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Just finished reading 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 because 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 a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, Margaret of York, later titled Countess of Salisbury, but 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, too!

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.

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.

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 Soups, Vegetarian, on December 11th, 2011.

farm_house_veggie_soup

There are a couple of secret ingredients in this soup that help to make this soup an over-the-top version. First – a tiny little glug of soy sauce. Second – a little amount of dried porcini mushrooms  that are ground up to a powder. Who’d think those two things could make such a difference?

When I made this about a week ago, I was recovering from a cold, and some good, hot vegetable soup sounded so restorative to me. And I had about a quart of turkey stock in the refrigerator, leftover from Thanksgiving. It needed to be used, or else frozen. Then I read my most recent issue of Cook’s Illustrated (the Nov/Dec 2011 issue) and there was a long article about vegetable soups. I read it from beginning to end. In it, the author labored long and hard over how to enhance a vegetable soup. He added this and that. He discarded a number of sample batches. But he finally determined that adding in a hint of soy sauce just gave the soup that umami taste we’re all looking for. And the same with the porcini mushroom powder. I’ll have to remember that idea because you could easily add some of that to almost any soup.

So, for this big batch of soup that serves at least 6-8 for a dinner meal, you add just two teaspoons of soy sauce and also 2 teaspoons of porcini mushroom powder (you make this yourself in your spice grinder). That’s not much – but I assure you, it makes a difference. The recipe also has you make a little compound butter (butter, lemon zest, fresh thyme and a tiny bit of lemon juice) which you can spoon onto the top of the soup when it’s served. The butter is hard to see it in my photo at top – it’s just to left and slightly below the center of the soup bowl. And to tell you the honest truth, I couldn’t taste the butter, but there’s only 2 T. of butter used to sweat the veggies at the beginning – that’s it. A very low fat soup! I also added some shiitake mushrooms to this soup. Those weren’t in the original recipe, but I had them on hand and they needed to be used up. Other than that one thing, the recipe below is made exactly to the Cook’s Illustrated one. The soup has a lot of carbs in it – potatoes, turnips, carrots, barley (I used farro because that’s what I had on hand) and peas.

What I liked: doesn’t it always end up being about the taste? It does for me. As I write this, we enjoyed this soup just last night but this won’t post until next week sometime. But I can’t wait to have it again. Fortunately there’s a lot of it. I may freeze one bag and eat the other one sooner rather than later. I may add some green veggies to it next time (like some sugar snaps, maybe green beans just at the end). I like a veggie-laden soup and this one is more carb-laden. Serve this with some bread, or maybe a toasted cheese sandwich. Delish.

What I didn’t like:  well . . .when I make it again I’ll reduce the amount of soy sauce by just a little bit. I could taste it. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t think I should be able to taste it! A great soup, though and worth making. It does take some time doing all the sous-chef thing with chopping, peeling, etc. Be prepared to spend at least an hour overseeing the cooking of it. If you have a kitchen helper, enlist the help to peel and chop!

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Farmhouse Vegetable Soup

Recipe By: Adapted slightly from Cook’s Illustrated, Nov./Dec. 2011
Serving Size: 6-8

1/8 ounce dried mushroom — porcini type
8 sprigs Italian parsley — 3 T. of it chopped, remainder whole
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 whole bay leaf
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 pounds leeks — green parts removed, sliced lengthwise, coarsely chopped
2 whole carrots — peeled, cut in 1/2 inch coins
2 whole celery ribs — cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 cups water
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth — [I used turkey broth] or vegetable broth
1/2 cup pearl barley — [I used farro]
1 clove garlic — peeled and smashed
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potato — peeled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (or smaller)
1 whole turnip — peeled, cut into 3/4 inch pieces
1 1/2 cups cabbage — chopped
1 cup frozen peas
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 cup shiitake mushrooms — sliced [my addition – not in the original recipe]
LEMON-THYME BUTTER:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — softened
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
3/4 teaspoon lemon zest — freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1 pinch salt

1. Grind porcini mushroom pieces in a spice grinder until they resemble fine meal, 10-30 seconds. Measure out 2 teaspoons of the powder and reserve remainder for another use. Using kitchen twine, tie together the parsley sprigs, thyme and bay leaf.
2. Melt butter in large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add leeks, carrots, celery, wine, soy sauce and 2 teaspoons salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated and celery is softened, about 10 minutes.
3. Add water, broth, barley, porcini powder, herb bundle and garlic. Increase heat to high and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes.
4. Add potatoes, turnip and cabbage; return to simmer and cook until barley, potatoes, turnip and cabbage are tender, about 18-20 minutes.
5. Remove pot from heat and remove herb bundle. Stir in pease, fresh lemon juice and chopped parsley; season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, passing Lemon-Thyme Butter separately.
6. LEMON-THYME BUTTER: Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
Per Serving: 408 Calories; 14g Fat (28.0% calories from fat); 16g Protein; 65g Carbohydrate; 11g Dietary Fiber; 31mg Cholesterol; 230mg Sodium.

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