Monday, August 30, 2010

Seine-ful French food …

Reflecting the French asthetic perfectly
at Les Deux Magots Cafe. 
It’s nearly autumn, and I should be packing for what has become an almost annual trek to Paris. But, this summer I vacationed in the States (What was I thinking?). Now, I’m stuck with an acute case of ‘authentic French food deprivation.’

There are so many reasons to love Paris. Certainly, among those reasons are the enduring cultural destinations that draw tourists – monuments, museums, galleries, and the list goes on. For me, the historical richness, incomparable beauty and permeable energy of the city is spellbinding, but it’s the sinful, sumptuous food that keeps me coming back again and again to ‘The City of Light.’

At the top of my ‘French Foods to Die For’ list is escargot. Oh, stop! I can hear you from here. You want to know how I can put slimy snails in my mouth. Well, let’s just say that once I found the courage to try them (and despite how they look, they’re not the least bit slimy), I was hooked. From simple snails simmered in garlic butter to Escargots Bourguignons that are poached in Cru Beaujolais and herbs, I am always at the ready to devour these delectable appetizers. Just give me a piece of artisan bread for mopping the luscious juice, and I’m in heaven.


Come home to mama!

My other incessant Parisian desire is for chocolate. In Paris, les chocolat is dark, rich and indulgent! Every restaurant prides itself on its signature dessert – from moist warm cake with molten chocolate lava at its center to light and airy, cream-filled profiteroles drizzled with dark chocolate.


The profiteroles at L'Epicerie Restaurant on rue Montorgueil are the best!

It’s hard to find bad food anywhere in Paris! But, you certainly can be disappointed by a renowned restaurant’s hype or joyously amazed by a fabulous meal in the simplest cafe. Over the last ten years, I’ve tried out many recommendations included in the Best Restaurants Paris guidebook and on the website (www.bestrestaurantparis.com/en//), and I found many spots that were overpriced or overrated – truly underwhelming. On the contrary, most of the quaint, family-owned cafes and bistros that missed the list serve some of the finest meals I’ve tasted – and at reasonable prices.

So, here are a few of my favs that you might want to visit when you get to Paris.

1. L'Epicerie Restaurant on rue Montorgueil. 2. le Zimmer at place du Chatelet. 3. Restaurant du Palais Royal along the terrasse dans les jardins du Palais Royal. 4. La Maree Verte on rue de Pontoise.

Bon appetit!

Confession is good for the bowl ...

I have 30-year-old shelf liner in my kitchen cabinets! There you have it. I’ve confessed. It’s not that this vestige of 1978 is valuable, or that the pattern is back in vogue and speaks to my current design sensibility. Somehow, I just continue to overlook this small detail until I’m foraging for a specific bowl or platter.

For starters, I’ve been really busy over the last three decades – a family to care for, a career that clocked-in a lot of 18 hour days, volunteer work and the persistent thought that at some point I could tear the whole room down and start from scratch. The shelf liner wouldn’t matter because it would be tossed into the abyss with the rest of the 1970s.

Now that I’m on sabbatical, I’m looking at every page of kitchen inspiration in magazines and books. Even dog-eared relics in my 'wish notebook' are getting a second look.


My all-time favorite dream kitchen was built in the US by French carpenters flown in to create a California kitchen using time-honored European techniques. Somehow, I'm sure no one notices the shelf liner here.

I'm smitten by the rustic elegance of this
dramatic kitchen



Not to mention that I now find myself watching every movie scene from a design perspective – memorizing appealing kitchens like the simple, utilitarian one above from the film It's Complicated.

Despite all of my efforts, I cannot find one picture anywhere of a cabinet’s innards? Not in photos, not on film.  Maybe everyone feels like I do about what lurks in those cupboards. Although I want you to feel at home when visiting my house (“help yourself to anything you need,”) you are very likely to hear me say, “Let me get that for you,” if you are going anywhere near one of my kitchen cabinet doors. I shutter to think at the prospect.

