Friday, May 30, 2008

Weekend Wokking with Asparagus

If there’s one possession I’d want to take with me to the Afterlife, it would be my wok. It’s my pride and joy and has immense sentimental value. Weighing in at a whopping 10½ pounds, it’s a real cast iron monster. Countless stir-fries and deep-fries have left it beautifully seasoned. I could probably go on and on about how wonderful it is, but I'm afraid you'll think I'm a weirdo.

That wooden spoon is my second most prized possession. It's 19.5" long and perfect for stir-frying. I scored it on our trip to Italy.

I really don’t need a reason to bust out the wok. As it is, I use it easily 3 times a week. But when it’s for a special event, like dinner guests, a potluck or Weekend Wokking, I get particularly excited. What’s Weekend Wokking, you ask? It’s a blogging event created by Wandering Chopsticks. The idea is to come up with a dish around a (seasonal) theme ingredient. This month’s ingredient is asparagus, so if you’ve got an asparagus recipe you know we’ll love, then do share! Wandering Chopsticks is the host this month, so shoot her an email with your entry and she’ll include you in the round-up. But you better hurry, deadline’s this Sunday! If you can't make the deadline but want to participate in the future, check out the host list. And don’t let the fact that you don’t have a wok stop you. It’s not a requirement. You just have to feature the theme ingredient in your dish.

Asparagus...such a versatile vegetable. When it’s in season, like now, I actually like to eat it raw, but it’s also great used in stir-frys. I love the way it stays crisp-tender. It’s also on the approved vegetables list, which is another way of saying Sonny will eat it.

This stir-fry uses one of my favorite flavor bases, a seasoning paste called naam prik phao. It’s a chilli paste made using chillies, shallots, tamarind juice, dried shrimp, fermented shrimp paste and sugar. As you can judge from the ingredients, it a little sweet, a little spicy and has a nice dose of umami. I use it in hot and sour soup, atop sunny side up eggs, in stir-fries and as a general dipping sauce. Naam prik phao can be found at any Thai-Viet grocer and maybe other Asian grocers with SE Asian sections. Alternatively, you can make it yourself. There are numerous recipes on the web, however I can not endorse these, as I've not tried them. I have recently made some based on a recipe from The Food of Thailand (see right side bar), and it was good. Next time I do it, I'll post about it with pictures.

Thai-style Beef and Asparagus Stir-fry
Feeds 4
  • 1 pound beef chuck steak, sliced for stir-frying
  • 1 tbs Chinese cooking wine or dry sherry
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 3 or 4 cloves garlic, roughly minced
  • 1 bunch asparagus, cut into 2-inch segments
  • 2 tbs naam prik phao
  • 2 tbs thin soy sauce (regular soy sauce is fine)
  • 2 tbs oyster sauce, preferably Thai
In a small bowl, combine the beef, cornstarch and Chinese cooking wine. Combine well and set aside until needed.

In another small bowl, make the sauce by combining the naam prik pao, soy sauce and oyster sauce. Stir well to combine the ingredients. Set aside until needed.

Make sure you have all your ingredients very close by because this stir-fry goes lightning fast. Have a small cup of water handy as well just in case you need to thin the sauce a little. I bet it won’t take you more than 4 minutes to cook this dish!

Heat your wok over high heat until very hot. Add about 2 or 3 tbs oil (no olive! not appropriate for stir-fry; grape seed is best!) then add the beef followed by the garlic. If your wok is hot enough, your beef will cook very quickly. When the beef is seared, but not cooked through (about 30 sec to 1 minute, max) add the asparagus. Cook for another minute. Add about 2/3 of the sauce mix. It should caramelize pretty quickly because of the high sugar content. If it gets too thick add a little water to thin it out. Quickly taste it and add the rest of the sauce if you think it’s required. Give everything a quick stir, then you're done. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

Added: Check out the round-up here!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tomato Soup Everybody Can Enjoy

It’s hard being the sole cook in the family. Having to come up with nutritious, delicious meals that both adults and kids will eat is not as easy as it sounds. And what about the shopping? Sure, it’s great if I have time to stroll around a store, but normally I shop during my lunch break. If speed shopping where a sport, I’d win gold. Did I mention I do it 2 or 3 times a week? I’ve found that if I buy for the whole week, a lot of food goes to waste. So I shop for only 2 or 3 days at a time. Then I get home from work and have to throw it all together. Anyone else in the same boat?

