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Just finished reading How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

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 middle-aged 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, and wealthy) 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.

 

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 Beverages, on December 4th, 2014.

cranberry_shrub

Know what a “shrub” is? No, not that kind of shrub! The drink, silly!

A shrub: [according to wikipedia] popular during America’s colonial era, was made by mixing a vinegary syrup with spirits, water, or carbonated water. The term “shrub” can also be applied to the sweetened vinegar-based syrup, from which the cocktail is made; the syrup is also known as “drinking vinegar.” Drinking vinegar is often infused with fruit juice, herbs and spices for use in mixed drinks.

Since I like sparkling wine (or Champagne) in almost anything, I knew I’d like this drink. And it was so very festive for Thanksgiving. Everyone who tried it, liked it. I liked it so much I had a second one (but then I didn’t have any wine with dinner).

When I went to wikipedia to look up the origin of the shrub, I read through it all. Very interesting. Here I’ve copied some of it, in case you’re interested in the history (underlining inserted by me):

The early English version of the shrub arose from the medicinal cordials of the 15th century. The drink gained popularity among smugglers in the 1680s trying to avoid paying import taxes for goods shipped from mainland Europe: To avoid detection, smugglers would sometimes sink barrels of spirits off-shore to be retrieved later; the addition of fruit flavors aided in masking the taste of alcohol fouled by sea water. As a mixture of fruit and alcohol, the shrub is related to the punch, however punches were normally served immediately after mixing the ingredients, whereas shrubs tended to have a higher concentration of flavor and sugar and could be stored for later use, much like a pre-made drink mixer. The shrub was itself a common ingredient in punches, either on its own or as a simple mix with brandy or rum. It was also served during the Christmas season mixed with raisins, honey, lemon, sherry, rum and other spirits. The shrub was sold in most public houses throughout England in the 17th and 18th centuries, although the drink fell out of fashion by the late 1800s.

The American version of the shrub has its origins in 17th century England where vinegar was used as an alternative to citrus juices in the preservation of berries and other fruits for the off-season. Fruit preserves made in this fashion were themselves known as shrubs and the practice carried over to colonial America. By the 19th century, typical American recipes for shrubs used vinegar poured over fruit—traditionally berries—which was left to infuse anywhere from overnight up to several days; afterward the fruit would be strained out and the remaining liquid would be mixed with a sweetener such as sugar or honey and then reduced to make a syrup. The sweet-and-sour syrup could be mixed with either water or soda water and served as a soft drink, or it could be used as a mixer in alcoholic cocktails. Shrubs eventually fell out of popularity with the advent of home refrigeration.

The serving of vinegar-based shrub drinks became popular again in 2011 and 2012 in American restaurants and bars. The trend has also been noted in bars in Canada as well as London. The acidity of the shrub makes it well suited as an apéritif or used as an alternative to bitters in cocktails. Unlike cocktails acidulated with citrus, vinegar-based drinks will remain clear when shaken.

Recently I visited a cute little shop in my area called The Mixing Glass. It’s a tiny footprint of a shrub_and_co_cranberry_shrub_mixstore that carries a variety of more unusual alcohol types, drinking paraphernalia (nice gifts) and some mixes. I paused in the store to look around and I spotted this bottle (along with several other flavors, see above photo from their website) of a shrub mix. This one is a cranberry, but the small Berkeley-based company, Shrub & Co. makes a variety of flavors. Just click on the link and you can read all about them, and peruse their recipes. And read about where you can buy this in your area.

There were 12 people at our Thanksgiving dinner, and I think about 8 of them had at least one glass of this. Because the cranberry shrub mix is almost like bitters, but not as concentrated, you must add sugar, so the drink recipe below (provided to me by the shop owner) uses simple syrup. I bought Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine, which is a bit on the tart side anyway, so the drink wasn’t all that sweet. It was sweet, but not so much that people would be turned off by it. This recipe below isn’t on the company’s website, so I can’t give credit unless the store owner at The Mixing Glass came up with it herself. In any case, it’s really lovely.

The cranberry elixir also has Douglas fir in it. None of us could taste the fir or find the scent of it at all. But then, the drink recipe adds a sprig of rosemary to each glass, so perhaps it overwhelmed the Douglas fir. In any case, the drink was a success.

What’s GOOD: if you have the simple syrup made up ahead, chilled, and the bottle of shrub mix chilled, the drink will be nice and cold when you serve pour in the chilled sparkling wine. It’s a lovely, refreshing drink. Not too sweet, and not too tart. Perfect, we all thought. My daughter-in-law, Karen, asked me if I’d bring it to Christmas Eve at their house. So, I will, by all means! The drink uses very little of the cranberry mix (1/2 ounce per glass) so I have a LOT of it left. The mix would make a nice gift.

What’s NOT: only that you’ll likely have the bottle around for a long while – you don’t use much of it in each drink – and it must be kept refrigerated after opening. Fortunately I have a refrigerator in the garage, and that’s where it will stay until Christmas. I don’t know how long the shrub mix will keep – it doesn’t say – maybe forever. Don’t know. Oh, and I forgot to mention – the mix was $22.99.

printer-friendly CutePDF
Files: MasterCook 5+ and Master Cook 14 (click on link to open recipe in MC)

* Exported from MasterCook *

Cranberry Shrub with Sparkling Wine

Recipe By: From the owner of The Mixing Glass, Costa Mesa, CA
Serving Size: 1

1/2 ounce Shrub & Co. cranberry shrub mix
1/4 ounce simple syrup
5 ounces sparkling wine — on the dry side, rather than sweet
a sprig of fresh rosemary

1. Prepare simple syrup based on how many servings you’ll want to have available. Chill. [Simple Syrup: 1 cup sugar to 1 cup water – pour into jar with a good tight screw-top, shake vigorously and chill. It is not necessary to boil the simple syrup.]
2. Chill the sparkling wine and the Shrub & Co. cranberry elixir.
3. Into a champagne flute pour the cranberry mixture, then the simple syrup. Add sparkling wine, and a sprig of rosemary. Serve immediately.
Notes: The sweetness of this drink will depend on how sweet the sparkling wine is. The rosemary seems to create some kind of crazy foaming action with the sparkling wine, so add the wine very slowly – much slower than you would usually do with any sparkling wine to a champagne flute. If you add the sparkling wine first, then submerge the rosemary sprig, it will foam up immediately. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on December 4th, 2014:

    I have never heard of that drink even though my knowledge of food history is, I thought, fair. A very interesting piece, thank you. I shall stick to my red wine with the odd slurp of Sloe Gin though.

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