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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 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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