If it were up to me, we’d probably eat rice and a spicy stir-fry 6 days a week. But that wouldn’t go over very well with the boys. Nor is it a varied diet, is it? Once or twice a week I ask Sonny what he’d like for dinner. Allowing him to choose gives me a little break from having to come up with something. Even if it’s something I don’t feel like eating, I’ll make it. A kid has got to be allowed to choose every once in a while, right? Today he wanted tomato soup, and even though I wasn’t in the mood for it, I threw one together. To keep it interesting, I added a few Mexican spices. I got the inspiration off the back of a commercially available tomato soup, of all places.

When I make tomato soup, I like to use the sweetest tomatoes available. Unfortunately, tomato season isn’t until July or August. My own tomatoes won’t even be ready until August or even early September. Rather than use overpriced, bland, grocery store tomatoes, I used fire-roasted canned tomatoes. I think they worked out great, adding a little extra complexity to the soup.

Tomato Soup with Mexican Spices
feeds 4 to 6
  • 1 tsp chile powder
  • 2 tsp ground cumin, toasted
  • 1 tbs dried (Mexican) oregano
  • 3 large cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 2 28oz cans fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1 ½ cups vegetable or chicken stock or water
  • salt as needed, about 2 tsp
  • honey as needed, about 2-3 tbs
In a large pot over medium heat, add about 2 or 3 tbs of olive oil. When it’s hot, add the onions and fry them until they are well caramelized. It may take about 15 minutes or so. Don’t skimp on this step because the onions are a large flavor component of the soup. Canned tomatoes, even good quality ones, are not very sweet so the caramelized onions need to make up for this. Add the garlic and spices and continue to cook for about a minute more.

Put the onion mixture and tomatoes into a blender and process it until smooth. To get a smooth soup, strain it through a fine mesh strainer back into the pot. I never waste solids; I always freeze them and use them later in something. Put the pot back on the stove, add the stock or water and season with salt. If the soup is too acidic for your taste, add honey (or sugar) as needed. Bring the soup to a boil then let it simmer for 10 minutes or so. Ideally you would make this soup a day or so in advance to allow the flavors to meld, but we still enjoyed it the same day. For an extra touch, you could sauté up some Mexican chorizo and add it in.

Serve with homemade Mexican crema (or sour cream), grated cheddar cheese, chopped cilantro and crusty bread.

This soup freezes beautifully, so if you make more than you can eat, freeze it for a day when you don’t feel like cooking.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Wanna Join the Dressing Game??

I realize I talk about the weather quite a bit. That’s because I have to endure mostly cold, usually unpredictable weather 8 of the 12 months. It’s something I’m still adjusting to, even though I’ve lived in the Northwest for 3 years (plus almost the same amount of time in DK). I grew up in the desert Southwest and the forecast was basically hot or really hot. If it rained, people would talk about it for days or even years. Same thing in sunny California where the day-to-day temperatures usually didn’t fluctuate more than a few degrees. But the weather up here is just weird, and Mother Nature is being particularly fickle this year. One day it’s 75 and sunny, then the next day we’re down to 52 and raining. We recently had 3 days of intense, almost miserable heat, and now we’re back down to the 60’s and raining. It’s the end of May and I’m afraid to pack away my winter clothes.

The two things I was looking forward to this spring is the return of warm weather (still waiting, but the coming week looks promising) and my local farmers' market. The market started in April, but the offerings have been limited. I think the cold spring we’ve had has taken a toll on the local farms. It doesn’t even seem like there are as may vendors this year. I hope they come back when the weather gets consistently warm. The only consolation is that the quality of the offerings is top notch. For the last 3 weekends I’ve been coming home with loads of wonderful lettuce, which means we’ve been eating salads instead of a proper vegetable with our meals. Sometimes we just eat salad. How's that for fast food?

With all the greenery we're eating, I'm looking for ways to keep it interesting. I’ve started playing a game of sorts where I try to come up with a different dressing every few days. I'd like to see how long I can go without buying a commercial dressing. Sonny even wanted to get in on it. He suggested we try making a Nutella dressing. Since we don’t have Nutella, it was easy enough to shoot down that idea. Instead we came up with a dressing using peanut butter and honey that we both could agree on. Thank goodness.

So, wanna join the dressing game? Got any good ideas? Please share them in the comments and link back to yourself so I can find it!

Have you ever seen such beautiful baby lettuce?

