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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 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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