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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 Salads, on November 23rd, 2009.

cranberry apple salad

For any number of years at Thanksgiving dinner I made a Jell-O salad with peach flavor(I think Jell-O used to produce a peach flavor, but in more recent years I’ve found only somebody else’s brand instead), filled with apples, celery and walnuts. My mother used to make a frozen fruit cocktail kind of salad with peeled grapes, of all things, mixed with whipped cream and frozen in a can, then sliced into a large discs and served on a lettuce leaf. I thought it was too rich, so when I began cooking the big feast I changed to other things. That’s when the Jell-O salad hit my radar back in the 1960’s. And it stayed there for a whole lot of years.

Why did I make Jell-O? Well, it was something I could make ahead; it wasn’t heavy; it had a sweet hint to it so it fit in with the turkey meal quite well; and it also offered crunch. When you think about it . . . follow along with me here . . . what else is on the plate? Turkey? Soft. Dressing? Soft. Mashed Potatoes? Soft. Sweet potatoes? Soft. Gravy? Really Soft. Peas maybe? Soft. Maybe a corn casserole? Very soft. Rolls maybe? Soft. See where I’m going here? Everything else about Thanksgiving is soft food. Tasty, but without much texture. So I liked the bit of crunch offered by the apple, celery and nuts in the gelatin salad. But then one of our grown daughters begged for a green salad. She loves green salad. Okay, so I made green salad, even though I didn’t exactly think a garden salad went with the meal all that well, but it was okay. Lots of people did eat it. I didn’t make both a green and a gelatin salad, though. So for some years I’ve made green salad as our only side salad.

Until this year, that is. This new recipe will be a part of my Thanksgiving dinner. It is so festive. And colorful!  It is crunchy (from the apples and pecans). Much of it can be made ahead too. Although you do have to compose it just before serving, that’s all. I suppose you could just mix this all up together, but it would lose something, I think. Some people wouldn’t get many cranberries; others would get too many apples, or nary any. And it definitely wouldn’t be as pretty as the individual plated version. I’ll be able to assign the assembly task to one of our dinner guests.

Kitchen Tip about Apples:

To keep apples from turning brown, put them in a bowl and cover with Sprite (not Diet). They will keep at room temp for 4-5 hours. Just drain it off when you’re ready to finish whatever you’re cooking. And the apples don’t care that the Sprite has lost its fizz – it’s the citric acid that does the deed, not the fizz.

The recipe for this salad came from a Thanksgiving cooking class with Phillis Carey. That woman is a wonder – she comes up with the most interesting ideas, this being one of them. The lime juice dressing was perfect for it. And again Phillis shared a kitchen tip with us that I keep forgetting. Did you know that if you want to keep apples from getting brown you just cover the chopped fruit or slices with Sprite. Yes, Sprite, the carbonated beverage. Not Diet Sprite, but the real stuff. And Phillis assured us that the apples keep at room temp for 4-5 hours without getting brown. Then you pour out the Sprite. She keeps a big bottle of it in her spare refrigerator. Stale Sprite. The apples don’t care that it doesn’t have any more fizz in it. You can’t use Diet – it doesn’t contain citric acid. Neither does 7-Up, or any other lemon-lime soda. Just SPRITE! So I now have a small stash of Sprite in my pantry. I just keep forgetting this great kitchen gem.

So anyway, back to this salad. Phillis calls it layered because it is sort-of layered on the plate. There’s a lettuce layer on the bottom, the apple pecan layer (you drain off the Sprite and discard it) on top of that, kind of in a flat mound in the middle, then you make a small well in the middle of the apples and spoon in a bit of the fresh cranberry/sugar mixture that sat overnight in the refrigerator. That’s it. The apple mixture can be prepared ahead (remember, Sprite soaking), the pecans toasted and chopped, the green onions sliced ahead, even the salad mixture too. The dressing would be best whisked together just before serving, BUT have all the ingredients handy and it should take no more than about 2 minutes to whisk it up. Half goes on the apples (drained of their Sprite), the other half on the lettuce. I’m telling you, this salad is a must fix. Even for some other time of year if you have access to cranberries!
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Cranberry, Apple Pecan Layered Salad

Recipe By: A cooking class with Phillis Carey
Serving Size: 8

CRANBERRY LAYER:
2 cups fresh cranberries — coarsely chopped
1/4 cup sugar
DRESSING:
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
APPLE LAYER:
3 large Granny Smith apples — peeled, cored, coarsely chopped About a cup of Sprite beverage (not Diet)
1 1/3 cups pecans — toasted (350 6-10 minutes) and chopped
1/3 cup green onions — sliced
SALAD:
2 heads Romaine lettuce — torn in bite sized pieces

1. Pick through the cranberries and throw out any soft or unripe ones. Combine in a bowl the coarsely chopped cranberries and sugar. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about 24 hours.
2. Place apples in a small bowl. If you’re doing this ahead, cover the apples in Sprite beverage and set aside. The apples will stay firm and bright for 4-5 hours in the liquid. When ready to proceed with recipe, drain off the Sprite (and discard), then add the green onions to the apples.
3. In a medium bowl whisk lime juice and mustard. Add oil in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Pour half the dressing on the apples. Then add the pecans.
4. Toss the lettuce with the remainder of the dressing.
5. To serve, divide lettuce among salad plates and top it with the apple mixture. Keep apples together in a small sort-of flattish shape (not sprinkled all over the lettuce). Make a small well in the center of the apples and spoon in the cranberry mixture.
Per Serving: 390 Calories; 33g Fat (71.8% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 24g Carbohydrate; 7g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 42mg Sodium.

A year ago: Mushroom Soup with Meatballs & Cream
Two years ago: Pumpkin Bread Pudding

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