Peanut vinaigrette
makes about 1/2 cup
  • 1 tbs smooth peanut butter
  • 1 tbs honey
  • 3 to 4 tbs rice vinegar
  • 1 tbs thin soy sauce (regular soy sauce is fine)
  • 1 tsp curry powder or garam masala (use good quality, finely ground or the dressing will be gritty!)
  • 1 small clove garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • about 1/3 cup peanut oil or other neutral oil (but not olive oil)
In a large bowl, whisk all the ingredients, except the peanut oil, until smooth. Taste the mixture. Adjust the flavor according to your taste. Then slowly add the oil while whisking vigorously to incorporate it. You may not need to add all the oil. Taste after 1/4 cup and if it's okay to you, you're done!

We've had this dressing a few times: atop baby lettuce with grilled beef; as a dressing for cold soba noodles; as a dip for crudites.

If you're looking for some tasty ways to dress your greens, you may be interested in this spicy Caesar dressing or this tangy dressing for the classic Chinese-American chicken salad.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Italy, part II

When Italians go out to eat, they go all out. There’s the antipasti, primi (pastas or risotto), and secondi (meats or fish) with a couple bottles of wine. If you’re feeling really ambitious you can add on dessert with your coffee and grappa or limocello. That’s a lot of eating. That’s the kind of eating we normally reserve for anniversary dinners or when other people are paying.

Even with the ridiculously weak dollar we didn’t feel prices were completely unreasonable. We were there before the start of the busy season so the prices were not as inflated as they may be in the summer. On the other hand, Castellabate and Santa Maria are a little pricier than the towns that are more inland. For 6 adults to have a 3-course meal with 2 to 3 bottles of wine we usually didn’t pay more than 200 Euros. Hubby and I had a private dinner one night with a bottle of wine that cost 100 Euros. Pizzas were generally between 5 to 9 Euros, and while it seems most people order their own individual pizzas, they are large enough for two people to share. Almost every restaurant charged a sitting fee, which was normally 2 Euros per person. Some places added an extra percentage (we saw 10% at one place) on top of that. To save a little on food costs, we generally reserved 3-course meals for dinner and had more modest fare for lunch. We found a good and less expensive option was to pick up something savory at the local bakery or at take-out bars that featured foccacia or calzones.

Sonny showing us his favorite gelato shop.

I once heard that pizza was not as popular in Italy as it is in America. I can assure you that’s not true, at least in Naples and the Campania region. They don’t eat the types of pizzas most Americans are familiar with though. Their pizzas are thin crust with no more than 2 or 3 toppings and a moderate dusting of cheese. Sometimes the toppings aren’t baked with the pizza but added on top after the pizza is taken from the oven. I much prefer the Italian pizza to the American-style pizzas that are drowned in sauce and topped with 10 tasteless toppings and 1 whole pound of cheese.

Funny thing about pizza, almost every restaurant had a pizza menu, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will serve you pizza. From what we could figure, pizzas were only available on days that contain the letter S. Or if someone in your group was named Vincento. Or some other insane criterion. I don’t think we ever figured out the system, and it was probably sheer luck we ate pizza at all.

My favorite restaurant in Castellabate was one called Divino. Wonderful food and atmosphere. We all liked it so much, we ate there twice. It’s run by an enthusiastic Italian who lived in England (and thus speaks English). We could order off the menu a la carte, but they made it easy by offering a couple of prix fix menus (25 Euros for 3 courses, not including drinks). The menu mare had fish in every course and it was wonderful. I highly recommend it. If you’re not a fish eater, then you can get the menu terra. Delicious as well, but if I had to choose again, it would be the fish. The owner (oh, I wish I could remember his name!) was also very helpful with recommendations for local wines. At the end of the meal, he put a bottle of grappa and a bottle of limoncino (from what I can tell, it’s the same as limoncello) on the table and told us to take as much as we wanted. We didn’t want to seem like neanderthals, so we only took a couple of servings each.

Divino's outdoor seating is on a small piazza in Castellbate. When you're done with dinner, you can go to the bar just a few steps away. Quite convenient, really.

Paccheri with fresh tomato sauce at Divino. So delicious!

Ristorante Divino by day.

