Monday, February 25, 2013

Looking Forward To...

February can be a cold and dreary month, but there are so many things to look forward to.
Here are a few that should make staying in much more fun.

Television to watch:

Anglophiles can rejoice.  If you are like me and can't get enough of British costume dramas or British actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, you will be happy to know that just as we say good-bye to "Downton Abbey," another costume drama from Britain arrives this week.  

Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch

Parade's End is a sumptuous five-part mini-series co-produced by HBO and BBC that is based on a quartet of novels written by the British writer Ford Maddox Ford.  The series of books, which are back in print from Vintage, is about Britons during the First World War.  They have been adapted for television by the playwright Tom Stoppard.  The story follows the character Christopher Tietjens (played by Cumberbatch), heir to the estate of Groby.  He goes from a government worker to an officer in France during the war.  The show has already been seen in Britain and reviewers have called it witty, literary and classy.  It takes us back to Edwardian England and features period fashions, grand homes and the beautiful English countryside.  There is a love triangle, incredible performances by the three leading actors, and great dialogue written by Stoppard.  I read that this production brilliantly captures the London of the 1920's. It airs on HBO and begins Tuesday night.  The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch ( I can't get enough of him -- he was so good in Sherlock), Rebecca Hall, Adelaide Clemens (the three leads), Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson, Jack Huston and Janet McTeer.  People are calling it "the thinking man's Downton."  Can't wait to see this one!

Jeremy Irons discussing "Henry IV" and "Henry V" on the stage of the Globe Theatre in London

And speaking of literary inspiration from England, the new series Shakespeare Uncovered sounds fascinating.  It has been airing on PBS throughout the month of February.  (I have recorded it and am looking forward to watching all the episodes.)  The series features actors and directors, such as Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, and Trevor Nunn, talking about how some of the great works by Shakespeare have been interpreted over the years.  They also talk about the challenges of performing and directing the central roles.  I read that the episode with David Tennant on "Hamlet" (he played the title role with the Royal Shakespeare Company) is especially good.  I did watch a clip from that episode with Tennant discussing how the character Hamlet (and the audience) knows from the moment in the play that Hamlet agrees to avenge his father's death he is a dead man.  That kind of action can result only in the character's death.  I had the chills listening to him...

As a passionate Shakespeare fan, I love a program that celebrates Shakespeare's plays and continues a discussion that has been going on for more than four hundred years old.  The fascination with Shakespeare is endless and his plays continue to captivate us.  This series about some of the most important plays should be enlightening and offer fresh insight into how actors and directors approach them.  By the way, have you been to the Globe Theatre in London to see a Shakespeare production?  If you are in London, a visit to the Globe Theatre is very special.  I saw a production of "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Globe and it was thrilling.

Art to see:

Vermeer's "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" is currently in an exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.  This is your chance to see this exquisite painting up close and is definitely worth a trip to San Francisco.  When it leaves the U.S., it will return to its home at the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Netherlands.

Books to read:

Because this year is the 200th anniversary of "Pride and Prejudice," there will be new books on Jane Austen.  This one by Paula Byrne has gotten great reviews and sounds excellent.

P.G. Wodehouse:  A Life In Letters
Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

The letters of the beloved British writer P.G. Wodehouse have been collected in a new book.  Letters can give us a vivid portrait of the writer and I am looking forward to learning more about P.G. Wodehouse, the comic genius who gave us Jeeves and Wooster.

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort

I can't wait to read this new biography of Nancy Astor, the American divorcee who moved to London in 1904, married the very wealthy American Waldorf Astor, and became the first woman member of the British parliament in 1919.  She remained in parliament for the next 26 years.  What a woman!

 The end of February, beginning of March is the last part of winter.  It is a perfect time to sink into some good books, watch some compelling British television, and maybe see a Dutch masterpiece.  After San Francisco, "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" travels to Atlanta, and then to the Frick Museum in New York before returning to Europe.

Photo one via here, photo two via here, photo three via here, photo four via here, photo five via here, photo six via here   

Friday, February 22, 2013

Reading Agatha Christie

Right now I am reading The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie.  Generally speaking, I have found that when I can't figure out what to read or when I need a guaranteed dose of comfort -- nothing works quite so well as a mystery. Do you enjoy reading mysteries?  For me, they are the equivalent of a cup of tea and a fire in the fireplace.

