Whenever there is a fleeting moment that I can spare, I enjoy spending it at one of my favorite botanical gardens near my home. On the weekdays, in the late morning hours, while the dew still clings to the petals of the roses and to the blades of shaded grass, and the squirrels still boldly rummage for any morsel of food they can find along the paths, there is peace and tranquility there at the garden; a pause from the never-ending hum of the city of Los Angeles. This fairy realm becomes my temporary oasis where I can stop to drink in something different, and refresh myself. It is place I am drawn to for personal and creative inspiration, where I come to contemplate a potential new recipe for, say, rustic bread pizzas. But during my last little trip there, I nearly missed the whole point of my going.
As I drove up the 2 freeway to the gardens the other morning in search of some spiritual uplift before I embarked on the busy schedule that lay before me, I began to feel the stress of the day ahead start to insidiously creep in. It had only been a few minutes since I had left the house with an enthusiast spark for spending a precious half-hour at Descanso, and yet as I drove, I found myself beginning to think about the various things that I had to take care of and keep straight in my mind for later in the day, as well as later in the week. I also began thinking about the things that burdened me, or annoyed me—those little things that add up over time, that finally become irritating. Though I hate to admit it, a sort of resentment and crankiness snaked its way into my mind as I drove, and the lightheartedness with which I first set off, was losing its hold. Though I was on my way to my beloved “fairy realm” for a few moments to myself, I began to focus more on the fact that it was stress that was bringing me to the gardens in the first place; and rather than getting lost in the joy of the little escape I was about to have, I became frustrated that I even needed an escape at all. I became a grumpy girl. Have you ever experienced something like this? There’s no question I was well on my way to having a completely uninspired time at the gardens, and would’ve never known why, when I left, I felt less than refreshed; but suddenly, there in the car, just a few moments before my exit, my attitude became apparent to me—the way that I was thinking, feeling and being—and I became slightly embarrassed in front of myself (see, that’s God quietly whispering in my ear). I realized that if I didn’t immediately change my point of view and make this gift of a little “breather” a conscious one, full of appreciation and wonderment, of joy and of eagerly taking in what surrounded me, then I was defeating the very purpose of my going. I couldn’t help but wonder just how many times I had squandered precious moments of genuine refreshment without even knowing it because I was too preoccupied? How many times had I missed out on the fullness and the beautiful totality of an experience, because I wasn’t fully present in enjoying something I was meant to revel in? And how many times had I allowed the best of me to be overruled by the not so best of me? Truly, thirty minutes of gratitude and joy with a focus on refreshing my soul, is far better than an hour of walking around with my thoughts far away, not even conscious of what I am experiencing. And I couldn’t help but wonder if this is something so many other people experience themselves, so very often.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot of Descanso Gardens, I had a very different attitude from the one that crept in during my drive. Every rose was gorgeous to me, every break of sunlight through the trees and on the ripples of the pond was like a painting. The air smelled woodsy and clean. But I came all too close to completely missing the fullness of it. Close, but for that quiet whisper, didn’t.
Taste what’s good and pass it on.
Rustic Bread Pizzas: Spicy Italian on Ciabatta, and Fall Vegetable on French Bread
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1. Spicy Italian Ciabatta Pizza with Crispy Salami, Fried Artichokes and Fiery Marinara
(Makes about 8, thick slices)
1 Ciabatta loaf, cut in half length-wise
• Drizzles of olive oil
16 slices Italian dry salami
1 (14 ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and patted dry with paper towel, and quartered
• Fiery Marinara Sauce (recipe below)
3 cups of shredded Italian 4-Cheese blend
2 tablespoons Kalamata (black) olives, pitted and sliced
½ cup fresh basil leaves, torn
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and line a large baking sheet with foil.
-Drizzle about 1 tablespoons worth of olive oil on each half of the Ciabatta loaf; place the two halves onto the foil-lined baking sheet, and toast the loaves for about 10 minutes, or just until a very pale golden (this is just to pre-toast the bread a bit before putting the toppings on), and remove from the oven; set aside.
-Next, place a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, and once the pan is hot, add the Italian dry salami slices to it (working in batches if necessary), and fry for few moments on each side, until each slice is lightly crispy-brown; remove from the pan and place onto a piece of paper towel to hold.
