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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 Essays, on February 11th, 2013.

I’ve just gotten around to reading the January 2013 issue of Bon Appetit. It’s a very interesting issue with some edgy ideas I certainly found thought-provoking, so I’m sharing them with you. They call it the “The Cooking School” issue. That doesn’t mean a list of cooking schools to go to, or places that hold cooking classes. No, the subtitle is about learning to master some of the basic cooking school techniques. Particularly it’s about pan roasts, salads, braises, sauces and salted sweets. Normally I wouldn’t even give that a passing glance, other than breezing by some of the recipe titles, since I (think I) already know how to pan roast, braise, sauce and make sweets. But even I – an experienced home cook – found the articles interesting, informative, very explanatory – and the recipes are different.

After reading the issue, almost cover to cover, I tried a salted chocolate chunk cookie (I will share it in a day or two, even though it didn’t hit my CC cookie buttons particularly – but it might hit yours). Anyway, I will share another recipe from this cooking school section, but what I wanted to talk about was the section on salads. The title page of the sub-chapter on salads says:

Skip the lettuce and tomato. Instead, follow the lead of today’s hottest restaurants by making crisp, vibrant shaved-vegetable salads without a mesclun green in sight.

Next to that was a carrot salad that looked like the carrot pieces were shaved and crisp-roasted (actually they weren’t baked at all, but they were crisp-curled in ice water). Here’s the more thorough preface:

For years, you couldn’t go to a four-star restaurant without getting a forkful of mâche. Then there was a love affair with arugula. And we still have feelings for kale. But these days, the salads we really can’t resist don’t even have the very thing that used to define salads: the greens. Like many of the country’s most inventive chefs, we’re replacing them with other, less obvious vegetables (and nuts and herbs and seeds). Mandoline in hand, we’re shaving sturdy produce into ribbons and coins, adding outside-the-salad-bar complements, and dressing them lightly in simple vinaigrettes. The results are delicate, yet packed with bite – and without question, far more dynamic than any bowl of romaine and Ranch could ever be.

No, that’s not my baby picture . . . I just had to make a point here – I’m not crying buckets – yet – because I’ll still be making salads with greens no matter what the food experts or trends have to say. Not that I won’t dip my big toe into the arena of these newer salads, but I still love arugula, and kale and romaine. Ranch? Not so much.

On one of the pages of this multi-page chapter there is a chart of what to put in these new veggie-centric salads. It’s divided into 3 sections:

  • Foundation (thinly slice one or two of these): fennel, cucumber, celery, beets, radishes and celery root
  • Dimension (add smaller quantity of one or two of these to lend character): coarse breadcrumbs, apple, cumin seeds, red onion, Parmesan, pepitas
  • Finish (a bright element – like lots of fresh herbs): parsley, celery leaves, watercress

Lastly, I’ll share one more sidebar on one of the pages. Here’s what it said:

Balsamic is not king – and other truths about vinaigrette (3 rules for dressing a 2013 salad): (1) Rethink your vinegar [no more balsamic, instead use sherry vinegar and champagne vinegar]; (2) Easy on the oil [no more 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar; instead lean toward 2:1 which will work with the more subtle sherry and champagne vinegars since they’re much milder, less acidic; if you find them too astringent, just add a bit more oil, but not back up to the 3:1 we have been used to.]; (3) Hands, not tongs: use your hands, not tongs . . . as it’s the best way to tell if the salad is over- or under-dressed.

I’m not so sure this will work for me, although I have pretty much stopped using balsamic vinegar in salad dressings – they’re too much, too heavy and often too acidic, even though I use better balsamics (i.e., more expensive). I use it in other things, but rarely in salads anymore. I’m also not so sure I can handle the acidity of a 2:1 oil to acid ratio in a salad dressing. That’s going to be very astringent. It might depend on the brand of sherry vinegar or champagne vinegar. I’ll have to test a few salads and see what I think.

As I write this, I’m going to make a different salad from the issue – a celery salad with celery root and horseradish. Most likely I’ll post it. I happen to love celery leaves and they’re dominant in this particular salad.

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