Sunday, July 24, 2011

Running Away From Rome (Part One)

Looking forward to leaving the sweltering heat and humidity of the 'Burgh and traveling to Maine later this week.  My friend Dolly hosts an annual lobster fest at her family home that I have been wanting to attend for years.  This year it looks like the stars have finally aligned and JB and I will get to go and eat lobster and sit on Dolly's front porch.  She grew up literally across the street from where the lobster fishermen keep their boats (or whatever the correct nautical term is) with a view of the Atlantic Ocean.  She once showed me a coffee table book by Walter Cronkite that had an aerial view of the house and her quaint Maine village.  How idyllic. 
The place I grew up in was a suburb of a steel mill town;  my childhood memories are of hearing slag trucks drive by as they carried the remnants of steel making to another suburb to form the foundation for a new shopping mall.  There was not a lot of physical beauty.  We would take occasional trips to county or state parks and vacations to Boston, where my dad lived just after he immigrated to the US.   On those trips, I caught a glimpse of what people who grow up in coastal areas experience. 
St. Augustine is quoted as saying -- "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page."   I want to read many pages.  The book, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List" sits on a table in our family room. 
This week I get to go somewhere new that is listed there, Acadia National Park.  Since Clare is spending the summer in Maine, we will get to spend time with her too.  She suggested places to stay, and encouraged us to look beyond the Marriotts, at least for a few nights.  And so we have compromised and I have B&B reservations for three nights.  She further recommended Camden, Maine as a place to stay.  B & B reservations can be a little diffcult to come by for three people during Maine's high season.  After some online searching and phone calling, I found myself in conversation with a woman speaking with an accent I could not easily identify.  At first I thought it odd, since I expected to hear that distinctive Maine pronunciation that Dolly first introduced me to and that I have since come to recognize on trips to Maine with Clare. 
The B&B reservations person who happens to be the owner apologized for her difficulties and mentioned that she is Italian.  Italian??  How would an Italian end up running a B&B on the coast of Maine?  Through the joys of the Internet, I was able to read the story of an Italian couple's life in Rome, interest in US travel and decision to move to Maine.
It's pretty hard for me to understand how someone would want to leave Rome and relocate to a beautiful, yet seasonally challenging place like Maine (think sub-zero and snowed in for months on end).   
I am looking forward to meeting her and hope to post more soon about their travels and ours too. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Simple Answers to Vexing Questions

Remember the Baltimore Catechism?  Those of us of a certain age sure do.  Written in question and answer format, we were required to commit much of it to memory, so we could readily cough up the answers to questions like, "Who Made Me?".  ("God made me", is the quick, semi-automatic response).
There was brevity and clarity associated with these crisp responses; but I can't say that I have been able to resolve the more challenging questions life has presented me by pulling out and applying memorized answers.  Lately though, some similar questions and the resulting knee-jerk responses have actually been helpful in this journey to better health and well-being. 
I once read a recommendation to avoid eating (or drinking) any food or drink that your grandmother would not recognize.  That feels right--wine's OK; Mike's Hard Lemonade, probably not.   Piece of fruit, good.  A 'gotta have it' treat from Coldstone Creamery?  Don't think so. And my grandmothers likely ate pretty good stuff -- bread, pasta, vegetables, fruits.  My maternal grandmother was a wiry, trim woman.  My paternal grandmother was a bit broader and my overall build seems more to resemble hers. I have previously described my strong family history of diabetes.  So maybe the 'grandmother test' isn't the best. 
I've been thinking more about applying the 'God-Baltimore Catechism' test to the "Can/Should I Eat This?" question.  I've been asking myself, "Who Made This?"  If God did make it and it is still looks close to the way He made it, then I'm thinking it's probably fine.  So, blueberries, yes; blueberry cobbler with ice cream, no.  Fish or meat?  Hey, I think Jesus ate those!  Pasta?  That's a tough one -- it is processed.  For awhile I am taking a pass.  And chocolate?  Don't think so.

