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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 Chicken, Soups, on June 3rd, 2014.

moroccan_harira_chix_soup

Zippadee-doodah! Not only was I glad to be back in the kitchen again, but oh, what a good recipe I’m sharing with  you today. It’s low in fat, hearty, and really high in the flavor department. It is great to make ahead, good to freeze too. And wonderful comfort food.

Even though I have some posts already in my queue, I just couldn’t wait to share with you this recipe that I made yesterday. And yes, I know, this really isn’t soup weather. My apologies for that, but when I get a bee in my bonnet about something, it just won’t be stilled.

You’ll remember, perhaps, I posted a few days ago about watching Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show called Parts Unknown where he visits rather oddball places in the world, mostly to sample the food and learn about that country’s food culture. He is such a character – is he an alcoholic, you think? He visited Tangiers, and I was transported back to the day trip Dave and I took to that city (from across the narrow straits at Gibraltar and Spain) back about 15 years ago. And all I remembered was the soup, harira (pronounced just like it looks – hah-ree-ruh) we had for lunch. It was special and full of flavor. I’d totally forgotten about it until I was watching that show. And I could almost taste that soup. I went on the hunt for a recipe. Found several – if you google harira you’ll find several hits. I printed out two in particular and made my own version but with more of it coming from this one at bbcgoodfood.com. The other one was from about.com under their section called Moroccan food.

What makes this different is the group of spices used. Lots of them. Really LOTS of them. The most unusual, perhaps is cinnamon (although you do not taste cinnamon in the finished soup). Also ground coriander, turmeric, cumin seed, ground cumin, ground ginger and some harissa. Now, harissa is perhaps not a common staple in every grocery store, for sure. And I know I had a bottle of it in my refrigerator, but I couldn’t find it. Perhaps it hadn’t gotten used enough and I threw it out awhile back. I substituted red chile paste/sauce (the Thai one) but I think sriracha would work fine too. The ingredients are similar (a variety of red chiles, red peppers – not necessarily hot ones – garlic, sometimes other seasonings, but those are the main ones). And I’m sure if any Moroccan reads this he/she will think it heresy to use anything but a true harissa from Morocco.  You can make your own from this recipe at saveur.

As I began cooking I had a sad moment – my darling Dave would have been hovering around me, and washing dishes (and putting them away) as fast as I dirtied them. I missed his presence. I had to wash dishes three times in the process of making this soup and eating it for dinner last night. Some went in the dishwasher, but not all. He’s chuckling at me, I suppose, saying uh-huh, you miss my dishwashing don’t you? Only one of many things – oodles of things – that I miss about him every single day.

Anyway, I didn’t brown the chicken thighs (boneless, skinless) because I didn’t really think they would acquire all that much flavor from that process. So I sautéed the vegetables (onions, celery, leeks) in a bit of oil. There’s another interesting step here. Mostly I toss out parsley stems and cilantro stems, but here, you wash both and cut off all the stems from the leaves. Save the leaves for later. Also cut off the little brown stem ends. Those stems of parsley and cilantro I diced up fine with a knife. The food processor might have done it fine, but I’d already put the veggies in the workbowl so I just minced away and added them to the food processor too. All that gets gently sautéed. Then you add the canned tomatoes. Do note that you want to use canned tomatoes in puree, not just tomatoes with juice/water. The puree adds just a little bit of texture to the soup.

Water is added at this point, and I stirred in a little glob of my favorite Penzey’s chicken soup base. Then all the spices get added in, plus the chicken thighs. That mixture is simmered for about half an hour, until the thighs are cooked through. Now, you could use chicken breasts in this – no reason why not – just don’t overcook them – if you cut the breast meat into big chunks, it’ll probably not take more than 10-15 minutes to cook through. Remove as in the recipe. But don’t cook the chicken any further or it’ll get dry – yes, I know, it’s in soup – but it will, trust me. Once the chicken is cooked through, remove the pieces to a wide bowl to cool. Then add the lentils to the soup and simmer that for about 20 minutes, then add a can of garbanzo beans (or cook your own). At that point add back in the chicken that you’ve shredded by hand, or diced and minced to suit you. Taste it for seasonings. Add more water maybe.