We're all pretty atuned to what's current in countertop surfaces and appliance colors, but how are we to know what’s in and what’s passé in shelf liner without designer guidance in this matter of taste? Should our liners have a nature pattern considering the greening of our lifestyle, and does that bring with it an obligation to buy something made from sustainable or recycled materials? I must admit that I'm a little verklempt.

While my outdated liner unknowingly whiles away most of its time in darkness, I’ll be on the lookout for some sweet new number to take its place. Even if I don’t get my dream kitchen, I’ll have spanking new paper to give comfort to my plates and bowls – and spare me from any embarrasement should you come over and take a peek.

Objects d’reinvention ...

Curating a ‘trash to treasure trunk show’ is right up my alley! I love to disassemble worn objects and reconstruct them to serve another humble purpose. So, showcasing some of these recycled materials may spur a few of your own ideas.


I dressed up a worn blackboard by
trimming it down to fit in an old frame
It was fun to rip the fabric off a discarded lampshade
to create a postcard carousel for my studio

I am totally impressed by the ingenuity of others who can transform bits and pieces into remarkably inventive, new serviceable goods and unique, imaginative art.

Take a tour through the gallery below, and leave inspired to reclaim your trash for a higher purpose.

JuNxtaposition*
*(junks-ta-po-zish’ –un); noun, the art and placement of junk for design purposes; a great little art house out of Pennsylvania with an online shop full of recycled jewelry and art.

Love their artful pendants (left) that feature words to live by. These chips started out as Formica samples. Who knew they could be so cool!?!  JuNxtaposition's typewriter key bracelets (above) and rings are cute enough to make any admin swoon! Visit http://www.junxtaposition.com/index.html.


They may have started as wine bottles or other glass containers, but now, they are simply 'bellissimos' (beautiful things.) The recycled glass is hand-cut and frosted into a handsome bell (left). Jerry Kott presents a variety of artistic treasures on his website at http://www.jerrykott.com/bell.page.new.htm.

The Green Glass Co. also creates drinkware and votives from reclaimed bottles (right). Their online product catalog is at http://www.greenglass.com/.

Among my new-found favorite artistic reclamation projects is the one operated by Ten Thousand Villages. It supports environmental and entrepreneurial programs in Third World countries. Providing vital, fair income to disadvantaged people, Ten Thousand Villages markets indigenous handicrafts – working with artisans who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed.  The magazine basket right is handwoven from fast-growing Tilob fern by artisans in the Philippines. Visit http://www.tenthousandvillages.com/.


The big box stores are also working with artisans to use reclaimed materials in new ways. Anthropologie has this fabulous Kilim Sofa shown below (using pieces of worn, ethnic Kilim rugs) in its stores nationwide. You could get the same look by recycling any old, nubby, colorful blanket (I'm thinking Mexican or Guatemalan) as upholstery fabric. If you're into Southwestern design, think Indian blankets from New Mexico.

This beauty from Anthropologie could totally make me rethink my current residence.
One look at it, and I want to own a casita in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

The size is perfect for trips to market.
'Paperboy' bags and totebags from Austin Woodhenge are great for the beach, toting groceries, packing baby travel supplies and diapers, and they are great as gym bags, too. The size of these babies will take you from the flea market to the farmers' market with room to spare. And, I absolutely love the linen grainsack material.

You can buy them at shows from Texas to Georgia to Colorado and California, but don't look for a storefront - there isn't one. However, Austin Woodhenge does have a website http://www.austinwoodhenge.com/bags.html.

Artisans Don and Kathy Gross sell the bags washed, dyed, ironed and screenprinted. Or, you may find inspiration to recycle some of those fabrics collecting dust in your closet. I am thinking of some richly-aged, long-forgotten hemp material that is calling out from a stack of sewing fabrics.

Oh yeah, moma's gonna have a brand new bag!


When in Rome ...