That still leaves lots of options.  It's fresh corn season; tomatoes and cherries too.  And something is working, albeit verrrrry slowly. Down another pound this week.  Total of 10 pounds off now (pCR or post Canyon Ranch) and just over 27 in total.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Under New Management and Over .500

They're making tee-shirts now that we are at baseball's All-Star Break.  I saw one in the window of a South Side shop, with a picture of a pirate ship and '.500' printed below.  There have been attendance records set at PNC Park this summer, as both Pirate and out-of-town fans have flocked to see real live competitive baseball again.   JB and I attended a sell-out earlier this summer and saw the Bucs defeat Detroit.  It was kind of weird though.  We are used to watching away games of the Steelers and seeing Terrible Towels and hearing cheers for the Steelers, sometimes almost drowning out the home team.  It's kind of the reverse phenomenon as we see and hear fans from Detroit, or Philadelphia or Boston, as they travel to PNC Park and enjoy rooting for their home teams.    After nearly 20 years of losing, It feels good to go to a game in anticipation of the game itself and not the gorgeous views, fireworks, the bobble heads or the company. 
What's made the difference?  I am no expert.  But it must have something to do with management -- at least that is the one thing that I know has changed.  I've been noticing a sign that I drive by on the way to work for a local bar/restaurant that says "Under New Management".  Those signs used to be common.  I guess it's a way of communicating that changes have been made and we know our food or product or service hasn't been good and that something is now different.   Since they can't put up signs that say things like, "we fired the SOB that used to run this place" or "we finally have a chef that actually went to cooking school", businesses post a more benign, but clear message.  Somebody new is in charge.  And isn't that what it often takes to really turn a team or an organization around?
I like to think that maybe I am under new management too.  At least some of the time. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Al Fresco Memories

Is it true that outdoor dining makes for more satisfying and nourishing meal experiences? For me, it is. And memorable ones too. I can readily pluck recollections of meals served outdoors from my mind, recalling places, vistas, conversations, and yes, foods.
Some memories are fresh in my mind because they are so recent.  On the Friday before the 4th of July, my friend hosted an outdoor picnic.  She has a gift for assembling an eclectic mix of people and the conversation is unpredictable, interesting and fun.  That night was no different, but oh, the food.  More specifically the beef (we didn't have to ask where it was).  I had seen a recipe in the McGinnis Sisters newsletter for a grilled beef fillet, courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa herself, Ina Garten and offered to bring the beef if our expert grillmaster friend would grill it.  This baby weighed as much as a baby, and he did an amazing job of tending the grill.  The meat was sooooo tender and there was not one morsel of it left at the end of a long and leisurely meal.  It was charred on the outside, but practically melted in the mouth.  The recipe is:

Grilled Fillet of Beef with Mustard Sauce (courtesy of Ina Garten)
Ingredients (just six, not counting salt and pepper)
  • 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of freshly ground pepper
  • 4 1/2 to 5 pounds fillet of beef tenderloin, trimmed and tied
  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon coarse mustard
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Heat charcoal or gas grill.  With lid on grill, thermometer should register 425-450 degrees.  Combine butter, salt and pepper.  Using paper towels, pat tenderloin completely dry.  Spread seasoned butter over fillet.  Place meat on hot grill and close lid tightly.  Be sure your grill temperature does not dip below 375 degrees.  For rare to medium rare, cook tenderloin approximately 30 minutes, tuning once during grilling until your instant read thermometer reaches 125 degrees.  (He did about 5 - 7 minutes longer).  Meanwhile, to make sauce: Whisk together all mustard sauce ingredients.  When fillet is done, place on a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil; allow to rest about 20 minutes.  Slice beef and serve with mustard sauce.

It's not just the recent al fresco times I recall.  I have vivid memories of dinners in an arbor with my Dad in Assisi; sitting outside a trattoria in Trastevere with Vespas and Fiats whipping by just inches from our chairs; and two dinners three years apart on the outdoor terrace at Mirabelle, looking out over the hills of Rome.
The photo above is from 2007, when Priscilla and I had an early birthday celebration for her.  The appetizers had just been served (note the portions) and the sun was still shining so the awnings were down.  Once the sun began to set, the waiter raised the awnings and we had a magnificent, magical view.  If you ever get to Rome, the view is priceless (although the food was beaucoup bucks or in the local vernacular, molti soldi).  I also remember their homemade souffles, which had to be ordered upon arrival. 

