oz white vinegar (will not use all of it)

1 1/2 c olive oil

1 jar capers

1 jar green olives with pimentoes

1 jar cocktail onions

1 jar cornichons

2 pkg frozen artichoke hearts

3 small cans tomato sauce

2 cups tomato juice

1/2 bottle Heinz 57

2 T Lea Perrins

Few drops of Tabasco

5 cans of solid tuna packed in oil

Salt and pepper to taste

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Wash all mason jars and set aside with lids.

1.  Boil beans, carrots and celery in vinegar until just barely soft.  Add enough vinegar to barely cover the vegetables. Stir often.

2. Add cauliflower and add more vinegar if needed.

3. Add peppers and mushrooms.  (Again, check vinegar level…but don’t add too much vinegar.

4. Add artichokes.

5. Boil until vegetables are al dente.

6. Remove vegetables, reserving vinegar. Can use a colander with a bowl underneath to catch the vinegar.

7. Return vinegar to pot and add oil.

8. Add Heinz 57, tabasco, Lea Perrins, tomato juice and sauce, salt and pepper.

9. Bring to a boil. Taste and adjust as needed. (Usually Heinz 57 is the key!)

10. Return vegetables to the pot.

11. Strain all jarred vegetables and add them in (discard liquid from jars).

12. Break up tuna and add it in (include oil from can).

13. Bring to a boil and cook until it’s all cooked al dente.

14. While hot, ladle antipasto into the clean jars, making sure to fill them up with liquid.

15. Wipe clean the rim with a per napkin. Make sure it is dry.

16. Place lid, and while holding it down, secure the rim tightly.

17. When all jars have been filled, clean them and check that all the rims are secure.

18. Place them upside down to cool on a rack. DO NOT TOUCH THE RIMS ANYMORE!

19. Once cool, turn them over and store them in a cool location.

Alchemy’s Daughter – A Book Review

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Here’s to another great historical fiction book introduced to me by Italy Book Tours – Alchemy’s Daughter.  Mary A. Osborne successfully transported me back to Medieval Italy in this enjoyable novel about a young girl’s determination to follow her own dreams in a time when women were never expected to have a strong will.  Young Santina was a smart and intelligent girl living in San Gimignano when she fell in love with a scholar.  Their love was one of mutual respect for each other’s dreams, but these dreams also kept them apart.  Calandrino, the young scholar, was intent on deciphering ancient alchemical texts and left Santina alone in San Gimigniano while he went off in search of his quests.  Santina, not content to follow in the tradition of arranged marriages (of which hers was to be to a trade merchant whom she did not love), left her father’s home to search out her own fate.  Knowing that she desired to do more with her life than be a merchant’s wife, she sought out Trotula, the village midwife, and asked her to teach her the ways of midwifery and healing.  She soon became immersed in this world  – learning about medicinal herbs and delivering babies.  She was finding her destiny, but she was always looking for more.  Trotula cautioned her to go slowly and to think about the consequences of wanting too much.

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Plague, as well as superstitious beliefs relating to the healing arts, were all obstacles that challenged Santina and her destiny.  Faith in herself and her dreams kept her strong to persevere.  This story was a great reminder that whenever there is a will, a way will present itself if you only just believe.

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Author Mary A. Osborne discusses Italy, alchemy, the Middle Ages, and her new book, Alchemy’s Daughter.

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Q:  Your book is set in San Gimignano, Italy.  Have you been there? 

A:  Fourteen years ago, during a trip to Florence, Italy, I took a daytrip to the village of Certaldo, where the ancestral home of the medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio is located.  As I stood at the ancient brick wall surrounding Certaldo, I gazed out at the rolling Tuscan countryside and saw San Gimignano with its famous tall towers in the distance.  Although I never made it to this picturesque town, it became the setting for my new novel, Alchemy’s Daughter. 

Q:  Where did you get the idea to write a novel set in medieval Italy?

A:  Both Alchemy’s Daughter and my first book, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, took shape after I became fascinated with the subject of alchemy, which is the ancient science of turning lead into gold.  In medieval Europe, philosophers explored the hidden symbolism of alchemy, and the subject of alchemy seemed to better lend itself to a historical novel than to a contemporary novel.

Q:  What does alchemy have to do with the plot of Alchemy’s Daughter?

A: In both Alchemy’s Daughter and Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, you will find occasional excerpts from A Manual to the Science of Alchemy.  The Manual is a work that exists only in my imagination, and it contains esoteric, but useful information which serves to guide the heroines at various points along their journeys.

Q:  Do you have any favorite places to visit in Italy?

A: As a student at Knox College I became enamored with Renaissance Art history.  So I have a special love for the art museums of Florence, especially the Uffizi—which houses famous paintings by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli—and the Bargello Museum, with its statues by Michelangelo and Donatello, among others.

Q:  You use some Italian words in Alchemy’s Daughter, and the book includes a glossary of Italian words. Can you speak the language?

A: I know very little Italian, but I made it a point to learn at least some basic words and phrases before I visited Italy. When writing Alchemy’s Daughter, I relied on an Italian-English dictionary, as well as my Italian language textbook for help with Italian phrases.

Q: Will your third book also be set in Italy?

A: I am still sketching out the plot for my third novel, but I think it will be set in 17th century London, during Isaac Newton’s time. So it seems a trip to England might be in order!

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Asparagus & Eggs – A Very Seasonal Menu

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Italians are really good about eating vegetables when they are in season!  In fact, Italy has recently been voted as the country in Europe that has the freshest menus.  So, it goes to reason, that now that asparagus season is in full swing, recipes featuring fresh asparagus are taking over.  Even though we can usually find asparagus at all times of the year, it’s always nice to eat it when it’s at its peak.  So, last week while I was at the Farmer’s Market, I decided to pick up a bunch and make it my favorite way – with some fried eggs and Parmesan cheese.  There is no simpler, yet more delicious, way to eat it!

You can cook the asparagus any way you like, but I like to just cook them in some olive oil in a pan until they are soft but not mushy.  I then fry up some eggs, trying to keep the yolks intact.  That gooey egg yolk is what makes this dish so delicious!  I then place my fried eggs (with runny yolk) on top of my asparagus and sprinkle it with some Parmesan cheese.  Such a simple meal but oh so good!