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Sunday, November 24, 2013

[The Secret Keeper] Memorable and fascinating tale of love and yearning with superb twists

Kate Morton has written another winner with wonderful characters, great narrative and twists and turns you won't see coming. I've read all four books written by Kate Morton, and the Forgotten Garden was my favourite  before I read this latest one, The Secret Keeper. 
She always surprises me. I enjoyed the history that the author brings to life along with very interesting characters, and relationships often between a mother and a daughter. 

The Secret Keeper is an enjoyable story full of heart, love, tragedy, abuse, and has a delightfully unexpected ending. It kept me guessing the whole time. During a picnic at her family's farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicholson witnesses a murder committed by her perfect and beautiful mother. That crime challenges everything she knows about her beloved mother, Dorothy. 
Fifty years later, Laurel is a successful actress, but has never forgotten  the tragic events of that summer. A family gathering to celebrate her mother's ninetieth birthday becomes the occasion for the actress to finally find the answers to questions that had been haunting her and her family for decades.

The plot alternates between 1940 and 2011 and and reveals little by little about Dorothy's love for the photographer, Jimmy, her friendship with the rich and glamorous Vivien. The book gets off to a very slow start. But all is redeemed in the fascinating twist at the end, which I did not see coming! 

Apart from Laurel, it involves three people: Dorothy (Laurel’s mother), Jimmy (Dorothy’s fiance) and Vivien.  The mystery and intrigue levels are significant because, despite the facts you have, you still don’t know what really is going on and the end is an unexpected turn that you could not possibly have predicted. The ending is absolutely superb!

The writing technique of Kate Morton, with its frequent chronological shifts between the past and present day, matches the emotional intensity of her stories, especially her latest novel, The Secret Keeper. Well, I thought the Secret Keeper was a little slow through the middle but the end was well worth the wait! The beauty of the Kate Morton's novels are that you honestly never get the whole story until the absolute end, especially for the Secret Keeper.

I thoroughly enjoyed the walk through Laurel's life and the flashbacks to her mother's life. Well, I'd have enjoyed it even more if it moved a little faster, though.

The Secret Keeper

Sunday, November 17, 2013

[Peruvian Style Rice] Easy and tasty rice: A great main dish accompaniment

I got this recipe  from a friend's husband a few years ago, when he cooked a lunch for his wife and me when we were cramming for an exam. He made a delicious lunch. I liked the main dish very much, but the rice was so impressively delicious that I couldn't help but ask for the recipe. 

Gonzalo readily gave me his secret(?) recipe to make tasty rice in Peruvian style. It was easy enough to remember right away and scrumptious enough to make it over and over. 

I found that this Peruvian rice is a good accompaniment for just any main dish since it doesn't taste too bold, but not too plain either. I would recommend this rice for any occasion.  Hope you like it too. It's one wonderfully simple recipe.

Here goes the recipe for the rice in  Peruvian style~

2 cups basmati (or long grain) rice, washed and drained
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 teaspoon  salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 + 1/2 cups cold water or upto the gradation marking for 2 cups of rice cooker
(Oops. I forgot to take an "ingredients" shot)

The amount of salt Gonzalo told me was this much :), but I just quantified it.


1. Heat the olive oil and saute the garlic over medium heat for about 30 seconds - 1 minute, but not until it's browned.

2. Add water and salt, and then rice. Cook until done. If you cook in a rice cooker, you can leave it until done. If you cook it on stovetop, Turn the heat up to bring the water to a boil, then turn the heat down as low as it can go, and then cover. Cook for 15 minutes.

3. Turn the heat off and fluff the rice with a fork.
While cooking it, you will smell a heaven. It's just so simple, isn't it? 

I'm sure anybody who would a very small scoop of this Peruvian rice would love it.

As I said above, any main dish would be a nice match with this one! :)

You can check my other rice recipes here:

Peruvian Style Rice

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

[Dolmades] Tasty Stuffed Grape Leaves with meat & rice filling

I still remember that I was fascinated by the unknown Turkish person who had first thought of cooking rough and stiff grape leaves, to make edible food. He (or she) must be a genius to come up with this idea using abundant grape leaves. It's not only edible, but also tasty.

 I was wondering how come each of Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Egypt insist that stuffed grape leaves are their own traditional food. 

All these countries have three things in common: first, all these countries border the Mediterranean sea. Second, they all use more or less the same ingredients for their traditional food. And third, historically, all of the countries mentioned here were ruled by Ottoman Empire, i.e. Turkey of today. That must be why the Turkish word Dolma is from the Turkish verb dolmak which means 'to be stuffed'. (reference: Merriam-Webster). Dolmas (or dolmades) are one of the items I always pick at deli, olives & antipasto bars. It's glossy and refreshing at the same time. Gloss must come from meat and refreshingness must be from young mint leaves. When a Greek colleague of mine explained how her mom was making dolmades, it sounded pretty easy and doable. I got suddenly encouraged and decided to make my very own dolmades. Then I used a half jar of grape leaves to make lots of dolmades! It was soooooooo good and delicious. Here goes the recipe for Mediterranean stuffed grape leaves! :)

(adapted from

1/2 jar of large grape leaves in brine (about 30-40 leaves)
8 cups of water
1 pound of lean ground beef
1/2 cup of uncooked short-grain rice, rinsed 
1 medium-large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of fresh mint, chopped
1 tablespoon of flat leaf parsley, chopped
juice of 1 lemons
1/8 teaspoon of pepper
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt
1 cup of water

1. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil in a large pot, add juice of 1/2 lemon and the salt. Turn off the heat when boiled, and put 1/2 jarful grape leaves in the pot. You don't need to separate them. 
Leave for 5 minutes before remove and rinse under the running cold water. 
Drain and pat the leaves with kitchen towel.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Sauté the onions in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until translucent. 

