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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 Pork, Soups, on October 9th, 2009.

pork chard soup in bowlI’m SO ready for fall weather. We’ve had a few days of cooler weather – very welcomed since October is often a warm month for us here in Southern California. As soon as I heard we were going to have a day with a high of 69 degrees, well, it needed to be a soup day. We’d offered to take dinner to our son’s home, and it needed to get cooked and finished by about 4pm, so I wasted no time at all getting this soup cookin’. I had a pork shoulder in the freezer, so that defrosted in the morning, and into the crockpot this went. No browning of the meat or onions. Just pile in all the stewing ingredients and let it burble away for a few hours.

Spanish pork, white bean and Swiss chard soup

You can see some of the nice ciabatta bread sopping up the juice.

This soup was very easy. Pork, onion, some prosciutto, some bacon, broth (I used Penzey’s pork broth, which is VERY flavorful, although you can use canned beef broth), later some rutabaga and kale or Swiss chard, and some cannellini beans.  Served over a thick slice of country bread that was  toasted under the broiler. See? Easy. You do need to remove the pork shoulder at some point (once it’s cooked) and shred it in coarse pieces. It gets added back in at the end just to heat through. And you do need to clean the Swiss chard, remove the center ribs, then chop it up coarsely. I used canned beans, just because they’re easier. I bought a nice loaf of sourdough bread (whole) and cut thick pieces, broiled those just to get them brown, then they went into the soup bowl. Then you just ladle the soup over the bread. The thick pieces of bread, although they soaked up the broth big time, the crispy edges still had some texture, which I liked a lot. We all thought this soup was a winner. A keeper. It should freeze well, although I don’t have enough hardly to freeze since I gave half the leftovers to our kids. We have enough for another dinner. I added some Parmesan cheese on top the 2nd time I served it (the pictures are from those seconds), although the cheese is not in the recipe.

The recipe was out of a soup cookbook I have, but I’ve changed the recipe so much, it’s not really James Patterson’s recipe anymore. But the concept is. His recipe called for beef brisket. I didn’t want to use beef, but pork. So I improvised some. Whether the Spanish really make a soup with pork shoulder, I’m not certain, but I decided to give them the credit for it – it’s called Caldo Gallego in that country. The recipe below is for stovetop cooking, but am sure you can figure out easily enough how to adapt it to a crock pot, as I did. My crock pot insert will go right on the stove, which is what I did to cook the rutabaga and the Swiss chard at the end. Otherwise in a crock pot you’d want to add those ingredients about 30-45 minutes earlier, maybe longer. So anyway, go get yourself some pork shoulder, some chard and make a soup. I’m going to be making this again soon, with fresh pork, then I’ll divide it up for freezing. For those cooler winter nights when I don’t feel like cooking. You probably think I never have those kinds of nights, but I DO.
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Spanish Bean Soup with Pork Shoulder & Swiss Chard (Caldo Gallego)

Servings: 8
NOTES: If desired, add some grated Parmesan cheese on top just before serving. It was not in the original recipe, but tasted just great!

1/4 pound bacon — preferably slab, rind removed, cut in small pieces
32 ounces canned beans — cannellini or Great Northern beans,
1/4 pound prosciutto — preferably chunk, cubed (I used some sliced prosciutto)
1 pound pork shoulder — leave whole
1 medium onion — chopped
1 bouquet garni
2 quarts beef broth — or chicken broth or water
2 teaspoons salt — (may not need salt)
2 medium rutabaga — peeled, cubed
2 pounds Swiss chard — or kale, stems removed, coarsely chopped
Pepper and salt to taste (be careful of adding too much salt)
8 slices bread — crusty country bread, thick sliced

1. Place the bacon in a 6-quart Dutch oven and add an inch of cold water. Simmer the bacon for 10 minutes to eliminate some of its smoky taste. Drain off the water.
2. Combine the bacon, the prosciutto end, pork shoulder (all in one piece), onion, bouquet garni, and broth. Bring to a slow simmer over medium heat and use a ladle to skim off any froth or scum that floats to the top.
3. Cover the pot and simmer slowly for 30 minutes. Add salt if it’s needed and simmer for about 1-1/2 hours more, until the pork is almost tender. Remove pork and allow to cool for 15 minutes, then pull it apart into small, long but bite sized shreds. Add the rutabagas and the canned beans, simmer for 15 minutes more, until all the vegetables are soft. Add the Swiss chard (or kale) and cook for about 5 minutes, then add the pork and continue cooking just long enough for the meat to heat through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Toast the bread under the broiler until pieces are just brown, turn and brown other side, then place in bottom of wide, deep soup bowls. Ladle soup over the top, with some of the toast visible.
Per Serving: 503 Calories; 17g Fat (31.1% calories from fat); 39g Protein; 47g Carbohydrate; 9g Dietary Fiber; 52mg Cholesterol; 3340mg Sodium.

A year ago: Traveling near Mt. Shasta
Two years ago: Anise Pound Cake (a specialty of the American Southwest)

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