-Next, fry the artichokes by placing the cleaned non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, and adding a few drizzles of olive oil to it; once the oil is very hot, add the quartered artichokes hearts to the oil, cut-side down, and leave them alone for about 1-2 minutes, until golden-brown and slightly crisp; flip them over and crisp the other side, and then remove them from the pan, and set aside.
-To prepare the pizzas, add about ¾ -1 cup of the Fiery Marinara sauce (more if you’d like) to each half of the toasted Ciabatta loaf, and 1½ cup worth of the Italian 4-Cheese blend to each half; next, add your crispy salami slices equally between the two halves, along with the fried artichokes and the sliced Kalamata olives, and place the two halves side by side on the baking sheet to “bake” for about 8-10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and gooey.
-Remove carefully from oven, place on a cutting board, and cut each half into 4, thick slices (8 in total); place the slices on a plate, and garnish with a good sprinkle of the torn basil leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil.
Fiery Marinara Sauce ingredients:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
• Pinch to a ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on how spicy you like it)
1 (28 ounce) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
-In a medium-small pot set over medium-high heat, add the olive oil; once the oil is hot, add in the garlic, the oregano, the salt, black pepper and the red pepper flakes, and stir to combine and lightly “toast” the flavors; once garlic is aromatic, add the can of crushed tomatoes and the Parmesan, and stir (or whisk) gently to blend and combine the ingredients; reduce the heat to low, and very gently simmer the sauce for 20 minutes, just until slightly thickened.
(*You may have quite a bit of sauce left over, so just place it in the refrigerator, or even the freezer in a freezer bag, and use it to toss with your favorite pasta on another night.)
2. Fall Vegetable French Bread Pizza with Butternut Squash, Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage and Parsley-Sage Pesto
(Makes about 8, thick slices)
12 ounces (about 2 ½ cups) bite-size cubed butternut squash (pre-packaged is great)
• Drizzles of olive oil
• Pinch of salt
• Pinch of black pepper
1 Rustic French Loaf (not a baguette, but a thicker, crustier loaf) cut in half length-wise
½ fennel bulb, cored and sliced very thinly
Parsley-Sage Pesto Sauce (recipe below)
3 cups grated Gruyere cheese
2 Sweet Italian Chicken sausage links, casing removed, crumbled and browned
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
-Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and line 2 baking sheets with foil.
-Toss the cubed butternut squash with a couple of drizzles of olive oil and a pinch or two of the salt/black pepper, and roast in the oven for about 25-30 minutes, or until tender; remove and set aside to cool slightly while you prepare the rest of the meal.
-Drizzle about 1 tablespoons worth of olive oil on each half of the French loaf; place the two halves onto the other baking sheet, and toast the loaves for about 10 minutes, or just until a very pale golden (this is just to pre-toast the bread a bit before putting the toppings on), and remove from the oven.
-Place a non-stick pan over medium heat, add a couple of drizzles of olive oil, and once oil is hot, add in the sliced fennel along with a pinch or two of salt/pepper; toss with tongs, and allow to caramelize for a few minutes, until softened and golden-brown; remove from pan and set aside.
-To prepare the pizzas, add about ¼ cup of the Parsley-Sage Pesto sauce to each half of the toasted French loaf, and about 1 ½ cup worth of the Gruyere cheese to each half; next, add your roasted butternut squash chunks equally between the two halves, along with the browned, crumbled Sweet Italian Chicken sausage and the caramelized fennel, and place the two halves side by side on the baking sheet to “bake” for about 8-10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and gooey.
-Remove carefully from oven, place on a cutting board, and cut each half into 4, thick slices (8 in total); place the slices on a plate, and garnish with the chopped parsley, and a drizzle of any remaining Parsley-Sage Pesto.
Parsley-Sage Pesto Sauce ingredients:
1 tablespoon walnuts
1 large, garlic clove
¼ cup, plus 2 tablespoons, grated Parmesan cheese
8 fresh sage leaves
¾ cup fresh parsley leaves
½ teaspoon, plus a pinch, salt
• Pinch black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¾ cup olive oil
-Place all ingredients through the lemon juice into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse a few times to combine the ingredients; next, with the processor running, drizzle in the olive oil, and process until well blended and emulsified; set aside until ready to serve.