There were a couple of other restaurants I’d recommend too. Cantina Belvedere has a beautiful view and very nice atmosphere. Hubby and I had a nice romantic dinner that lasted 2 hours, which is so rare now that we have the munchkin (not that I’m complaining; it just makes it all the more special). Consider sharing the second or third course because the portions are super generous. When they brought out my spaghetti, there must have been enough for 3 servings! Again, I’m not complaining because it was good. Hubby had a delicious gorgonzola and raddichio risotto. We both had fish for the last course: Hubby had herb-crusted tuna and I had a fish mixed grill. Both were delicious.

Another good restaurant is Il Calesse, which used to be a horse stable back in the day. After learning that, I always referred to it as the horse restaurant. But don’t let the nickname give you the wrong idea. The food was also good. I had a spaghetti with tomatoes, basil and prawns and it was the best pasta I’ve ever had. I’ll always remember that pasta. And their foccacia bread, which was more like flatbread sprinkled with spices. Delish. Thing is, they only take cash and I thought we were going to have to do dishes to pay the bill.

As I mentioned before, we spent a lot of time shopping for supplies or at the beach in Santa Marie, so we often ate lunch there. There were a couple of restaurants near the beach and pedestrian shopping street that were open during “nap time”, as Sonny called it. Il Cantuccio is a nice establishment with covered, outdoor seating on a piazza, so we could people watch while we ate or Sonny could run around if he was feeling antsy. We ate there a couple of times. Once I ordered marinated anchovies and it was delicious. It was nothing like what most Americans think of anchovies. They resembled sardines in appearance, marinated in olive oil and white wine vinegar and served with arugula and sweet cherry tomatoes. I thought it was wonderful, but no one believed me. Their loss. The second time I had pizza. I can remember it being good, but I can’t remember what was on it.

Marinated anchovies in white wine vinegar and olive oil.

He doesn't look like the brightest kid on the block, does he? This cannon kept him entertained while we ate our lunch at Il Cantuccio in Santa Marie.

Closer to the beach was another restaurant called Arlecchino with an outdoor eating area. They also served pizza throughout the day. The good thing about this place was you could get pizza to go and bring it to the beach for a picnic. It was here I had my favorite pizza: anchovies, capers and buffalo mozzarella. I love anchovies on pizza, but it never occurred to me to add capers. I don’t think I can do without either topping ever again.

I was going to include some stuff about the day trips we took in this post, but I think I’ll wait with that. Think you can handle the suspense? But I don’t want to leave you without a recipe since I haven’t posted one in a while.

One of the things I loved about the food in Italy was the use of the freshest ingredients. The tomatoes were ripe and sweet with a wonderful tomato flavor. The fish was fresh, like caught-in-the-morning fresh. They may have been liberal with the olive oil, but the food never felt greasy. Like that spaghetti I had at Il Calesse. After I finished the pasta and scampi, there was a little pool of oil on the plate, but I don't remember being put off by it. I liked that pasta so much, I have tried to recreate it several times myself. Once I used fresh bay scallops in place of shrimp and it was nice. The juice from the scallops gave the sauce a creamier texture. Another time I left out the shellfish altogether, and it was still tasty.

This pasta is so simple, yet so easy to miss the mark if you don’t use the right ingredients. For this recipe, I urge you to use fresh sweet tomatoes, such as cherry or some other type of small-ish sweet tomato. There’s something about the combination of sweet, slightly acidic tomatoes with the salty, briny anchovies and smooth flavor of a good olive oil. Those tasteless beefsteak type tomatoes just don’t have the sweet acidity to stand up to the flavor of the olive oil and anchovies. Don’t substitute with canned tomatoes either, even good quality ones. And most importantly, DON’T LEAVE OUT THE ANCHOVIES!

Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato Sauce
Feed 3 to 4
  • 1 generous pound small-ish, sweet tomatoes, cut in half
  • 3 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 handful fresh, sweet basil, roughly chopped
  • 1/3 cup good quality olive oil
  • Dash of dried chilli flakes
  • 10 to 12 oz dry long pasta (spaghetti, linguine, etc)
  • 1 pound scallops or shrimp (optional)
  • Grated parmesan for topping
It seems silly to give directions on how to cook pasta, so I’ll call it tips rather than directions. Making a good pasta dish requires timing. The pasta should be done when the sauce is ready, and not sitting around waiting for the sauce. I generally like to cook pasta a minute or two less than stated in the directions. The noodles always get a little more heat when I turn them in the sauce, so if they start out overcooked, they will be really overcooked by the time they reach the table. Don’t forget to salt the water. I’m not talking 1 tsp kosher salt, I’m talking about a generous tablespoon or two, at least.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil. When it’s hot (sufficiently hot enough to sautee, not stir-fry!), add the anchovies and garlic. Fry for about 20 to 30 seconds. The anchovies should start to break up, but make sure the garlic does not brown. Add the tomatoes, chilli and basil. Stir it every now and then. You want the tomatoes to break down and release their juices and the skin will separate from the pulp. This will probably take about 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size and firmness of the tomatoes. Then turn down the heat to low and let is simmer away until the spaghetti is done. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

