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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 June 18th, 2007.

Sorry about the blurred photo. I enhanced it as much as possible in my photo program, but this is as good as it gets. We had the family for dinner to celebrate Father’s Day, and I quickly snapped this and didn’t check it before shutting off the camera. When you do a close-up with a digital camera, it’s harder to keep perfectly still, so I try to be very conscious of that when I finally click the shutter.

But, that doesn’t mean the salad isn’t wonderful. I saw Ina Garten demonstrate this on her food network program, probably 2 years ago. It’s from her book, Barefoot Contessa at Home. Maybe the peas and spinach seem like an unlikely combination, but it sure works. Over the years I’ve used pesto in pasta dishes, of course, and to dollop on the top of certain soups, and as a dip, but never would have considered it as a salad dressing. I had some homemade pesto in the refrigerator, so this was a simple dish to throw together. Trader Joe’s carries a baby spinach, which is preferable here. Regular spinach is just too big for a salad – the pieces are too large without cutting them. I suppose you could do that, but the baby spinach just makes it so simple. I do tear off some of the larger stems, but most of them stay in the salad.

I find this salad goes so very well with a grilled dinner – chicken, steaks, pork chops, even fish. I hate to sound redundant, but this salad is SO simple. You just have to toast the pine nuts (I use a nonstick frying pan) and I caution you if you haven’t done this before – watch the pan very very carefully or they will burn. Pine nuts contain a high percentage of oil, so they burn very rapidly. I keep pine nuts in the freezer at all times, so just remove what you need for a meal.

And, the other thing I do is add more Parmesan cheese (that’s my addition to Ina’s recipe). Often, I believe, when you buy ready-made pesto, it doesn’t contain as much cheese as your own homemade variety, so I add some to the salad itself. It adds some color contrast too.
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Pesto Pea (Spinach) Salad

Recipe: Barefoot Contessa at Home by Ina Garten
Servings : 4

2 cups frozen peas — baby peas, if possible
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 1/2 cups spinach leaves — baby spinach, if possible
4 tablespoons pesto sauce
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1. If you’re in a hurry, run hot water over the peas; otherwise, defrost them in the refrigerator for several hours.
2. Toast the pine nuts in a frying pan until golden brown. Watch them carefully as they burn quickly.
3. Place the spinach leaves in a salad bowl. Sprinkle with peas. Add pesto and toss. Sprinkle Parmesan and pine nuts on top and serve.
Notes: If you want to make Ina Garten’s pesto for this: In a food processor combine 1/4 cup walnuts, 1/4 cup pine nuts and about 9 medium garlic cloves, peeled. Process for about 30 seconds. Add 5 cups of basil leaves, 1 tsp kosher salt and 1 tsp black pepper. With the processor running, slowly pour in 1 1/2 cups good olive oil through the feed tube and process until the pesto is finely pureed. Add 1 cup Parmesan cheese and puree for about 30 more seconds, stopping once to scrape down the sides. Pour into a tall container and float a little olive oil on top and store in refrigerator. Makes about 2 cups – a lot more than you need for the salad recipe. This salad likes a generous amount of pesto – the tendency is to not do enough. However, there’s a fine line – don’t add too much, either. So, taste as you go.
Per Serving: 171 Calories; 10g Fat (52.3% calories from fat); 9g Protein; 12g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 6mg Cholesterol; 245mg Sodium.

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