I haven't read anything by Agatha Christie for years, but recently I was intrigued by a fabulous review of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, the longest running play in history.  It has been playing in London for more than sixty years.  Amazing!  In his review, the writer wrote that for him Agatha Christie's books represented a tranquil respite from every day anxiety.  My interest was piqued and, when combined with my recent indecision about what to read next, I decided to go in the direction of Agatha Christie.

And so I settled into "The Murder at the Vicarage" and breathed a sigh of relief as I had found the perfect book for right now.  I thought to myself:  yes, Agatha, please take me to the small village in the English countryside where the characters reside.  Let me get to know all the inhabitants of the village,  learn about their customs and ways, and which ones had a motive for killing the murder victim.  As it turns out, many of them did.  Please lead me through the streets of the village and the rooms of the houses by giving me maps and floor plans.  Introduce me to the central characters: the vicar and his glamorous wife, the nervous curate, the Colonel whom everyone hates and wishes dead, the Colonel's young wife who is having an affair with a handsome artist, the chief of police and the Inspector.  And please bring in Miss Marple, the village busy body and amateur sleuth who seems to know every one's business. Before the book ends, there will be murder, clues, red herrings, discredited witnesses, confessions, confusion, suspicious servants and plot twists.  As Miss Marple says, "One does see so much evil in a village."  

In other words, bring on the formula that is as comforting as a cup of tea.  I love going to that cozy  place where all I am required to do is solve a puzzle.  I will happily spend time there.  It is the formula for the well-ordered world of the mystery novel. A happy antidote to the chaos of the real world we deal with every day and which is often represented in contemporary novels.  Just for now, give me the comfort of visiting this orderly microcosm.  Soon I will be seeking more challenging reads, but right now I am happily ensconced in the village of St. Mary's Mead with Miss Marple and the cast of characters.  I think a pot of tea and some scones may be in order.  What could be better?

First image via Pinterest

Monday, February 18, 2013


This is the time of year when we all start to yearn for spring.  Recently I hosted a lunch for my garden group and the topic was roses.  The speaker was the rose expert at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens and in his excellent lecture he spoke about the best roses for Southern California.  But before we heard about roses, the topic we were all discussing was the flowering pear tree.  We walked around my garden before the lecture and admired the tree which has recently burst into blossom.  It really has been a glorious sight each day and there have been moments when I have walked out the back door to see it and wanted to do a little dance "for sheer joy" just like Elizabeth did in Elizabeth and Her German Garden:

"I am always happy (out of doors be it understood, for indoors there are servants and furniture), but in quite different ways, and my spring happiness bears no resemblance to my summer or autumn happiness, though it is not more intense, and there were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden in spite of my years and children.  But I did it behind a bush, having due regard for the decencies.

There are so many bird-cherries round me, great trees with branches sweeping the grass, and they are so wreathed just now with white blossoms and tenderest green that the garden looks like a wedding.  I never saw such masses of them; they seem to fill the place.  Even across a little stream that bounds the garden on the east, and right in the middle of the cornfield beyond, there is an immense one, a picture of grace and glory against the cold blue of the spring sky."  -- Elizabeth Von Arnim

Even though it is not yet spring, the sight of that tree can elicit a serious case of spring fever.  There is just something so hopeful about those white blossoms against the blue of the sky.  The wind shakes the branches and the ground is carpeted in white petals.      

The British playwright and novelist J.B. Priestley, who by his own admission was a grumbler by nature, waxed poetic at the sight of spring blossoms:

"Blossom--apple, pear, cherry, plum, almond blossom--in the sun...after fifty years this delight in the foaming branches is unchanged.  I believe that if I lived to be a thousand and were left with some glimmer of eyesight, this delight would remain...At least once every spring on a fine morning... we stare again at the blossom and are back in Eden."

 On a day like this, spring does not seem very far away and I have been dipping into some of my favorite garden books for inspiration.

