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Oh wow. Just finished reading David Guterson’s book, East of the Mountains. You know this author from his most well known book, Snow Falling on Cedars. I loved the Cedars book when I read it years ago, and assumed I’d like this other book (not new) as well. Have you learned to trust my judgment when I tell you, you HAVE to read a book? When I tell you the story line, I can already hear you thinking . . . oh no, I don’t want to read this kind of a book. Please trust me. You’ll come away from it being glad you did. It tells the tale of a 70ish man, a widower, who has been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. He’s a retired physician, knows the scenario of death by cancer, and doesn’t want to do it. He decides he’s going to take a bird hunting trip, east of the mountains in Washington State (Guterson writes a lot about his part of the world), with his two dogs, and he’ll commit suicide. He sets up an elaborate ruse with his children and grandchildren, and heads out. All of this, so far, takes place in the first 10 pages of the book. First he has an accident in his car, and that sets off a cavalcade of incidents. You’ll learn a whole lot about flora and fauna (one of Guterson’s writing attributes). You’ll learn a lot about apple and pear orchards, which abound in eastern Washington (I’ve been there, it’s beautiful, pastoral and full of fruit). Flashbacks of his life story are interspersed throughout, his growing up on an apple farm, meeting his wife, his service in WWII, their reuniting after the war and the life they had. You’ll learn some about his cancer pain, the grief of his wife’s death 5 years prior, and about his resolve to end it all. Please don’t NOT read this because  you’ll think it’s depressing. It is and it isn’t. It’s so much more for the better. And I just read, this book is being made into a movie.

A fabulous read – Catherine Ryan Hyde’s newest book, Have You Seen Luis Velez? I marvel sometimes about how authors ever come up with the ideas they do, to create the premise for a novel. And this one is right up there at the top of the list. Raymond, a youngster, an older teenager, who has a big lack of self-confidence and feels like an odd duck sometimes, reluctantly (at first) befriends an elderly woman in the apartment building where he lives with his mother and step-father. He discovers she’s blind and needs some help, which he gives her. Then he discovers that there is a lot more to know and understand about this elderly little lady down the hall and he begins a journey to try to find someone for her, the Luis Velez of the title. If you want to use coming-of-age to describe this, that’s partly true. He learns all about himself, the abilities he didn’t know he had, the kindness that lives within him that he never realized was there, and the friends he makes along the way who make some life-changing differences in his young life. He discovers he has some gifts that he can give to others, something most teenagers don’t understand. I can’t recommend this book highly enough – it’s a bit of a tear-jerker, but for every good reason and moral character trait described in the book. It’s there.

Kristin Hannah is quite an author. She’s written upwards of 20 books, I think. This one, Magic Hour: A Novel is another very mesmerizing read. I could hardly put it down. A young, 6-year old child is found in a small town on the Olympic Peninsula. She’s mute and frightened beyond reason. And she seems not to understand English. A psychiatrist is brought to town to try to unravel the mystery and to “reach” the child. I don’t want to spoil the story, but know that the whole subject of nature (biology) vs. nurture comes into play and will keep you hanging onto your seat until the last few pages.

Ever heard of Barbara Pym? I knew the name, but hadn’t ever read any of her work. She was an English author (deceased now), having penned several books. I think she was an inveterate spinster, and in this book, Excellent Women she wrote about a small village community in England with the humdrum, day to day life, but she wrote with such interesting detail. I thought I might be bored to tears reading it, as it describes a 31-year old woman, considered a spinster in the time (1950s), and the book is about her rather boring life with new neighbors who move into her small home (2 units, sharing a bathroom), the local vicar, his sister, and a myriad of other ladies of the parish. Yet you get caught up in the very minor intrigue of the deteriorating marriage of the couple in the building, the love life of the vicar, and the annual planning for a jumble sale at the local church. This book is considered Pym’s best. I loved the book. I highlighted a bunch of phrases and sentences (I will be doing a book review in one of my book clubs). It wasn’t boring at all, and was entertaining right up to the last page!

Did you ever watch Sandra Lee on the Food Network? This was in the early days of the network, and I did watch her some, although her cooking style didn’t mesh much with mine, since I’m a bit of a make-things-from-scratch kind of girl. But then, I don’t make my own mayo, or jam anymore. And I understand her philosophy, making it easier for busy women to feed their families and juggle a busy life. I’d never thought about reading her memoir. But then, a friend highly recommended I do so. I found a used copy online, and read Made From Scratch: A Memoir. She had a very, very hard young life. Her mother? Well, she shouldn’t have even been a mother. Sandra was the eldest and from a very early age she took care of all of her younger siblings. She was badly mistreated and nearly raped by a family member. Her grandmother Lorraine was her favorite person from the get-go and Sandra took care of her grandmother in her waning years. Once Sandra was old enough she left home and went to college for 3 years, then her entrepreneurial spirit just took over. She learned by doing in every job she’s ever had, and I have to admire her tremendously for her accomplishments. She made money, then lost it, found another niche, made money, then lost it. Yet she’s got the kind of grit that we should all emulate. There are 2 recipes in the book. Sandra is a Christian, and a paragraph that really gripped me was at the very end: “Grace has become one of my favorite words. To me it means learning to balance the good days with the bad. Grace is about being proud of yourself, your actions, your life, what you stand for, and the way you give back [Sandra is a huge philanthropist]. Its’ being generous when someone hurts you; it’s knowing when and how to react. It’s knowing that someone you’re not fond of today might turn out to be the only person who puts his or her hand out tomorrow just when you’re about to step in front of a moving bus. Grace is offering understanding and acceptance when the rest of the world does not.” This book isn’t great literature; yet I’m very glad I read it. She is an inspiration.

The book Pachinko (National Book Award Finalist) by Min Jin Lee had been recommended to me by several friends. Finally got around to reading it. It’s a novel about a family of Koreans living in Japan and covers several decades, beginning in the 1940s, I believe. They’re poor. Dirt poor, yet the women just get themselves back up and work. The husbands in the story have problems, health and otherwise. But what you see here is work, and work and more work just to keep above water. You’ve probably read about how poorly Koreans are treated in Japan – they’re kind of thought of as scum of the earth. I don’t know if this phenomena is still true today, but it apparently was even up until a couple of decades ago. As  you read this book, you’ll find yourself rooting for various family members as they progress in life. A fateful decision is made by one that reverberates throughout her life and those of her children. Pachinko (the machines and the gaming economy that runs because of it) is thought of as part of the underbelly of Japanese culture. I remember seeing the pachinko machines when I visited Japan back in the 1960s. So the book infers, much of pachinko is even controlled by a kind of Japanese mafia and certainly has no status if you work in the pachinko arena. Wealth, yes. Status, no. Very worth reading, even though it’s tough going part of the way. This isn’t a “happy” book. But still worth knowing and reading about the subject. Reading the author’s afterword at the end was very revealing and interesting.