Korzekwa's Los Ojos studio
... do as the bricoleuse do. What, you've never heard of a bricoleur? "A bricoleur has the power to take something old and, via context, make it new," according to the Texas-born artist Cynthia Korzekwa. From her colorful Los Ojos studio in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Rome, where she now lives in Italy, Korzekwa creates sculptural compositions using pre-existing elements. She literally converts trash to treasure.

For more than seven years, the artist has concerned herself with humans' impact on planet Earth and how recycling as an art form can lessen our carbon footprint. She conducts recycling workshops in Rome (generally in fall through early spring) and at her La Sussarrata studio in Parikia, Paros, Greece in late spring and summer - teaching others how to transform household discards into artistic treasures.


Joyful jewelry crafted from household waste.
Baskets woven from recycled papers




Details of a reconstructed, handstitched huipil made from recycled fabrics

Korzekwa has gained an international following with a line of reconstructed clothing she calls 'Muy Marcottage' (from the French term 'marcottage' – an art term used to indicate a sculptural composition that’s been made using pre-existing elements.) Disassembling one thing to create another, she artfully hand-stitches swatches of fabric taken from clothes in her closet to create new signature pieces that are bold, reinvented and completely wearable art forms.



The Anthy and Costas showing of 'Dialectical Dresses' by Cynthia Korzekwa in Voutakos, Greece

Her favorite design silhouette is a refreshing take on the huipil, a free-flowing blouse or dress introduced and worn by the Mayan civilization throughout the territory that we currently know as Mexico and Central America. Via the Spanish influence, the huipil immigrated to South Texas –shaping Korzekwa's artistic vision for today's reconstructed fashion. Her recent Greek exhibition, 'Dialectical Dresses,' showcased her success as an reconstruction artist, environmentalist and couturier.

Cynthia Korzekwa
If you're interested in learning how to create domestic art from rubbish, Korzekwa has illustrated and hand-written a book on the subject entitled, Arte per Massaie (Art for Housewives). It is available in paperback with both Italian and English text.

To learn more about Cynthia Korzekwa and her work, visit her blogs at:

Lord of the fleas ...

Don't take my word for it. I've never set foot in the place. But, that's about to change. I'm making plans to visit one of the 'big daddy' flea markets.


Hunting for a great bargain can be a team sport at Marburger.

For years, I have heard from friends near and far about the semi-annual Marburger Farm Antique Show in Round Top, Texas. Everyone has just oohed and aahed about the fabulous goods found during the week-long event set up in the middle of BFE (if you don't know, don't ask).  In this instance, BFE is located somewhere in a triangle between La Grange, Giddings and Brenham. You'll know you've reached BFE when you spot a 43-acre field boasting ten large tents and 12 historic buildings.



Country Living magazine has proclaimed that "the Marburger Farm Antique Show is one of the top ten antique shows in America." Dealers come in from across the continent showcasing and selling a range of antiques including architectural, English, Continental, Asian, industrial, garden, Americana, painted furniture, fine art, early Texas, mid-century modern, French, silver, jewelry, textiles, paintings and prints.

The Fall 2010 show begins September 28 and runs through October 2. General admission is $10, and it is good all week.  Shoppers can take advantage of free parking, an on-site cafe and air-conditioned facilities.

Somehow I'm thinking that while this may be my first visit, it probably won't be my last. The next show is in Spring 2011 from March 29 through April 2.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Adaptive reuse ...

I’m attracted to a shop full of vintage goods like a magpie to a shiny object! These stores don’t require goods with antique pedigrees. I’m talking about the little shops that make witty use of found objects that inspire reflection. Show me an unexpected way to bring originality to a room, and I’m hooked. I’m so very drawn to things with a tactile patina – timeworn objects that have beauty beyond their function.


This architectural element makes a bold statement when
repurposed as a headboard.
For me, vintage is a design philosophy. Oh, I know some decorators and designers may disagree, but I’ll take spunky, bohemian style (you know that irresistible urge to marry past and present) over the stuffy, tried and true, coordinated room settings any day. It is this very homespun elegance that made Carol Bolton a nationally recognized designer. Her “looks-as-if-it’s-always-been-there” design aesthetic launched Homestead in Fredericksburg, TX many years ago, and I have been a fan of hers every since.

