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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 Beef, Grilling, on August 10th, 2009.

sizzling steak 1

For my dear hubby’s birthday dinner (celebrated a couple of weeks late) that we had with friends last weekend, I knew his first choice would be beef. Steaks, specifically. Good steaks. Make that really good steaks. Our favorites are rib eyes. We made the mistake two summers ago of buying USDA Prime steaks at our local independent market/butcher. We both thought we’d died and gone to heaven. Now we’re spoiled, and don’t want the regular, pedestrian steaks at all. Costco to the rescue.

Now, in case you don’t know about it, Costco now carries (at least in our part of the country) prime steaks. The story goes like this (according to our local newspaper Food Editor, Cathy Thomas), because of the recession, fewer people are going to steakhouses. Or if they are, they’re perhaps not ordering those fantastically thick high-ticket steaks for which they charge an arm and leg. So the beef distributors have had to find new avenues for the extra-tender beef. Enter Costco on the scene. Their prime rib eye steaks are about $8-11 apiece, packaged in fours. Generally Dave and I share ONE steak. For this dinner I prepared 4 steaks for 6 of us, assuming maybe the guys would like an extra portion. Actually, we had enough leftover to serve dinner to friends the next night.

Over the years I’ve learned to trust Hugh Carpenter. He’s one knowledgeable chef. And an innovative menu creator. In addition, he and his wife have authored several cookbooks. Either last year or the year before, when we celebrated Dave’s birthday with this same group of friends (we all bring out our very special – read expensive – red wines to share with one another), we had another one of his recipes: Rib eye Steaks with Amazing Glaze. That one is a real favorite of ours. I’ve made it many, many times, always to raves. But I didn’t want to serve the same thing, so I went to his book, Hot Barbecue (where the other Amazing Glaze rib eye recipe came from also), and chose this one.

Recipe Tip:

Do double the amount of sauce you make – it’s SO good, and
you’ll find another use for it, either with leftovers or with some other kind of grilled meat a day or two later.

Carpenter explained that although the recipe requires a few steps to prepare, it’s worth it. It requires that you have a fairly extensive spice cupboard. It also requires a bit of sitting time (for the steaks to absorb the spice flavors). And you have to make the red pepper sauce. That was the most amount of work in the total prep. And even that wasn’t all that difficult. Just took a bit of time sitting on the stovetop simmering away (to reduce the quantity). The sauce becomes a bed for the steak. The steaks were slathered with minced fresh garlic, then the spice mixture was patted on. They sat for 8 hours in the refrigerator so they’d absorb the flavor.

spice rub toasted The spice mixture was fun to make (well, it was for me, anyway). First a group of whole spices (pictured left) were toasted in a dry skillet (allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, coriander seeds and whole cloves). They required a bit of stirring (no burning allowed), but once the pan got up to a high heat, they began to smoke lightly. Immediately I turned off the flame and poured the spices out onto a plate to cool. Those were then whizzed up in my spice grinder (it’s a coffee grinder, but I dedicate it for spices). Other items were added to the mix: chile powder, dark brown sugar, dry thyme, dry mustard, salt and freshly grated nutmeg. That’s it.

The red pepper sauce is composed of bottled roasted red peppers, chicken stock, red wine, honey and some spicy Asian hot sauce. Be careful of the hot sauce – once it’s boiled down to a thicker consistency, that will heighten the spiciness (heat). Do not add salt.

Dave was more interested in this dinner menu than usual – because he really wanted the wine to pair well with the food. We brought out a very special bottle of wine. Those of you who know my husband already, will find it no surprise that he tells lots of stories. (He’s a gregarious kind of guy, can walk into just about any room, crowded or not, and make conversation with total strangers, and will tell stories about sailing, or his artificial legs, or a trip we’ve taken.)

A few months ago we were shopping at our number one upscale market (Bristol Farms) in Newport Beach. If we go there together (it’s a 30-minute drive from our house to Newport Beach), Dave will leave me to go through the aisles, while he spends most of the time in the wine department. The store has one wine cabinet that’s all locked up, but you can see the wines inside. And their price tags. (This story has made the rounds of all of our friends, Dave is so proud of himself!) As he glanced in the rows behind glass he spotted a 1990 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Anyone into wine knows that’s one really great French label. We rarely buy French wine. But as Dave examined the label, he knew – bingo – that’s the bottle we have at home. THEN he looked at the price tag. Of course, an upscale market would charge a premium for all their wines. But, gee whiz. Big but gee whiz. They are charging $850.00 for it. Wow. Yikes. Zippity-do-dah! He came – all but running to find me – to tell me about it. And THAT’s the wine we drank with dinner last Saturday. Somebody gave us a bottle of 1990 Lafite Rothschild nearly 20 years ago. We think the bottle was given to us by our friend Russ – the little scribble on the label says 7/93 Ru–? B’day. We think that means Russ gave it to Dave for his birthday in 1993. If so, Russ, we THANK YOU. Likely it was nowhere near that much money in 1993.

