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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 Brunch, on September 8th, 2015.

asparagus_bread_pudding

Tender, moist, cheesy, leek-filled and altogether lovely for a leisurely brunch.

The other night I had house guests – Joe, Dave’s good friend, who still comes to stay periodically when he has business in my neck of the woods, and his wife, Yvette. We all attended a social shindig and they decided not to drive back home to San Diego. I was happy to accommodate them, even if my house was (still is) a bit of a mess from the remodeling.

Preparing a brunch dish was fairly easy and straight forward. I’ve been going through stacks of recipe clippings (mostly from magazines over the last couple of years) and adding them to MasterCook (nearly all of them I’ve found online so it’s easy to click a couple of buttons and it’s added into my to-try file). This recipe popped up the other day and I thought it would be a nice dish to prepare for our leisurely Sunday morning breakfast/brunch when they were here.

The recipe (that someone gave me, don’t know who!) started from one Georgeanne Brennan created. She made it when she was in France, and shared her version with the chefs at Chez Panisse in Berkeley but she even says in the recipe that you can substitute a variety of veggies and cheeses. I found several versions online, but this one had a bit more flavorful ingredients in it, so I worked with this one, adding or subtracting from the ingredient list as it suited what I had on hand. I had asparagus and leeks. Check. Eggs. Check. Ciabatta bread. Check. Fontina. Check. And Pecorino-Romano. Check. Everything else was a household staple.

I made half of the below recipe, in an 8×8 glass dish. If you had really hungry guests, probably it would feed about 6. It didn’t take long to put together – this isn’t the type of brunch dish you have to soak overnight – 15-20 minutes with the milk on the bread was sufficient. You could – I’m certain – make this the night before, but don’t add the cheese on top until you put it into the oven, and I’d allow it to sit out at room temp for about 30 minutes before baking. It might take another 5 asparagus_bread_pudding_bakedminutes of baking time too. You can vary the cheese – I used, as I mentioned above, Fontina and Pecorino-Romano, but Swiss cheese is mentioned in some recipes, and Emmental in others, so Gruyere would also work. Even Parmigiana-Reggiano would be fine too but not too much. And if you like a topping, I think this would be nice with some fresh tomato salsa. Or perhaps a mushroom sauce? However, the calorie count is fairly significant with this containing half and half and some cream, so think twice about using a calorie or fat-laden topping. That’s why I thought salsa would be a nice addition. I didn’t have any or I’d have served it with this. You can use your choice of herbs – I used what is currently in my garden (basil and rosemary) but use whatever suits you – chives, parsley, tarragon, thyme.

The leeks are cooked some, then the asparagus too. I cooked the asparagus stems first because they were rather robust in size, then added the more tender tops during the last minute. I used ciabatta bread – I cut it into small cubes and left them to sit out overnight in my kitchen, so they were certainly “stale” by that time.

The casserole is baked for about 45-55 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned. Don’t over bake it or it will dry out. Let it sit for about 5 minutes before cutting and serving. I served it with fresh fruit, some pork sausage and Greek yogurt.

What’s GOOD: I liked that it could be made just before baking and it was really nice. I might use more asparagus next time just because I like it. It was easy to make and looked very pretty on the plate. I might use a tiny bit more cheese next time – and I might try different kinds just because you can. If you make the 9×13 casserole, it would serve a big bunch of people. At least 12, maybe 14.

What’s NOT: nothing at all.

printer-friendly PDF and MasterCook 15/16 (click link to open recipe)

* Exported from MasterCook *

Asparagus Bread Pudding with Fontina and Herbs

Recipe By: Inspired by a recipe from Georgeanne Brennan
Serving Size: 12

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 whole leeks — ends cut off, sliced lengthwise, chopped, rinsed well
1 pound asparagus
CUSTARD:
5 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 dash cayenne
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups half and half Zest of one large lemon
PUDDING:
5 cups bread — (I used ciabatta) cut into 3/4″ cubes, dried overnight
3/4 cup Pecorino-Romano cheese — freshly grated (or use Gruyere)
3/4 cup Fontina cheese — grated
1/2 cup fresh herbs — chopped – such as chives, parsley, and tarragon; or sage, thyme, and marjoram (I used fresh basil and rosemary)

1. Grease the bottom of the dish you’re using (9×13 works, or similar 4-quart dish as long as it has 2″ high sides). Place bread in a large bowl.
2. Mix half and half, cream, eggs, cayenne, lemon zest, salt and pepper until there are no streaks of egg yolk. Pour HALF of milk mixture over the bread and let sit for 15-20 minutes. Reserve remaining milk mixture.
3. While bread is soaking, trim leeks, and chop well. Saute leeks in butter for 1-2 minutes, then add water and steam (covered) until leeks are cooked through, 5-7 minutes. Remove leeks to the bowl leaving any fluid in the pan. Prep the asparagus: trim off woody ends and chop into 1/2 inch pieces. Add the asparagus to the pan and cook briefly, about 1-2 minutes, then add the asparagus to the bowl. Discard any remaining fluid in the pan.
4, Preheat oven to 350°F.
5. Sprinkle herbs over the bread mixture, then add about half the cheese and stir this mixture around so it’s evenly distributed. Pour it all into the prepared baking dish and then pour remaining milk mixture over the top. Add the last of the grated cheese evenly on top.
6. Bake until top is crusty brown and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Allow to sit for about 5 minutes before cutting into squares to serve.
Per Serving: 454 Calories; 19g Fat (38.2% calories from fat); 15g Protein; 55g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 135mg Cholesterol; 824mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on September 8th, 2015:

    The lemon zest is an interesting addition. I think I would have to cut back on the high-fat dairy, maybe use whole milk and half and half instead of half and half and cream, but I’ve been on the lookout for an appealing breakfast casserole for when the family comes over. I like ciabatta bread in this sort of thing–it doesn’t turn to mush but retains substantial chewiness.

    By all means, I think it would work with milk – I think the original recipe suggested you could try it with lower-fat dairy. It was good. . . carolyn t

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on September 8th, 2015:

    That sounds heavenly, I love anything with custard, sweet or savoury.

    It was nice – not as filling as some bread custards go anyway. I’d use more asparagus next time and definitely serve with some kind of sauce too. . . carolyn t

  3. Robert

    said on March 19th, 2017:

    Georgeanne Brennan is a friend and has nothing to do with Brennan’s in New Orleans, and never did.

    She writes cookbooks by herself and under assignment from Williams-Sonoma for decades, and lives in Northern California 45 minutes from my house in farm land.

    I believe this recipe is a riff on the one from her book Potager which you can see here:

    http://www.csmonitor.com/1995/0323/23142.html

    (though I’m not sure where the leeks came into the mix). Aside from her cookbook writing, Georgeanne started a business a couple years back, and used to have a seed catalog business. See:

    https://lavierustic.com/ and:
    http://georgeannebrennan.com/

    Thank you so much, Robert, for updating me about your friend. I’ve corrected my post and taken out any mention of the New Orleans’ Brennans in it. I always want to be accurate – it’s been a couple of years since I wrote that post, so have no recollection how or why I assumed (or someone else mentioned it) that she was related to “those” Brennans. My apologies, in any case. I may have been the one to add the leeks (just because it sounded good). But I always like to give credit to the original recipe whenever possible, which is why I wrote the that the recipe was “adapted” or a “riff” on hers. .. carolyn t

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