If you want to use scallops or shrimp, I recommend sautéing them separately from the sauce. Start heating up your pan when you put the pasta on so that everything can be done at the same time. Do it in a little olive oil over high heat until they are just cooked through. I found with the scallops, they released a lot of their milky juice, but that’s okay. You could drain it away or add some to the sauce, which is what I did.

To put it all together, drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the sautéed seafood, if using, and the sauce. Give it a few quick stirs (over some heat) to distribute everything, then you’re done! Serve immediately. Top with copious amounts of fresh parmesan and more fresh black pepper. YUM!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Here's Where I Spill My Guts

Maybe it’s because I’m advancing in years, but it seems to be taking a little longer than expected to get over this jetlag. You know it’s bad when you go to make yourself a cocktail and realize it’s barely 11 AM. I’d been up since 3 AM so it was feeling like the end of the day.

I'm still collecting my thoughts about the next post I plan to do on Italy, but I didn’t want to delay any longer saying thank you to gaga in the kitchen for bestowing me with a Blogging with a Purpose award. It always feels great to know others are interested in what you have to say, even when it’s riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors.

Now it’s my turn to recognize other bloggers that have inspired me…and that’s the hard part. I could choose any of the bloggers in my blogroll (which is by no means complete; I've just fallen behind in updating my template). So I've decided to break the rules and not choose, per se. If I may take the liberty of changing things up a little, I’d like to ask my friends, lurkers or anyone who may have accidently found this page, what is your purpose for blogging? Most bloggers have a little blurb explaining what their blog is about, but maybe it’s become more than you initially envisioned? Maybe you’ve never expressed concretely why you started blogging? Maybe you thought nobody cared? Well, now’s the time to get it out! I’d love to know what got you started and what keeps you going. Leave a comment with a link (even if it’s to a past post) and I promise to read it.

I’ve never actually written about why I started blogging. Some of it is because I thought it might be too personal to share with the entire Interwebs. Every time I threatened to do it, it was harder than I expected. Easier not to bother, so I didn’t…until now. Gaga gets another thank you for inspiring me to sit myself down and get it out.

When I started BHW, I wanted a way to share recipes with friends and family. Whenever I made Thai or Chinese dishes, people were asking me for the recipes. Or I’d hear people say they love to eat Thai food, but never make it at home. I wanted to do my part to demystify SE Asian food and show how easy it is to make.

Truth is, most of my friends and family don’t read this blog and that’s okay. I didn’t expect them to. I didn’t even tell them when I first started because this blogging stuff was a type of therapy for me and I wanted some anonymity (I know this contradicts what I just said above. What can I say? I'm complex). I needed a way to express myself to other people, while at the same time keeping it relatively private. I specifically chose to blog about food because no matter how stressful or hard life gets, food can always cheer me up (and my life was stressful at that time). I’m not just talking about eating food. I’m talking about the fond memories I have from my childhood, which always seem to be centered around food. Or the pride I feel when I remember my son telling his friend his mommy makes the best sticky rice in Portland. Or the time in college when my friend and I drank a six pack of Mexican chilli beer and couldn’t feel our lips for 3 days.

Blogging exercises the right side of my brain. Not only do I create the food, but I have to creatively write about it, which I find is immensely harder. For some people, writing seems to come easy. They (like her and her) captivate people with their stories and they have good grammar and spelling. For me, creative writing is just plain hard, but I’ve seen my writing improve and that is satisfying.

BHW has pointed me in other creative directions. I never knew I was interested in photography until I started paying attention to pictures on other blogs (like this one and this one) and taking pictures for my own blog. I’ll never be an Ansel Adams, but it’s fun to fiddle around with my camera and every once in a while I’ll take a shot worth framing. I’ve become more interested in where my food comes from and growing my own. I’m starting to dabble a little with charcuterie (after being inspired by this blog) and I want to get more into preserving food. I’ve even started to dabble a little more with baking (check out this blog and this blog), although I’m not sure everyone will agree this is a good thing. Hubby has diplomatically requested no more cookies, but Sonny loves helping me bake and I never do it without him. When he grows up to be a world-famous pastry chef, he can thank his mother.

