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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 Pasta, Vegetarian, on July 30th, 2007.

pasta-puttanesca
About 20 years ago a wonderful restaurant opened near our home, called Zov’s Bistro. Owned by Zov (pronounced like the letter oh) Karamardian, it was open for weekday lunches and a few nights a week for dinner. As the restaurant grew, and Zov’s well-executed Mediterranean food became more well known, they opened every day but Sunday. Zov is a wonderful philanthropist in our community, and loves to share her native Armenian cooking, although she has broadened the scope to include recipes from many different cultures around the Mediterranean. Now the restaurant houses the bistro, a bakery and a she’s opened a couple of other locations as well.

puttanesca-sauceBut back in the earlier days of the Bistro, Zov taught a cooking class starring some of her family favorites, of which this recipe was one. It’s not on the restaurant menu, unfortunately, or I would have it more often. I have no recollection what else she made that night, but I fell in love with this simple pasta dish, and have been making it ever since. You need to enjoy garlic, as it plays a prominent role. And the sauce needs to sit for awhile (at least an hour, or up to 2-3 hours) to develop its flavors. You can make this any time of year – it’s nothing more complicated than canned tomatoes, garlic, green onions, olives, capers and olive oil tossed with hot pasta and sprinkled with real Parmesan. It has some other things in it too that enhance the flavor, and you garnish with a lot of fresh basil. The anchovies (buy good ones if you can find them . . . they have so much more flavor than the cheap cans at the supermarket . . . go to an Italian deli if you have one) give it some character, but you never know they’re there. This is a great meal for a warm summer night.

So, I have a fun story to relate about this recipe. We had dinner with our son, Powell, and his wife the other night, and I mentioned that I had written up this recipe, which has always been a favorite of his. I’d forgotten that when he first met Karen he offered to help her with catering food for an art event a couple of weeks later. She wasn’t a caterer, but had offered to help a friend and was happy to have some help with it. Powell enjoyed cooking and loved entertaining when he was a bon vivant bachelor. Anyway, back then Powell had phoned me to ask advice on what recipes I had that might work for such an event where they could do no actual cooking, so they’d have to make everything ahead. This recipe was a standout for doing ahead, no question.

According to Karen, she was mightily impressed when Powell made this in a very large quantity for her event. According to Karen, her thoughts were along the lines of wow, this guy may be a keeper. It was a black-tie event, and the two of them served this dish and a bunch of others to the crowd of people. Toward the end, with Powell standing nearby in his tux, a businessman approached him and asked for his card. Probably Powell looked at him askance. Uhm. The guy said, we’d like you to cater something for us at our home. Powell laughed and said, we really don’t DO catering, etc. The guy said, well, what do you do and Powell explained that he is in the investment banking/bond biz. The guy looked at him and said what in the world are you doing here? Powell & Karen had a good laugh over that. So, a romance was made that night, according to them, over a big bowl of Pasta a la Puttanesca.
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Pasta a la Puttanesca

Recipe from Zov Karamardian, of Zov’s Bistro, Tustin, California
Servings: 10

1 bunch green onions — chopped
6 cloves garlic — minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups tomatoes, canned — drained
1/2 c parsley — minced
1/2 c basil, fresh — minced
1/2 c capers
1/2 c olives — black, Mediterranean
1/2 c extra virgin olive oil
2 ea anchovies — mashed
1/2 c Parmesan cheese — imported, grated
1/4 tsp hot chili flakes
1/8 tsp black pepper — cracked
2 pounds pasta of your choice (I prefer small spaghetti or linguine)

1. Heat the small quantity of olive oil in a small skillet and add green onions. Cook for 2-3 minutes, then add minced garlic. Allow to cook together gently for 2-3 minutes. Do not brown.
2. In a large, non-metallic bowl combine the tomatoes, pitted olives, capers, anchovies and add the onion/garlic mixture. Add parsley, basil, chili flakes, pepper. Slowly stir in olive oil and allow to sit at room temperature for about an hour. Fold in cheese just before serving. Can be made a day or so ahead, but add fresh basil and cheese at last minute.
3. Cook pasta of your choice, drain, and pour into large bowl. Pour room temperature puttanesca sauce on top and sprinkle with additional cheese. Serve immediately adding strips of chicken on the top if desired. Recipe says you can serve it warm or cold. Or, place a serving size of hot pasta on a plate and add about 1/2 cup of mixture on top. Traditionally you should use Kalamata olives in this, but any other kind of Mediterranean cured olive will do.

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