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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 Beef, Pasta, on May 18th, 2007.

I absolutely promise that my blog is not going to be all about casseroles. It’s too bad that the word itself is a semi-bad one on blogs. I don’t have all that many casserole recipes. Honest. But those of you old enough to remember the casserole era (that would be the 1960’s and into the 70’s for you young’ns) probably have many of your own of similar ilk as this one. I’m trying to give you some variety here on this blog, and I wouldn’t have chosen this as a subject of a blog post except that this happened to have come out of the freezer the other night – literally it kept falling out of the freezer every time I opened the door. It was trying to tell me something, I finally concluded.

Some of you may know that way back in my deep, dark past, I was a Navy wife. My former husband was an air intelligence officer, and we lived in a variety of places (Florida, Washington, D.C., Whidbey Island, Washington and Denver, Colorado) over the years of his Navy service. During one of the early years I acquired a Navy Officer’s Wives Cookbook, with hundreds and hundreds of recipes from other American Navy officer’s wives from all over the globe. Actually there was a series of them (one of each of these: salads, desserts, casseroles & breads, meats, and one on international foods too). I still go to those cookbooks sometimes to get ideas about dishes to try, even though the plastic spiral bindings are nearly disintegrated on all of them. I was in my mid-20’s then and new to the day-to-day cooking arena when these books went to press, so I didn’t even think of submitting one of my recipes for any of the books. I’m not even sure I had any recipes I could call my own at that time.

As many of you probably remember, casseroles were a staple in every cook’s repertoire. They were popular for family meals, and more elegant casseroles were very popular for guests too. They certainly were in mine, and they were inexpensive. In the 1960’s my normal weekly food budget was $20, and that fed two people for 7 days, 3 meals a day. So, in the Meat cookbook of that era, amidst the little spots of food that spilled there is this recipe for Mister Charlie. Heaven knows why it’s called Mister Charlie. Was Charlie the inspiration? Was he the cook and his wife submitted the recipe? Or, I like to think it’s the dog’s name, because he ate Suzie Q’s portion when she dropped it on the floor? Do you ever ponder why recipes receive the names they do? I’ve asked myself this question about this dish for many years. Undoubtedly I’ll never know the story. I even did a Google search for the title to just see if there was anything official out there for a pasta casserole called Mister Charlie. Nope. Over the years I’ve adapted the recipe some (I use Italian sausage rather than ground beef) and I’ve added mushrooms and cheddar cheese to it. So maybe I should call it Missus Carolyn? What do you think?

Well, then. There isn’t anything startling in this casserole – pasta, meat, mushrooms, a variety of cheeses and a tomato-based sauce. That’s it. But in combo, they make a very tasty dish. Casseroles sometimes don’t look very appealing. Does the photo convey a little bit of the 1965-ish boredom of the tops of many such casseroles? What it does have going for it is that it makes a LOT. It can be made ahead. It’s high in carbs (sigh). But all-in-all, it’s still a keeper. Most of all, it’s American comfort food. So, enjoy Mister Charlie, wherever he is. Woof.
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Mister Charlie

Servings: 12
Serving Ideas : You need nothing with this except a crispy green salad. Back in the day, I’d always make garlic bread, but it isn’t really necessary.
NOTES: This makes a big gooey, mushy mixture, but as it bakes it firms up some. I actually prefer it when it’s sat overnight before baking. Seems to solidify the flavors, I guess. You can alter the amount of water you add – the original recipe said to add 4-5 cans (from the tomato paste) of water. I usually add about 4 cans, which should be 24 ounces. You can also add canned, drained tomatoes to this. Ricotta can be substituted for the cottage cheese too. Originally this recipe called for ground beef, but I like the flavor of the sausage better.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds Italian sausage
1 whole onion — minced
2 cloves garlic — minced
12 ounces tomato paste
8 ounces fresh mushrooms — sliced
24 ounces water
1 tablespoon Italian seasoning — or oregano, basil, thyme combination
1 pound cottage cheese
1/2 pound cheddar cheese — grated
1/2 pound Mozzarella cheese — grated and sliced both
1 pound pasta — your choice of type (penne rigate, macaroni)
1/2 cup parsley — chopped

1. Heat large skillet, adding olive oil. Add diced onion and cook while preparing other ingredients. Add the Italian sausage (mashed into small pieces) and continue cooking until all the pink is gone.
2. Add the garlic, herbs and mushrooms, then add the tomato paste and water. Cook for about 15 minutes until well blended. Taste for seasoning (salt and pepper). Set aside to cool slightly. Preheat oven to 350°.
3. Meanwhile, cook pasta until it’s just under-done. Drain.
4. Into a very large bowl add the pasta, cottage cheese, then add the slightly cooled meat mixture. Prepare the cheese – about 1/3 of it should be in thin slices, the remainder should be shredded. I freeze the big ball of mozzarella cheese for about 20 minutes to make it easier to grate. Pour into two 9 x 13 pans, or a combination of other types. Place cheese slices on top. Bake about 20 minutes until the cheese is bubbly.
Per Serving: 561 Calories; 33g Fat (52.3% calories from fat); 29g Protein; 38g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 83mg Cholesterol; 995mg Sodium.

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  1. Anonymous

    said on October 20th, 2007:

    I’m looking for a recipe that was in my mother’s Navy Officer’s Wives Cookbook that disappeared after her death. And if you know a way I can get a copy, please advise. If was blue. Not sure when it was published, but post WWII I’m guessing.

    Cowboy Cookies! Can you help me?


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