I think the appeal of pieces with imperfections is in their narrative – the story of their past. You just know that someone benefited from the service of this worn object, and now it is ready to retire to a life of intellect over convention – enriching our lives in the process.

I’m all about repurposing remnants of our past in fresh ways.


Saved magazines make a thoughful display in
guest rooms. Vintage statues convert beautifully
into lamp bases.
Even though Oscar Wilde said, “All beautiful things belong to the same age,” that does not mean bringing these diverse things together cohesively is easy. I’d agree with Bolton’s assessment: “It takes work to make something look this undecorated.” Certainly, selling her store gave her more time to 'undecorate' in her own home and in her clients' casas.

If you want an original look for your space, I found that you must give it your personal style. For me, that means I steer clear of the home accessory stores filled with the same inventory as every other store – really, how many Tuscan-style urns or giclée Parisian prints do they buy at market?

If you truly lived in Tuscany, almost everything you own would have been handed down from generations. And, Paris? Well, let's just say that from the very avant garde atelier to the most elegant appartement, a significant number of purchases come from the Les Puces de Saint-Ouen flea market. After all, trend-setting designers from around the world visit Les Fleas for visionary concepts in adaptive reuse.

I say out with the Stepford Wives decor! If anything, I’d rather have some Sanford & Son migrating into my design style.

Man Shops Globe ...

Pack me up, and send me buying! Can you imagine getting paid to discover brilliant artisans from all corners of the globe, not to mention shopping on someone else's dime? Did someone call me to heaven?


On the Sundance Channel Wednesday nights 9c/10e.
"Man Shops Globe" is a vicarious thrill (albeit on television) for anyone who has an adventurous spirit, loves global travel, antique shops, unique textiles and art.

The show follows Keith Johnson, buyer for Anthropologie stores, as he treks around the globe looking for the next great buy.

If you haven't been to Anthropologie, you may think it solely caters to young women's fashion. But, half of their merchandise is actually unique housewares, bedding, lighting, art and books at reasonable prices. And, it isn't just new items. These great global finds from Keith's expeditions also make their way into the stores, however, these will set you back significantly more than you might expect.


You can check out some great buys in-store or online

During my visit to Anthropologie this week, I came across some finds that will surely make their way into my next soiree. I'm thinking about blue table accents for an 'End of Summer' seafood fest. Naturally, I fell in love with some of the great serving pieces - from dishware to glassware - that fit my blue hue.

Charming 'bird on a wire' dishware
These blue bowls should
coordinate nicely
I could have done some serious damage with linen purchases, but I held back. Last weekend, I found two yards of the most fantastic remnant linen for $2.99 during Hancock Fabric's super sale. So, I'm happily sewing napkins that are absolutely beautiful. The fabric's fabulous palm and papaya pattern in deep ocean blues and fresh salad greens will be just the right touch with crisp, white linen tablecloths.

Even if I love to make my own signature pieces, I would be happy to comb the flea markets of Paris and the artist enclaves of Cypress anytime "Man Shops Globe" needs me to tag along. Call me Keith, I'm in the book!

Under the Tuscan Bun

Unfortunately, I didn’t travel to Italy this summer. But, that hasn't stopped me from eating like a Tuscan tourist almost daily! As part of my new 'Eat Better, Eat Less' philosophy, I've started making lunch much more interesting and satisfying with healthy, flavorful foods.

A summer crostini on toasted artisan bread with chopped
bresaola, olive oil and apples
This year, most of my summer lunch dishes have come from a yummy little cookbook that I've had stashed away for quite some time. (Yes, I will admit to buying cookbooks, then, leaving them to languish on the kitchen bookshelf.) But, Prosciutto Pancetta Salame – Cooking with the cured meats of Italy deserved another look.