Also read An American Marriage (Oprah’s Book Club): A Novel by Tayari Jones. The book is set in the south with a young, well-educated, middle-class couple and suddenly the husband is accused and convicted of rape (that he didn’t commit). The book is not about the justice system or his wrongful conviction. Not at all. It’s about the relationship, the husband, wife, and then the 3rd person who inserts himself into the mix. Much of this story is told through the letters that Roy and Celestial write each other during and after his incarceration. Jones recreates the couple’s grief, despair and anger until they finally work their way to acceptance, but maybe not how you would expect it. This is complicated emotional territory navigated with succinctness and precision, making what isn’t said as haunting as the letters themselves.  Some of the above (italics) came from the New York Times’ book review.

Recently finished Sally Field’s memoir (autobiography) called In Pieces. I’ve always admired her and her acting, but never knew much about her. I remember when she was involved with Burt Reynolds, but knew nothing about her dysfunctional coming of age. I think she’s a consummate actress, and was awed by her performance in Norma Rae, and also with her role as Abraham Lincoln’s wife.  She wrote this book herself, with help from a writer’s workshop and with some good advice from various other writers. It’s very well written. She spends a lot of time discussing the very young years and her perverted step-father. But the over-arching person in her life was her mother, be what she may as far as being a good/bad mother. I really liked the book; really enjoyed reading about how Sally throws herself into her tv and film roles over her life. And what a defining moment Norma Rae was in her career. Well worth reading if you enjoy movie star memoirs.

If you want grit, well, read Kristen Hannah’s newest book, The Great Alone: A Novel. It’s a gripping novel about a young girl whose family moves to Alaska when her father is gifted a small plot of land with a ramshackle cabin on it that’s barely fit for habitation. The family survives only because some of the townspeople offer to help them learn how to live through an Alaskan winter, which is not easy. The girl’s father is a tyrant and a wife-beater as well. Some pages were hard to read. Surviving on the land with nearly no funds is an arduous task in the best of times, but doubly so when you’re dealing with an Alaskan winter which lasts about 9 months of the year. I don’t want to spoil the story by telling you too many details. The book touches on some very current social issues and is so worth reading. Although difficult at times, as I said. But I’m very glad I did. I think it would make for a good book club read – lots of survival issues to discuss, let alone the other social problems that ensue. But there’s also love, which makes it worth the read.

Recently finished reading a book for one of my book clubs. I’m interested to find out who in that group recommended this book, Tangerine: A Novel by Christine Mangan. Had it not been selected for my club, I wouldn’t ever have picked it up. Most of it takes place in Tangiers, in the 1950s. Alice and John have moved there, newlyweds, when Lucy Mason shows up. Lucy is Alice’s former college roommate. Lucy simply moves in. There’s bad blood between them following the death of Alice’s beau during their college years. Lucy, who might appear as a very sensible woman, has a dark physical and mental obsession with her “friend.” Is it horror? Not really by strict definition. Is it a mystery? Not quite, although there are several murders that take place. Chapters jump between Alice’s voice and Lucy’s voice and you understand the mental fragility of Alice, and this consuming obsession Lucy has for her friend. I’m NOT recommending this book, but I did finish it just because of my book club choosing this very strange book.

You’ve got to read Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book – Take Me With You. What a story.  From Amazon’s description: August Shroeder, a burned-out teacher, has been sober since his nineteen-year-old son died. Every year he’s spent the summer on the road, but making it to Yellowstone this year means everything. The plan had been to travel there with his son, but now August is making the trip with Philip’s ashes instead. An unexpected twist of fate lands August with two extra passengers for his journey, two half-orphans with nowhere else to go. What none of them could have known was how transformative both the trip—and the bonds that develop between them—would prove, driving each to create a new destiny together. Have a tissue handy at the end. It’s such a charming, sweet story. You’ll fall in love with the young boys, and fall in love with them again 10 years later.

One of my book clubs occasionally reads a kind of edgy book. This is one of them. By Mohsin Hamid, Exit West: A Novel is a book set in an age not dissimilar to our own and in current time, but something bad has happened in the world. Something never divulged, although symptoms of a civil war are mentioned. A unmarried couple, Nadia and Saeed, are given the opportunity (as others are, as well) to go through a door (this is the exit part of the title) and to another place in the world – it takes but a second – to go through the special door. They go to England (London), to a palatial mansion. Sometimes the power grid is sketchy. Another door. And yet another. And finally to Marin County (north of San Francisco). You follow along with the ups and downs of the chaste relationship of the two, this couple from a house to living on the streets. And the eventual dissolution of the relationship too. I wasn’t enamored with the book, but after listening to the review of it and hearing others talk about it, I suppose there’s more to this story than it might appear. Hope is the word that comes to mind. The book is strange, but it won the Los Angeles Times book award in 2017. It’s received lots of press. It made for some very interesting discussion at our book club meeting.

The Last Letter from Your Lover: A Novel by JoJo Moyes. Story: Jennifer Stirling wakes up in hospital, having had a traumatic car accident. She’s introduced to her husband, of whom she has no recollection, and is sent home with him eventually, to a life she neither remembers or embraces readily. But this is the life she was raised to have, so surely it must be worth living, underneath the strange, muted tones of her daily existence. Jennifer goes through the motions, accepts what she is told is her life and all seems to bob along well enough, except when she finds a letter that isn’t her husband’s handwriting, and is clearly a link to someone she has been involved with, but whom? London, France, Africa and America all come into play in this story of a woman piecing back together her life in effort to understand what she has lost, and what she threw away. There is a bit of a time-hop from 1964 to 2003. . . from a reviewer on amazon.  I loved this book from page one to the end. There’s some bit of mystery and you so get into the head of Jennifer Stirling. I could hardly put it down. Great read.

