Friday, December 30, 2011

update from Roma

Well, technically I guess I'm writing from Tuscany as our train hurtles along towards Venice... all of which is a little more exhausting than dreamy thanks to our little baby! (I'm writing this as she finally sleeps in the crook of my left arm.) But it's lovely in Tuscany even in late December when all the vineyards are clipped and dormant for the winter. We're traveling with my family while they're visiting this Christmas and we are already dreaming of a summertime return. How can you not? :-)

I've been collecting a few photos to share of our Christmas in Sicily with my family... but it looks like the Blogger app won't let me upload them. Grrr. I'll try again later, as there are some sweet ones! It's been so cozy and satisfying to have them here, loving on little Lena and making new memories with us.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas party prep

A very [belated] merry Christmas, folks!  It's been such a cozy Christmas here in Sicily.  My three siblings and my parents arrived on Saturday morning and we've been savoring all our favorite parts of Christmas: family together, holiday music, roaring fires, hot breakfasts, homemade wassail, thoughtful conversations, no schedules, group games, and tables laden with good food.  My sisters have been documenting almost every moment, so there will be many photos to share soon.

I wanted to share some photos from our Christmas party last week.  Unfortunately, we were too busy hosting to think about photos during the party, but we got some shots beforehand.

I spent the day before baking and preparing.  This little cutie and I had fun in the kitchen!

Elliott and I eagerly prepared our house for this event, and I think we gave the impression that we are [almost] settled in!  Elliott had a fire going in our "hobbity" fireplace to keep our guests warm:

The other half of our living room:

I made a Christmas tree cheese plate and added sundried tomatoes from the local market and green olives grown and harvested by our neighbors.  The "star" atop the tree is a mushroom; I used the tip of a knife to press the star shape into it.  This was a huge hit!  After the party, not a scrap of the tree remained.

And many desserts, including the sweetest mandarins from our neighbors' groves:

I did hours of research on recipes before this party.  Here are links to some tried-and-true goodies:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

our first hike in the hills

Sorry about the radio silence, folks!  It's been a mad house around here getting ready for the big Christmas party today.  But I'm happy to report that it was a huge success!  Everyone had so much fun and Elliott and I were able to relax and enjoy our guests, good food, hot wassail, and entertaining for the first time in our very own Italian villa.  I'll share some photos tomorrow.

In the meantime, here are a few from Tuesday, when Elliott had the day off and we went on our first hike in the hills around our home.

Here are the cowbells we hear from our balcony!  See the cowherd on the right?

We found a place to cross the stream that runs through the valley and started up the opposite bank.   The thick, soft green grass grew up to our knees.

An olive grove: perfect spot for a picnic.

Bites of tuna fish sandwich, banana, and mandarin weren't enough for her.  She had to taste the foliage too.

There will be frequent hikes to come, in many seasons and with many friends, we hope.  Come visit!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

preparing and planning

As I write this, Elliott is following our handyman around our house as Mario gently pounds nails into our walls.  As Mario speaks 10 words of English and Elliott speaks 25 words of Italian, they make a quiet duo.  Lena and I check on them every now and then in between eating Cheerios, ironing wall hangings and quilts, and wiping a runny nose.

I've also been writing a loooooong grocery list in preparation for a shopping trip this afternoon.  Elliott's staff are invited to our home for a potluck Christmas party this Thursday, and I'm covering drinks and desserts.  So far I'm thinking apple pie, pumpkin ginger muffins, peppermint bark, decorated gingerbread cookies (or maybe these fabulous brownies?), pretzel candy cane kiss candy, and definitely this fabulous cheese board!

I'm excited, but I haven't often been the sole party hostess in my life.  There's a lot to think about and prepare ahead of time!  I'm searching the internet for various inspirations, party games, and wassail recipes.  Do you have any tried-and-true desserts or Christmas party suggestions?  I'd love to hear 'em!

Monday, December 19, 2011

it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

It has taken us awhile to get our act together, but this weekend we kicked into gear and did some Christmas decorating around here.

