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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 aging 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, wealthy women) 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.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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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