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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Pork, pressure cooker, on June 4th, 2013.

pork_stew_calvados_cream

Another one of those “brown” photos. It’s so very hard to give brown colored food any eye appeal. All I can tell you is that this dish was absolutely sensational. The flavors – oh my goodness yes. I’ll be making this again and again. It would even be good enough for guests. What you see there is browned pork chunks (at top), sweet potatoes (bottom and far right), an organic purple carrot (right side, vertical) and fennel (left). And drizzled over the top is the lightly creamed Calvados and broth which was then topped with chopped chives. Thank goodness for chives!

Out of the freezer came our last package of Berkshire pork. It was pork chunks, and by the time I got into the kitchen to start dinner, it was after 4pm, so I needed to figure out something fast. What I didn’t know was what kind of pork it was – it was labeled pork stew meat, that’s all. It could have been trimmings from pork chops, pork shoulder, tenderloin bits, or pork loin. All needing different cooking times. But oh well, I just had to guess. With time of an essence, I knew I needed to do this in the pressure cooker, so the recipe below is done that way, but you can do this all without one – just cook the meat mixture on the stove until barely cooked through, and cook the vegetables until they’re tender. You can add the Calvados cream ingredients with everything in the pot.

You know about Calvados, right? It’s an apple brandy from the northern part of France. It’s still a brandy. I’ve had my bottle for about 15 years, and with this dish I emptied it. We never drink it – I use it exclusively for cooking. Time for a new one now. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Calvados is distilled from cider made from specially grown and selected apples, of which there are over 200 named varieties. It is not uncommon for a Calvados producer to use over 100 specific varieties of apples, which are either sweet (such as the Rouge Duret variety), tart (such as the Rambault variety), or bitter (such as the Mettais, Saint Martin, Frequin, and Binet Rouge varieties), the latter being inedible. The fruit is harvested (either by hand or mechanically) and pressed into a juice that is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled into eau de vie. After two years aging in oak casks, it can be sold as Calvados. The longer it is aged, the smoother the drink becomes. Usually the maturation goes on for several years.

Don’t Have a Pressure Cooker?

Just cook the pork low and slow until it’s tender, add the veggies and cook those until just tender and add the Calvados and cream in at the end. The pressure cooker just cut down the cooking times, that’s all.

Here’s what I did: I sprinkled the pork chunks with Herbes de Provence, then browned them until they were caramelized brown on several sides, not crowding the pieces. That took 2 batches. I removed the meat and poured out the fat that had accumulated in the pan. Meat went back in, then I added a 6-ounce (can) of pineapple juice, 1 1/2 cups of water, bay leaves, fresh thyme sprigs, salt and pepper, and Penzey’s soup base (I used pork, but chicken would be fine). I pressure cooked that for about 13 minutes. Cooled it under a cold running tap, and the pork was just perfectly cooked. I removed the meat (because I didn’t want to cook the meat any further – it was perfectly cooked), then I added all the vegetables and apples and those were pressure cooked for 4 minutes. The vegetables were perfectly cooked so I removed them also. With the liquid left in the pan I added the shallot and Dijon mustard and let that simmer for a few minutes until the shallot was cooked. Then I added the cream and heated it through, then in went the Calvados. I cooked that for 2-3 minutes just so it would boil-off the alcohol. Then I added the meat back in and let that simmer for 2-3 minutes so the meat would be piping hot. The veggies stayed hot, so those were divided amongst the wide soup bowls, then I spooned the meat equally between the bowls (there won’t be lots of meat per person – 2 pounds of pork doesn’t end up being all that much, surprisingly) and poured the Calvados cream over them equally as well. Chopped chives went on top and it was ready to serve.

What’s GOOD: Oh, just everything. The meat, the juices, the veggies, the apples and of course, the creamy Calvados sauce I drizzled over the top. You’ll be licking the bowl.
What’s NOT: nothing whatsoever. Unless you don’t like stew. Or meat, or you’re averse to a little bit of cream.

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Pork Stew with Fennel, Carrots, Apples, Sweet Potato and Calvados Cream (Pressure Cooker)

Recipe By: My own concoction, 2013
Serving Size: 4

2 pounds pork shoulder — fat trimmed, cut in 1″ chunks
1 1/2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
2 tablespoons canola oil
6 ounces pineapple juice — or apple juice
1 1/2 cups water
2 whole Turkish bay leaves
6 sprigs fresh thyme — left whole
1 teaspoon Penzey’s chicken soup base — or pork soup base, if you have it
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
VEGETABLES:
1 large fennel bulb — trimmed, quartered
1 large sweet potato — peeled, cut in large pieces
2 small apples — peeled, cored, cut in wedges
10 ounces carrots — peeled, cut in chunks
CALVADOS CREAM:
1 whole shallot — peeled, finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard — French style
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons Calvados — (apple brandy) or regular brandy
2 tablespoons fresh chives — minced, for garnish

1. Trim the pork of the bigger pieces of fat, if possible. Toss them with the dried herbs.
2. In a tall pressure cooker heat the oil and brown the pork pieces over medium heat. Don’t crowd the pan (do this in 2 batches). Remove pieces to a plate.
3. Drain and discard the fat in the pan. Add pineapple juice, water, Bay leaves, fresh thyme sprigs, soup base and seasonings. Transfer the pork pieces back into the pan.
4. Bring the pressure cooker up to pressure and simmer for 13 minutes. Place under cold water tap to reduce heat quickly. Taste the pork to see that it’s done – it should be just perfectly tender and juicy. If it’s not, continue to pressure cook for 2-3 minuites at a time until the meat is cooked through but not dry. Remove meat from the pan and set aside.
5. Add the fennel, sweet potato, apples and carrots. Bring the pressure cooker back up to pressure and cook for 4 minutes. Again, place under cold running tap to cool quickly. Remove all the vegetables to another plate and set aside. Discard thyme stems.
5. To the liquid in the pan (about a cup) add the shallot and Dijon mustard and cook over medium-high heat until the shallot is tender, about 3-4 minutes. Add heavy cream and cook for about 1 minute at a slow simmer. Add the Calvados brandy and stir in. Continue to heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Add the meat back into the pan and heat the meat slowly for about 2-3 minutes.
6. Divide the vegetables in 4 wide soup bowls. Divide the meat and Calvados cream over each serving and garnish with chopped chives. Serve immediately.
Per Serving (this assumes you eat all the fat, most of which is drained off after you brown the meat): 699 Calories; 45g Fat (59.7% calories from fat); 32g Protein; 37g Carbohydrate; 7g Dietary Fiber; 148mg Cholesterol; 352mg Sodium.

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