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Just 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 because 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 a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Margaret of York, later titled Countess of Salisbury, but 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 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

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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