I didn’t want a soup that was heavy-laden with carbs (the garbanzos and lentils) but you could easily add more if you’d prefer. A serving of about 1 1/2 cups is ample for dinner, with a dollop of Greek yogurt on top and some cilantro leaves.

What’s GOOD: oh my goodness, everything about this soup is good. Mostly, I think it’s the spices that make it different/good. It’s just abounding with flavor. Good for a family meal, good for freezing. Altogether wonderful, okay? Make it. Now. This is going onto my Carolyn’s Favs list if that’s any indication of how good it is. There is some heat in this soup, but you can vary it by using more or less of the chile paste.

What’s NOT: nothing, unless you don’t like lots of spices.

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Files: MasterCook 5+ and MasterCook 14 (click on link to open in MC)

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Moroccan Harira Chicken Soup

Recipe By: Adapted from a couple of internet recipes.
Serving Size: 7

1 large onion
4 stalks celery
1 medium leek
1 bunch cilantro — cut the stems off and save them
1 bunch parsley — cut the stems off and save them
2 tablespoons canola oil — or olive oil, or clarified butter
28 ounces canned tomatoes — in tomato puree, and include the juices
3 cloves garlic — minced or smashed
8 cups water — or more if needed
2 teaspoons Penzey’s chicken soup base
1 1/2 tablespoons cumin seed
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 1/2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 tablespoon harissa — or other hot chile paste, like sriracha
2 teaspoons salt — or more to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups cooked garbanzo beans — drained, rinsed (if using canned)
3/4 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs — (leave them whole)
1/3 cup lentils — (use more if you want a more hearty soup)
1/2 cup Greek yogurt, full-fat, a garnish
parsley and cilantro leaves for garnish

Notes: Use canned tomatoes in tomato puree, not just water/juice. Either whole if possible, but chopped tomatoes will work. If using whole you’ll need to gently squeeze them to break each tomato into smaller pieces. The tomato puree gives the soup a bit more heft and flavor both. The soup I remember eating in Tangiers was more “soupy” than this – merely add more chicken broth or water to this mixture if you’d like it that way. As is, it’s a fairly hearty bowl of soup. You can add more lentils and/or garbanzo beans if you’d prefer. What I had in Tangiers had only lentils, and not many of them. It may also have had a little bit of rice in it, but not much of that either. Moroccans make it with all three, sometimes combined, sometimes only one (lentils, garbanzos, rice). You can use chicken breasts, if preferred. Just don’t cook them very long, shred them, and add back in and don’t cook the chicken further.
1. Chop up the onion, celery and leeks into chunks. Cut off the little brown ends of the cilantro and parsley, then cut the stems off and mince them up finely with a knife (you’ll add the leaves later in the recipe). In a food processor add the vegetables, plus the parsley and cilantro stems. Pulse until the veggies are chopped up, but not fine.
2. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the vegetables and saute until the onions have begun to turn translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the canned tomatoes and their juices, the chicken soup base, garlic and the water. Bring to a simmer. While it’s warming up, add all the seasonings including all the parsley and cilantro leaves, saving some cilantro leaves for the garnish.
3. Add the boneless, skinless chicken thighs (whole thighs) and once the mixture is simmering, cover and keep over low heat for about 25 minutes, or until the thighs are tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken thighs to a large bowl and allow to cool about 20-30 minutes.
4. While the chicken is cooling, add the lentils to the soup and simmer for about 20 minutes, JUST until the lentils are soft, but have not begun to fall apart.
5. Shred the chicken meat into small pieces about 1 1/2 inches long and add back into the soup mixture. Add the canned garbanzo beans (rinsed and drained) and taste for seasoning.
6. Serve in wide bowls (about 1 1/2 cups per serving) and add a dollop of Greek yogurt on top and garnish with cilantro.
Per Serving: 267 Calories; 11g Fat (34.4% calories from fat); 17g Protein; 29g Carbohydrate; 7g Dietary Fiber; 42mg Cholesterol; 1067mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on June 3rd, 2014:

    Okay, you’ve got me! I will definitely make this soup! I’m afraid I can’t do it now, but I will do it. I’ll let you know when I do–I’m sure it will be wonderful.

    It is! I guarantee it! . . .carolyn t

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