 I can't get enough of these inspiring stories about gardens and garden dreamers

Beverley Nichols, Vita Sackville-West, and Elizabeth Von Arnim are three of my favorite garden writers.   I love learning how the garden becomes a metaphor for finding hope and meaning in their own lives.  I also love the inspirational and how-to books on creating a garden.  My copy of Martha Stewart's Gardening is tattered from so much use.  Gardeners are often bookish types who love reading books about their passion during the winter months.  My stack of garden books is growing all the time and dipping into them on a chilly February day is one way to bring spring just a little closer.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reading Nora Ephron

"Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim."
-- Nora Ephron, commencement address at Wellesley College

It is impossible not to love the woman who wrote that line.  On Wednesday night over a homemade dinner of roast chicken and popovers (I think Nora would have approved), my book club discussed the 1983 novel Heartburn by Nora Ephron.  With the death of Nora Ephron last summer, we lost a national treasure.  She was a wise and funny writer, a modern day Dorothy Parker.  Her book "Heartburn" was published in 1983 and became a bestseller as well as a popular film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.  The story about her painful divorce, told in a humorous way, had all of us laughing.  She was a playwright, screenwriter, and successful film director.  Her non-fiction books such as I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being a Woman and I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections were also bestsellers.  In addition to all those accomplishments, she was an excellent cook!  She was an inspiration and role model for many women.  Her play Lucky Guy is about to premiere on Broadway starring Tom Hanks.  She is clearly having a moment right now.  And so when I found out that my book club decided to read "Heartburn" for our next meeting, I was thrilled.  It was time we revisited her.

Most of us had read "Heartburn" when it was published thirty years ago.  Rereading this book was a pleasure; it felt like visiting an old friend, the one who always made you laugh.  The book is funny, honest, and real.  During our discussion, one of the members read from Frank Rich's beautiful essay on Nora Ephron called Nora's Secret that he wrote for The New York Magazine right after her death.  If you haven't read this, please do.  It is an excellent piece about Ephron -- her accomplishments, her effect on others, and the reaction to her death.  For example, after her death there were twenty articles about her in the New York Times alone.  She was diagnosed with leukemia six years before she died and hardly anyone knew.  She continued to work, had many projects going, and continued to mentor young writers.

When we talked about "Heartburn," we kept coming back to the fact that it opened up the public discussion about divorce in a powerful way.  It was based on Ephron's own life during the period of time when her husband had an affair with another woman.  Ephron was seven months pregnant with her second child.  It touched a chord in so many women and to this day the book provokes memories, stories, and comparisons between what so many women lived through and what Ephron lived through.  Her story was their story.  The miracle was that Ephron could write about such a painful subject in an entertaining and humorous way.  We all cited our favorite passages and quotes.  And our favorite recipes, since Ephron peppers the story with recipes she loves.  The main character Rachel Samsat is a successful cookbook writer. Food and laughter are the glue that holds this woman together.  It is also the winning formula that makes this book such a warm and witty classic.

My favorite Nora Ephron quote, though, is the one from her speech at Wellesley College (see above).  Many of us have been asked if there is a motto or quote that we try to live by.  I think I may have found mine.  Ephron inspired us all to be the heroine of our own lives; the life she lived was an example of how it could be done with humor, grace and style.

The lesson from "Heartburn" seems to be: if you push through adversity and find something to laugh about along the way, you will come out stronger in the end.  As many people said when the book first came out, "writing well is the best revenge."  I would add, cooking well also.

Here is the recipe for Perfect Roast Chicken that our hostess made for us at the book club meeting.  It was delicious and we all agreed that Nora would have loved it.

What have you been reading in your book club?

Wishing you a wonderful weekend!

Top photo via here

Monday, February 11, 2013

An Italian Dinner

It was a moment's decision.  I was sitting next to a friend who happens to be a gourmet cook and has traveled extensively throughout Italy.  We were at a fundraising meeting and someone asked if anyone could donate an "experience" to the silent auction.  I whispered to my friend, why don't we cook an Italian dinner for ten.  At my house. Without missing a beat - she is always game for a culinary adventure -- she said, ok...should be fun.  And that is how she and I ended up cooking an Italian dinner for ten on Saturday.