Francine Rivers, an author relatively new to me, but much admired, is most known for this: Mark of the Lion : A Voice in the Wind, An Echo in the Darkness, As Sure As the Dawn (Vol 1-3) It’s a trilogy. The first 2 books are about Hadassah, a young woman in the time of the Roman Empire. When Jerusalem was overrun and destroyed, the Christians still alive were sent off and away, separated and derided and abused. Hadassah was one of them. She’s a slave to a wealthy family and it takes 2 of the books to read before the son of the family finally realizes that he’s in love with Hadassah. If  you’re a Christian, you’ll learn a whole lot more about the time following Christ’s crucifixion, about the lot of the struggling Christian community. The 3rd book in the trilogy is about a gladiator who is part of book 1 and 2, but not a main character. You’ll learn about his life too, after he regains his freedom from the fighting ring and the battle of his soul. These books are a fabulous read. Can’t say enough good things about them all. I’ve never been a huge fan of old-world Roman Empire reading, but this one was altogether different. Very worth reading.

Amy Belding Brown wrote this book: Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America, a true accounting in 1676, of Mary Rowlandson, a woman who was captured by Native Americans.  Even before she was captured on a winter day of violence and terror, she sometimes found herself in conflict with her rigid Puritan community. Now, her home destroyed, her children lost to her, she has been sold into the service of a powerful woman tribal leader, made a pawn in the ongoing bloody struggle between English settlers and native people. Battling cold, hunger, and exhaustion, Mary witnesses harrowing brutality but also unexpected kindness. To her confused surprise, she is drawn to her captors’ open and straightforward way of life, a feeling further complicated by her attraction to a generous, protective English-speaking native known as James Printer. The story is riveting, and perplexing once she is traded back to her home. You’ll see a different side to the Indian problem back then and find yourself conflicted. An excellent read.

Taylor Caldwell was a prolific writer, and one I read when I was younger. She died in 1980, and this book, her last, Answer As a Man certainly delivers as her others did. All his life, Jason Garrity has had to battle intolerance and injustice in his quest for power, money, and love. His new hotel will give him financial security, the means to support a loving family and become an upstanding citizen. When family secrets and financial greed combine to destroy his dreams, his rigid moral convictions are suddenly brought into question. . . from Goodreads. Caldwell believed the banking industry was way too powerful, and often took aim at it, as she did in this book. It chronicles the life of a very poor, impoverished Irish immigrant to the U.S. He was an upstanding citizen, God-fearing, but maybe naive in some respects. Good book if you enjoy very deep character study.

Another book by Diney Costeloe, Miss Mary’s Daughter. When a young women is suddenly left with no family and no job or income, she’s astounded to learn that she’s actually a granddaughter of a “grand” family in Ye Olde England. She’s very independent (at least I thought so, for the time period), but is willing to investigate this new family of hers. There are many twists and turns – is she going to inherit the family home – or is the man who has been caring for the home and his daughter the logical inheritors. There’s a villain who nearly sweeps her off her feet, much intrigue from many characters. Well developed plot with a happy ending. A good read.

Celeste Ng is a hot new author. I read another of her books (see below) but this time I read Little Fires Everywhere. There are so many various characters and plots in this book, as in her others. This book focuses on a Chinese baby abandoned at a fire station and the subsequent court battle when the single mother surfaces six months later to try to reclaim her daughter from the family in the process of adopting her. Emotions well up, waxing and waning on both sides of the issue. You may even find yourself changing your own mind about the right or wrong of a child raised with a natural-born mother (albeit late to the raising) or the mother the child has known since near birth. Ng likes to write books with lots of grit and thorny issues. Although a good read, I liked Everything I Never Told You better than this one.

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright. Oh my. This book has so many layers: (1) the young, impoverished couple and their infant son who live, literally, in a dump in Cambodia and about the precarious structure, if you can even call it that, that comprises their “house” in the midst and perched on top of trash; (2) the woman who collects the rent (hence the title and yes, people have to PAY to live there); (3) the young son’s chronic illness; (4) how they make a living out of collecting and selling trash; and (4) the life saving grace and wisdom imparted by characters in the book as the young mother begins to learn to read. If you decide to read this book, please don’t stop at about page 15-20, thinking you just don’t know if you want to read about this. Please continue. It’s so worth it. Have a highlighter pen in your hand because you’ll find so many quotes you will want to remember. Believe it or not, there is also quite a bit in this about literature.

C.J. Box’s book The Disappeared (A Joe Pickett Novel). I just love Box’s novels. They take place in present day semi-wild west, and chronicle the fish and game warden, Joe Pickett, as he unravels another crime in his territory. A woman has disappeared, and the governor has asked him to figure it out. He does, but the tale meanders  through multiple layers of intriguing story. His books are riveting. Men and women enjoy his books – so if you have a fellow in your life or family that would enjoy an intriguing book (this is not espionage) then gift him one of Box’s books.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. About a dysfunctional family, through and through. I picked this up from amazon from someone who read the book, named “McReader,” and she says: “Set in the 70s, the story follows a Chinese American blended family in Ohio. When Lydia [the daughter] is found floating in the lake, her family is forced to analyze what put her there. Was it pressure from her family to succeed? Was it pressure to fit in? Was it a crime of passion or convenience? I was spellbound reading the last half of this book. I loved each flawed family member, especially Hannah,. While the story went where I hoped it would go, I was not disappointed at all with the progression. It was also quite insightful on the prejudices that society had about Chinese Americans still during that timeframe and how careful parents have to be to put their dreams onto their children.” Such a good book and definitely worth reading. Would be a good book club read. You’ll be hearing more from this author. Am currently reading her next novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant. A very, very intriguing book. The book is written from the voice of a Jewish grandmother as she tells her granddaughter the saga of her life starting about 1910, who struggles with her own individuality, with her domineering mother who never says a kind word to her. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story as she grows up, finds a job, makes friends, joins a literary girls club, moves out, but still suffers under her mother’s thumb and tongue. She becomes a reporter on a local newspaper, which opens her eyes to more of the world than she ever knew. She finally meets the right man (of course!) and she shares the stories about her life, and her friends and family members as she grows up, giving some sage advice along the way. Part of the time she’s talking to herself – to her young self  (really wanting to tell young Addie to keep on, forgive herself for her perceived transgressions, to live life, and experience the world).

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Rivers is a prodigious writer of Christian fiction, and I’d never read anything by her until now. As I write this, I’ve already read this, another one (below) and just purchased the Kindle trilogy called Mark of the Lion (Vol 1-3) that I haven’t yet started. (Two of my friends have said the trilogy is her best.) Redeeming Love details the fictional story of a godly man, Michael Hosea, forging his way in the era of the Gold Rush. He’s “driven” to rescue a beautiful prostitute who lives and works her trade in a nearby town. The entire book is about the story, the rescue, and it parallels a bit of scripture about Hosea who rescues a prostitute names Gomer. You get into the heads of both Hosea and the prostitute, named Angel. We read this for one of my book groups. A great read.

