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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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