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Just finished reading The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant. A very, very intriguing book. The book is written from the voice of a Jewish grandmother as she tells her granddaughter the saga of her life starting about 1910, who struggles with her own individuality, with her domineering mother who never says a kind word to her. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story as she grows up, finds a job, makes friends, joins a literary girls club, moves out, but still suffers under her mother’s thumb and tongue. She becomes a reporter on a local newspaper, which opens her eyes to more of the world than she ever knew. She finally meets the right man (of course!) and she shares the stories about her life, and her friends and family members as she grows up, giving some sage advice along the way. Part of the time she’s talking to herself – to her young self  (really wanting to tell young Addie to keep on, forgive herself for her perceived transgressions, to live life, and experience the world).

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Rivers is a prodigious writer of Christian fiction, and I’d never read anything by her until now. As I write this, I’ve already read this, another one (below) and just purchased the Kindle trilogy called Mark of the Lion (Vol 1-3) that I haven’t yet started. (Two of my friends have said the trilogy is her best.) Redeeming Love details the fictional story of a godly man, Michael Hosea, forging his way in the era of the Gold Rush. He’s “driven” to rescue a beautiful prostitute who lives and works her trade in a nearby town. The entire book is about the story, the rescue, and it parallels a bit of scripture about Hosea who rescues a prostitute names Gomer. You get into the heads of both Hosea and the prostitute, named Angel. We read this for one of my book groups. A great read.

As soon as I finished the above book I promptly visited my church library and found a whole shelf of Rivers’ books, and grabbed one called The Atonement Child. This book takes place in the 1980s or 90s, about a young college student who is raped. She was engaged to be married, was a stellar student. The book chronicles what happens to her when she discovers she is pregnant from the rape. Every possible thing goes wrong in her life. I don’t want to spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it, but I couldn’t put it down. I ended up spending a good part of a day plowing through it. You hear her inner voice (I’m guessing this is a common thread in Rivers’ books) from a Christian perspective. Lots of meaty issues to discuss in a book club if your group would be interested and willing to talk about rape, abortion, adoption and the thorny issues surrounding all of those things, but with a Christian bent, for sure.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen. It’s kind of amazing how many and varied plot lines can be created from events of WWII. This is another one, about a current day woman who finds papers in the attic, after her father’s death, with references to “the child.” She never knew her father could have had another child – could she have a step-sibling somewhere? Her father she knew, had been shot down over Italy, but he never talked much about it. But of course, she must go to Italy to find out about this “child.” The book flips back and forth from this daughter on the search, to her father during the war, all of it taking place in a very small town in Tuscany. It’s about the varied people she meets who want her to go away and not dredge up anything about the war years (are they hiding something, you question), about how much she loves the landscape, and some of the people. And about the intense love affair between the injured pilot and a caring woman of the village. Very charming story. I could almost smell the flowers, taste the olives, hear the bees flitting, and loved the prose about the simple meals that were described. I really enjoyed the book. Perhaps not enough meat for a book club read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it nonetheless.

Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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.

 

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 Chicken, Pork, on February 9th, 2011.

easy_cassoulet

Well, now. Let me just say, right here at the beginning, that this dish is just off-the-charts delicious. It may not look like that much in the photo – I mean, it is a casserole. But oh, the flavors in this! And although it’s called an easy cassoulet, it’s not something you can throw together in 30 minutes. Nope. Probably takes about 1 1/2 hours or so to do it all.

In case you aren’t familiar with cassoulet (pronounced cass-eau-lay in French), let me just enlighten you. It means a slow-cooked bean stew or casserole. Typically a cassoulet contains some pork, some sausage and some duck. This version contains pork (chops), smoked sausage (kielbasa chunks) and some chicken thighs. And canned beans, to make it as easy as possible. It has some other things, minor stars, to be sure, to add character and flavor or texture. I think I could eat this dish at least once a week – and likely in Southern France, many families do, with some leftovers from the last dish incorporated into the new dish, to keep the flavors moving onward.

The below photo shows the cassoulet with the topping – the croutons that are crumbled on top just before serving, along with the fresh herbs – Italian parsley and thyme. The meats (the pork chops and chicken and the coins of kielbasa) are scooped into a middle layer in between a bean layer on the bottom, and another bean layer on top. I topped mine with a thin layer of grated Parmesan cheese. Once it bakes until it’s bubbling hot, you add a thin layer of croutons and sprinkle on some more fresh herbs and serve immediately. To absolute raves.

cassoulet_close_upThis recipe, with a couple of modifications, came from Cathy Thomas, the food editor of our local newspaper, in a December, 2010 article. The original of this easy version started with a recipe from Bon Appetit. Cathy Thomas tweaked it some. She says this is one of her favorite company meals. You can make a double batch if you’re feeding a crowd. Now, I did tweak it a little bit too, from Cathy’s version, as I mentioned above – I didn’t have smoked pork chops. I had regular pork chops – so I used those and then added in two slices of smoked, thick sliced bacon. The other change I made is probably very non-traditional – I sprinkled the top of the casserole with some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. I wanted that umami taste. The croutons are a last minute garnish – I toasted the fresh bread cubes  (from a regular baguette) tossed in a little bit of oil for about 15 minutes in the oven, then I sealed them in a quart-sized ziploc bag and used a pounder to break the cubes into smaller pieces. Those, then, were sprinkled on the top just before serving, along with the fresh herbs that gave the dish some color. The croutons give a delicious crunch to every bite, and they soak up a little liquid from the casserole too. Definitely don’t eliminate the croutons – they help make the dish, in my opinion.