Lastly, I like being part of the community. I don't think there are too many food blogs. There's always room for one more. See that Foodie Blogroll I have in my right sidebar? I do click on that just about everyday to check out the blogs on rotation. I try to leave comments so people know there is someone reading. I like participating in the different events and hopefully this summer I'll have more time for it!

Okay, now you know why I started and why I keep going. Now it’s your turn! Tell me why you blog!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

We're Home and Italy Will Never be the Same

I know you’re all just dying to know the details of the trip, but before I get to it, I have to thank my in-laws, Bedstemor and Bedstefar. They made this trip possible in every way. They did all the legwork choosing the location, finding the rental house, and reserving the rental cars. They even brought the decorations for the birthday celebrations! The only thing we had to do was reserve our tickets, pack our bags and get ourselves to the airport on time. When we landed in Naples, worn out and tired, they were there waiting to drive us to the villa, which was about 2 hours south. Imagine going on a perfectly planned family vacation without have to do any planning. And did I mention this is like the third time they’ve done this? We really can’t thank them enough.

I think I’m one of the fortunate few who have a good relationship with the in-laws. Good thing too, because 2 weeks could have turned out to be a very, very long time (I’m thinking of the vacations I spent with my own family). For this trip we were 7 people: our little family of 3, Hubby’s brother and his wife (young, energetic couple), and the old fossils, which is what they’ve lovingly been nicknamed. Naturally, each contingent had things they wanted to do and see, but I think our collective appreciation of relaxation, good food, and stiff drinks got us through the two weeks without a hitch.

Okay, now would be the time to take a bathroom break or a cup of coffee because the rest of this post is going to be long. The first part is about general things and the latter half will be about food. So here goes…

Our home base was a town called Castellabate, located on the Cilento Coast (about 2 hours drive south of Naples). Sonny nicknamed our town Casta-la-pasta and I think that’s the name that’s going to stick in our memories for years to come. It’s one of those ancient, romantic towns built atop a hill overlooking the coastal towns of Santa Marie and San Marco. The streets are made of stone and the original tower from 1100-ish AD still stands. Walking around in the town is like being in a maze. It’s all narrow alleyways, steep steps and cool, breezy tunnels. The most amazing thing about the town is the gorgeous, unobstructed view of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the towns below. I could have sat on one of the benches at the edge of town and enjoyed the views and sun all the first day if it wasn’t for my rambunctious 5 year-old munchkin and the seemingly hundreds of lizards sunbathing nearby. (If you aren’t aware, I’ve got an irrational fear of the creepy crawly critters. I was on constant high alert. If you don’t have an intense fear of them, you’ll hardly notice their prevalence throughout southern Italy.)

Southwestern view of Castellabate from the town of San Marco di Castellabate.

View looking NW from the top of the town.

Now looking SW...

Looking inland from the eastern side of Castellabate.

You never know what to expect around each corner, but it's usually something charming and quaint.

Need some exercise? Try running up these stairs a couple hundred times.

The rental we stayed in was situated on the hillside below the town proper and equidistant to the coastal town of Santa Marie di Castellabate. To say the road from Santa Marie to our villa and the town above was winding is a gross understatement. For an American accustomed to wide lanes and orderly traffic flow it’s downright treacherous, made up of steep, narrow switchbacks. If there was oncoming traffic, both cars had to pull over as far to the side as possible while being mindful of not tumbling down the hillside to a fiery death. (Okay, that may be a mild exaggeration, but only mild.) Luckily, I was legally excused from driving and I think I even began to enjoy the drive after a few days.

As far as house rentals go, this one was perfect. It requires a leap of faith to book a rental online without ever seeing the surrounding area. Pictures and descriptions can be misleading, but in this case, my expectations were exceeded. The million-dollar view itself was enough to sell the house. The villa was built in the classic, rustic stone style and the grounds were large and private enough to sunbath in your underwear, if you happen to forget your bathing suit at home. Did I mention the view? The bedrooms were thoughtfully located so that those that are prone to obnoxious snoring could be isolated from the rest of the family. And how about those views? There were two adequate bathrooms with bidets. Sonny asked what the second toilet was for and I told him for cleaning feet. It seemed silly to try to explain what they were really for. The kitchen itself had everything we required to make several delicious meals, taste many a good wine, and mix many a delicious drink. Weather permitting, we dined outside on the terrace. Nothing like dining al fresco with a million-dollar view in the background.

