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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 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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