How to host a Perfect Autumn Picnic

The days are getting shorter and the weather is getting cooler.  But if you hurry, and take these handy tips I learned yesterday, you can take advantage of the last few remaining precious warm weekends to host a delightful outdoor lunch for you and your friends.  

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1.       Have each guest bring a dish.   You’ll save yourself the trouble of cooking for a crowd and get more variety and flavor if everyone  brings something to eat.  It helps if you have some gourmands in your group, like we did, who enjoy making pans of lasagna and roasted turkey breasts wrapped in pancetta.

Yes, that's a clean diaper in the foreground! It was a family affair..
Yes, that’s a clean diaper in the foreground! It was a family affair..

2.       Have each guest bring something to drink.  An assortment of beverages always makes a picnic more refreshing.  As you can see, our assortment ranged from orange Fanta – to a certain shade of red.

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3.       Make sure there’s plenty of seating.  If you don’t have a picnic table, no problem.  Have your friends carry over some benches or chairs.  And you can also spread out an assortment of blankets.

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4. Scatter some stone buildings about .   Even more than the weather, warm ambience can be created by adding in some ancient buildings. The converted farm and stall buildings here were more than 500 years old, so that’s pretty good.

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5. Fly to Tuscany.  The best picnics are in the countryside, right?  Here in Capolona, just a couple of miles outside of our adopted hometown of Arezzo, you’ll find a lovely verdant setting – complete with mandatory rolling hills and olive trees.

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Well, that’s about it! Hope you learned a little something.   Next time you’re thinking picnic, you’re covered.  Or, you can just call Carla Veneri, our gracious host from yesterday’s feast, and the terrific innkeeper at Il Pozzo – She can arrange it all for you as her guest!

Our terrific friend and host Carla! - and me.
Our terrific friend and host Carla! – and me.

Baci from Tuscany – Here’s to your next great picnic – wherever it is, I’m sure it will be great!

Gina

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Looking forward to October!

It’s the last day of September, 2013 and clouds are hanging over our duomo, cathedral, here in Arezzo.

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My walk to the gym this morning was wet  – with rain drops still clinging to the vines that grow around the doorway of one of my favorite osterias.

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Kids off to school and grown-ups off to work toted umbrellas as they passed through Piazza San Francesco under the constant gaze of the statue of Vittorio Fossombroni  who engineered the drainage of the valley’s marshlands in the 17th century.

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I imagine the kind of forward-thinking he must have had to envision the swamps as a fertile valley instead of the rain-fed lakes they were during the time that Leonardo da  Vinci painted them.

While I will most likely never have that level of vision, and certainly no statue in my honor – I am excited about looking forward to the future of…well.. October!

I dedicated this month to a series of “Better Communications” articles; I hope you enjoyed them.  Starting in October, I plan to continue writing about my professional expertise, but also combining my personal passions of living abroad and parenting our five-year-old cutie, Lulu.

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She’s prepared, as you can see, for the rainy Tuscan weather.

As consultant and author Alan Weiss says, “You don’t have a professional life and a personal life.  You have a life.”   So, here’s to our combined futures together.

Baci! Gina

Why your Communications Style is like Lasagna

Throughout the month, I’ll be sharing suggestions on how to become a more memorable and engaging communicator.   They’ll be based on my first career as a CNN correspondent and anchor and later as an international communications consultant who has worked with thousands of executives, politicians and community thought leaders.

In Jordan, presenting a training program for a group of Iraqi women running for Parliament. Amazing ladies!
In Jordan, presenting a training program for a group of Iraqi women running for Parliament. Amazing ladies!

Yesterday as I thought of the first post for this series,  I was also preparing to make a “welcome to fall” lasagna for my family.  Over the years, I have made many different kinds of lasagne, and this time my husband specifically asked to have one with no meat; heavy on the veggies.

Off I went to the little bottega near our palazzo and found Stefano behind the counter.

Non ce un problema!”  he happily responded when I asked if he would help me gather the proper ingredients.   He handed me some fresh basil and ricotta, egg pasta noodles,  a jar of pureed tomatoes and a can of diced tomatoes.

“It’s easier not to use fresh tomatoes,” he advised.

Stefano also had no problem with my ideas to not put in any carne, or meat, and to increase my veggie load.

