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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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