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Am just starting News of the World: A Novel by William Morris. 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 requires me to read it. It’s about an old man, during the early, old wild west times, who goes from town to town and people pay him money to read the newspaper to them. (Imagine, there WAS such a job.) By chance he’s asked to take a very young girl to Texas to reunite with her family. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby, raised by them, and she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!).

Just finished Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

Recently finished reading The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Also just read Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

Also read H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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