It has great, easy-to-make recipes (with pictures, alleluia) along with fascinating details on cured meats and cheeses that make Italian meals among the world's very best.

Prosciutto Pancetta Salame is one of the artisan cookbooks from author and chef Pamela Sheldon Johns. She shares a wealth of elegant and simple dishes that are the heart and soul of Italian menus.



Johns' book is beautifully photographed by Joyce Oudkerk Pool.

Johns lives on her farm in central Italy – hosting wine and food workshops in Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Campania and Piemonte – and has written companion cookbooks, including Parmigiano!, Balsamico! and Gelato!.

The Invitation ...

Sometimes, when we follow our heart, and change takes place in our lives, is it because we have accepted 'the invitation' from the voice within us? This poem has challenged me to see life's purpose. While many people are long-familiar with it around the world, it is new to me. It seems I had been too busy with the concept of work over the last couple of decades to think about the concept of living. Not anymore. Now, I live on my own terms.  In doing so, I wanted to share this affirmational gift with you and hope that you accept The Invitation.


"It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing.

It doesn't interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn't interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life's betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain!I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn't interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see beauty even when it's not pretty, every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn't interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments."

- Oriah Mountain Dreamer copyright © 1999

This is from The Invitation, one of the bestselling books written by author Oriah. Her other books include The Dance, The Call and What We Ache For: Creativity and the Unfolding of Your Soul.

A rolling stone gathers no moss ...

... but, if Jagger ever decides to craft a topiary, he better start clipping some Hobby Lobby coupons so he can buy a truckload of the fluffy green stuff! Trust me, I’ve been there.


This little number had curves in all the right places.
I was drawn to the sweet, elfin flourish of this little topiary seen in a local consignment shop. It fit my new dining room design scheme to a tee, and I knew our flirtation was getting serious when I started thinking about bringing her home. My first thought was that I need more than this single arrangement – I really had to have two. But, it was her hefty price tag that sent me reeling. It was a shocking $8 million. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but it might as well have been $8 mil. There was no way I was going to shed that much dough for sticks and fungus. So, I took her picture as a farewell gesture, and I was outta there to gather moss.

While shopping, I began to rationalize that my inspiration piece looked like a character from Dr. Seuss, with those bulbous mounds of moss and the crazy, dangling bird’s nest. Of course, that’s exactly what made her so endearing. With hot glue sticks, foam cones, tree bark and bags of moss, I cleared the check-out at the craft store – spending less than $40 in supplies to make both topiaries. Let’s just say that this price tag was less than a third of the cost of the tempting single topiary in the shop.

But, I could not, could not find a vase. I checked here and there, just in case. I looked at pots of metal and clay, I looked for hours to my dismay. Oops, sorry. I digress.

Anyway, I finally settled for a couple of creamy, French-inspired planters and excitedly began the creative process. Did I say “creative?” I meant to say “torturous process.” Oh, the ideas came easily enough, but it was the damn hot glue construction that drove me to tears. Did you know that finger pads can actually sizzle?

I’m now stuck with two topiaries that bring back the most traumatic memories and look nothing like my inspiration piece. My consolation – I’m sure that consignment store tease is long gone, and I saved enough money for a year’s worth of ointment and bandages.


My zany topiaries add a little zing to dining, bird's nest included. Gotta love 'em.

Did I mention that despite all the injuries, I'm really happy with the results? I am!

Monday, August 16, 2010

In the beginning

It always starts innocently enough. A trip planned for some much needed relaxation becomes a seed of inspiration. This time, it was a drive up California’s Sonoma Valley to view the rustically-charming vineyards and taste the fruits of European-inspired wineries.


Our wisteria-covered pergola is a perfect spot to entertain friends.


I came home with a growing wine list of new-found favorites, as well as a rumpled journal full of alfresco dining sketches and a rehearsed sales job to present to my project-worn spouse (and gifted handyman).

