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On my recent trip, I managed to get in a lot of reading on my Kindle. On airplanes, waiting for airplanes, waiting for the bus to load, waiting in lobbies for everybody to show up to leave, and at night when I couldn’t sleep. A fun book was Mr. Mac and Me, by Esther Freud. It takes place in England in 1914. In a time and place where a 13-year old boy has a lot of freedom. Although the war is looming, this little village is relatively quiet and safe, as life used to be. Boys will be boys, and he enjoys sort-of spying on people, especially people he doesn’t know well. He imagines that a man who arrives in town to rent a house with his paints and easels, might be a spy. Thus begins a story that starts from that premise, but eventually takes you into a very special friendship that develops between the man, Mr. Mac, his wife, and this boy. The story is absolutely charming. War brings some brutal truths for everyone in the village, yet this friendship flourishes. Great book.

Occasionally I’ll latch onto a book about food or restaurants. This one, The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O’Neal, is a romance (not a sticky sweet one) about a youngish woman (and her dog) who take a big leap to Colorado when she’s offered a job as a chef. The restaurant is fraught with some issues, but the author weaves in a romance, her skills as a leader in the kitchen, throws in some recipes (that I have yet to extract from my Kindle pages, that I want to try) along with it, and you have a book that held my interest all the way through. Formulaic, I suppose, but it’s a cute story. Books about restaurants always divulge some new tangle of how a kitchen runs. I enjoyed the read.

If you haven’t already read it, you are missing a really good and insightful book, Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan by Bill O’Reilly. I was riveted from page one, all the way through to the end. O’Reilly has a very engaging way of re-telling history and making it ever-so readable and interesting. He weaves people’s stories, ones  you likely haven’t read or heard, into his narrative, to give you such a sense of place. You can just feel how these soldiers, pilots, prisoners and seamen made their mark, but likely all unsung heroes. It’s a must-read, it really is.

Having read some of Kent Haruf’s other books, I read Our Souls at Night. A lonely widow decides to invite a neighbor man, also a lonely widower, if he’d like to come to her home, at night, to spend the night. I simply can’t tell you anything else because it would give away the story. This isn’t a story about s-x, but about two lonely people who come together for friendship and companionship. It’s very sweet, not twee, but sweet. You really feel for both of these older people. Read 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 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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