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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 Beef, on October 18th, 2010.

Do you know what a la mode means? It’s French, and originally meant in the current style, or fashion. I believe it may have pertained more to clothing than food. But here, and in French cooking, a la mode does still mean in vogue, in style. Restaurants here in the U.S. use the phrase a la mode to describe a dessert when it’s served with ice cream. Like apple pie a la mode.

This pot roast – well, it’s just that this has been in style for at least a century, and it’s just so infinitely good. Delicious. Succulent. Comfort food. Melt in your mouth scrumptious.

Picnik collageThis is a recipe I’ve been using for about 40 years. Gee, that makes me feel ancient. 40 years. It appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune in October of 1973. I have an aging yellowed newspaper clipping that I scotch taped to the page in my ring binder and had written in the date. The short article was written by a food writer named  Zolita Vincent. I have adapted it (more wine, seasonings, different side veggies, and I make it with a smaller piece of meat).

PICTURED LEFT: (1) that’s the 9×13 pan I started with, lined it with two pieces of heavy-duty foil – I patched two together with a seam in the middle; (2) the chuck roast nestled in the middle; (3) the roast was broiled/browned on one side with the red onions and carrots nestled alongside – they got broiled too – for about 5 minutes; and (4) once browned on both sides and the red wine and other stuff was added, I sealed it up tight as a drum and it went into the oven for 3+ hours.

In the traditional French method (I looked at one of my Julia Child cookbooks for this) the roast is marinated in red wine and herbs for 2-3 days before it’s baked. I didn’t plan that far ahead, and never seem to.

This recipe is a short-cut method of making the plan-ahead recipe. Part of the great flavor comes, though, from the red wine you pour all over the roast. Since it’s baked at a low heat (300°), it just barely simmers, which makes the meat so tender and succulent. The onions, carrots and celery also provide a lot of flavor (you toss those out after the roast is done – they’ve expended all their flavor to the roast and the sauce). So you make other veggies to serve with this, or you can open up the foil packet about 1 1/2 hours before it’s done and add new onions, carrots and some potatoes, if you choose.

Personally, I prefer mashed potatoes with a pot roast any day. And that’s what I did this time. I also quick-sautéed some thinly sliced mushrooms in some olive oil and butter to serve along side. I’d also baked a couple of red onions too, for the last hour (not sealed in foil, though).

Once the roast was done, I poured out all the liquid in that foil packet into a saucepan (leaving the roast inside, and resealed it to keep it warm), and added some thickening. Actually I tried using something new . . . I read about this stuff in the King Arthur Flour catalog – it’s called Signature Secrets Culinary Thickener. Like using flour or cornstarch (which is what my original recipe called for), this new-fangled stuff will dissolve and thicken without mixing with water, doesn’t clump, and will thicken even COLD liquid. Imagine that? I’m a new believer in this stuff. It’s not cheap, but you only use a tablespoon or so at a time. Great product.

Anyway, I thickened the sauce/gravy, added just a bit of water because it was a tad too salty for me, and spooned it over the slices (well, you can hardly slice the meat as it falls apart with the touch of a fork) and over the mashed potatoes. I think you could make the pot roast in a crock pot too, although I’ve not tried adapting this recipe to that method.

Yum is all I can say. And if you’re a regular reader of my blog, and I tell you this one is a keeper, trust me. You can do all the prep work ahead of time (don’t broil/brown the meat, though until you’re ready to roast it).

printer-friendly PDF

French Pot Roast a la Mode

Recipe By: Adapted from an ancient newspaper clipping, circa 1970.
Serving Size: 6
NOTES: If you’d prefer to have roasted potatoes too, remove the foil sealed pouch and pan about 1 hour before it’s done and add potatoes to the mixture. Seal back up and continue roasting. I prefer this with mashed potatoes.

3 pounds beef chuck roast — trimmed of exterior fat
2 medium red onions — peeled, wedged
3 whole carrots — peeled, cut in big chunks
1 stalk celery — cut in 2-3 pieces
3 whole garlic cloves — peeled, smashed
2 teaspoons dried thyme — crushed in between your palms
2 whole bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups red wine
1 teaspoon beef soup base — or bouillon cubes
1/4 cup brandy
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons cornstarch — or other thickening agent
3 tablespoons Italian parsley — minced
5 large baking potatoes — made into mashed potatoes
2 cups mushrooms — sliced, sauteed in olive oil and butter

1. Preheat oven to broil. Place two layers of heavy-duty foil in a 9×13 roasting pan. Leave long ends (or seal two long pieces together to make one larger piece). Make an interior nest with the foil.
2. Place the chunk of beef in the middle of the foil. Prepare onions, carrots and celery and nestle them around the outside of the meat.
3. Broil the meat on one side, until it’s golden to dark brown, watching so the vegetables don’t burn. Turn roast over, and the vegetables too, and broil the other side until it’s brown. Remove from oven and add all other ingredients to the roast. Seal carefully, rolling ends in to completely seal up the meat. Turn oven temp to 300°.
4. Place meat, in the roasting pan, in oven and bake for about 3 hours.
5. Open the pouch and using a strainer, pour out the juices into a small saucepan. Seal up the meat and veggies and place them back in the oven (turn off the oven).
6. Taste the sauce and check seasoning. Mix the cornstarch with a little bit of water and add to the sauce as it’s heating up over medium heat. Cook until it’s a thin-gravy consistency, then pour into a small pitcher.
7. During the last 30 minutes of baking, separately prepare the potatoes and mushrooms.
7. Discard the vegetables in the packet (they’re tasteless from such a long roasting time). Garnish with Italian parsley and serve.
Per Serving: 734 Calories; 36g Fat (49.1% calories from fat); 41g Protein; 43g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 131mg Cholesterol; 585mg Sodium.

A year ago: Italian Sausage and Tomato Soup (a real favorite)
Two years ago: Wednesday Breakfast Scones (from a Portland, Oregon bakery)
Three years ago: Heavenly Cream Cheese Brownies

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