As soon as I finished the above book I promptly visited my church library and found a whole shelf of Rivers’ books, and grabbed one called The Atonement Child. This book takes place in the 1980s or 90s, about a young college student who is raped. She was engaged to be married, was a stellar student. The book chronicles what happens to her when she discovers she is pregnant from the rape. Every possible thing goes wrong in her life. I don’t want to spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it, but I couldn’t put it down. I ended up spending a good part of a day plowing through it. You hear her inner voice (I’m guessing this is a common thread in Rivers’ books) from a Christian perspective. Lots of meaty issues to discuss in a book club if your group would be interested and willing to talk about rape, abortion, adoption and the thorny issues surrounding all of those things, but with a Christian bent, for sure.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen. It’s kind of amazing how many and varied plot lines can be created from events of WWII. This is another one, about a current day woman who finds papers in the attic, after her father’s death, with references to “the child.” She never knew her father could have had another child – could she have a step-sibling somewhere? Her father she knew, had been shot down over Italy, but he never talked much about it. But of course, she must go to Italy to find out about this “child.” The book flips back and forth from this daughter on the search, to her father during the war, all of it taking place in a very small town in Tuscany. It’s about the varied people she meets who want her to go away and not dredge up anything about the war years (are they hiding something, you question), about how much she loves the landscape, and some of the people. And about the intense love affair between the injured pilot and a caring woman of the village. Very charming story. I could almost smell the flowers, taste the olives, hear the bees flitting, and loved the prose about the simple meals that were described. I really enjoyed the book. Perhaps not enough meat for a book club read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it nonetheless.

Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novel by 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.


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, Salads, on August 18th, 2008.

When I saw this recipe title my head tilted sideways and a big question mark floated skyward out of my ear. No, you don’t barbecue the salad. Who whooda thunk of putting barbecue sauce in a pasta salad, I ask you? The recipe came into my inbox from Cook’s Illustrated (I get an email epistle from them regularly) and this recipe was in the list, but credited to Cook’s Country, a magazine I don’t subscribe to. It sounded so incongruous I had to go investigate the recipe further.

Pasta is something we severely limit around here, and not because we don’t like it. But when I read this, it just sounded so different I had to try it. Right off the bat, I didn’t have scallions (used red onion instead) or red bell pepper (used some baby mild mini peppers instead), and I prowled my refrigerator for BBQ sauce and finally found something close (an Ancho Chile Spicy glaze). But hey, necessity is the mother of invention. I wanted to make this salad, and I used what I had on hand. Once  prepared, I dipped my spoon into the bowl and was absolutely wow-ed by the taste. I l-o-v-e-d it. We had it with our dinner and for leftovers a day later. I made a half batch. After two dinners, I added more vegetables to the mixture and prepared a small amount of additional mayo and bbq sauce which the salad needed. The vinegar is an important aspect of this salad – when I added the veggies with the added mayo and BBQ sauce, at first I didn’t add the vinegar. The salad was flat. If you do add more veggies to it, you’ll need more dressing. Also another dash of hot sauce too. Next time I’ll try it with low-fat mayo. With all the flavor in the salad already, it may not need the boost of full-fat mayo.

The dressing is simple: mayo, barbecue sauce, cider vinegar, some spicy hot sauce (I used a Vietnamese one I keep on hand at all times), chili powder, garlic powder, cayenne (actually I omitted this because I used a spicy barbecue sauce) and black pepper (see photo with the pepper dotting the top). The dressing is poured on top of the pasta which is mixed with bell pepper, celery and the onions (scallions). It took about 15 minutes to make, not including the time to heat the pasta water. You could eat it immediately (although it would be warm or room temp), but they recommend letting it chill for 30 minutes or so, but it will keep for a couple of days. Perfecto for a summer barbecue dinner. You will be missing out if you don’t try this one. I’m so excited when somebody finds a way to make something ordinary into something fabulous. Why didn’t I think of that?
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BBQ Macaroni (Pasta) Salad

Recipe: From Cook’s Country magazine
Servings: 10-12
Cook’s Notes: use more veggies if you’d like. Tomatoes would be a nice addition too, particularly if they’re good, ripe ones. Also cucumber. Leftover chicken or turkey could also be added to be a nice main course. If you add more veggies, you’ll need more dressing.

Table salt
1 pound elbow macaroni [I used pennette]
1 whole red bell pepper — seeded and chopped fine
1 rib celery — chopped fine [use 2-3x as much]
4 whole scallions — sliced thin [I used red onion]
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 cup Best Foods mayonnaise
1/2 cup barbecue sauce [I used a Honey-Roasted Ancho Chili BBQ Glaze]
Ground black pepper

1. Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and macaroni and cook until nearly tender, about 5 minutes. Drain in colander and rinse with cold water until cool, then drain once more, briefly, so that pasta is still moist; transfer to large bowl.
2. Stir in bell pepper, celery, scallions, vinegar, hot sauce, chili powder, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper, and let sit until flavors are absorbed, about 2 minutes. Stir in mayonnaise and barbecue sauce and let sit until salad is no longer watery, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve. (The salad can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Check seasonings before serving.)
Per Serving: 343 Calories; 20g Fat (50.3% calories from fat); 7g Protein; 37g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 8mg Cholesterol; 250mg Sodium.

Posted in Pasta, Pork, on May 30th, 2008.

zinfandel sausage sauce for pasta
I know, the name is odd, isn’t it? I suppose I could just change the name and claim the recipe as my own, but that’s not fair to the originator of this sauce, so I’ve always referred to it by her title. It’s not just any old spaghetti sauce, as we’d be likely to call it, and surely Camille Stagg meant for us to take notice. This isn’t your ordinary red – either the wine OR the sauce. Camille Stagg is a well-known journalist, travel writer, and must live in Chicago, as she’s written a book about gourmet haunts in that town. She consults with some wineries and wine distributors (clubs), as I found other recipes listed by her in a couple of places on the internet.

Many years ago we used to have two bottles of wine delivered to us each month by a small company up in Emeryville, California. And each month the wine purveyor included a write-up about the wines in the box, AND a recipe suitable for that wine. Likely this recipe came in with a box of zin, since it calls for the wine in the recipe. It sounded so intriguing, I had to try it. We were going to have a wine tasting at our home a week or so later, and I asked each guest couple to bring a bottle of wine and food to serve with it. Specifically, they were to bring something that would complement their wine type. We stood around our kitchen island with 4 (small) glasses of wine in front of us, and sampled food with each wine. It was fun, and we really liked this sauce.

