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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

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 Soups, on February 20th, 2015.


What’s more comforting than a hot, steaming bowl of creamy soup? This one would be right at home in a British pub. Some beer cheese soups are more broth-oriented. This one’s milk and cream with broth also, but it’s loaded with flavor from the onion, carrots, celery and shallots – oh, and how could I forget? The bacon! Of course, the bacon flavors everything. So does the ale. Make it you must.

Once in awhile I crave this kind of soup. It’s been awhile since I had beer cheese soup (years, actually), but when I saw this recipe in my to-try collection the other day, I decided it really needed to be made. Next month I’m hosting a tea for a group of lady friends – not a “real” afternoon tea kind of thing – this one’s a soup, scones, dessert and tea kind of lunch meal. And I thought since I’m going to teach these ladies how to make a proper pot of tea (that’s part of the event – it’s a fund-raiser – and I thought they all ought to know how to make a traditional pot of tea), I might as well make the menu a bit more British inspired. I’ll have to make this soup again when it’s time. This batch I’ll probably eat up in the next few days. It’s SO good.

Many years ago I wrote up an entire post about making a proper pot of tea – a “praw-per” tea, the British way. My dear friend Pamela (and her late husband Jimmy) befriended us, my DH and me, in a pub one evening in Ilminster, a small town in SW England, and we became friends. This was waaaay back in 1981. We stayed with them many times over the years, and on one occasion Pamela taught me how to make tea. She had a particular blend of tea that she combined herself. Her belief is that you must have some portion of a tea combo a smoky tea – like Lapsang souchong. [By the way, did you know that Lapsang Souchong is the oldest tea known and that it’s smoked over pine wood?] I’m not so crazy about smoky tea, and never all by itself. Pamela’s personal mixture was: 1/4 smoky tea, 1/4 English Breakfast, and 1/2 Darjeeling. That combination I like, though, so I may have to buy some of those varieties for my tea event – just so I can have everyone taste it. My guess is that most Americans (without a Chinese background or a very strong interest in tea) hardly know about smoky teas. I have all of those teas in my stash, but haven’t used any of them in years and years. Some websites say tea should be thrown out in 2 years, but some people have used tea more than 20 years old and they thought it was fine. A taste test will need to be done.

Pamela and Jimmy were very particular about their tea, so over the years I learned more and more about it. In years past when I had a lot of trouble sleeping, if I woke up in the middle of the night and would decide I had to get up, not just toss and turn, I’d quietly pitter-patter to the kitchen, bundled up in a warm robe and fuzzy slippers, light a fire in the fireplace sometimes, and I’d make a pot of tea, in the Pamela fashion. I might read, or watch TV, or sometimes I’d play games on my computer. I don’t think Pamela ever had Earl Grey (she would frown terribly at the thought, I’m sure, but it’s probably my favorite). She didn’t like floral-flavored teas. On one trip to England I bought some Lady Grey tea, which is a take-off on Earl Gray, but a little less bergamot (I think), the bergamot being the addition that makes Earl Grey distinctly different. For my event I’ll probably serve 3 kinds of tea, the above mix, Earl Grey and maybe an herbal tea for those who don’t like black tea or caffeine.

Well, I got sidetracked talking about tea. Let’s get back to the soup. With me – as I write this anyway – still wearing my special boot – I thought this soup would be easy to make. Well, it wasn’t hard really, but it sure took more time than I’d anticipated, so my foot was aching by the time I was done. I should have done the vegetable prep earlier in the day, but as it was, I was up and down about an hour. I used my Vitamix to puree it. First I tried my immersion blender, and should have done it BEFORE I added the cheese. It stuck to the immersion blender, which took a brush to remove once I got to cleaning it. I gave up on the immersion blender because it wasn’t doing a good job. Anyway, whatever you do, make it really smooth. After 6-8 minutes of using it the immersion blender, there were still lots of pieces of things in the pot, so the regular blender was the way to go.

The original recipe I got from Williams-Sonoma, but I altered it some, adding some things, and taking out some things. Bacon was my addition (oh, and a good one). I didn’t add the paprika called for, nor did I add cayenne. Could have, I guess. Another recipe suggested a couple tablespoons of sherry at the end, but mine was plenty ale-tasting already and I didn’t think it needed sherry. I think I added an extra carrot – no biggie. I purchased an 18-ounce bottle of ale – I had to carefully peruse the shelves for an ale, not just a beer. According to the write-up about the recipe, it’s the hops in the beer that’s needed, so I found one that said the hops were prominent. I’m not sure I’d do that part again – but then, I’m not a beer drinker. If you are, then by all means go for the hops-forward style.

What’s GOOD: well, the flavors first and foremost. You definitely taste the beer/ale, the cheddar and the BACON. Loved that part for sure. I used some sharp American cheddar and some Irish sharp cheddar (both white cheeses, not yellow, otherwise you’d end up with a very orange colored soup). You need to cook it long enough to get the booziness out of the soup, then add the dairy at the last. Altogether delicious. Don’t know that it will freeze – it might separate if you did that. So plan accordingly. The other things that make the soup are the garnishes – the bacon and crispy shallots. The soup doesn’t have any texture once you puree it, of course, so the bacon and shallots add a bit of that. You could also serve it with some croutons. That, too, would be a nice addition.

