Saturday, October 10, 2015

Villa Monastero

     Villa Monastero is a beautiful villa surrounded by magnificent gardens, located in Varenna, on the banks of Lake Como, Italy. It's also the place where Kathryn Abajian and I held our writing retreat last month, and where we're scheduled to repeat it next year.
     Come along with me for a visit to learn about the villa and its origins. Maybe you'll decide you'd like to spend a week here with us too, improving your writing skills, and partaking of the region's foods, wines and nearby sights.
     The villa was founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1208, but its mission foundered in 1667, when the nuns left for Lecco, a city to the south. After three years, the villa was sold to the Mornico family, whose weath came from the iron mining industry in the area. The family converted the monastery to a noble residence, renaming it Villa Leliana. It was held by the Mornico family for nearly three centuries, when it was sold at the end of the 1800s to the German sheep owner Walter Kaas. 

     But in the lead up to World War II, Kaas was declared an enemy of the state and was sent back to Germany, while Italy took over the villa. The villa was then used by the elite mountaineering unit of the Italy military called the Alpini, until it was sold in 1955 to biologist Marco de Marchi, who converted the villa into a scientific conference center.
     Marchi had no heirs however, and left the villa to the Italian government with the proviso that it be used for conferences of a scientific or artistic nature. This year, we received approval to hold our writing retreat, "Italy in Other Words" at Villa Monastero, after conducting it in Abruzzo for the last several years.

     We hold daily sessions in a sun-filled conference room overlooking the lake, surrounded by beautiful artwork created by local artists. 
      The villa also has a larger conference room that served as a chapel when the nuns occupied the villa, and is the place where Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi taught his last lesson.
     You can see evidence of a religious fresco is a small niche there, dating to the 13th century.

        Other rooms in the villa highlight both the Germanic artistic taste of Walter Kaas, as well as highly decorative furnishings bought by de Marchi.
      The villa's extensive gardens, containing thousands of species of plants, are open to the public, but at night, we writers have the beauty of the grounds and the silence of the lake to ourselves.
        Most bedrooms have modern furnishings, some with views of the lake, and a few have balconies facing the lake. Sign up early to get priority for one of these.

     Writing instruction is in the morning, and you can set up your laptop by the lake in the afternoons to soak in some inspiration from the peaceful and lush surroundings.
     If you need a break from writing, the town of Varenna has a lot to offer, with inviting shops and cafes.
     Come with us if you like, on an afternoon visit to Vezio, and step back to the 11th century and a castle that was once home to Teodolinda, queen of the Lombards.
       From the castle, you get a magnificent view of the lake and the rooftops of Varenna below.
     We also eat well on our retreats, and taste local wines and cheeses, like this taleggio.
    Dinners are all special, and we try different restaurants each night.

     If you'd like to go further afield one afternoon, we'll take you on the ferry to Bellagio, where the streets are as quaint as the shops are prolific.

     You can even try your hand at watercolor, whether you've got experience or not. We can arrange a lesson for you.

     It may seem early, but it's not to soon to start thinking about reserving a spot for next year's retreat at Villa Monastero.  We plan to hold it from September 18-24, 2016. Check out our website at for more details.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Pizzoccheri in Bellagio

Bellagio is just one of the many beautiful towns along Italy's Lake Como, but it's the biggest and the one that most tourists come to by boat from other destinations along the lake. Although the crowds can be overwhelming, there's good reason that it's so popular.  With narrow streets that are really stone staircases, lined with shops on either side, it's ridiculously picturesque.
There are plenty of shops selling inexpensive trinkets but lots more selling high quality leather goods, jewelry and luxury clothing, including scarves and ties made of silk. This part of Italy was known for decades for its silk trade, a sector that still continues, but to a much lesser degree than in the past.
If shopping is not your thing, you can relax for a drink at one of the cafes by the waterfront or on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, where you can sip a prosecco and enjoy the view of the mountains, the swanky hotel and the hotel's inviting swimming pool. Thanks Rhonda Callaway, for the great photo of the drink.
     While you're there, take a peek inside the hotel too, to get a gander at old world-style elegance.
You're bound to get hungry while you're in Bellagio, and there are many good choices. One of my favorites is Bilacus restaurant. The name means "two lakes" in Latin, since Lake Como splits into two legs at Bellagio. Get a table on the outside patio if you can, where flowers are abundant. Everything is delicious, but I'm partial to the fish caught in the lake, including trout, or choose lavarello, a delicate white fish I've never eaten anywhere else.
Another specialty of this region of Lombardy is pizzoccheri - flat noodles made using buckwheat flour. I had never eaten them before, and was eager to try them when I saw them on the menu of "La Punta," a restaurant at the farthest promontory of Bellagio. They were served in the traditional way, with boiled potatoes and cabbage, bathed in a sauce using the local Valtellina cheeses. - oh, so delicious, but not exactly diet food.
Work off some of the calories another day by walking to Pescallo, a charming small fishing village nearby. Stay for lunch, and you'll eat fish fresh off the boat. Avoid Monday though, when the restaurants are closed.
If you've still got energy, continue walking until you get to the hamlet of St. Giovanni, where you'll see examples of a boat called a Lucia, a traditional boat used in the 18th century along the lake region.  The curved wooden frames held fabric that allowed for protection against rain and inclement weather. The boats are named for one of the main characters in Alessandro Manzoni's book "I Promessi Sposi," (The Betrothed), partially set in the region. It's the most widely read book in Italy, and required reading for school students. It's not only a love story betweem Lucia and Renzo, but about a struggle for power, foreign domination, religion, plague, famine and more - topics that are as relevant today as in the 1800s, when the book was written.
Head back to Bellagio as twilight descends though, so you can pull up a chair, enjoy a digestivo and a spectacular sunset after a well-spent day.

