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Just finished 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.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading 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.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

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 June 7th, 2007.

Ramekins, the cooking school Cherrie and I visited last Saturday and Sunday is in Sonoma. It’s been in existence for a long time, and first came to my attention because Joanne Weir, one of my all-time favorite cooking instructors, mentioned that she occasionally demonstrated there. Also, Tarla Fallgatter, a local Orange County teacher, also taught there in years past. Over the years I’ve looked at Ramekins‘ website and watched who was visiting there to teach, when, etc. One trip to wine country I even dropped by the school and peeked in to see what it was like, and was fortunate to be able to see some of the guest rooms (it’s a B&B also). That’s when I decided that someday I’d go for a class and an overnight.The cooking school is housed in a lovely building about 3 blocks from the main square in downtown Sonoma, just next door to The General’s Daughter, a fabulous restaurant we visited one night last week. Unlike some cooking schools which are side rooms of cookware stores (often cramped), this one was set up to be a cooking demo and participation kitchen. Actually the building also has a very large banquet room (and accompanying commercial kitchen) to seat about 100+ people, and they do large parties, weddings, etc. there. A lovely patio adds to the charm of the place. In the picture, the banquet room is on the left, the kitchen school on the right, the B&B rooms upstairs (which are just lovely) and the delightful patio under those leafy trees.

The cooking school kitchen has ample room for seating or prep tables. Most of Ramekins’ classes are participation style (you are given an overview of the class, then everyone digs in and prepares a part of the meal). We chopped, minced, sautéed, pureed, tossed, etc. whatever our assignment was, then went to tables outside (both days were just beautiful weather, ideal for sitting out under their big shady trees) and the staff served us the meal we’d all fixed.

So, on Saturday, the class was French Bistro favorites. We had the soup (below), a country paté, mussels in broth, steak with Béarnaise sauce, pommes Anna and chocolate soufflés. I doubt I’ll make any of the other dishes, but the tomato soup was outstanding. One point the teacher, Lisa Lavagetto (the cooking school manager), told us was the importance of using only San Marzano canned tomatoes. You may already know about these, but I didn’t, and having tasted them right out of the can today, I can definitely say they’re
far sweeter and more tasty than any canned tomato I’ve ever met before. They’re not at your neighborhood chain grocery – you’ll need to find an upscale grocery or an Italian deli. The 28 ounce cans I bought were $3.69 each, but well worth the expense. The soup isn’t hard to make, at all. You just have to have the ingredients at the ready – onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste, the San Marzano tomatoes, some fresh herbs, chicken broth. Oh, and some heavy cream. This isn’t exactly low calorie or low fat, but a cup of heavy cream for 8 people is only 2 tablespoons per person.
That’s not bad! And this soup will definitely be a staple in my repertoire from now on. I doubled the recipe so I’ll have some to freeze.
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Cream of Tomato Soup

Recipe: Lisa Lavagetto, cooking school manager at Ramekins, Sonoma, California
Servings: 8
NOTES: A serving will be about 1 1/2 cups or less. The instructor highly recommended Swanson’s Natural Goodness chicken broth, but it’s too high in sodium for me, so I used Health Valley. The instructor also mentioned that carrots help round out the flavor of tomatoes – she uses them often in any dish that uses a lot of tomatoes.
Serving Ideas: The original recipe called for using puff pastry, cut into squares and rolled out thin, then draped over an ovenproof bowl filled with the soup, then baked at 425° for 10-15 minutes until toasty crisp. We in the class felt that the pastry was very hard to cut – how do you do that with only a spoon, but awkward for sure even with a knife or fork when it’s perched on top of a bowl. So we all decided that making croutons with butter and olive oil would be a better choice.

4 tablespoons butter
2 pieces thick-sliced bacon — diced
1/2 large onion — peeled, diced
1 stick celery — diced
1 medium carrot – – peeled & diced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons tomato paste
6 cups chicken broth — or vegetable broth
15 ounces chopped tomatoes — San Marzano brand, with juice
2 sprigs rosemary — fresh
5 sprigs thyme — fresh
1 whole bay leaf kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
1 cup heavy cream
3 cups croutons — homemade, not packaged
1. In a large, heavy bottomed pot melt the better. Add bacon, onion, carrot and celery. Sauté until lightly browned. Mix in the flour, forming a roux, then cook until the mixture resembles a fine sandy texture. Do not burn. Remove from heat and add the tomato paste. Return the pan to the heat and gradually add the 6 cups broth and bring to a boil, stirring constantly to break up any tomato paste chunks.
2. Combine the fresh herbs and bay leaf into a bouquet garni (tie up with a string) and add to the soup. Add tomatoes with juice and season lightly. Simmer for 40-45 minutes, occasionally skimming off any fat that might arise to the top.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the croutons (chunks of white bread drizzled with olive oil and butter, then baked or drizzle olive oil and butter in a frying pan and brown them).
4. Remove the herbs (bouquet garni) from the soup and discard. Use a stick blender (or food processor or blender) and liquidize the soup until smooth. Or, if you prefer to have a bit of texture, just blend the ingredients part way, then return to the pot and add the cream. Adjust the consistency – if the soup is a little too thick, add a bit more broth or cream. If you prefer a very smooth soup you can strain through a conical strainer at this point. Adjust the seasonings again, then ladle into bowls, top with some hot croutons and serve.
Per Serving : 302 Calories; 21g Fat (60.2% calories from fat); 9g Protein; 22g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 59mg Cholesterol; 911mg Sodium.

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