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Easy Cassoulet

Recipe By: Adapted from Cathy Thomas, Orange County Register, 12/2010 (she started with a Bon Appetit recipe)
Serving Size: 8
NOTES: Seasoning blend: use some kind of spicy, non-salt based seasoning for the chicken. Make your own if you don’t have one on your spice shelf. Croutons: cut up about 1 1/2 cups of fresh baguette, drizzle lightly with oil and bake at 425 for 4-7 minutes until bread is golden. Cool. Place in a plastic bag and use mallet or pounder to break apart the croutons into smaller pieces. You should have about 1 cup of crumbs and chunks.

1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs — cut into 2″ cubes
Seasoning blend to taste (see notes)
3 tablespoons olive oil — divided use
3 ounces smoked bacon — diced
1 pound pork chops — smoked or regular, about 1 pound, cut into chunks
1 large onion — chopped (or 2 smaller onions)
2 large garlic cloves — minced
3/4 cup chicken broth — plus 1/4 cup more if needed
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 whole bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
30 ounces canned great northern beans — 15-ounce cans, drained
30 ounces canned cannelini beans — 15-ounce cans, drained
3/4 pound Polish sausage — (turkey or pork), cut into 1/2-inch diagonal slices
1 cup Parmesan cheese — grated
Herb mixture: 6 tablespoons minced fresh parsley combined with 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme — divided use
1 cup croutons garnish (see notes)

1. Fifteen minutes before baking, preheat oven to 400° degrees. Generously season chicken thighs with seasoning blend on both sides. Place in single layer on small baking dish and bake until thoroughly cooked, about 25 to 30 minutes in preheated oven.
2. Meanwhile, place 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 5-quart, deep, ovenproof casserole. Add bacon and pork chops. Bake uncovered in preheated oven for 20 minutes, turning chops once and stirring pancetta.
3. In a large skillet, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add onions and garlic. Cook on medium-high until onion is transparent, stirring occasionally. Stir in broth, tomato paste, bay leaf and pepper. Cover and simmer for 2 minutes.
4. Stir in beans and 4 tablespoons fresh herb mixture. Simmer for 2 minutes.
5. Remove chops and bacon from casserole, draining any excess oil. Do not wash casserole. Pour half the bean mixture into casserole. Add bacon, chops, chicken thighs and sausage. Top with remaining bean mixture. If mixture seems dry, add 1/4 cup of chicken broth. Top with Parmesan cheese.
6. Bake, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes (or 35-40 minutes if it has been refrigerated). Discard bay leaf. Taste and add salt if needed. Garnish with croutons and remaining fresh herb mixture.
Per Serving: 612 Calories; 34g Fat (50.6% calories from fat); 41g Protein; 34g Carbohydrate; 9g Dietary Fiber; 115mg Cholesterol; 1330mg Sodium.

A year ago: Shchi (a Russian pork and cabbage soup)
Two years ago: A silly post – 25 random things about me you never knew, and probably don’t care about anyway!
Three years ago: Shells with Pancetta and Spinach

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on February 9th, 2011:

    I had to look up Kielbasa but now that I know it is a Polish sausage I should be able to get it from one of our many Polish provision shops. I love any dish that has beans and smoked meat in it. I made a Cabbage, Smoked Bacon and Canellini bean soup today, it went down very well.

    You’ll love this casserole, then, if you like smoked meat. The original calls for smoked pork chops, so if those are easily accessible to you (we don’t find them at regular food stores), by all means use them, eliminate the bacon, but do add in 4-5 ounces of chopped pancetta. Am sure you’ll enjoy this! We’re going to have leftovers for tonight’s dinner. Can’t wait. . . . carolyn t

  2. Marie

    said on February 17th, 2011:

    This sounds fabulous Carolyn! What a wonderful combination. We can’t get smoked pork chops here, but we can get bacon chops. I wonder if they would do. Well, there is only one way to find out!! xxoo

    This was a huge hit with me and with my DH too. We just couldn’t get enough of it. I froze a part of it, so we’ll have some more in a few weeks. . . carolyn t

  3. judy rand

    said on February 17th, 2011:

    Carolyn: I finally found the site. I had a wonderful time at your home and had all of the above recipes. They were delicious. It was a joy and pleasure to be in your lovely home and to experience your wonderful cooking.
    Hugs, and many many thanks
    Judy

    You’re so welcome, Judy. We too enjoyed the evening with you. . . carolyn T

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