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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 Chicken, on November 18th, 2009.

coq au vin in bowl

A few weeks ago I attended a cooking class of Julia Child’s recipes. Everything was very tasty. And all fairly labor intensive too. In the course of conversation the instructor mentioned that she’d heard Ina Garten’s recipe (from her book ‘>Back to Basics) was also very good, and perhaps less time consuming. So I decided to try it out. I bought chicken thighs only, both bone-in and boneless; that way I’d get some of the good flavor from the bone. I didn’t have any of the tiny boiling onions, but I did have some regular onions that were very small, so I ended up quartering them (through both ends so they’d just maybe hold together during the cooking – they didn’t). I had carrots, red wine, and a pound of mushrooms. And thyme. And cognac, pancetta and chicken broth. So I was able to put this together – not exactly in a flash – but certainly more quickly than with Julia’s recipe.

In the book, Ina Garten explains in the preface to the recipe that she worked for a long, long time finding a coq au vin that would suit her, tasted right, and was easier than the more extensive French method. Her goal was to get it to taste as good as beef is in the bourguignon style dish. Finally someone suggested she take the bourguignon recipe and just adapt it to chicken. That she did, and this is the resulting recipe.

First the pancetta is sautéed in a bit of olive oil. It’s removed, then the chicken pieces are dried, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and browned in the oil. Then they’re removed too. Carrots, onions are added, until they caramelize a little bit, then garlic is added in, finally the cognac is added and ignited. All the chicken and pancetta are returned to the pan, then red wine is poured in, with some chicken broth (I use Penzey’s concentrate for all my chicken broth needs anymore – takes up a small space in the refrigerator), and some fresh thyme. I used my Le Crueset pot, so it was lidded and the pot went into a 250 oven (yes, really 250) for about 30-40 minutes, just until the chicken is no longer pink inside.

coq au vin in potThere’s the pot just out of the oven. The chicken is succulently soft and the veggies are still holding together at that point. I removed the bone-in chicken thighs to a bowl to cool slightly (and eventually I removed the bones and skin, just because it’s easier to eat). That chicken went back into the pot.

I made a roux (softened butter and flour mixed together between your fingers) and dropped those pieces into the stew, which was back on a very low heat on the stovetop. It took just a couple of minutes for the sauce to thicken up just some.

Then I heated up a large nonstick skillet, added some butter and sautéed the mushrooms (smaller ones were left whole – larger ones thickly sliced) until they were just barely tender. If they’re done over a fairly high heat they don’t ever get mushy from fluid. They were poured into the stew pot and just stirred in. I tasted the broth/sauce. For me it needed nary a grain of salt or pepper. I have reduced the amount of salt called for in the recipe because I think it would have been overkill. It was sublimely perfect as is.

The chicken was absolutely marvelous. Divine. Perfectly tender. Not dry. And the sauce? Oh my. I wish I had a bowl full of it. There was nothing else to do but sprinkle on some finely minced parsley (not in the recipe). And eat. And eat.
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Coq au Vin (Ina Garten’s version)

Recipe By: Ina Garten’s Back to Basics cookbook
Serving Size: 8
NOTES: According to Ina’s recipe, this serves 6. Usually a 3 1/2 pound chicken would serve 4, so I upped the servings. I used chicken thighs – a combination of bone-in and boneless. In Ina’s book recipe (this one came from the Food Network site), the Cognac is ignited when it’s added to the pan. I don’t know why that step was removed from the online version.

4 ounces bacon — or pancetta, diced
2 whole chickens — each cut in 8 pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound carrots — cut diagonally in 1-inch pieces
1 whole yellow onion — sliced
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup Cognac — or good brandy
1/2 bottle dry red wine — such as Burgundy, (375 ml)
1 cup chicken stock — preferably homemade
10 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons unsalted butter — at room temperature, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 pound frozen small whole onions
1/2 pound mushrooms — cremini, stems removed and thickly sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the bacon and cook over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove the bacon to a plate with a slotted spoon.
3. Meanwhile, lay the chicken out on paper towels and pat dry. Sprinkle the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. When the bacon is removed, brown the chicken pieces in batches in a single layer for about 5 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove the chicken to the plate with the bacon and continue to brown until all the chicken is done. Set aside.
4. Add the carrots, onions to the pan and cook over medium heat for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the Cognac, ignite it with a long match and STAND BACK until the alcohol burns off. Turn off any fan when you do this step. Add the bacon, chicken, and any juices that collected on the plate into the pot. Add the wine, chicken stock, and thyme and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and place in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is just not pink. Remove from the oven and place on top of the stove.
5. Mash 1 tablespoon of butter and the flour together and stir into the stew. Add the frozen onions. In a medium saute pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and cook the mushrooms over medium-low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until browned. Add to the stew. Bring the stew to a simmer and cook for another 10 minutes. Season to taste. Serve hot.
Per Serving (recipe assumes you consume all the skin and bones, so it’s way too high): 970 Calories; 68g Fat (65.9% calories from fat); 70g Protein; 9g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 359mg Cholesterol; 768mg Sodium.

A year ago: Yellow squash & zucchini “linguine” (a side vegetable)
Two years ago: Pink Sangria

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  1. Joanne

    said on November 19th, 2009:

    A good friend of mine went to a book signing by Ina Garten and surprised me by sending a signed copy of her new cookbook to me here in Geneva. I was like a little kid looking through all the recipes! One of the first recipes I made was the Coq au Vin. I followed the recipe and the results were amazing!!! My husband and two sons absolutely loved it and were vying over who would get the leftover portion. It’s funny that I read your blog this morning as I was thinking about making it for friends this weekend.

    I agree, Joanne. This Ina Garten recipe is just the best. I will become my forever go-to recipe from now on! . . .carolyn t

  2. cristina

    said on December 2nd, 2010:

    Hi, I was wondering if your sauce for Ina’s coq au vin was more like a soup/broth or was it more like gravy consistency. After I added the roux (her exact measure), and cooked down a bit, it still seems rather like soup consistency. Though it is delicious. Just wondering about it.

    Hi Cristina – it’s been awhile since I posted that recipe (and I’ve made it just once), but yes, I think it was a bit thin. If you prefer it thicker, make just a bit more of the roux. I might do that myself next time! . . . carolyn t

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