So how was it, you ask? Well, we decanted it and let it air for an hour, and poured it into our Reidel Bordeaux/Cabernet wine glasses. We did all the snobby wine things – swirling, sniffing, more swirling, looking through the glass to see the clarity, more swirling and sniffing. The bouquet was beyond wonderful. Had that slightly brown side of red color. It was sensational. Not worth $850 for sure, but we’re grateful for the bottle. We each had a small glass of it with our appetizers (a Roasted Red Pepper and Walnut Spread on Garlic-Oregano Grilled Pita Bread, some Caramelized Onion on toasted baguette slices and some Brie with blackberries). I’ll be posting ALL of the recipes from this dinner in coming days.

Then I served a chilled Avocado Soup (like Guacamole in a glass) with a spoon, which we enjoyed before we sat down to dinner. We ate outside by candlelight to the low-setting sun. We opened a bottle of Jordan Cabernet, then a magnum of Canoe Ridge Cab.

sizzling steak dry rub Now, let’s get back to this fabulous meat . . . those spice-marinated rib eyes (pictured right, as they squeezed into a ceramic bowl to “marinate”) were put onto the hot grill, seared both sides, then put off to the side (not over direct heat, in a racked pan) to continue cooking until they reached about 123 degrees F (medium rare). Meanwhile, I had cooked some fresh corn on the cob and slathered the hot ear halves with a little bit of butter, then sprinkled them with the spice mix I used on the steak (I just made more of it from the beginning). The corn was a real highlight. I’ll be writing up a separate blog post about that. I also set out a Lebanese Layered Salad (which was ever so good). When the steaks were served I slathered a bit of the red pepper sauce on the piping hot plates, put the steak on top, then sprinkled it with fresh goat cheese chèvre and minced cilantro. Dinner was done. The rib eyes were fantastic. I don’t use that word all that often. They were SO good – the sauce and spice rub made it, though. I didn’t think I’d like the goat cheese, but it also was a nice foil to the beef. Yes, indeed, I’ll be making that recipe again. And maybe I’ll be making just the sauce by itself (Carpenter suggested you could use it in a variety of other ways) and freezing small portions so when we have a steak next time we can have more of that slather.

For dessert I wanted to make tiramisu, because it’s one of Dave’s favorites anyway. I had a new recipe (via America’s Test Kitchen). It was really, really good. I’ll post all the recipes in the next week. I apologize for this loooong recipe for the steak. It’s really not that hard. Believe me! And worth the time for sure.
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Sizzling Rib Eyes with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Recipe: Adapted from Hot Barbecue, by Hugh Carpenter
Servings: 4
NOTES: My advice: make twice the amount of the sauce – if you have leftovers of it, you’ll find other uses for it. It’s really delicious. If you use chicken stock granules, don’t add water – it’ll take a lot less time to reduce the sauce.

4 whole ribeye steaks — 1/2 inch thick
3 ounces goat cheese
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, whole
flavorless cooking oil to brush on the grill rack
4 whole garlic cloves — minced
18 whole allspice berries
1 piece cinnamon stick — about 1-inch long
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds — 1/2″ cubes
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
3 tablespoons chile powder
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar — packed
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup roasted red peppers — jarred, drained
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons Asian hot sauce

1. STEAKS: Trim excess fat from the edges of the steak. Place the steaks in a glass container.
2. RUB: Rub the garlic cloves over both sides of the steaks. Place the allspice, cinnamon, peppercorns, coriander and cloves in a small dry skillet. Place the pan over medium heat and toast (stirring and shaking pan frequently) until the spices just begin to smoke. Some of them will just start to pop – watch for smoke, remove and pour onto a plate to cool.
3. Place the toasted spices in an electric spice grinder (or use a mortar and pestle) and grind finely. In a small bowl combine all the remaining spices and add the toasted spices. Stir to evenly combine them. Reserve 2 T. of the spices (for the sauce).
4. Rub the remaining spices over the steak surfaces, cover and refrigerate the steaks for 1-8 hours.
5. SAUCE: Place all ingredients for the roasted red pepper sauce in a blender. Add the reserved dry rub, then puree. Transfer the mixture to a heavy-duty saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, simmer until the mixture has reduced to 1 1/2 cups. Cool and refrigerate. This can be made ahead and refrigerated.
6. 30 minutes before ready to cook, remove steaks and allow them to come to room temp.
7. Preheat grill to medium (350). Brush the cooking rack with a paper towel doused in the cooking oil. Insert a meat thermometer into the side of one of the steaks. Place the steaks in the center of the rack. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, grill steaks about 3 minutes per side (longer if steaks are thicker).
8. Once you’ve acquired grill marks on both sides, move steaks over to a part of the rack without direct heat. Continue cooking until a meat thermometer reads 123. Remove steaks, tent lightly with foil for about 5 minutes, then serve with the sauce.
9. During the time the steaks are cooking, reheat the sauce and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Spoon the sauce onto 4 heated plates and place meat right in the center of the sauce. Sprinkle the steak with goat cheese and cilantro. Serve immediately.
Per Serving: 563 Calories; 28g Fat (43.6% calories from fat); 29g Protein; 51g Carbohydrate; 11g Dietary Fiber; 79mg Cholesterol; 1599mg Sodium.

A year ago: Wellesley Chocolate Chip Cookies
Two years ago: Goat Cheese Chive Muffins (a favorite)

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