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Just finished a quirky book, Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel by Rachel Khong. She’s a new writer (newly published, I guess I should say) and this story is about Ruth, a 30+ something, trying to readjust to life without her fiance, who’s dumped her. She goes back home to help with the care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. Written in a diary style, it jumps all over about her life, her mother, the funny, poignant things her father says on good days, and the nutty stuff he does on not-so-good days, her ex-, and her very quirky friends, too. Then a woman flits through who had had an affair with her father –  you get to observe all the angst from the mom about that. Mostly it’s about her father, as he’s relatively “together” early in the book, but then he disintegrates. Reading that part isn’t fun, although the author is able to lean some humor into it. I’m not sure I recommend the book exactly – I read it through – and felt sad. It doesn’t tie up loose ends – if you want that kind of book – you may not want to read this one.

Also finished Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. You know Julian Fellowes, the producer and writer of Downton Abbey? He lends his mind to a story about a family or two from the similar time period as Downton, who live in London. There’s some amount of intrigue, romance, observations from within the halls of wealthy Londoners and moderately well off tradesmen and their families. There’s affairs, shady business dealings, an illegitimate child, the comings and goings of the “downstairs” staff too, etc. The characters were well done – I had no trouble keeping all of the people identified. The story is somewhat predictable, but it was interesting clear up to the end.

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.

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.

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 Soups, on May 9th, 2007.

A short time warp to 1981. Dave and I were on our first trip to England. At a small pub and restaurant in Ilminster, Somerset, an older gentleman simply pulled up a chair as we were served our dinner. Friendly sort, he was. Said he enjoyed hearing Yanks talk. Shortly, he called over to the bartender and asked him to phone his wife to come join us, which she did. That began a friendship that has withstood the years. Jimmy (a retired RAF Wing Commander) had a hundred and one WW II war stories to tell. Pamela, who had also served in the WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the ground transport wing of the RAF, had an equal number of stories to tell, and among other things, she was a professional chef. To this day, we still discuss food whenever we talk. Either in person, or on the phone. Sadly, Jimmy passed away a few years ago. But we have visited them and now her many, many times over those years.

But the summer of 1990, when two of our children were nearly graduated from college, we took them to England and Ireland for a few weeks and included a visit to Jimmy & Pam. The weather was fair that day, the sun shone brightly, and we enjoyed a multi-course luncheon on the back lawn. It was glorious. It was magical. It was memorable. They were so happy to meet our children. We were so proud to show them off. They were so delighted it was a pretty day. We were thrilled to enjoy Pam’s cooking again. Jimmy was in rare form, warbling on about his military past (mostly he ferried planes from Canada to England) to our kids, and Pamela had outdone herself with an elegant meal. We had a Pimm’s, with fresh cucumber, mint and raspberries (pronounced raws-brees) on special twigs in each drink. We had a summer pud(ding), a very seasonal treat only available in mid-summer when berries are at their peak. Our daughter vividly remembers that summer pud to this day. A summer pudding is made in a large round bowl, with layers of soft de-crusted white bread, sugar and fresh berries. It sits for 24 hours while the berries give up their juice to soak into the bread, then it’s unmolded onto a platter and served with whipped cream. And, naturally, we had some good English tea. The main dish was a large, cold poached salmon elegantly festooned with layered, thinly shaved cucumber slices to resemble fish scales. What was almost comical was that our daughter didn’t eat fish. So poor Pamela insisted on returning to the kitchen to cook her an egg.

It’s the soup that has become one of my regulars and it may be one of the very simplest recipes I make. When the weather turns hot (it will be in the mid-90’s in Southern California today), I remember this soup, which is so refreshing. As long as you have the frozen peas (only the very best will do, the smaller the better), consommé or beef stock, the half-cream (that’s half and half in British-speak), and the fresh mint from the garden you’re in business. Allow to chill thoroughly before serving. You can make this with fat-free half and half, although most of those products contain some sugar or sweetener, which doesn’t always taste as good as a natural dairy product in a savory soup. Sometimes I add a splash of cream sherry to the mixture too.
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Cold Green Pea Soup

Recipe: From my dear friend, Pamela J., England
Servings: 6
NOTES: This is very refreshing, either summer or winter, and oh, so easy. You can add a splash of cream sherry to the mixture if you like it.
Yield: 4 cups

1 pound frozen peas — defrosted, or rinsed briefly in hot water
12 ounces canned consommé or beef broth
1 cup half and half
2 tablespoons fresh mint
3 tablespoons sour cream or créme fraiche

Place defrosted peas in a blender with the consomme and mint. Purée it until it is completely smooth then add the cream. Pour into a container and chill for several hours. Serve with a small dollop of sour cream, and sprinkle with additional mint or chopped chives. Taste for seasoning.
Per Serving: 134 Calories; 6g Fat (42.4% calories from fat); 7g Protein; 13g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 18mg Cholesterol; 255mg Sodium.

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