Having not made this for several years, I had to refresh my memory about what was different about it (it uses nearly a whole bottle of zin for 5 pounds of sausage). Once you combine the sausage, onions, mushrooms, garlic and seasonings, you can either simmer it on the range, or put it in a crockpot for long, slow simmering. I did the latter and kept it at high for about 4 hours to help boil off the wine. The sauce is thin to start, and must be simmered down to reduce it. Obviously, it’s a heavy sauce, redolent with the winy taste, and complemented with a large quantity of mushrooms. It’s an extremely dark-colored sauce – zin wine certainly stains nearly anything it touches anyway, so the meat takes on the dark red color as well. You can use your own combination of sausage – the recipe calls for half hot and half sweet. It’s zesty, I’ll give you that! Zinfandel is a zesty wine in and of itself – most people describe it as spicy. And the hot/spicy sausage ups the ante. If you don’t like spicy sausage, use all sweet Italian. This freezes well. Over the years I’ve increased the recipe volume – you can certainly halve it easily enough. I like to have leftovers to freeze. Linguine is my pasta of choice for this. I also increased the amount of wine in the recipe, but not by much.
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Zinfandel Sausage Sauce for Pasta

Recipe By: adapted from one by Camille Stagg
Serving Size: 15
I caution you about one thing, though:  canned tomato sauce – most are very, very high in sodium. When this sauce reduces down, the sauce will be too salty, so I recommend you use a low or no added sodium tomato sauce. Read the label!

2 1/2 lb Italian sausage — hot
2 1/2 lb Italian sausage — sweet
3 whole onions — minced
1 1/2 lb mushrooms — sliced
4 c red wine — Zinfandel style
48 oz tomato sauce — low sodium
1/2 c Italian parsley
6 cloves garlic — minced
3 tbsp fresh basil
3 tbsp dried oregano
3 tbsp dried rosemary
Salt & pepper to taste, or no salt at all depending on the sodium in the tomato sauce
3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1. In a large, heavy skillet, slowly brown the crumbled sausage; drain off fat. Add onion and sauté until limp, then add garlic and mushrooms. Continue cooking for 2-3 minutes.
2. Add Zinfandel wine, tomato sauce, herbs and spices. Bring to a boil, partially cover pan, and reduce to a simmer.
3. Cook for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is reduced to a thick consistency. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve over cooked pasta and top with grated parmesan. This freezes well. It is best if prepared a day ahead.
Per Serving: 641 Calories; 49g Fat (73.4% calories from fat); 26g Protein; 14g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 118mg Cholesterol; 1775mg

Posted in Pasta, Veggies/sides, on April 30th, 2008.

armenian rice and noodle pilaf

Only vaguely do I recall when Rice-a-Roni came on the market. Way so many years ago. 1958 to be exact. It was a time when food producers were coming up with just the beginnings of boxed mixes. Cake mixes had been around for awhile, but not much of anything else. I thought the rice mixture was quite good. Tasty for such an easy combination in a box. But then the food police told us about sodium, and I began noticing how much was in lots of the foods I purchased. There still is a lot of sodium in many prepared foods. I started avoiding those products, especially after the medical experts told us we were only supposed to consume a max of 2,000 milligrams a day. It’s easy to consume double or triple that if you eat out and/or eat pre-packaged foods. Because Rice-a-Roni was so high in sodium I stopped buying it. By the way, it’s now owned by Quaker Oats.

Beginning in the late 1960’s I started avoiding nearly all packaged and ready-made foods altogether, in favor of making things myself, adding only fresh food, fresh vegetables, my own herbs and spices. And I’ve continued to adhere to that with only a few exceptions. There are a couple of cake mixes I do use for some family favorites. I do buy an occasional frozen vegetable, some Trader Joe’s mixes (that contain no additives or preservatives). And once in awhile I buy Pillsbury biscuits because I have one recipe that is just so good and easy. I try to buy organically fed meat. Sometimes I buy organic produce. Not always, depending on the quality or freshness of it.

Having done a search for this posting today, I discovered that the combo of rice and pasta is an Armenian thing. I thought it was Italian, but no. The founders of Rice-a-Roni actually created it from something served to them by an Armenian neighbor. Thus, the rice boxed mix was born. And why they must add so much sodium to it is beyond me. But they sure enough do.

Because I always walk right past that boxed mix section in my grocery store, I’d forgotten all about the rice/noodle combination until a recipe was printed in my local food section last week. Labeled Carrie’s Rice, it is identical to hundreds of other pilaf recipes out there on the internet. Some add mushrooms, garlic, maybe some dill weed, pine nuts perhaps, but they all contain noodle-type pasta or orzo, white rice, butter, onion and chicken broth. Some recipes brown only the pasta; others brown both pasta and the rice. If you use low-sodium chicken broth, as I did, you’ll likely want to add some salt to it. And you can vary the amount of butter. Many recipes call for a full stick of butter for 1 cup of rice and 1 cup of pasta. I cut it down by half, and think that was still too much. So I’ve reduced the amount even more in the recipe below. It’s a very quick side dish. The kids will like it, and since you’re doing all the cooking of it, you know exactly what’s in it. Unadulterated rice, pasta, butter and canned broth. Maybe some onion, and/or garlic too.
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Armenian Rice & Noodle Pilaf

Serving Size: 6

1 cup long-grain rice – raw
1 cup vermicelli – broken into small bits, or thin linguine
1/2 cup onion – chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup mushrooms – cleaned, sliced [optional]
3 tablespoons pine nuts – toasted, garnish
2 teaspoons fresh dill — minced
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a heavy skillet or saucepan melt butter, then add pasta, rice and onions. Stir and cook until the mixture is lightly browned. Add mushrooms at this point, if using, and cook them for about 2 minutes.
2. Add broth all at once, bring to a simmer, cover and cook over very low heat for about 20 minutes, until rice is completely cooked, but not mushy. Taste for seasonings (salt and pepper). Garnish with pine nuts and dill, if using. Serve immediately.
Per Serving: 246 Calories; 8g Fat (26.1% calories from fat); 11g Protein; 38g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 10mg Cholesterol; 24mg Sodium.