Our villa in Casta-la-pasta.

Great place for taking in the view, if you don't mind lizards crawling on the wall behind you.

Steps from the terrace lead to a grassy garden area. BIL admiring the aparagus or artichoke or agave? Excuse my ignorance, but can anyone tell me what that plant is?

Northerly view of sun rising over Santa Marie di Castellabate from the terrace.

Ever play "knock over the half filled bottles"? It's a game requiring great skill, and I hear it's pretty popular in Norway.

Do you see the dilemma here?

I chuckled every time I saw this. And yes, people actually throw their trash in the town.

For convenience, we rented two cars to get around. It was necessary, really. The coast is dotted with small towns and it would have been too overwhelming to coordinate day trips using the bus system. Having two cars also allowed us to break up if people wanted to do different things. I’ll write more about the day trips in another post.

For the most part, we spent our days shopping for food (do you know how much food is required to feed 6 adults??), lounging at home or relaxing at a small, kid-friendly beach in Santa Marie. The terrace at the villa was large enough for Sonny to kick a ball around or practice catching and hitting. I rigged the outdoor umbrella stand to be the tee and he used a thick tree branch as the bat. Quite ingenious, if I may say so myself.

See Coach, he really did practice!

For the first few days, the weather was in the high 60’s, but afterwards it stayed consistently around 72 to 75. Sonny, being the rambunctious monkey-fish that he is, wanted to spend every day at the beach and I really didn’t mind. A common sight along some of the coastline was these large concrete blocks used as wave-breaking barricades. At first I felt they distracted from the view, but they worked very well to keep the water calm and safe for kids to swim. We felt very comfortable letting Sonny wade waste deep into the water. Was the water warm? I’d say no, but my Viking relatives would say yes. I was spared from going in because I didn’t bring my bathing suit and I was too cheap to pay for a suit in the town. I ended up wearing a cheesy beach dress over my undies. I know, sounds totally trashy, but really no one was the wiser. Nor would they have cared. One thing I noticed and loved about Italian beach culture was that people go to the beach to relax, play beach games and just have fun without all the snarkiness and oogling you’d see at an American beach. Every woman under the age of 70 wore a bikini no matter the shape of their body. And the bikinis were definitely cut smaller than what you’d see on an American beach. Some men wore the Speedo-type suits, but many also wore regular swim trunks. And then there was Bedstefar, who just pushed up his pants above his knees so he could wade with Sonny. Hey, whatever works, right?

Looking north on the beach in Santa Marie.

Looking south from the same beach.

Calm, cool waters.

Bathing suits are so overrated!

As I’ve said, everyone in our group enjoys good food and trying different things. BIL and I are both particularly very fond of food shopping and cooking, so it was a real treat for us to be able to experience the local specialties with our own hands. I really enjoyed visiting the different green grocers in our area and seeing what was in season. There were shelling peas, fava beans, artichokes, spring garlic, fresh garlic, asparagus, fennel, broccoli rabe, arugula (which they translate as rocket), several different tomato varieties, strawberries and citrus fruits. We tried all of these at home or dining out and they were wonderful. Full of flavor, like fruits and vegetables you’d get at a farmers' market. The one peculiar thing about buying produce, though, was that you’re discouraged from touching the produce with your bare hands. Either you tell the shopkeeper what you want or you put on plastic gloves. Of course I went around ignorantly for the first few days handling all the stuff, putting it up to my nose to smell and probably offending every green grocer in town. What can I say? I’m an obnoxious tourist.

Fava beans can be hard to find in the US, but are abundant in Italy. We used them to make a salad with tomatoes and sauteed spring garlic.

Sweet shelling peas. BIL made an excellent pasta dish using these with olives and cream.

We had a wonderful artichoke appetizer at a restaurant in town. It was served with baby potatoes and turned in herb oil.

Who can travel to the Campania region without trying mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk mozzarella)? It’s one of the things the region is known for. There seemed to be a lot of shops and producers as we traveled from Naples towards Castellabate yet it wasn’t always available at the local grocers in town. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on some the last couple days of the trip. It was really delicious; milky sweet, elastic and soft when served at room temperature (which we learned is how it should be served).

