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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 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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