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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 Veggies/sides, on October 12th, 2009.

butternut squash risotto with pancetta

I was totally prepared to be ho-hum about this dish. Until I took my first bite, that is. Then I ate every single solitary rice kernel on the plate. It makes a delicious side dish, or if you’re inspired to eat a meal without a meaty main dish, this is the answer. This isn’t vegetarian, because it does contain pancetta and chicken broth. I suppose you could leave those out, but am not sure it would be all that good. But then, vegetarians are used to eating some foods without the intense flavors provided by meat. So maybe it would be fine! Oh yes, it also contains a moderate amount of butter too. And the saffron – when Phillis Carey prepared it at the class, she meant to put in a pinch of saffron. When she dipped into it, though, her fingers grabbed a gob of it – probably more like 2-3 teaspoons. Not only did it color the risotto – that lovely rosy yellow gold that saffron does – but it also gave it HUGE flavor. So in the recipe below I increased the saffron. We had the leftovers a few nights later. Oh my goodness were they ever GOOD. Not quite as creamy, but almost. I could have just eaten THAT for dinner.
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Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto with Pancetta

Recipe: From a cooking class with Phillis Carey
Servings: 6

2 pounds butternut squash — peeled, 3/4 inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads — 4-5 pinches
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 ounces pancetta — diced
1/2 cup shallots — diced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon fresh sage — chopped
3/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 400.
2. Toss squash cubes with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Spread squash out on a parchment-lined (or Silpat) baking sheet and roast in oven for 25-30 minutes, tossing once, until very tender. Set aside.
3. In a saucepan bring the chicken broth and saffron to a simmer.
4. In a Dutch oven melt butter over medium heat. Add pancetta and shallots and cook for 10 minutes or until shallots are tender and pancetta cooked. Stir in arborio rice and toss with butter mixture.
5. Stir in white wine and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1/3 of the chicken broth mixture and cook, stirring often, until broth is almost absorbed. Continue cooking, adding ore broth as the rice absorbs it. Continue cooking until the rice is just about tender, about 30 minutes total time. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Stir in the sage and the roasted squash and heat it through, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the butter and Parmesan cheese. Stir to combine well. Serve immediately.
Per Serving: 441 Calories; 18g Fat (37.8% calories from fat); 12g Protein; 55g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 38mg Cholesterol; 909mg Sodium.

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