Posted in Fish, Pasta, on April 5th, 2008.

shrimp and pasta a la pizzaiola
This recipe requires the telling of a travel-related story. Some years ago (I’m guessing it was about 15) my DH and I went on a white-water rafting trip in Idaho. My DH was quite surprised when I mentioned the trip to him. What, he said? You WANT to go camping in the remote wilderness? I said, well, yes, because the guides do all the work, all the cooking, and we’re just there to immerse ourselves in the scenery and enjoy the food. The relaxation. The clean air.

I have fond memories of my childhood when my parents and I went camping in the High Sierras (the inland ridge of mountains that divide, almost, California from Nevada). My dad loved to fish; my mom not so much, but she enjoyed lazy days in the camp, reading magazines, a book, playing games of Scrabble (which I still love to this day). Sometimes I went fishing with my dad, but usually got bored after awhile. I had my own pole, usually a hand-me-down from my dad. We fished for trout in those cold, crisp mountain streams, seeking out the deep pools of water, near rocks, where the trout loved to hide. We tent camped, but my parents did 99% of the work, so I didn’t realize until I was an adult about how much effort was involved in setting up the camp, or cooking meals. Or doing dishes. Or laundry. Or even the packing that went on at home for a couple of weeks before the trip.

Since those days I haven’t camped much, and would prefer to do it in a camper or trailer if the option were to come up. My DH, however, has no interest in camping, even in a luxury vehicle. He likes water. The ocean, mostly. (We have a sailboat, and that’s HIS idea of camping.) But when I suggested the Idaho river-rafting trip, maybe it was the water that intrigued him. At any rate, we went, and signed up for a trip that was not only a “gourmet” trip, but a wine-tasting trip as well. Salmon River Outfitters had been written up in Gourmet. That’s all the mattered to me – if Gourmet thought it was a great trip with great food, surely we would too. And indeed we did. SRO has new owners, but I’d suspect they would have continued the tradition.

I could write up an entire post about the week-long trip itself (the wildlife, the hikes, the campsites, the conviviality of the small group, the thrill of the rapids, and even getting to the imbarkation point too) but for now I’ll just talk about the food. To say I was amazed at the food is an understatement. Here we were, out in the middle of nowhere (on the Salmon River, the South Fork, with nothing but ice chests of food and camping gear – no roads – no civilization whatsoever – no supply boat or car to deliver food to us) and the group of guides (four on our trip). We rafted the river for a couple or three hours in the mornings, then they’d spy a favorite sandy bank and our three rafts would pull in. They’d set up comfy chairs right at the riverside, bring in the potty box (which went with us on the trip from beginning to end) and set up a small secluded toilet for the group, then they’d start preparing lunch. Lunch was usually cold food – salads, sandwiches, and maybe brownies, fruit and cookies, hot coffee in thermoses from breakfast, soft drinks. We stopped long enough to enjoy more of the scenery and let our lunches settle, then we’d pile back into the rafts and off we’d go for the afternoon run. Another couple or three hours on the river, more rapids perhaps, maybe a hike into an abandoned gold rush era village, and we’d stop again for the day. They had their favorite spots. There are a few other river outfitters plying the same waters (the state mandates a limited number of rafts on the river at any time), so everyone jockeys for their favorite sites. (And, incidentally, every single minute amount of detritus we had on this trip – dirty tissues, paper towels, wrappers, was all taken along on the trip and disposed of properly – nothing, absolutely nothing – was left on the river or in campsites.)

The weather was unseasonably cold the year we went (in July), and we were very, VERY limited in what we could take with us (they had mailed us a small waterproof cloth duffle bag and everything, absolutely everything we took had to fit into this bag). We slept in sleeping bags they provided with a small 2-man tent that goes up in nothing flat. We were required to set up our own tents and if rain threatened, we needed to dig small drainage ditches around the tent. We did have rain a couple of times, so it was a good thing we dug the ditches. A couple went along on that trip from Granite Springs winery (in California gold country, and now part of Latcham winery), and every night they provided some delightful wines for all of us to enjoy before and during dinner. The meals the guides prepared were positively amazing. I don’t remember now what all they made, but they were outstanding. The guides set up a couple of small camping prep tables and two kerosene stoves, and from those limited resources, they prepared meals you’d think were from a gourmet restaurant.

So, one night, they made this pasta dish. And everyone just adored it, me included. Toward the end of the trip they told us they had a “book” they’d sell us for a fee. It contained the story of Salmon River Outfitters and some, but not all of the recipes, but the most popular ones, this pasta dish one of them. So, of course, I had to buy the book. And I’ve made this pasta numerous times since, and never fail to remember the fun we had on that river rafting trip, and how scrumptious this tasted as we sat by the burbling river, listening to the hawks, the birds, the bees, spotting eagles soaring at high elevations too.
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Shrimp & Pasta a la Pizzaiola

Recipe: Salmon River Outfitters, Idaho
Servings: 8
Cook’s Notes: this dish does take some moderate amount of prep. Lots of cutting and chopping, but once done, the dish comes together quickly. I added a little bit of chicken broth to the sauce just to give a bit more fluid to it. If you end up mixing up the two parts of the sauce, don’t worry – I’ve done it myself, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Be sure to use both Feta and Romano cheese (don’t skip, because the Feta is an important component).

2 pounds medium shrimp — raw
1 teaspoon pickling spice
2 pounds pasta [my choice is linguine]
1/4 pound mushrooms — fresh, sliced
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 cup fresh basil — sliced
1/4 cup fresh parsley — minced
1 clove garlic — minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons capers
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic — minced
1/2 whole red bell pepper — thinly sliced
3 whole tomatoes — chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano — minced
1 dash salt
1 dash pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup dry red wine
3 1/2 ounces Feta cheese — crumbled
1/3 cup Romano cheese — or Parmegiano, shredded
3 tablespoons basil leaves — sliced

1. Bring 1 quart of water to a boil and add pickling spice and shrimp. Simmer for 3-4 minutes, or until shrimp turns pink and curls. Cool under cold running water, peel and devein.
2. Heat olive oil in large skillet. Add mushrooms and garlic and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add basil and parsley, then shrimp and lemon juice, and cook for about 5 minutes. Add Piazzaiola Sauce and heat through.
3. In a large kettle, bring a large quantity of water to a boil and add the pasta of your choice and cook until al dente. Rinse in hot water, drain briefly, then toss with shrimp/sauce mixture. Add Feta, capers and cherry tomatoes, then sprinkle with Romano and serve immediately.
4. PIZZAIOLA SAUCE: In a large kettle heat olive oil until a light haze forms over it. Remove from heat and add garlic and bell peppers. Stir while it cooks, off the flame. Peel, seed and chop the tomatoes. Add oregano, salt, pepper, basil, sugar and red wine. Add to mushroom mixture.
Per Serving: 679 Calories; 14g Fat (19.2% calories from fat); 42g Protein; 92g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 188mg Cholesterol; 436mg Sodium.