If you'd like to try your hand at making pizzoccheri, here's a website that shows you how:

Friday, September 25, 2015

Eggplant Gratin with Herbs and Crème Fraîche

I don't know about you, but some of the food I prepare is a result of what's about to near its expiration  date.  In this case, it was a container of crème fraîche in the fridge. It was a brand new package and I couldn't bear to throw it out unopened. Yet I was leaving for a trip and knew if I didn't use it before I left, it would be wasted. 
Remembering a recipe I had seen a while back that involved eggplants and crème fraîche. I had to give it a try. It did not disappoint. This recipe contains parmesan, but it's not eggplant parmesan. The crème fraîche turns it into a creamy gratin and it's a nice change from the classic dish. It's a great recipe to prepare ahead of time and even freeze for the future.
Slice the eggplant and smear both sides with some olive oil.
Place on the grill when it becomes hot, and grill the slices until there are nice grill marks and the eggplants are cooked through.
Make the cream sauce using the crème fraîche and the herbs.
Assemble the gratin, alternating eggplant slices, tomato sauce, and parmesan cheese.
                                       Pour the creamy herb sauce over everything.
             Finish by sprinkling extra parmesan on top, and bake in the oven for an hour at 375 degrees.
Sit down to a delicious dinner.

Eggplant Gratin with Herbs and Creme Fraiche
2 medium to large eggplant, sliced 1/2″ thick
salt & pepper
olive oil
3 Tbs. minced chives
3 Tbs. minced parsley
1 Tbs. thyme leaves
12 oz. creme fraiche or heavy cream
4 oz parmesan cheese, grated
Preheat oven to 375.  Season eggplant slices with salt and pepper.  Brush lightly with olive oil.  Heat a large skillet or griddle pan over med-high heat and fry eggplant slices in batches until golden on both sides.  Set aside while you prepare the creme fraiche.  Place creme fraiche or cream in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Reduce to about 1 cup, then stir in half of the grated parmesan and all of the chopped herbs.  Season with a pinch of salt and pepper and set aside.  Oil a 9″ casserole or gratin pan and place eggplant inside in a single layer.  Cover with a thin layer of simple tomato sauce and a sprinkle of parmesan.  Make two more layers of eggplant and sauce, covering the top with tomato sauce.  Ladle over the reduced creme fraiche or cream and sprinkle on a final layer of parmesan cheese.  Bake uncovered until browned and bubbling, about 25-30 minutes.  Let rest briefly before serving.  Also delicious at room temperature.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Southern Style Coconut Cake

Find some occasion to make this cake -- any occasion. I don't care what it is -- first day of autumn, new season of Dancing With The Stars, the Mets are ahead eight games -- anything will do. But you have to try this cake. I have been drooling over it ever since I saw it posted on "A Feast For The Eyes." But I couldn't justify making this for one or two people. I needed a crowd.
My book club provided the perfect excuse when our selection this month was all about New Orleans (Gumbo Tales, by Sara Roahen.) As soon as I read the word "coconut" in an early chapter, I had all I needed and claimed dessert as my contribution to the book club dinner.
It was one of the best cakes I've ever eaten - light and fluffy with a decadent frosting and filling, made with whipped cream, cream cheese and coconut flavoring.
I had a little bit of a snafu early on though, after I poured the batter into the pans and realized I had forgotten the sugar. Fortunately, I hadn't put the pans into the oven, so I scooped out the batter, mixed in the sugar, cleaned and re-buttered the pans and I was off for a second try.
The slight diversion in preparation didn't seem to alter the results, and the cakes came out of the oven perfectly cooked.
I spread a thick layer of the filling on one of the cakes and covered it with some toasted coconut before topping with the second layer.
The cake should serve at least ten to twelve people, unless some (like my book club members) ask for seconds. Just sayin'.  I'm not naming names.

But I did manage to fight everyone off in time to reserve one last piece (and a half) to bring home.

Thanks Debbie, for a great recipe.