This is our pride and joy: our book tree.  I mentioned before that we might make one, and finally we decided to give it a shot!  We chose all our favorite books for the tree, and for a tree topper I cut out a cardboard star and covered it with tin foil.  Sweet and very appropriate for this family.

In the rest of the house, there are bows on our front door...

... and garlands on the staircase.  (And a very cuddly snuggle muffin after her bath.)

We also have a miniature artificial tree that my grandmother gave us.  It is originally from Switzerland and comes with itty-bitty wooden ornaments.   So far Lena hasn't reached either tree or the presents, but I wouldn't put it past her.

This is the first time in our marriage that Elliott and I have had a tree or any Christmas decorating whatsoever.  For our first Christmas, Elliott was deployed to Egypt.  I left our little undecorated apartment to spend Christmas and New Year's with him.  It seems appropriate that we make up for it this year!

(Although... to be perfectly honest, I think we're more motivated by peer pressure.  Elliott's vet clinic staff are coming on Thursday for a Christmas party and then my family arrives on Saturday.  Just the inspiration we needed to deck the halls!)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Lena's Baptism

I've been eager to share these photos with you for awhile, and finally we have reliable enough internet to download them from many emails and then upload them again.  Well, mostly reliable internet.  I only restarted it four times so far today! 

Lena was baptized the Sunday after Thanksgiving at our old church on Capitol Hill, D.C.  Our entire families were there as well as several of our dearest friends.  We all loved the pomp and circumstance of acknowledging that this child is a covenant daughter!  For Elliott and me, knowing that we were moving back to Sicily the next morning made it all the sweeter.

Lena wore a beautiful dress sewn by my friend "Aunt" Leslie.  She has a business of making heirloom clothing, quilts, and accessories, including gorgeous christening gowns.  Visit her website here!

We asked both sets of grandparents to stand up with us.

Thank you for coming, Johanna, Abi, and Sarah (and others not pictured)!  We are blessed by your friendships.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

hometown of Sicilian ceramics

One of the art forms that Sicily is known for is its lovely hand-painted ceramics.  (ceramiche, cher-RAH-mi-kay)  Sadly for Sicily, I already fell in love with the lovely deep-blue-on-white patterns of Polish pottery when my family lived there.  Sicilian pieces tend to be painted in much lighter colors and more abstract designs, or painted with actual human figures, rather than sticking to nuances of a linear floral pattern as in Polish pottery.

Out of curiosity, which one do you prefer?

                                                        Sicilian Ceramics                                               Polish Pottery

Well, anyway, we live in Sicily now, and Sicily do I love!  Even her ceramics.  When my friend Becca invited me to join her and her sister on a trip to Caltagirone this week to visit the home of Sicily ceramics, I eagerly said yes.

Caltagirone is about an hour's drive from Motta, where we live.  I admired the passing scenery, including herds of sheep (had to stop for them to get out of the road) and random castles on hilltops, like this one:

We arrived in the town of Caltagirone around 11am as crowds of school children converged on the center of town.  Caltagirone is most famous for the 142 steps in the middle of town.  The walls on either side of the staircase are lined with ceramic shops.

We ducked into a couple shops, examining plates and bowls as well as piggy banks, clocks, and spoon rests.  A shopkeeper smilingly allowed me to take some lovely photos of the ceramics in his shop, and I was getting so excited about posting them here... and then he told me not to post them on the internet.  Groan.  Since this is a friendly blog, and since no one (even a ceramic spoon) gets featured here unless they want to, I won't post the photos.  However, here's a stock photo of several Christmas ornaments.  They are so lovely!

Lena was hungry so I sat out on the steps with her for awhile.  These steps are amazing: each of them is lined with hand-painted tiles.  Take a look at this:

After loading ourselves down with purchases, we stopped in a restaurant on the steps for lunch.  Becca's sister and I both ordered pasta di pistachi, a winter classic in Sicily.  The pasta is cooked in a heavy cream and sprinkled with mild, crushed pistachio nuts.  Becca has the recipe and is going to pass it on to me, meaning it will be on the menu when you come visit!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

best Christmas tree idea!

