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On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of aging high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, wealthy women) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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 Appetizers, Miscellaneous, on July 30th, 2014.

orange_fennel_mostarda

Think condiment. Think Italian chutney maybe? Here it’s a fruity spread for crackers (or, a condiment for grilled pork). By definition, a mostarda is an Italian condiment made of fruit and a mustard-flavored syrup. That’s not exactly what this is (it does contain mustard seeds, but that’s the only relationship is has with “mustard”), but I didn’t name it. Whatever you choose to call it, this stuff is off the charts delicious.

If you’ve been reading my blog in the last couple of weeks, you know that I went camping with some of my family. Maybe I kinda went glamping, because I stayed in the lodge/motel just down the road. And I use the word lodge loosely. The room contained 2 beds and a bathroom. There was no TV, no internet, no cell service, period. There was no lobby, no place for guests to sit around except on an outdoor deck – if you could tolerate the heat. The clock radio was plugged in but didn’t work. The room was dark with minimal lighting available. But, that A/C unit was used every single afternoon and night and I was ever so grateful. And the mattress was actually pretty good. What they did have was a small sort of fast-food counter with minimal eating options and a gift shop. The ice was the big seller there, along with the ice cream bars.

One of the down sides to me being down the road from the campground where the family was, was that my ice chest full of goodies had to be in the hotel room with me up on the 2nd floor (and no, no elevator). The campground had bear boxes (i.e., sturdy thick-gauge stainless steel boxes that mostly elude bears from ripping into them), but all their campsite bear boxes were chock full.  It could not stay in the car for 2 reasons: (1) it was too darned hot – the ice wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours at the temps we had up there; and (2) they have bears, and everyone is strongly told in no uncertain terms to leave absolutely nothing in the car in the way of food. Bears can break windows and will claw trunk lids if they think they might be able to get into food. As I awkwardly carried this full and very  heavy ice chest toward the lodge, a kind gentleman took pity on me (it wasn’t the kind that rolls on wheels – big mistake on my part) and at least carried it up the one flight of stairs for me. I was extremely grateful. The lodge did provide about a gallon of ice a couple of times a day (they kept track).

The family stayed in tents and slept on cots or air mattresses – in the heat. I had A/C. I was in charge of bringing appetizers for the 3 evenings I’d be with everyone. As I planned what I’d take along on this trip (a 6-hour drive from home) I knew I wanted to make some things ahead of time. And to make it as easy on myself as I could. No, I really couldn’t toast the bread. No, there was no ideal way to heat up anything. Yes, they had camp stoves, but it was highly recommended that I choose cold appetizers to not waste precious propane. SO. I looked for new recipes to try. You’ll read about the Brussels sprout appetizer in a few days.

In order to maximize my time with the family at the campground, I drove 3/4 of the way there and stayed overnight in Tulare (too-LARE-ee) at a very nice, comfortable Hampton Inn. That was the first time in a whole lot of years I’ve stayed by myself in a hotel. It felt strange without my hubby beside me. Be proud of me – I didn’t cry. I felt like it a couple of times but I didn’t. And going into a restaurant that night to eat alone was hard. Very hard. It wasn’t an upscale restaurant – more like a diner – so I didn’t feel uncomfortable exactly. I just missed my DH, big time.

That hotel did have an elevator, so it made carrying the full ice chest to the room a bit easier. For sure, if I ever do this again, I’ll take the much larger on-wheels ice chest. The next morning I got on the road early and made it to the campground by about 11 am. My daughter-in-law, Karen, and her extended family (all there camping too) are foodies. Powell (my son, my step-son actually but I never use the phrase) is too. All the dinner items were brought in vacuum sealed packages, prepared at home. We had coq au vin one night, and Bolognese another night. Carnitas tacos with all the trimmings was on the menu the other night I was there. No desserts, other than s’mores for the 2 children, although Karen had purchased monstrous square marshmallows, which were big enough you could divide them into about 4 portions of s’mores. I didn’t have any – my only indulgence was a dark chocolate kiss (or 2 or 3) I kept chilled in my ice chest and shared with everybody mid-day. And I left them with another package of milk chocolate ones.

mostarda_and_gin_tonicHappy hour started each night about 5, so I would bring from the hotel my chilled stash of food for the evening. This mostarda was on the menu my first night because I’d stopped at a market along the way there that day and bought a still-warm baguette. Of the 4 appetizers I took, this was, by far, the standout. Here at right is my gin and tonic (I’ve taken a recent liking to them – good Bombay gin, Schweppes tonic, and a squeeze from a generous slice of lime – very refreshing in extreme heat!). Do note the uber-colorful plastic tablecloth, the super lightweight trivet I added in for color and a prop for the bread, and the picnic table laden with “stuff.” Wine is generally the beverage of choice with this family, and there was no shortage of it. I should have taken some, but brought the gin instead. A few others shared one with me, and my son Powell, and his brother-in-law Julian made it for me each night I was there.