Yes, another design-build project was born – this time a wisteria-covered dining pergola inspired by a stop at the beautiful Chateau St. Jean. Okay, it did take a couple of years for the ‘wisteria-covered’ part to take shape, but an otherwise barren landscape was immediately transformed into a welcome respite from the Texas sun and a perfect spot to entertain friends.

And, that’s the way it always goes. I’m constantly inspired to convert hum-drum into ooh-la-la! It’s a curse, it’s a gift, it’s a curse – and my darling, impressively-skilled husband takes on the build from hand-sketched pages ripped from one or another of my crazy idea journals. I love to complete the finish work with paint or fabric – just give me a brush, glue gun or hammer, and I’m in my element.

For the pergola project, I played designer, construction assistant and stonemason. Thankfully, my novice masonary skills fit the rustic look!

So, in my mind, I thought it would be fun to build this blog as a way to share some of the creative designs, raw materials and elements of style that have inspired me as I have traveled to sites throughout North America and Europe. I’ll reveal where I find sanctuary at home and abroad as well as favorite entertaining ideas, décor and libations that I hope you, too, will enjoy.

Budding romance ...

I love a great centerpiece. There, I said it. Whether I'm entertaining, creating tablescapes for clients, or just giving my decor a shot of adrenaline, I love to set the stage with a bit of WOW. My adoration for a real showstopper, however, isn't limited to elaborate floral arrangements. As a matter of fact, I'm much more drawn to the simplicity of something au naturale.

Simple rose buds (Duchesse de Brabant) cut from my garden are tied with jute
and placed in shot glasses for a casual display in my studio.

What could be more natural than fruit? When I’m looking for a light touch on the dinner table, using citrus solo or in combination with flowers, always fits the occasion. The really impressive thing about citrus, or berries for that matter, is that they look fab whole or sliced.

1. Whole limes secured in a tight bouquet for a formal look; 2. Relaxed design with sliced limes and flowers; 3 & 5. I love how antiques dress up flowers (I particularly love the moss and branches in the old tin urn); and 4. I designed the fresh florals for an al fresco soiree using limes, roses and sunflowers in a 'trompe l'oeil' copper trough (it was really a blue, plastic wallpaper trough purchased for a song at Home Depot and spray-painted copper -- think outside the box girls and boys)  

Combining metals (zinc is my current fav) with wood elements, wildflowers and grasses brings on a euphoric stupor. If I’ve seen it in a magazine, the page will join dozens of others collected and saved for future inspiration. I’m constantly collecting urns, vases and time-worn antiques to serve as a springboard for centerpiece basics. Then, when the time is right, I’ll pull together the inspirational pics and the collected, raw materials to create something fresh and new.

1. A potting bench serves as an impromptu buffet with gardening elements at centerstage; 2. Antique goblets fit the bill for tablescape succulents; 3. Grass takes this arrangement to a zen place; 4. Leaves, apples and grapes make this themed centerpiece naturally stunning.

Of course, you can never go wrong with candles. Somehow, they magically give the table a shot of fairy dust, bringing flattering light to guests and drama to the setting.

1. I created a floating candle centerpiece for my daughter's Jamaican wedding - hauling all the raw materials in a trunk to Montego Bay and pulling it together onsite with orchid petals strewn on the tabletops, floating hibiscus candles in a ribboned glass vase filled with sand and shells; 2. Inspired by this saved photo, I repeated the fish tank centerpiece at a corporate event - the client loved it!; 3. All I can say is, 'ooh, la, la;' 4. This makes me long for the holidays. 


Even a Ball Jar with dainty bug-shaped lights can be a dinner conversation-starter. Add a few more for a grouping (sit them on platforms made of wood logs cut at varying heights) to create a charming tablescape.

All raw materials have the bones to create a stunning centerpiece. Just think beyond the 'flowers only' formula and get those creative juices flowing.

Wedding planners and florists' websites are great places to find inspiration. Take a cue from these professionals, and don't forget to check out your favorite merchant's shops for great ways to add drama to a room.

Porn for foodies ...

