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Just finished reading How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.


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 Beef, Pork, on November 12th, 2008.

unstuffed sweet and sour cabbage

When I saw the photo and recipe in the November, 2008 Gourmet for this beef, pork and cabbage dish, it just sounded a resonating bell in my head. Years ago I used to make stuffed cabbage rolls, but always found it a lot of work, and . . . well, just not worth the effort. Hence I haven’t made them in decades. But I always liked the flavor. This particular recipe is a quick and easy version – most of the ingredients – but without the work of parboiling the cabbage leaves, stuffing, rolling (carefully) then stacking them in a pot, making a sauce to go over, etc. Then baking or simmering them for awhile.

This recipe is just so simple – it was in Gourmet‘s “Everyday Quick Kitchen” – you make the sauce – kind of like a soup or stew mixture (it sort of looks like tomato chili in a way), and then you simmer the cabbage wedges in broth (separately) and combine them briefly before serving them on a rimmed plate (or a wide soup bowl in my case). I thought this dish was just great – not something you’d serve to guests, perhaps, unless you share really casual meals together. It all could be made ahead and reheated. I doubt the cabbage would do all that well frozen, but I’ll probably freeze a portion or two of the meat mixture and just prepare fresh cabbage when I want to have it again. I cooked the sauce longer than indicated (because I had the time and thought the flavor would improve by longer simmering) and I added some fennel, caraway and thyme to the sauce. You could put this dinner together in less than an hour if you hustled the chopping and cooking of the sauce. The cabbage takes about 45 minutes – you could do that in the microwave or a pressure cooker to speed it up. The beef and ground pork sauce has a delicious tang (from the brown sugar and red wine vinegar) and the juices are so good you don’t want to miss a single slurp. So, try it!
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Unstuffed Sweet-and-Sour Cabbage

Recipe: Andrea Albin from Gourmet
Servings: 4

1 head cabbage — (2-lb) quartered lengthwise and cored
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
3 garlic cloves — thinly sliced, divided
1 large onion — thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 lb ground chuck
1/2 lb ground pork
28 ounces canned tomatoes, including juice
1/3 cup dried cranberries
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds [my addition]
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds [my addition]
1/2 teaspoon oregano — crushed [my addition]
2 tablespoons Italian parsley — chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Cut cabbage into wedges (maybe 6) and place cabbage in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet with broth, 1 garlic clove (sliced), and a rounded 1/4 tsp salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then cook, covered, turning cabbage occasionally, until very tender, about 45 minutes. (Add more broth or water if necessary.)
2. Meanwhile, cook onion and remaining garlic in oil in a heavy medium pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and stir in ground meats along with 1/2 tsp each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring and breaking up lumps with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes.
3. Stir in tomatoes with their juice, cranberries, vinegar, and brown sugar and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally and breaking up tomatoes with spoon, until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. (Can cook longer to develop flavors, about an hour.) Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Pour sauce into skillet with cabbage and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes. Serve sprinkled with parsley. (Serve with steamed rice or mashed potatoes.)
Per Serving: 408 Calories; 28g Fat (60.1% calories from fat); 24g Protein; 18g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 83mg Cholesterol; 378mg Sodium.

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