One of my appetizers won’t grace these pages – nobody liked it much, including me. It was a spiced carrot thing (pureed) with Moroccan flavorings including preserved lemon. I thought it looked good (and had no fat in it at all) but it wasn’t.  Most of it got dumped into the toilet in my lodge room.

Now, after all that lengthy monologue, we’ll get to the mostarda, finally. Pretty much, this is like making jam. You do need to bloom the spices first in the water, vinegar and sugar, then the minced fennel is added, and lastly carefully chopped flesh of the orange. You cook it and cook it. And cook it some more if you prefer orange_fennel_mostarda_simmeringthe texture to be more like marmalade. I did, so it probably simmered on the stovetop for about 35-45 minutes or so (photo at left). I tasted it here and there. My only difficulty was that fennel bulbs and oranges are all different sizes, so the ratio of fruit/fennel to vinegar/sugar was just a touch off (too much vinegar) so I have altered the recipe just slightly. It’s far easier to add more vinegar later if it’s needed (and continue to cook it a bit more too, if you do so) than to have to add more sugar as I did. The orange zest is added at the very last. If you’d prefer, go to the original at Food52  and use Elizabeth Rex’s recipe, although her recipe just says use a small fennel bulb and an orange, so those sizes are certainly open to interpretation. Elizabeth is a line cook in Chicago. She’s a genius with this recipe. Truly. I loved it.

Most of the double batch went camping with me, but I kept back about 1/2 cup and I’m definitely going to use it – Karen and I talked about it at the camp that the mostarda would be delish with a grilled pork chop, or a pork roast. Since this mixture keeps well, and until I have a dinner guest, I’m going to keep it in the frig for doing just that.

What’s GOOD: the flavor of the orange is the most prominent, but then you get the savory part (the fennel and the mustard, fennel and coriander seeds) but overall the jam is sweet. Truly, you could eat it on toast for breakfast, but it’s far too lofty for that, I assure you. It would likely be delish piled on top of a block of cream cheese too. I wouldn’t use any kind of a flavored cracker – you want the mostarda flavors to come through, not onion, caraway or Ranch flavorings in a cracker, if you understand my meaning. Use a plain cracker or slice of a baguette. Toasted would be lovely. Altogether delicious. It keeps for awhile too.
What’s NOT: other than the time it takes to mince the fennel, chop up the oranges correctly and simmer it, nothing at all. This is a keeper-recipe for sure.

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Orange Fennel Mostarda

Recipe By: Adapted just slightly from a Food 52 recipe by Elizabeth Rex
Serving Size: 16

1 small fennel bulb — cut into a small dice (I used more)
2 whole Navel oranges
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup white wine vinegar — or more if needed
1/4 cup water

1. Place fennel, spices, sugar, vinegar, and water into a small saucepot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
2. Meanwhile, as your saucepot is heating, zest the navel orange. It should yield about 1 teaspoon, but if you get less, that is fine. Set zest aside.
3. Peel the orange as if you were supreming or segmenting it, but instead of segmenting, cut the orange into 4 pieces and remove the middle pithy part, seeds, and hard rind (if any). The membrane between the orange segments is fine. Dice what you have, which should yield about 1 cup. Add to the saucepot, which should have come up to a rapid simmer/boil about now. If the pot started boiling while you were cutting up the orange, that is fine.
4. Once the oranges are in, bring to a boil for about 5 minutes, skimming any foam that appears, then turn down to medium. Simmer until liquid is reduced to the consistency of maple syrup (nearly all of the liquid will be gone by then) and the mustard seeds have plumped up and softened, about 20-25 minutes. Set aside and cool, then stir in reserved orange zest.
5. Note: At this point, there will still be pieces of fresh orange in the mostarda. If you want a more cooked-down, marmalade-ish consistency, bring the orange to a boil with the fennel, and simmer on medium-low heat for 30 minutes. Taste to see if it needs more sugar or vinegar.
6. Serve with toasted baguette slices or a plain cracker. Don’t use a flavored cracker – you want all the mostarda flavor to shine through to your taste buds. Will keep for up to a month, refrigerated.
Per Serving: 41 Calories; trace Fat (5.3% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 10g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 8mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on August 5th, 2014:

    How brave, to go camping in the vicinity of bears – no way would I do that! You do live dangerously. I do enjoy the stories that come with your recipes.

    Thank you, Toni. Appreciate that you get a kick out of some of the stories. Bears (the California brown bear, not grizzlies) are not attackers of humans, generally. I suppose if you got in between a mama bear and her cubs, maybe. Generally the bears stay way out of sight during daylight hours – it’s only at night when no one is about, that they’ll come out of hiding and try to find food. Bears are a fact of life in this country – they were here far before we were, so we have to make accommodation for them. I’ve seen bears in the wild, but only from quite a distance away. They usually stay a long way away from humans. . . carolyn t

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