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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 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

2 cups fresh cranberries — coarsely chopped
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
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
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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