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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 Salad Dressings, Salads, on May 31st, 2008.

syrian pita bread salad with lemon dressing
Searching through my salad recipes the other day, I rounded up about 5-8 recipes that I’ve made before (but prior to when I started photographing all my cooking) or haven’t made, but want to. As soon as I saw the piece of paper this recipe was on, it flooded back fond memories. Back in the days when I was working. Once in awhile we’d have a potluck lunch. We had some goooood cooks amongst our staff, and I count a number of my favorite recipes as products of those potlucks. Among them, that I have blogged about: Vicki’s Harlequin Pinwheel Cookies, Kathy’s Monterey Scalloped Potatoes, Kathleen’s Almond Custard. Others that I haven’t blogged:  this, Joanne’s Syrian Bread Salad. Also her Triple Chocolate Cookies. And Debbie’s Apple Pie. Or yes, Kathleen’s Pretzel Dessert, and Eileen’s Pineapple Cream Cheese Dip. Audré’s Curried Deviled Eggs. And on and on it goes.

Joanne is Swedish by heritage, and the last I heard, she was living outside Paris with her hubby and family. She used to kid herself that she’s a SAP, a Swedish American Princess. She married a successful businessman, who happens to be Lebanese by heritage. So Joanne learned to cook a lot of Lebanese dishes including this salad, which is often called fattoush (pronounced fah-toosh). Joanne brought it to several of our potlucks, and we all loved it. It’s tart (from the lemon juice dressing), crunchy (from the pita) and altogether very refreshing (from the combo of cucumbers, green onions, tomatoes, parsley and mint). It also has the addition of zahtar. Since I assume that some of you don’t know much about zahtar, you’re about to be educated.

Zahtar is to the Middle East like curry powder is to India. Meaning that it’s ubiquitous to that region. But, zahtar is also a combination of herbs and spices and can be different from one cook to another, just like curry powder. If you’re interested in a lot of history, read Wikipedia’s explanation of zahtar. But suffice to say that zahtar is generally a mixture of oregano, hyssop, marjoram and thyme. My zahtar (that I buy from Penzey’s) contains sesame seeds, sumac (which gives it the red color), thyme and salt. So, you can see how different purveyors will make a different product.

The salad is very easy – providing you have the fresh lemon juice (check), the pita (check), the mint (I prefer fresh, check), tomatoes (check), green onions (check), and parsley (Italian, check). I always have the other stuff on hand (lettuce, in this case romaine, cucumber, garlic, scallions, olive oil, zahtar and ground allspice). Since I’m a huge fan of lemon juice in salad dressings, there’s no question I love this salad. The original recipe didn’t indicate it, but I toast the pita bread pieces in the oven for about 4-6 minutes until just beginning to turn golden brown. That way they’re a bit crunchy in the salad.  I also prefer the fresh mint (a lot of it, actually, and I use more than the recipe indicates). The two recipes Joanne gave me had one with fresh and one with dried. So, your choice. Although the salad is called a bread salad, the pita chips aren’t predominant in the salad. It’s a green salad, but with the lovely crunch of toasted pita chips. And the delish lemon dressing. And mint. Well, you all got it. I love this salad.
printer-friendly PDF

Syrian Pita Bread Salad

Recipe adapted from: Joanne H.
Servings: 6
NOTES: To toast the pita, separate into pieces and spray with olive oil spray, then bake at 400 for 4-6 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool before proceeding. And since lemons vary in tartness, taste the dressing – it may need more or less (in which case add a bit more oil).

1 large pita bread round — separated, chopped, toasted
1 small clove garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice — or more if preferred
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon zahtar
1 head Romaine lettuce or other salad greens
1 cup cucumber — diced
2 whole scallions — minced
1 cup Italian parsley — chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint — chopped
4 medium tomatoes — chunks

1. In a blender container combine garlic clove and salt. Blend and allow to sit while you gather other ingredients. This draws out the garlic flavor, makes it more prominent.
2. Add allspice and zahtar, then oil and lemon juice to blender bowl and blend until thoroughly combined. Pour into a container. You may not use all the dressing in the salad.
3. In a large salad bowl combine all the remaining ingredients. Pour dressing over the salad and taste. May need additional salt. I also add pepper, although it’s not in the original recipe.
Per Serving: 237 Calories; 19g Fat (67.6% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 16g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 436mg Sodium.

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  1. Sue (coffeepot)

    said on June 1st, 2008:

    I love bread salads. Thanks for the info on zatar because I had never heard of it.

  2. Carolyn

    said on June 3rd, 2008:

    You can make your own zahtar if you have the ingredients. I don’t suppose zahtar keeps all that long (any herbs and spices mixed up together seem to lose potency much faster) but I don’t use it all that often. The most common thing (based only on observation) is that they use it for sprinkling on sliced tomatoes, which are standard fare for breakfast, lunch or dinner anywhere in that part of the world. We saw it in both Egypt and Turkey – sitting next to the platter of quartered tomatoes, along side the hard boiled eggs and sliced cucumbers (that was for breakfast).

  3. yvette

    said on July 5th, 2010:

    Carolyn,
    I served this salad at my Fourth of July party. The dressing was so tasty. I also loved the crunch from the pita in the salad. I found the spice, zahtar, at Whole Foods. This does belong on “Carolyn’s Fav” list.

    Thanks, Yvette. So glad you enjoyed it! . . . carolyn t

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