What’s NOT: nothing really – just plan about an hour of prep and cooking, then the pureeing, then the cheese and reheating. Have everything else all ready once you start the puree process. Or make it earlier in the day and reheat. That would work fine too.

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

* Exported from MasterCook *

Cheddar and Ale Soup with Crispy Shallots and Bacon

Recipe By: Adapted from a Williams-Sonoma recipe
Serving Size: 6

3 pieces thick-sliced bacon — finely chopped
4 whole shallots — thinly sliced
1 pound white potatoes — (if using red potatoes, peel them)
1 whole yellow onion
2 stalks celery
3 whole carrots — peeled
1 clove garlic — minced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
12 ounces beer — ale, hops forward style
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dry mustard
12 ounces Cheddar cheese — shredded (sharp, white – not yellow cheese)

NOTES: If you use a lighter style beer it won’t have the punch as much as if you use a hops-forward ale. Next time I might use a lighter style than the imported ale I purchased. Your choice! The original recipe called for more flour and less fluid, but I thought it was too thick, so have cut back on flour and added more milk in this recipe.
1. In a frying pan over medium heat, render bacon until cooked through and light golden. Remove to paper towel, but retain fat in the pan. Add the shallots to the bacon grease and cook, stirring once or twice, until crisp and golden, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl and set aside.
2. Cut the potatoes into 1/2-inch cubes; chop the onion, celery and carrots and add to the pan along with the garlic. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring, until the onion, celery and carrots have softened and the potatoes are almost tender, 7-10 minutes.
3. In a jar combine the milk and all-purpose flour then shake until combined with no lumps, then slowly add to the soup mixture, along with the heavy cream and the beer/ale, stirring as you do so. Bring to a simmer and cook until mixture returns to a simmer, whisking frequently. Add salt, Worcestershire sauce and mustard. Allow soup to cook, keeping it still just below a simmer, if possible (it may separate if you actually boil it). Cook for 5-10 minutes maximum.
4. Puree the soup in batches in a stand blender. You can use an immersion blender, but it won’t get it completely smooth and it will take a long time. Reheat just until steaming. Add in the cheese and cook, stirring, until the cheese has just melted, 2-3 minutes. Taste for seasonings (salt) and add more broth or milk if you think it’s too thick. It thickens up as it cools.
5. Garnish with the crispy shallots and bacon and serve at once. If you want to be especially fancy, add some croutons on top too.
Per Serving: 511 Calories; 33g Fat (57.8% calories from fat); 25g Protein; 29g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 103mg Cholesterol; 880mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on February 21st, 2015:

    This sounds perfect for a winter’s evening in front of the fire. I don’t care for hoppy beers, so I have to decide whether to go for something I like or use up an IPA we never seem to want to drink. Maybe something with a touch of bitterness but not as much as an IPA. I have an Old Speckled Hen imported British ale which I find drinkable but a bit more bitter than I really care for. Perhaps that would be the way to go.

    Well, I don’t drink beer at all, so I was kind of lost when it came to choosing something. The soup ended up with a bit of bitterness to it, so I thinned it out with more chicken broth and a little bit of milk. As it sat in the refrigerator it also seemed to mellow a bit. Hope you enjoy it. . . carolyn

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on February 24th, 2015:

    I have never heard of a beer and cheese soup! I don’t think you’d see it on a pub menu either, it sounds far too radical, they mostly stick to plain old vegetable soup, the most exciting being Leek and Potato. This sounds rather good though I must say.

    Hmmm. Well, I thought I’d read that this was (or used to be) pub fare, but I could be wrong! . . . carolyn

  3. hddonna

    said on February 27th, 2015:

    I made this for supper tonight, and it was just marvelous. I was going to use the Old Speckled Hen ale but I chickened out (pun intended), as it is really a bit too bitter for my taste. I decided to follow the rule of thumb about wine–don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t like to drink. We aren’t big fans of bitterness, so I went with one I love, Blue Moon’s Saison/Flanders-Style Farmhouse Red. It isn’t hoppy, but it does have “hints of white pepper and a tart finish”, and with the extra sharp cheese, Worcestershire sauce, and dry mustard, the soup had plenty of zip. I also used all whole milk and omitted the cream–I figured there was enough fat with all that cheese. I did add a dash of cayenne. This was the best cheese soup I’ve ever had. The bacon was a good idea. We had the spinach, roasted apple and candied pecan salad with it, the one you posted in December. It’s a perfect salad for winter and went very well with the cheesy soup.

    Oh, I’m so glad you liked it. Next time I make it (in another week or so for my tea event) I’m going to use a much lighter beer, probably not even an ale. Your meal sounds wonderful! . . . carolyn t

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