If one can have a serious relationship with food, I am totally commited to this engaging Moroccan-Style Chicken Pie. From the very first morsel, I fell hard for this succulent babe!

My daughter introduced me to this recipe from Bon Appétit® magazine,
and I haven't been the same since.

According to Bon Appetit, 'B'stilla, a traditional Moroccan recipe, was the inspiration for this savory pie. The dish consists of a spiced chicken filling sandwiched between layers of crisp phyllo pastry.' It may look like a long preparation process, but keep in mind that you can make ahead and refrigerate. This is a godsend for party prep.

My guests absolutely loved it at a recent Mediterranean-themed soiree, coming back for second and even third helpings. That's what I love to see -- friends enjoying really satisfying food!

MOROCCAN-STYLE CHICKEN PIE
Ingredients

Filling:
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
• 1/8 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
• 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
• 2 cups low-salt chicken broth
• 1 1/2 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs
• 1/4 cup chopped golden raisins
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Phyllo:
• 1/2 cup slivered almonds
• 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 10 sheets (about 17x12 inches) fresh phyllo pastry or frozen, thawed
• 1/2 cup (about) unsalted butter, melted (for brushing)

Preparation

Filling:
Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Mix in cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and saffron; stir 1 minute. Sprinkle flour over; stir 1 minute. Add broth; bring to simmer. Sprinkle chicken with salt; add to broth mixture. Gently simmer chicken uncovered until cooked through, reducing heat if necessary to prevent boiling, about 20 minutes. Stir in raisins. Set skillet aside until chicken is cool enough to handle.

Transfer chicken to plate. Shred chicken coarsely and return to skillet. If sauce is thin, simmer over medium heat until sauce coats chicken thickly. Stir in cilantro and parsley. Season filling with salt and pepper. Cool filling completely. Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover; chill.

Phyllo:
Finely grind almonds, powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt, and cinnamon in mini processor.

Stack 10 phyllo sheets on work surface. Invert 9-inch glass pie dish onto stack. Cut around dish through phyllo, making ten 10-inch rounds. Remove dish. Cover rounds with plastic wrap and damp kitchen towel.

Brush same pie dish with melted butter. Place 1 phyllo round on work surface; brush with butter and sprinkle with scant 1 tablespoon almonds. Top with another phyllo round, brush with butter and sprinkle with scant 1 tablespoon almonds. Repeat stacking with 3 more phyllo rounds, butter, and almonds. Fit phyllo stack into prepared pie dish. Brush with butter. Spoon filling evenly over. Place 1 phyllo round on work surface. Brush with butter and sprinkle with scant 1 tablespoon almonds. Top with another phyllo round, brush with butter and sprinkle with scant 1 tablespoon almonds. Repeat with 2 phyllo rounds, butter, and almonds. Place stack atop filling; top with remaining phyllo round. Tuck in edges. Drizzle more butter over top. Cut 4 slits through top phyllo stack to allow steam to escape. Can be made 6 hours ahead. Cover and chill.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Place pie on rimmed baking sheet. Bake uncovered until phyllo is golden and filling is heated through, about 40 minutes. Cool 15 minutes. Cut into wedges.

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Tall, dark and ruggedly handsome …

I am passionate about dining alfresco, particularly at night! Blame it on all of those romantic movies and novels, but the allure of a starlit sky, gently rustling leaves and an earthy glass of wine leaves me almost breathless.

Villa Saladino in Montecito, California looks like the perfect setting for dining day or night. The historic home and grounds were restored to perfection by architect and designer John Saladino.

Wouldn't you just love to pull up a chair at either of the tablesettings below? I can feel the warmth of a hearty meal, hear the great conversation and taste the seductive wine.  Lisa Lovatt Smith really captured the essence of Provence, France with these photos from her book, ‘Provence Interiors.’

 

It seems the French and Italians understand the pleasure of alfresco dining better than anyone.

La Chassagnette Camargue Restaurant, Provence, France
Castello di Casole, Tuscany, Italy

Pass the pasta!
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