Any recommendations for local outdoor dining? 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Letter from Canyon Ranch

A letter arrived,  postmarked June 14, return address Canyon Ranch, tag line "The Power of Possibility (r)"  It was addressed to me in my own handwriting.  I had no recall of having written it -- kind of like those postcards you fill out to yourself at the dentist office and they mail to you to remind you of your next appointment.  Whatever had I written to myself?  I procrastinated about opening it -- mostly because I thought it would contain some letter reminding me that there are things I planned to do that I have not done--you know the lose 15 pounds in 15 days types of promises to oneself.  After about a week, I peeked in the envelope and pulled out a one page document, titled, 'Commitment to Myself' and dated March 23, 2011.  On it I had written a total of 38 words.  Three statements of commitment to a healthier style and three changes that would be apparent three months out. 
I was pleasantly surprised.  Perhaps I did learn something new there about behavior change.  The commitments I made were modest -- to incorporate the recommendations for diet change and exercise and to apply my personal values.  The changes I hoped to realize have been.  They were modest also, having to do with how my clothes fit, my ability to do more challenging yoga and having lower blood sugar levels.
Every day brings challenges and there have been setbacks.  Three things I have learned so far in this journey that I talk to myself about consistently.
  1. Stay in Today (forget yesterday and don't worry about tomorrow).  There is a reason why the Lord's Prayer speaks of 'our daily bread'.  I only make positive progress when I keep myself firmly planted in the present moment.
  2. Small Changes.  Things like taking the stairs, walking to local destinations (church, coffee shop), parking a longer distance from entrances and remembering to move instead of sit when I can.
  3. Simple Pleasures.  Farmers markets and more real food (I ask myself -- "Who made this and What's in it?")  I'm beginning to prefer a more basic diet of fruits, vegetables and meats.  And wine, in very small amounts has really helped.  
Other results?  Went to Weight Watchers this morning.  Down a total of 15 pounds since the beginning of the year, nine since Canyon Ranch (and 27 since my all time high).  Not earth shattering, but my goal has always been to get 50 pounds off -- 23 more to go and eight months to go. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

From Red Lion, PA

Well, it's not Tuscany or the Napa Valley.  But this Fourth of July weekend brought a lovely, characteristically American, surprise quick trip to wine county, PA.  A dear friend from California returned unexpectedly to the area due to a death in her family and asked me to accompany her on the drive to return her daughter to York, PA.  The drive time allowed for great catch-up conversation and we reflected on family, relationships, life, health care and friendships. She arranged for us to stay overnight at the Red Lion B & B.  Most of my overnight trips are to places like Fairfield Inns or Courtyards (got to use those Marriott points!).    The B & B was lovely and the owner-couple also run a local bakery-tea room.  Dani, the wife, is an accomplished pastry chef and she prepared a great breakfast of French Toast (I nibbled); fruit cup, bacon and raspberries with cream.  The raspberries were tiny and picked from the garden outside the inn.  We were seated at an outdoor table with a couple who were in the area to attend a Mennonite wedding.  We had a delightful conversation about the wedding, and they shared stories of the ceremony (lots of a capella singing), the food (a sit-down dinner served family style) and the interaction of men and women (apparently not much).  We talked about various ethic wedding and related food customs.  It was the kind of conversation that would not spring forth at a chain hotel, where CNN blares and USA today provides reading material for isolated, silent dining.  

Before heading back so she could catch her flight, we stopped at Brown's Orchard and Farm Market in Loganville, PA; the photo captures part of their nursery operation.   Adjacent to the store is an outlet for Logan's View Winery. 
We browsed and I bought local cherries, zucchini, potatoes and three bottles of wine.  The winery is new, offering its first wines for sale in August 2009.  The grapes are grown on Brown's land and the fruit wines are made with fruit from Brown's orchards.  One of the wines is a cherry one, so I am looking forward to serving it with their cherries as a dessert.  It's a strictly grown and produced local proposition.  I picked up the Brown's newsletter and during the long PA turnpike ride home, I read it.  It was packed with information about local artists, local performances, a feature on all the employees they have named Linda, their 'pick our own' program for fruits, a farm-based summer camp and recipes.   

 I am going to try this one which comes from  

Watermelon-Blueberry Banana Split (Serves 4)

2 large ripe bananas, 8 scoops of watermelon (take out the seeds), 1 pint blueberries, 1/2 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt, 1/4 cup crunchy cereal nuggets or granola ( I think I will use nuts instead)

Cut the bananas crosswise in half, cut each piece lengthwise in half.  For each serving, place 2 pieces of banana against the sides of a long shallow desert dish.  Place a scoop of watermelon at each end of the dish.  Fill the center with blueberries, Stir the yogurt until smooth, spoon over the fruit.  Sprinkle with cereal nuggets or granola. 

I loved this getaway and the fact that the places we patronized were local independent businesses, made possible by American entrepreneurs (and not a McDonald's or Wal-Mart in sight).  Happy Independence Day!