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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 Pasta, Pork, on May 30th, 2008.

zinfandel sausage sauce for pasta
I know, the name is odd, isn’t it? I suppose I could just change the name and claim the recipe as my own, but that’s not fair to the originator of this sauce, so I’ve always referred to it by her title. It’s not just any old spaghetti sauce, as we’d be likely to call it, and surely Camille Stagg meant for us to take notice. This isn’t your ordinary red – either the wine OR the sauce. Camille Stagg is a well-known journalist, travel writer, and must live in Chicago, as she’s written a book about gourmet haunts in that town. She consults with some wineries and wine distributors (clubs), as I found other recipes listed by her in a couple of places on the internet.

Many years ago we used to have two bottles of wine delivered to us each month by a small company up in Emeryville, California. And each month the wine purveyor included a write-up about the wines in the box, AND a recipe suitable for that wine. Likely this recipe came in with a box of zin, since it calls for the wine in the recipe. It sounded so intriguing, I had to try it. We were going to have a wine tasting at our home a week or so later, and I asked each guest couple to bring a bottle of wine and food to serve with it. Specifically, they were to bring something that would complement their wine type. We stood around our kitchen island with 4 (small) glasses of wine in front of us, and sampled food with each wine. It was fun, and we really liked this sauce.

Having not made this for several years, I had to refresh my memory about what was different about it (it uses nearly a whole bottle of zin for 5 pounds of sausage). Once you combine the sausage, onions, mushrooms, garlic and seasonings, you can either simmer it on the range, or put it in a crockpot for long, slow simmering. I did the latter and kept it at high for about 4 hours to help boil off the wine. The sauce is thin to start, and must be simmered down to reduce it. Obviously, it’s a heavy sauce, redolent with the winy taste, and complemented with a large quantity of mushrooms. It’s an extremely dark-colored sauce – zin wine certainly stains nearly anything it touches anyway, so the meat takes on the dark red color as well. You can use your own combination of sausage – the recipe calls for half hot and half sweet. It’s zesty, I’ll give you that! Zinfandel is a zesty wine in and of itself – most people describe it as spicy. And the hot/spicy sausage ups the ante. If you don’t like spicy sausage, use all sweet Italian. This freezes well. Over the years I’ve increased the recipe volume – you can certainly halve it easily enough. I like to have leftovers to freeze. Linguine is my pasta of choice for this. I also increased the amount of wine in the recipe, but not by much.
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Zinfandel Sausage Sauce for Pasta

Recipe By: adapted from one by Camille Stagg
Serving Size: 15
I caution you about one thing, though:  canned tomato sauce – most are very, very high in sodium. When this sauce reduces down, the sauce will be too salty, so I recommend you use a low or no added sodium tomato sauce. Read the label!

2 1/2 lb Italian sausage — hot
2 1/2 lb Italian sausage — sweet
3 whole onions — minced
1 1/2 lb mushrooms — sliced
4 c red wine — Zinfandel style
48 oz tomato sauce — low sodium
1/2 c Italian parsley
6 cloves garlic — minced
3 tbsp fresh basil
3 tbsp dried oregano
3 tbsp dried rosemary
Salt & pepper to taste, or no salt at all depending on the sodium in the tomato sauce
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. In a large, heavy skillet, slowly brown the crumbled sausage; drain off fat. Add onion and sauté until limp, then add garlic and mushrooms. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes.
2. Add Zinfandel wine, tomato sauce, herbs and spices. Bring to a boil, partially cover pan, and reduce to a simmer.
3. Cook for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is reduced to a thick consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve over cooked pasta and top with grated parmesan. This freezes well. It is best if prepared a day ahead.
Per Serving: 641 Calories; 49g Fat (73.4% calories from fat); 26g Protein; 14g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 118mg Cholesterol; 1775mg

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  1. Amanda

    said on January 5th, 2010:

    I just made this and fed it to 3 big eating, very hungry 20 year old boys. They LOVED it, as did I! Will be freezing the extra and eating some more tomorrow!

    Am so glad you liked it! I haven’t made it in eons, but it’s definitely a favorite. . . carolyn t

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