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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 Lamb, on July 12th, 2007.

Ah, Shepherd’s Pie. A favorite of mine. But not something that particularly comes to mind when the temperature is in the 80’s, does it? I made a batch of this last winter and one lone casserole was still languishing in the freezer awaiting a night when I can’t cook. I’ve been diagnosed with a broken toe (1) and a very severe ankle sprain, and have been advised to use R.I.C.E.: R(est), I(ce), C(ompression), and E(levation). So, frozen Shepherd’s Pie was a godsend last night.

So, just what is Shepherd’s Pie? Traditionally it’s a ground or minced lamb dish with some vegetables, always some peas, a bit of gravy or sauce, topped with mashed potatoes and baked until hot. Its lineage is British. Cottage pie means it’s made with ground beef. Here’s a bit of history from HGTV (yes, really):The magic of pies dates back to King Henry VIII. Legend has it that the British ruler was livid when he found out that one of his abbots was building an elaborate and expensive kitchen. The wise abbot took the wind out of the King’s anger by sending him a delicious, warm pie. Early pies were predominantly made with meat. Two early examples were shepherd’s pie and cottage pie. Shepherd’s pie was made with lamb and vegetables, and the cottage pie was made with beef and vegetable. Both are topped with potatoes.

I had Shepherd’s Pie when I visited England for the first time in 1977. Fell in love with it at first bite. It’s comfort food, to be sure. Kind of a casserole, if you will, but delicious. Great made with leftovers; in fact, I think that may be part of its origin too, since our Shepherd’s Pie doesn’t include a crust, just the thick layer of mashed potatoes. You have a leftover lamb roast and mashed potatoes? What better use of it than to make a leftovers Shepherd’s Pie.

I had Shepherd’s Pie when I visited England for the first time in 1977. Fell in love with it at first bite. It’s comfort food, to be sure. Kind of a casserole, if you will, but delicious. Great made with leftovers; in fact, I think that may be part of its origin too, since our Shepherd’s Pie doesn’t include a crust, just the thick layer of mashed potatoes. You have a leftover lamb roast and mashed potatoes? What better use of it than to make a leftovers Shepherd’s Pie.

So, some years back I read a recipe in Cooking Light for a jazzed-up version of the dish, and tried it. It added zucchini among other things and contained quite a few vegetables; probably more than the original version would have. It may have used ground chicken, but over the years I’ve reverted back to the lamb. But what’s unique about this is the addition of chipotle pepper AND the use of sweet potato and regular potatoes mixed together. I always – always – make a large batch of this because it’s a great dish to freeze. If you’re not so sure you’ll like it, just make a half a recipe and you’ll have sufficient for several people. If you like Shepherd’s Pie, then you’ll undoubtedly love this dish. If you’re not crazy about hot, spicy food, leave out the chipotle. It’ll be fine that way, just not quite as zippy. The sweet potatoes and Maui onion add a sweetness to the overall dish and some people are turned off by meat tasting sweet. If that’s your M.O., just use white potatoes and regular onions and you’ll have a traditional pie with a zip. I’ve served this to guests on more than one occasion, to great raves.
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Lamb Shepherd’s Pie with Chipotle Sweet Potatoes

Recipe: adapted considerably from Cooking Light, 2002
Servings: 18 (makes 3 casseroles)
Preparation Time: 1:30
NOTES: Shepherd’s Pie has been a favorite of mine since my first trip to Britain in 1977, so anytime I find a new version of it I’m glad to try it. Historically, in Britain, the Pie is made with lamb, but it can be made with ground beef as well. If you use the very leanest beef, it won’t have a whole lot of flavor, unfortunately. I usually increase the amount of vegetables called for in this. If you use the Maui onions, you’ll notice a sweetness to the meat and vegetable section, so you may prefer to use traditional yellow or white onions instead. The original recipe called for just sweet potatoes on top, but I thought that might be a bit too sweet, so mixed them, using about half of each. That, combined with the chipotle chile, gives the potatoes a very rich color.

FILLING:
2 1/2 pounds ground lamb — lean cut
2 whole sweet onions — Maui or other type, chopped
1 1/2 cups carrot — chopped
5 cloves garlic — minced
2 whole zucchini — minced
1 cup celery — chopped
1 1/2 cups mushroom — chopped
2 1/2 cups frozen peas — defrosted
1 cup chopped tomato — canned, in juice
1/3 cup fresh parsley — minced
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon salt — or to taste
POTATO TOPPING:
2 whole chipotle chiles canned in adobo — minced
2 1/2 pounds potatoes — Yukon Gold preferred
1 pound yam — or sweet potatoes
1 cup milk
2/3 cup ricotta cheese

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add chunks of the potatoes and yam; reduce heat and simmer until yam is done and remove those pieces. Continue boiling the potatoes until they are tender, then drain and set aside to cool slightly.
2. While the potatoes are simmering, in a large frying pan heat a little olive oil and add the onion, celery and carrot and sauté for about 7-10 minutes. Cut up the zucchini, mushrooms and garlic and add to the pan, and cook for another 5-10 minutes until zucchini is barely done. Add the parsley, tomatoes, tomato paste, season with salt and pepper and cook for just a few minutes. Remove the vegetables to a bowl and set aside. Drain the frying pan and add the ground lamb and sauté it until it is thoroughly cooked. Drain the meat onto a paper towel if any grease needs to be blotted. Clean out the pan a little bit with paper towels, then add back the lamb and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a simmer, then add all of the vegetables and heat through.
3. Combine the yam and potatoes and using a mixer, whip them until there are no visible lumps. Add the milk, chipotle chiles and ricotta cheese and mix until just combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon the lamb mixture equally into 3 casserole dishes. Spoon the potato mixture on top and using a spatula or flat spoon, push into the corners and more or less “seal” the potatoes to the sides of the casserole dish. This last step really isn’t required, but it keeps the meat and vegetable portion from drying out. You may, if you want, add some grated Cheddar cheese to the top of the potatoes, but it’s not really necessary.
4. If baking immediately, bake for 30 minutes at 400°. If you refrigerate the dish first, it will take nearly an hour to heat it through. Sprinkle the top with additional parsley when serving it. If heating leftovers, it doesn’t take all that long to heat – about 2 minutes in the microwave for a serving.
Serving Ideas : This casserole is easy for freezing ahead. Sometimes potatoes get a bit soft and runny when they’ve been frozen, but once they’ve been heated again they’ll be just fine. If you are freezing one or more of these casseroles, put a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the potatoes and push it in so it’s touching everywhere, even in the corners. This will prevent freezer burn from sitting on the potatoes.
Per Serving 321 Calories; 17g Fat (46.6% calories from fat); 16g Protein; 27g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 53mg Cholesterol; 275mg Sodium.

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  1. Anonymous

    said on July 13th, 2007:

    This looks like one to try for sure! Linda

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