Posted in Pasta, on February 29th, 2008.


Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Well, the quote doesn’t exactly fit my purpose here, but close. There are creative people who thrive on finding a different solution, an innovation, to a problem. In the culinary world, chefs need to create on a dime. Every day. Here, we’re talking about pasta. And there’s nothing quite like overcooked pasta. I do like it just barely done – but al dente still. So, instead of guessing and having to remove a strand of lingine from the boiling pot, here’s a foolproof and very Italian method. There really is more than one way to boil pasta. I know, this isn’t exactly a very interesting post subject, but I ran across something in my stack of recipes that I’ve had for years, and used many times. So, I thought I’d share it with you.

The advice came from a cooking instructor. What class, I can’t tell you. It’s something she passed out to all of her class participants, every class she teaches. And it’s a photocopy from the back of a package or box. Agnesi is an Italian company – they do have a website, but it’s all in Italian.

Anyway, the instructor was also a caterer, and she said this is her failsafe method. She uses it always. And as long as I remember, on those occasions when I do make pasta, it’s worked like a charm.

  • “The ANGESI Advice for a Better Pasta Cooking Method: cook pasta in boiling water for just 2 minutes. Measure this time from the moment the water returns to a boil after adding the pasta. After the 2 minutes are up, remove pot from the heat, cover with a lid and leave to stand for the cooking time indicated on the box. Drain the pasta and . . . buon appetitto! This is to encourage you to try a new way of cooking pasta. You will see that when the cooking time is over, the water is almost clear. This is because the pasta has retained most of its precious nutrients, some of which are lost during the normal, longer cooking method.”

Posted in Pasta, Veggies/sides, on February 14th, 2008.

You know, orzo is a rice-shaped pasta. Once it plumps up, it grows a bit in size, but still looks like large, very large, grains of rice. And carbonara is a rich, cream-laden Italian preparation of pasta with bacon as the primary flavor. Yet, risotto is a creamy rice preparation too, that can vary with the additions. So, Phillis Carey combined all of these culinary variations and created a great risotto-like pasta side dish. Since I like bacon a whole heck of a lot, and thyme is my most favorite-est herb, this satisfies like comfort food.

The preparation is fairly simple, although you do have to heat up the broth and be near the range when you’re making this. But you don’t have to stir for 30-45 minutes like you do with risotto. It comes together in about 30 minutes.

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Orzo Carbonara with Bacon & Thyme

Recipe: Phillis Carey, cookbook author & instructor
Servings: 6
Cook’s Notes: you may need to add more liquid to this – depends on how long it takes to cook the orzo. If you’ve run out of broth, just add water. This wants to be on the wet side – it should not be stiff when served, but creamy, soft. Once you add the cream and bring it to a simmer, have everything ready because you want to serve this immediately. I mean immediately.

4 slices thick-sliced bacon — 1/2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound orzo
5 cups low-sodium chicken broth — heated to a simmer
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese — freshly grated
1 teaspoon fresh thyme — chopped

1. Cook bacon in heavy saucepan over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon transfer bacon to paper towels and drain.
2. Pour off all but 1 T. of drippings from pan. Add butter and melt. Add orzo and toss in butter. Add 3 cups chicken broth and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, adding more broth as needed to keep orzo from sticking to bottom the pan. Cook orzo until just tender and broth is absorbed, about 8-10 minutes.
3. Add heavy cream and bring to a simmer. Mix in cheese, bacon and thyme and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Per Serving: 426 Calories; 15g Fat (29.5% calories from fat); 22g Protein; 58g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 31mg Cholesterol; 178mg Sodium.

Posted in Pasta, on February 9th, 2008.

I’m on a roll. Trying some of the recipes amongst the hundreds of clippings I sorted through a few days ago. This one was only about 7 months old – after I broke my foot last summer I watched a heck of a lot of television, and this was one of Giada’s Italian recipes that sounded so good, and I knew I’d enjoy it. It’s easy to make, too. Can’t beat that combination. I really can’t say that I make all that many recipes from Food Network shows. I enjoy watching some of them (as theater, I suppose) but only occasionally do I go to the Network’s site and print out a recipe.

Here is Giada De Laurentis’ stuffed jumbo shells, placed in a baking dish. Photo from the Food Network.

I almost always have pancetta on hand, but I didn’t have the 3/4 inch cubes Giada mentions in the recipe – I had the tiny cubed pancetta that I get from Trader Joe’s in 4-ounce packages. DH offered to go grocery shopping for me, so I wrote down “large pasta shells.” I should have known that “jumbo” was what I wanted. Soooo, I had to improvise a bit. The large shells are way too small to stuff, so I just made a casserole of them instead. Am sure they tasted the same, but most definitely didn’t look as attractive as Giada’s. The Asiago cheese is part of what “makes” this dish, since it has a kind of sharp taste. Good, though. And the dash of nutmeg in the mixture was really delish. The dish is rich, so it’s filling. Maybe a bit too rich for me. DH liked this a LOT. Said I could make this anytime. Any day. Night. Whenever.
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Shells with Crispy Pancetta and Spinach

Recipe: Giada de Laurentis, Everyday Italian, Food Network
Serving Size : 8 [Giada says this feeds 4-6. No way – more like 8-10 in my estimation.]

1 package jumbo pasta shells — (12-ounce)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound pancetta — cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 pounds frozen spinach — thawed and drained
15 ounces ricotta cheese — whole milk
1 cup asiago cheese — grated
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon butter
1 garlic clove — minced
1 cup cream
2 cups asiago cheese — grated, set aside 1/4 cup
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. For the shells: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta.
3. Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Remove the pancetta from the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to a large bowl. Add the spinach, ricotta cheese, asiago cheese, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir to combine. Stuff the shells with about 2 tablespoons of the spinach mixture each and place the stuffed shells in a large, buttered baking dish.
4. For the sauce: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the cream and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to very low and add the 2 cups asiago cheese, parsley, and pepper. Stir until the cheese is dissolved. Pour the sauce over the shells. Top with the remaining 1/4 cup asiago cheese.
5. Bake until golden on top, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
Per Serving: 410 Calories; 31g Fat (66.9% calories from fat); 26g Protein; 9g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 103mg Cholesterol; 1419mg Sodium.

