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Just finished a quirky book, Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel by Rachel Khong. She’s a new writer (newly published, I guess I should say) and this story is about Ruth, a 30+ something, trying to readjust to life without her fiance, who’s dumped her. She goes back home to help with the care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. Written in a diary style, it jumps all over about her life, her mother, the funny, poignant things her father says on good days, and the nutty stuff he does on not-so-good days, her ex-, and her very quirky friends, too. Then a woman flits through who had had an affair with her father –  you get to observe all the angst from the mom about that. Mostly it’s about her father, as he’s relatively “together” early in the book, but then he disintegrates. Reading that part isn’t fun, although the author is able to lean some humor into it. I’m not sure I recommend the book exactly – I read it through – and felt sad. It doesn’t tie up loose ends – if you want that kind of book – you may not want to read this one.

Also finished Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. You know Julian Fellowes, the producer and writer of Downton Abbey? He lends his mind to a story about a family or two from the similar time period as Downton, who live in London. There’s some amount of intrigue, romance, observations from within the halls of wealthy Londoners and moderately well off tradesmen and their families. There’s affairs, shady business dealings, an illegitimate child, the comings and goings of the “downstairs” staff too, etc. The characters were well done – I had no trouble keeping all of the people identified. The story is somewhat predictable, but it was interesting clear up to the end.

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.

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.

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 Soups, on October 28th, 2008.

Thai pumpkin, shrimp and coconut milk soup
Recently I went with a couple of my watercolor class friends to a Thai restaurant for lunch. I enjoyed my lunch so much I decided to try to recreate it at home. My entrée was a special that day, a creamy (coconut milk-based) sauce with fresh pumpkin cubes and shrimp. It had enough of the sauce/gravy to serve over a bed of rice. It was absolutely out of this world fabulous. I tried to close my eyes and analyze the flavors floating around in my mouth. I hoped it wouldn’t be too difficult to figure out how to make it.

Seeing sugar pie pumpkins at the market reminded me I wanted to try to prepare the dish. I did sleuth on the internet for a recipe, and found one that was similar, but different. I decided to make mine a soup without rice rather than the shrimp entrée sauce over rice I’d had at the restaurant. Since there were already carbs in the dish (the pumpkin) I thought it would be healthier for us anyway. The internet recipe called for shrimp paste (I used a fish soup base) and dried shrimp (I didn’t have them, nor did I buy it). It called for “green chiles,” so I used one Poblano (probably not traditionally Thai, but it was what I had) and one jalapeno. It had a perfect degree of heat for my taste. This other recipe called for basil. I used spinach instead. So I really changed the recipe all around, different proportions of most things and added ingredients plus deleted others.

The seafood soup base I bought from Penzey’s. You’ve read about them here before – their soup bases are just the greatest. I’m generous with how much I use. They don’t keep forever anyway. I’ve had my three jars for about 5 months now and they’re still just fine (stored in the refrigerator).

As I was making the soup I kept tasting the broth. Finally, after I added a jar of Thai red curry sauce I was pleased. The sauce came from Trader Joe’s, but I believe there are other brands out there . . . just seek them out. I purchased frozen already-cooked extra-large shrimp which got added to the soup at the very end. They slow-simmered just long enough to defrost and heat through. The coconut milk gets added at the very last also because it does not like to be boiled. I added the spinach and merely stirred it into the soup minutes before serving. The flavor comes from all the other stuff you put into the broth, though. The garlic, shallots, lemongrass (I used a paste from a tube since I can’t always find fresh lemongrass in my markets), the chiles, Thai fish sauce, and the soup base. There’s also just a tad of sugar in this. The soup is quite versatile – you could easily change the ingredients to ones of your choice. Don’t like pumpkin? Use butternut squash. Don’t like shrimp? Use chicken. Don’t like coconut milk? Use regular cow’s milk or soy (although the flavor will be really different). Don’t like chiles? Add green or red bell pepper instead. But, if you enjoy Thai flavors, this is one fantastic soup. My DH thought it was wonderful too.
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Thai Pumpkin, Shrimp and Coconut Milk Soup

Recipe: Inspired by but significantly changed from a recipe on dlife.com
Servings: 5
NOTES: You can use your own choice of chiles. I happened to use one poblano and one jalapeno. Neither was very hot on the Scoville rating. If you don’t mind being un-authentic, add some frozen peas and mushrooms to the soup too.

3 cups pumpkin — fresh, peeled, cubed (don’t use the large carving-type pumpkins for this)
2 whole garlic cloves — crushed
2 large shallots — finely chopped
1 teaspoon seafood soup base — or chicken soup base
2 tablespoons lemongrass — fresh, chopped or lemongrass paste
2 whole green chiles — seeded (see notes for explanation)
4 cups chicken stock
16 ounces shrimp — fresh, shelled
11 ounces Thai red curry sauce
1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon granulated sugar — or more if desired
4 ounces spinach — baby type
1/2 cup canned pumpkin — optional
2 cups coconut milk — canned
Salt and ground black pepper

1. With a sharp knife or very sturdy peeler, peel the pumpkin, and cut into quarters. Scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon and discard. Cut the flesh into chunks (about 3/4 inch) thick and set aside.
2. Put the garlic, shallots, fish soup base, lemongrass, and green chiles in the food processor. Process to a paste, stopping periodically to scrape down the sides of the workbowl. Continue to process until it’s a smooth paste.
3. In a large, heavy pot, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the ground paste and stir well to dissolve. Add the pumpkin chunks and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender. Don’t overcook.
4. Stir in the shrimp, bottled Thai red curry sauce and spinach, bring to a simmer and cook 1-2 minutes. Add the coconut milk, then bring the soup back to simmer. Be careful not to let it boil. Add a bit of water if you want more quantity (up to about 2 cups). Add the fish sauce, canned pumpkin, sugar and ground black pepper to taste. Add more salt if needed. Cook (below a simmer) for 2-3 minutes. Serve in warmed soup bowls. Since the spinach floats to the top, it provides a lovely garnished LOOK to the soup. No need to garnish with anything else unless you want to sprinkle some shredded spinach on top.
Per Serving: 645 Calories; 39g Fat (52.8% calories from fat); 29g Protein; 50g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 139mg Cholesterol; 3972mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on October 29th, 2008:

    Phew, what a lot of catching up I have to do here! I shall take my time, though and savour everything that you’ve written whilst I have been absent.

    Have a happy Halloween, won’t you? Can you believe that we had snow last evening? At least three inches stayed on the ground all night long and is still visible in some places, in October, in middle England!

    Well, T-A, I’ve missed you! Hope you had a good holiday. Did you go to India? Anyway, glad you’re back. Right now I envy your 3-inches of snow. One January many years ago we flew to England, stayed in London for a few days (this was one of BA’s annual good-deal packages that included airfare and lodging in London for 5 days), then took the train down to Ilminster (a little town kind of near Taunton) to visit dear friends who then lived there. It had snowed overnight. We were snug in the train, but the landscape was pure white. Everwhere we looked the landscape was white. It was a dirty-gray day and the snow had stopped. But, the rooftops were white. The ground, the streets, trees, bushes. Everything white. It was beautiful but eerie. So when I read your note, that’s what I remembered. Keep warm! . . .Carolyn

  2. Erik

    said on November 1st, 2008:

    I love pumpkin with practically any Asian ingredients, so I am going to have to try this soon! Thanks for the ideas!

    Erik – you’ll love this soup. We had the last of the leftovers today, and I think I’ve decided this may be the very best soup I’ve ever made. Bar none. My husband agrees. Hope you do try it. You’ll not be sorry! . . . Carolyn T

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