SOFT KITTY, WARM KITTY

Duchessa licked my hand … that’s how she came into our lives. My friend, Jeff, said you cannot have too many cats, so as we sat in Carla’s kitchen, we knew this friendly, adult gray tabby with a white chin/bib and a tummy the honey-beige color of a tiger was coming home with us.

It was December, not “kitten season”, but we felt it was time for another fur baby. Our sweet Carrara had come to Italy on all our vacations and she loved it here. The terra cotta floors were cool in the summer, but warm under the sun … and she enjoyed nothing more than napping and catching the occasional cricket. She loved branzino. Not American bass, not imported-from-Italy-to-L.A. branzino … only what we bought fresh here. She took her role as accidental tourist with grace, and cried only once on an airplane as we sat on the tarmac at JFK for 3 hours. To be honest, everyone was crying. She had her own special folder when the three of us moved to Italy. But after a couple of months, at age 19–½, she was simply too tired.

Several months had passed. We missed her, I still miss her, but we wanted another cat as part of our family. We were thinking kittens.

Friend Barbara mentioned Carla, a woman who lived up in the foothills with 18 cats, 3 dogs and a horse, but little money to feed them. She would likely have kittens, and we’d be helping her. As we walked through her yard, cats of all ages were sitting or playing, others curled up in several cardboard boxes under a large patio roof. Oh so many of them. There were several kittens in the clowder though, sadly, not all of them looked healthy. A pair of orange tabby sisters caught our attention, one feistier than the other, and impossible to touch or pet or pick up. We went inside to have a coffee and discuss it. A few of the cats were quick enough to run inside .. and settled by the fireplace. So did I.

Carla assured us the kittens would be fine. They were sweet-looking, so we decided to adopt them. Then Duchessa, one of the few cats in Carla’s household with a name, licked my hand. I picked her up. She purred. I looked at David.

Ok, three.

Once home, we went to our bedroom to open the cat carriers. The kittens were terrified and ran under the bed, huddling together, wide-eyed, next to the wall. Within an hour, Duchessa was sleeping on our bed.

The next morning, the kitties were still under the bed … plus (sorry) diarrhea. The following day, the same. We took Duchessa to the vet, along with what every vet requires to test for worms. Duchessa was healthy, but he confirmed the kittens were sick, and said we needed to give them medicine. Well, duh, but they are under the bed, maybe they eat a little at night, but even reaching for them is greeted with hissing and pulling away. Medicine was next to impossible, and putting it in their food was too uncertain. Three days, four … after a week, nothing had changed. Feeling guilty, we talked with Carla who said to bring the kittens back to her. With leather work gloves and large beach towels … but not without incident … we wrangled the now energized kitties into a carrier, and back to Carla’s. We drove home, disappointed at our failure, but comforted that Carla seemed to have a somewhat tranquilizing effect on them. We scrubbed and sanitized the floor.

Duchessa never looked back. She is friendly and easy-going and loving, and never met a snack she didn’t like. She lets toddlers caress her, dog people are drawn to her, visitors carry her to sleep in bed with them. She has had her escapades, to be sure. Returning from zumba after dark, Duchessa (whose curfew was sunset) was not waiting for us. Nervously walking around the yard, calling her name, shining the flashlight everywhere, I finally saw eyes glowing in a tree. “Meow”, she cried, quietly at first, then loudly from high in the tree until David brought a ladder … and bag of crunchies … to help her down. These days, she considers the outside our garden, but usually relaxes on the straw mat by the back door … the kitchen door. Lizards have been heard laughing. She’s our fake cat and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Her early years were spent eating quickly and sharing reluctantly, so her scavenger instinct gave us our scariest moment. One morning, Duchessa didn’t eat her breakfast. That’s always cause for alarm, but by midday, she was asking for foods (“Foods” is a word Elli added to Our Family Language. There is no singular.) But as we were getting ready to have lunch, we noticed Duchessa sitting on the satellite converter box, as usual, but there was something strange. I went over to her, and there was a piece of string coming out of her butt. 6 to 8 inches. OMG, that was from the arista I had made the night before. Three pieces of string tied up the roast pork, all of which I had thrown out in the plastic-lined stainless steel trash can with a equally durable lid. I called the vet, who said to bring her in. We were in a panic … we knew she had few options, most of them bad or worse. When we returned to the vet’s office a couple of hours later, he told us it was rather a miracle. The string apparently had passed through Duchessa inch by inch in the way it was exiting. An x-ray showed that nothing was knotted up in her belly, not wrapping around her intestines, no blockage … no surgery necessary. An incredible sigh of relief, and more cuddling and kissing than usual.

She has traveled with us, near and far, so much that David even suggested buying a pet stroller. South to Abruzzo for the annual John Fante Festival and to Puglia … north to Austrian Alps … east to Rimini … and west to Florida. In fact, we became friends with Tom and Johanna waiting at baggage claim at the Miami Airport. Duchessa was meowing, and Johanna said, “We heard that on the plane, and thought it was a ring tone … but it’s actually your cat!” In Florida, we stayed with cousin Marla, where Duchessa became friends with her dog, Holly … they bonded over our signature dish, Crunchies and Milk. They keep in touch via WhatsApp.

Our family was content and complete. Until …

[To be continued]

****

NUDIES

These are “naked” (without pasta) … and in Florentine dialect, they are called gnudi. Many cooks … many versions. And while some might say this recipe isn’t authentic because it contains flour, I find these dumpling-like balls hold together better during cooking than ones that are gluten-free.

1–⅓ cup (see note) Swiss chard, spinach or other dark leafy greens, squeezed dry and chopped
1 cup ricotta
1 cup flour
½ cup grated Parmigiano
1 egg
1 tsp. salt
A bit of grated nutmeg

- You will need to start with a bunch or two of greens to yield the 1–⅓ cup. Cook it in salted water, and when it’s cool enough to handle, squeeze it (using your hands, twisted in a towel, or a ricer), then chop it.
- Put all ingredients into a food processor. Blend until smooth.
- Dust the counter or a cutting board with flour. Put a smooth cotton towel on a baking sheet, and have another towel at the ready (so you can layer the nudi with a towel between each). Dust your hands with flour.
- Use two teaspoons to scoop the dough … then use your hands to gently roll into walnut-sized balls. The dough will be sticky, so keep adding a little flour to your hands. Place onto towel … don’t let them touch.
- At this point, you can freeze them … once frozen, peel them off the towels and put them into a plastic bag. No need to thaw before cooking.
- Cook in gently boiling, salted water. They will rise to the surface when they are done. At the surface, use a skimmer to drop them directly into the frying pan with your sauce.
- Stir to blend/mix nudi with the sauce.
- Serve with extra Parmigiano.
Enjoy!

SAUCE SUGGESTIONS

SAGE BUTTER … In frying pan large enough to hold the Nudi, melt 3 to 4 oz. butter, add some chopped fresh sage. Saute lightly, adding more sage when you add the Nudi. Stir to coat.

TOMATO SAUCE … In a frying pan large enough to hold the Nudi, heat your favorite tomato sauce, then toss in Nudi. Stir to coat.

Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.

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