Posted in Pasta, Vegetarian, on September 2nd, 2007.

pastatomatocreamsauceIt was a few years ago and we flew from California to Philadelphia to attend the wedding of a young couple, friends. They’d met in San Diego, actually sailed with us on our boat one afternoon soon after they’d met. He was, is, a Navy pilot and close with dear friends of ours from Philadelphia. We thought they made a fine couple and wished them much happiness. The groom’s mother prepared a lovely feast for the rehearsal dinner. There were many hands helping in the kitchen, mine among them, and I fell in love with this incredibly easy side dish (or, it could be a main dish as is, or add some protein of some kind too).

I watched as MaryAnn made this sauce – she opened cans of chopped tomatoes, cubed up some cream cheese, chopped some basil, added a tad of wine vinegar, fresh garlic, and olive oil. All this was stirred up in a very large bowl, covered with plastic wrap and left to sit out for about 6 hours. The flavors developed, obviously and the cream cheese kind of dissolved, sort of. At serving time she made a heap of hot penne, combined the sauce and poured it onto a very large platter with additional basil and sprinkled the real-thing Parmesan cheese and it was done. The total amount of actual work in this is about 5 minutes. (I’m not counting the time to cook the pasta, of course.) Maybe 10 max. If you need to hold the sauce for longer, put it in the refrigerator. Just bring it back to room temp before serving. The dish can be served at room temp, actually, but I think it’s best hot.

And I’ll tell you, this is absolutely fabulous. I’ve made it many, many times since. It’s a cinch for guests. Tastes beyond wonderful.  Thank you, MaryAnn.

What’s good: well, that it’s so incredibly easy to make. You and your guests will rave about it. And yes, you DO leave it out at room temp. I think the acid in the tomatoes must be what keeps the dairy (cream cheese) from developing bacteria. It’s also delicious as left overs. A must make.
What’s not: nothing whatsoever.

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Pasta with Tomato Cream Sauce

Recipe: MaryAnn Quinn, a friend of a friend in Philadelphia
Serving Size : 10 (as a side dish, 4 as main dish)
COOK’S NOTES: This takes about 5 minutes to prepare the sauce and it’s DONE! You can use any kind of pasta, but choose one that will hold some of the sauce (i.e., not linguine or spaghetti) in its crevices. These days it seems odd to let food sit at room temp for several hours, but when I was first served this, it was left out and later served to 30 people without a problem. A double batch was JUST enough (small servings) for 30 with an entree, green salad and ample appetizers. My favorite tomatoes are Muir Glen fire roasted, but any brand will really be fine. Muir Glen is carried at Whole Foods.

28 ounces tomatoes, canned — diced with juice
8 ounces cream cheese — cubed
2 cloves garlic — minced
1 bunch basil — minced
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 pound penne pasta

1. Combine all ingredients (except pasta and cheese) in a large bowl, cover and allow to sit for several hours at room temperature.
2. Boil pasta just until barely tender, drain, add sauce to pasta, stir and pour into a large serving bowl. Sprinkle cheese on top and additional basil, if desired.
Per Serving: 383 Calories; 22g Fat (50.8% calories from fat); 11g Protein; 36g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 31mg Cholesterol; 239mg Sodium.

Posted in Pasta, Salads, on August 27th, 2007.


It’s the capers, of course, that make this uniquely Sicilian. Whether the Sicilians were the first to utilize the little buds, I don’t know. I buy a giant economy sized bottle of capers at my local Italian market. A large jar isn’t cheap, but I’ve had this jar for about 5 years, I think. Caper berries are also available – they’ve just been allowed to mature to a bigger size, hence they’re berries, rather than buds. I do like capers a lot, but only in small quantity. I once ordered chicken piccata at some restaurant and it had so darned many of them, and probably a bit of the pickle juice, I couldn’t eat it. But in moderation, they add a kind of piquant character to any dish in which you choose to use them. Just be sure to rinse them a little before using them.

I think capers are not common in tuna salad, but when I had this, it was just really, really good. There’s nothing else in it that is that unusual. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why this combination is so darned good, but maybe it’s the capers and lemon juice together that bring something different to the equation. And the fact that you use imported tuna packed in oil. And there’s no mayo in it. There’s just lots of flavor there.

sicilian-tuna-salad-closeupSicily abounds with lemons. There are lemons on trees obviously, lemons in the market, lemons in art, lemons in ceramics, lemons even in the ancient carvings. If you buy dinnerware, often it will contain pictures of lemons. The early people obviously found every possible way to utilize the citrus. Sicilians use lemon juice in lieu of vinegar, so it’s found in every avenue of their cuisine. And how could I forget Limoncello? Oh, so good is that liqueur.

But we’re talking about a pasta salad here . . . this came from a Joanne Weir cooking class some years ago. I’d have gone right on by this recipe had I not tasted it, figuring what’s one more cold pasta salad with tuna. But this was just different. Better. Tastier. Tangier. Every time I’ve made this it has renewed my enjoyment of it.
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Sicilian Tuna Salad

Recipe: Joanne Weir, author and instructor
Servings: 4
COOK’S NOTES: Buy the oil-packed tuna, since the flavor is significantly better. The salad is really good and can be made up ahead. It keeps for 4-5 days with little or no deterioration. It is a fairly dry pasta salad – you can add more oil if you want to. If it’s summer and you can find good tomatoes, they are a wonderful addition to the top of the salad or on the plate with it.You can use different pasta if you would prefer.

6 ounces tuna in oil — drained
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 pound penne pasta
2 tablespoons lemon juice — must be fresh
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons capers — rinsed and drained
1/4 cup Italian parsley — chopped
1/4 cup fresh basil — chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro — chopped

1. Drain the tuna as much as possible. Place tuna in a large bowl and using a fork break it into flakes. Set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt, then add the penne, stir well, and cook ONLY until pasta is “al dente,” firm to the tooth. This will be about 10-12 minutes depending on the brand. Drain well.
3. Meanwhile, into the bowl add the lemon juice, olive oil, remaining salt, and the pepper. Then add the hot, drained pasta and stir well.
4. Add the capers, parsley, basil, and cilantro and mix gently. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.
5. Transfer the salad to a serving bowl or divide amount individual plates. It is better if it is served at near room temperature. Garnish with additional Italian parsley sprigs or basil leaves.
Per Serving: 359 Calories; 11g Fat (28.4% calories from fat); 20g Protein; 44g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 8mg Cholesterol; 970mg Sodium.

Posted in Pasta, Vegetarian, on July 30th, 2007.

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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