Ma certo! Put in anything you like”

At home, from our already stocked fridge, I selected red peppers, zucchini, carrots, onions, garlic, and mushrooms.  Everything got grated or finely chopped and quickly sautéed in olive oil – then tossed in with basil and oregano into the simmering tomato sauce.

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I layered the noodles without boiling beforehand (you can do that when they’re egg-based), the sauce and the ricotta and sprinkled the top with torn bits of basil.

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Into our ancient oven it went for a quick 20 minutes at 200 Celsius.

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And eccolo! It came out warm, tasty, healthy – and a unique for the occasion.

And that reminded me of two communication-related points (yes, here’s the connection)!

The  first is that although you may already be an experienced presenter or communicator, there is always room to try something new. 

And the second point is precisely the reason you will want to try to continue to adjust your style and your words: your audience.  Considering the expectations of your intended audience is really the key to successful communication.  Not every person will be happy with a ground veal and pork layered lasagna.

You must change the recipe!

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And that, friends, will be the focus for tomorrow.  Tips to better engage your audience.  Until then, tell me where to send a slice of this lasagna, it’s delicious!

Baci, Gina

P.S. Uhm, yes, this lasagna is ROUND! Another adaptation I had to make – not for my audience, er, family, but because it turns out our landlord hadn’t stocked us with a rectangular deep-dish pan.  No matter!

Fit to be Pied. My first awesome pie crust – plus the recipe and tips!!

??????????As everyone knows, the true success of a pie lies in its crust.

Why are some flaky and tender and why were mine usually tough like cheap shoe leather?  It’s not fair.

My lineage includes terrific pie crust bakers: my Grannie Raven (Mom’s mom) who made my grandpa his favorite lemon meringue on special occasions and my Grandma London (Dad’s mom) who made us her chocolate cream pie on every occasion.  Unfortunately, both of them went on to pie-baking heaven before I was interested enough to sign up for a personal class.

My mom, who is wonderfully still baking pies here on planet Earth, makes a mean strawberry pie. When we’re together we seem to talk about everything – just not how to achieve crust perfection.

When a request comes in for me to make a pie, I’m paralyzed by pie crust phobia.

I’ve successfully ducked this fear by sneaking in a store-bought crust under my sour cream apple pies each autumn.  The filling recipe, torn from the tattered pages of my beloved “Silver Palate” cook book is so delicious, the standard crust goes unnoticed. And also un-praised.

But, this month, when my husband Scotty asked for a lemon meringue pie – just like Grampa Raven – I was determined to make a praise-worthy crust.  Scotty usually asks for Key lime  – so graham cracker crusts have saved me from dough crust embarrassment. But here in Tuscany, I haven’t been able to find Key limes or graham crackers.

Without help from my mother, but with a lot of help from the internet, I found a recipe, carefully watched a couple of step-by-step videos and – eccolo, ‘here it is!’ –

Okay, so I should’ve made it a little bigger to span the extra-large Italian frittata pie tin I have, and I’m not an artistic crust-fluter yet, but, I assure you this crust was buttery, flaky, and extremely tasty!

Linked here and written out below – is the recipe I used.  Unlike other attempts. this time I took the instructions seriously.  I have learned that, as with other tense circumstances in life, the key word is “Chill.”

Now I’m a true believer that the butter must be chilled before it’s cut into the dry ingredients; you must continue to cut and cut until the mixture looks like cornmeal (not corn kernel) sized crumbs; you must not use too much water and finally, you must chill the dough for a few hours before you roll it out.

Amazing how easy something becomes when you actually follow the directions.

Butter Flaky Pie Crust Recipe

(a single 9 inch crust – so increase accordingly!)

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, first diced, then chilled for about 30 minutes before cutting in

1/4 cup of ice water – you shouldn’t use all the water!

Combine flour and salt. Cut in chilled diced butter until it resembles coarse crumbs. Really, that small.  Stir in ice water a tablespoon at a time until you are able to form a ball.  Don’t use all the water.  Form the dough into an inch thick disc and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least four hours.  Lightly flour your rolling surface and rolling pin and roll out dough to about 12 inches in diameter to have room to go up the sides of your pie dish. I gently wrapped the rolled-out dough around my rolling pin and then lifted it over the pie dish for my first successful, no break, transfer!

Press the dough evenly on the dish – since this recipe  is so buttery, you don’t need to grease or flour the pan. Bake according to your pie recipe instructions.

Let me know how it goes. Or tell me other life lessons we can apply from baking!

Baci, Gina