My brother-in-law David sent an email to our family suggesting that Elliott and I have a Christmas tree like this.  We certainly have the books for it!

image via this blog

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Monday morning sunrise

Elliott spent over an hour (maybe two?) scrubbing all the pigeon poop off our balcony the other day.  As a reward, we got to enjoy the sunrise outside on Monday morning.  Thank you, thank you, sweet hubby o' mine.

As we sat there sipping our coffee and enjoying our baby we heard cowbells.  A herd of mama cows, baby cows, and even a daddy cow or two came ambling through the pastures below our house.

Great way to start the week!

Monday, December 12, 2011

lunch at an agriturismo

I finally have a foodie post for you!

In Italy, I've learned, an increasingly popular way to take in the countryside and delicious food simultaneously is to dine at an agriturismo.  Yesterday, our good friends Josh and Becca invited us to join them for lunch at one nearby called Borgo Antico.  We left the base and drove for about 45 minutes along a modern two-lane highway.  A fertile valley stretched out on either side of the road, filled with grazing sheep and country villas.  On the rocky hillsides, abandoned castles surveyed this brave new world resignedly and little towns bustled with Christmas preparations and live nativity plays.

I guess I expected something more rustic of an agriturismo... perhaps because of the word "agriculture" in the name?  Certainly I was not prepared for an entrance with a modern power-operated gate within thick stone walls or the lush groves of citrus fruit along the lengthy driveway.  We parked behind a sprawling villa and walked into the dining room.  Tables were set with gleaming glassware and red-checked tablecloths and across the flagstone floor a cheerful fire crackled in a large fireplace.

After the rest of the lunch patrons arrived around 1:30pm, we all were seated and the food began rolling out.  And oh! such food!  We started with crusty white bread and extra virgin olive oil (pressed on the property from their olive groves), and then slices of cheese spread with marmalade over cured meats, roasted artichokes, cheese quiches, sun-dried tomatoes, hard Sicilian cheese cubed and dressed in olive oil and spring onions, spicy marinated olives, eggplant parmigiana, and more that I'm forgetting.  We told ourselves to slow down... but I couldn't get enough of all the cheeses.

After awhile the appetizers stopped and we took a few moments to sip wine from one of the several decanters on our table.  This vino da tavola is a Sicilian staple and goes so well with the food.  I don't know if they water the wine down or what, but it is very light and refreshing, and not at all heavy or stupor-ifying... which is not what you need in the middle of a 3-hour lunch anyway.

(Also, this is affordable like America doesn't know.  A bottle of vino da tavola in our local shop costs about 3 euros for half a gallon.  Elliott and I just had some with our dinner tonight of local roasted rabbit, potatoes, and zucchini.)

Next came two pasta dishes: one with thick, chewy noodles (not hollow and very made-by-hand) and another winter pasta offering with beans and short thin noodles.

And then the meat dish: one beef dish and one roasted-chicken-and-potatoes platter.

And then the insalata course, or salad.  I love the fresh salads here: a few types of lettuce tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  And that's it.  No Ranch dressing, no Bacon Bits, no shredded carrots, no plum tomatoes, no apples, no croutons.  So simple.

And finally the dolci course... the sweets.  Always a hit for Becca.  They served miniature cannoli, citrus gelatin, and mandarin oranges from their groves.

"Leave the gun, take the cannoli."  And I did.  These two cannoli were left over and I took 'em home with me.  And ate them as soon as we walked in the door.

Lena and I went to town on their sweet mandarin oranges.  They sell them by the crate along the road near our house.  A crate for 3 euros.  Yes, please.

After we were finished, we walked out into the orange grove below the villa to play hide and seek with our friends' kids and take some pictures.  In retrospect, I felt deliciously full but not overstuffed after that meal, which is what I've heard about Italian cuisine.  Now I just need to learn to cook like a Sicilian!

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