Southern Style Coconut Cake
From "A Feast For The Eyes"
printable recipe here
  • For the cake:
  • 5 large egg whites
  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon coconut flavoring 
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla
  • 3 cups cake flour  *NOTE: If you don’t have cake flour on hand, substitute 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour for 1 cup of cake flour.
  • 2⅓ cups sugar
  • 4½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk

  • For the Cream Cheese Butter cream Frosting:
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1-3 tablespoons unsweetened coconut milk or regular milk
  • 1 teaspoon coconut flavoring
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut (I couldn't find unsweetened, so I used sweetened, and I used         about 1 1/2 cups)

  • For the Whipped Cream Cheese Filling:
  • 1 cup of the Cream Cheese Butter cream Frosting (above)
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream


To make the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch (or 9-inch) cake pans and line with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg whites, whole milk and coconut flavoring.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. 
Add the butter and coconut milk and combine on low speed until moistened. Increase speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. 
Add the egg white mixture in 3 additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl and mixing just long enough to incorporate between additions.
Divide the batter among the prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in their pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling racks to cool completely. 
To make the butter cream:
Beat together the butter, cream cheese, and powdered sugar on medium high speed until light and creamy. 
Add the coconut flavoring and enough coconut milk (or regular milk) to reach a spreadable consistency. Mix until smooth.

OPTIONAL: Spread the coconut on a sheet pan. Toast in a 350 degree oven until golden, checking every 2 minutes. Watch it carefully, the coconut will burn fast. Let it cool completely.

To make the Whipped Cream Cheese Filling:
With a whisk attachment, beat the heavy cream until it starts to thicken. 
Add 1 cup of the cream cheese butter cream a spoonful at a time while mixing on medium-high speed. Whip to soft peaks. 

To frost the cake:
If desired, slice the 2 cake layers in half to create 4 layers. Place one cake layer on a cake stand or plate. Cover with the whipped cream cheese filling. 
Repeat with the rest of the layers. Frost the entire cake with the remaining cream cheese butter cream and cover in the toasted coconut. 
Chill for one hour before serving. Store in the fridge, cake will keep for several days.
Note: If you have only 2-inch deep pans, consider using 3 pans or 9-inch pans.
I brought the cake to slightly room temperature for about 15 minutes, before slicing.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Putting Food By - Pickled Beets, Roasted Tomato Sauce and Cured Green Tomatoes too.

There are lots of things I'll miss when summer is over, including the fresh produce from farm stands, farmers' markets and my backyard garden. But you can capture the goodness of some of that produce to enjoy during the cold winter months in many different ways - canning and freezing, and even fermenting, as you'll see in the last photo of this post.
These pickled beets are so much better than what's available in the stores and they don't take long to prepare. You can choose to put the jars in a hot water bath and store them for months in your pantry (follow directions here), or if that's too much trouble, just prepare the beets, put them in jars and store them in your refrigerator.
As you can see, I used both purple beets and yellow beets. I don't think the yellow beets are as flavorful as the purple ones, but it's nice to make a few jars just to add a different color to your dinner plate.

With the purple beets, I like to take some of the juice and make purple pickled eggs. I grew up in an area of Pennsylvania where these pickled eggs were a common sight among the Pennsylvania Dutch community, and my Northern Italian mom picked up the idea of making them from them. Many a picnic basket included these when I was a young girl.
Just boil hardboiled eggs and drop them into the pickling juice after you've taken out some of the beets. Leave them in for about an hour or two to get a nice color.
I've even left them in the jar overnight, but the egg whites have a tendency to get a little rubbery if you leave them in any longer.
 One of my favorite ways to eat them is for breakfast or lunch with avocado toast.
They make colorful deviled eggs too.
And if you've got too many tomatoes and not enough ideas or time to figure out what to do with them, try roasting them whole. Just core the tomatoes, plunk some garlic and herbs inside (I used fresh oregano and basil), sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Place in a foil-lined cookie sheet and roast in a 400 degree over for about a half hour to 45 minutes.
 I left these in for nearly an hour and the liquid reduced considerably.
Put the roasted tomatoes in the blender or food processor and whir it all together until everything is smooth. Since I had forgotten to take these out of the oven after 1/2 hour, the sauce turned out thicker than I had planned, closer to tomato paste.

I poured the thick sauce into freezer containers and will be able to use these in recipes all winter long.

And for those tomatoes that just don't ripen, try making cured, or fermented green tomatoes, as my family's been doing for generations. They're dynamite in sandwiches, or just with a crusty piece of Italian bread. I posted them on my blog years ago, but each September, I get requests for them, so I thought I'd remind readers of how to make them. Click here for directions.

Ciao Chow Linda is also on Instagram, as well as Facebook and Pinterest. Click here to connect with me on Facebook, here for my Pinterest page, and here for my Instagram page to see more of what I'm cooking up each day.

Pickled Beets

about 3 lbs. beets
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
1 cinnamon stick
1 large onion, optional

Cook the beets in boiling water until you can just pierce them. It's best if you slightly undercook them since they'll be heated again after you place them into jars. Let them cool, then peel and cut into large slices. Slice the onion.
On high heat, dissolve the sugar into the water, then add the vinegar and cinnamon stick. Lower the heat to medium and add the sliced beets and onion slices. Let them simmer for just a couple of minutes, then pack the beets into sterilized jars, topping with liquid.
If preserving for the pantry, process in a boiling water bath for about 15 minutes.  Otherwise, store the canned beets in the refrigerator.
Bookmark and Share