Another product in no short supply is the lemon, which is used to make limoncello, among other things. Limoncello can be sipped in small amounts, but I also like to use it in cocktails as well. Of course there was no shortage of olive trees and olive oil either. We were very lucky to find a small grocer located away from the more touristy areas that stocked locally produced, unmarked limoncello and olive oil. I felt a little dubious at first because there were no markings on the bottles, but both tasted fantastic.

Being on a coast means having access to fresh fish. There were no less than 6 fishmongers on our route from home to Santa Marie. Visiting one was a little intimidating at first because there were so many varieties of fish, most of which I’d never seen before. Or rather, I’d never seen as a whole fish since we are used to getting fillets here in the US. Generally, the fish that was laid out was not gutted, but once you pick what you want, they will do it for you. BIL bought 4 whole fish to grill for dinner one night and they were delicious. (Notice the pattern here? Everything was delicious.) He stuffed them with sliced lemons, oranges and capers and served them with a fennel salad. I think the fish were called spagole, but I’ve yet to find a translation for that. Anyhow, the fish kind of looked like trout on the outside, but had a texture more like perch with a little bit of a sweet taste.

If you didn’t already know, I have a deli fetish. It’s no surprise that one of my favorite shops was a deli located on the pedestrian shopping street in Santa Marie. Every time I walked in, I felt giddy, like a kid in a candy store. So many meats, cheeses and antipasti all under one roof! It was impossible to taste it all, but we certainly tried. The supermercato (DESPAR) also had a good selection in their deli. The deli man was very nice and let me try the selections before choosing. Mind you, he spoke only Italian and I only English, but he enthusiastically explained to me the different meats. I just nodded in agreement and shoved whatever he handed me into my mouth. It was great fun.


So many meats, so little time!

Hubby didn't think I could get one of these through customs.

If you’re in the mood for fresh meat, you’ll probably want to go to a butcher. Some supermercati may have fresh meat, but the selection may be very limited. Like with the fishmongers, we had a few options. We choose to buy steaks and sausages from a shop on the pedestrian shopping street. The butcher was very friendly and helpful, even though he didn’t speak English. (Notice another trend? The communication barrier never stopped the Italians from being friendly and helpful.) I think we ended up paying about 15 Euros for about 1.25 kg of tasty ribeye steaks. The sausages were very coarsely ground compared to what we’re used to here in the States, but I didn’t mind. I like to know I’m eating real meat. I would imagine some might be unaccustomed to the texture though.

BIL preparing the ribeyes for grilling.

And lastly we ate a lot of pasta. In the States I usually buy De Cecco brand. The selection of this brand here in the US is a fraction of what can be found in Italy (as you’d expect). Did you know they make spaghetti noodles that are like a yard long? And some long, hollow ones that look like drinking straws. I will post some of the recipes for the different pastas we ate. BIL, who has worked in an Italian kitchen, made a pasta dish with fresh peas, olives and cream. If you told me that combination, I wouldn’t’ have been particularly excited, but it was a surprisingly good combination. Slightly salty from the olives yet sweet from the cream and peas.

The last supper, so to speak. Linguine with eggplant and tomatoes topped with mozzarella. Yum.

Before I end this post, I should mention one of the reasons we had this family vacation was to celebrate the recent family birthdays, especially Bedstefar’s. He came up with the ingenious idea of having a 100-year celebration, which is what the ages of the birthday boys added up to. Since none of us could speak Italian well enough to procure a cake from a bakery, we made our own. We bought ready made cake layers, ice cream, bananas, hazelnut syrup, chocolate and cream at the supermercato. SIL gets all the credit for putting it together.

The infamous birthday cake. It's common to use the Danish flag as a decoration at celebrations.

The birthday boys, also known as the 3 stooges.

He got a Lego set from the old fossils.

Bedstefar loved the present we got him. He loves all things golf and lawn ornaments, so we combined the two.

I guess I should give ya’ll a break to eat and sleep. I still have to gather my thoughts on eating out and throw in something about the day trips so you don’t think all we did was eat and laze around all day. Not that there would be anything wrong with that when you’re on vacation, right? I also need to catch up on the last two episodes of Top Chef and a stack of mail. If there’s anything you’d like to hear about in particular, let me know. Want to keep this somewhat interesting to other people besides myself and the other 6 people on the trip.