Next came the question, what had we gotten ourselves into?  After the panic subsided, we knew that if we approached the task methodically, it could be done.  The first job was to figure out our menu.  We went through our favorite Italian cookbooks and came up with one that we liked.  Our goal was to make this dinner very special for the couple who bought it.  And, at the same time, to create an evening that would take everyone away to Italy for one night.

The Menu:  

Appetizers:  Bruschettas, Parmesan Crisps (Frico), and Rosemary Cashews

First course: Radicchio, Pear & Arugula Salad with Foccacia

Second Course:  Veal Marsala with mushrooms served with Risotto with asparagus, Roman style artichoke hearts, and Swiss Chard with pancetta

Dessert:  Trio of gelato served with Biscotti and Torta della Nonna

My friend would bring some fabulous Italian wines and her husband would prepare Luce del Sol, an Italian cocktail. Done.

Flowers from Holly Flora

Next was the table.  I asked Holly from Holly Flora to do the flowers.  She arrived with a big container  overflowing with beautiful flowers.

Linens would be from Heather Taylor Home.  This is the White Flower pattern.

Holly began to make the flower arrangements

As she ran them down the table, it began to look like a spring meadow

The table is set

Biscotti dipped in white chocolate

Next was the food.  We each had our own assignments; mine was to make the biscotti.  

Also the risotto, here is the asparagus sauteed for Risotto with Asparagus

Bread toasted and ready for bruschetta toppings

Tomato and basil bruschetta

We picked up freshly baked Foccacia Bread from Osteria Mozza

Luce del Sol, the signature cocktail for the night

Bread sticks, rosemary nuts, and chickpea dip

Menus at each place setting

My friend made the menus, she did such a beautiful job!

First course:  Radicchio, Pear & Arugula Salad with Foccacia Bread

The moment before everyone sat down

The best experiences, like the best recipes, are often made up of new and unexpected ingredients.  That night we made new friends, had some great conversations, and got a chance to cook some exciting Italian food.  Donating an experience like this to a charity event is so rewarding.  For the cooks, we got to do what we love best, cook!  For the guests, they enjoyed a culinary adventure.  On this cold and damp February night, we were transported to the "wisteria and sunshine" of Italy.  And for all of us, it was a night to remember!

Here is the recipe for Luce del Sol, the Italian cocktail that we served.  My friend's husband created this recipe, inspired by a cocktail he had at Oenotri Restaurant in Napa, California.

3-4 parts Vodka
2 parts Aperol
1 part Cherry Brandy
1 part Blood Orange juice
2-3 parts Prosecco
Luxardo Cherries

Muddle 2-3 cherries in the brandy.  Add cherries and brandy to the other ingredients and shake everything together with ice in a martini shaker.  Rub the rims of martini glasses with an orange rind and pour mixture into glasses.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Love these cards!

It is often the little things in life that make us happy, such as finding a beautiful note card or the perfect piece of stationary for writing to a friend or loved one.  I have a thing for stationary and I am in love with the cards, stationary, and other paper products from  Rifle Paper Company.  They are witty and whimsical and their colorful, nostalgic, and cheerful designs make me smile.  These cards will make you want to write handwritten notes to everyone you know. They are made of thick and beautiful stock and are so charming that they could single-handedly bring back the custom of handwritten notes.  Give me a stack of good stationary or cards, and I will gladly write handwritten notes rather than emails.  There is something so generous and thoughtful about staying connected to others in this way.

When I bought these adorable cards pictured above at Anthropologie,  I looked to see who they were by and realized that I have been buying cards from Rifle Paper Company for years.  Anna Bond is the founder of the company which is located in Winter Park, Florida.  Her whimsical designs include hand-painted illustrations and lettering that create a style that feels both nostalgic and timeless.  If you are a fan of handwritten notes and like classic and witty designs, you will enjoy the cards and stationary from Rifle Company.  You can go here to see the entire collection.  Here are some of the products they offer:

Note Cards:

Calling Cards:

 Valentine's Day Cards:

They also carry old-fashioned Postcards:

E.M. Forster wrote "Only connect" in his 1910 novel "Howards End" and the need to connect seems more urgent now than ever before.  These cards and papers by Rifle Paper company will make you want to forget about writing that email and sit down and write a proper note or letter instead.  The warmth of a handwritten note is always in style.