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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

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 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).

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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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