Add rinsed rice and sauté for 3-4 minutes. 

3. In a bowl, combine the onions, ground beef, rice, remaining olive oil, parsley, mint, juice of 1 lemon, and pepper. Mix well.

4. Gently separate one leaf and place it shiny side down on a work surface. Place 1-2 teaspoons of the filling on the leaf at the point where stem joins the leaf. 

Fold up the bottom of the leaf over the filling, then each side inward in parallel folds, 

and roll up the leaf. 

Roll should be firm, but not tight, to give enough space for the filling to expand during cooking. Repeat the steps.

5. To prevent the leaves on the bottom from burning while the filling cooks, place a few layers of damaged grape leaves in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pot. 

Layer the dolmades in the pot, packing them closely together, seam side down. 

6. Add 1 cup of water and cover. Bring the water to a boil. 

Add remaining lemon juice and reduce heat to low, and simmer for 45-50 minutes. 

(Check to see if done)

7. Serve dolmades warm or at room temperature with lemon wedges, tzatziki or Greek yogurt.

Dolmades store well for a few days in the fridge, if there's any left. :)


Dolma - Dolmades

Thursday, November 7, 2013

[Moules Marinières] Belgian style mussels in white wine sauce

It was so long time ago that I don't exactly remember at which Léon de Bruxelles restaurant, a restaurant chain specialized in mussels, in Paris I had a potful of mussels for the first time in my life. Confession: even though I had loved all kinds of seafood since I was a kid, I had never tried a mussel before my first visit to Léon de Bruxelles over a decade ago. And you may guess by now, I fell in love with mussels right then and there. 

Let's say it was love at first taste, not at first sight~ Since then I order moules-frîtes, or mussels with French fries,wherever available. It's originated from Belgium, but moules frîtes are one of the most popular food in France as well. You can find it on the menu quite often at any restaurant, especially in Paris and île-de-France region. I like all different kind of mussel sauces, e.g. Italian style classic tomato sauce, bold blue cheese sauce, creamy cream sauce, and of course, plain yet elegant sauce marinière, or white wine sauce in other words. As I recommended moules frîtes as one of the must-eat foods in France last year, moules frîtes actually are one of my favorite foods in the world. You can see my post about all the must-eat foods in France here

It is true that I can eat mussels about anywhere, but! I do have my favorite place to have a big pot of mussels with freshly fried potato strips. It's not a big city such as Paris or Brussels. Probably you wouldn't guess it easily. It actually is Bruges, West Flanders in Belgium. If you haven't been in Belgium, I strongly recommend this little beautiful town in Central Europe. The Market square or Markt is one of the most charming plaza, if not the most, in the world. You will love it. A terrace of the restaurants in the square is a perfect place to enjoy a big pot of mussels with sauce of your choice.
November is such a nice month in the middle of the season, to eat mussels. As I happened to have a bottle of dry white wine in my kitchen cabinet, I made a pot of moules marinières. Here goes the recipe:

3-4lbs (or 1.3 - 1.7Kg) mussels
1/2 cup dry white wine, such as chardonnay
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-2 teaspoons garlic, chopped
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs fresh thyme
5-6+ sprigs of  fresh flat leaf parsley

Accompaniments: French fries


1. Wash the mussels under cold running water in a sink, removing any beards and barnacles. 

2. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a high heat, then add the onion and garlic. Stir for 1 minute.

3. Add the wine and bring to a boil.

4. Add the mussels, cover with a lid and cook for 2-3 minutes or until the mussels open. As you know, you are not eating any mussels that are not opened.

5. Add as much as parsley you want and stir well. No seasoning is required as the mussels will release a little salt water when they open. 

6. Serve the mussels in a serving dish or bowls. 

Prepare a nice loaf of good-quality French bread to dip in the juices. I know I ended up, as usual, with a little too much sauce, but it's so worth and good.

We should have had white wine, but as we had other food as well, we had a jug of red wine! I love this humble jug! A jug of wine satisfies our daily needs, doesn't it? :)

But, of course, a glass of Belgian  beer along with mussels is not a bad idea either. :)

Mussels lunch/dinner brings a happy nostalgia for France and Europe. 

I always enjoy mussels along with my fond memories :) 

How about you? What is the food that recalls your old memories?

Moules Marinières - Mussels with White Wine Sauce

Sunday, November 3, 2013

[Hershey's chocolate world] Kids' paradise in the middle of nowhere @ Pennsylvania

In 2011 when we had had our first trip to Lancaster, we had planned and done all the activities according to the grown-up's taste, instead of sparing a few time lots for kids' interests. Even though I only have fond memories about our last trip to Lancaster, I have kind of felt sorry for my boys.
Posts about 2011 Lancaster:

That's why we decided to do at least a couple of things only of the kids, by the kids, and for the kids, when we made a plan for a trip to Lancaster for the second time, 
While we had originally booked tickets of the musical "Noah" at Sight & Sound Theatre for kids, 

we also enjoyed it a lot, even though it was a little bit too much religious for our taste. 

It was two-and-half-hour long musical, even with an intermission. But, kids and we enjoyed every second.

Kids liked the buggy ride very much, but it was a wonderful promenade for us too. You can see the scenery of the Amish village we saw on the buggy here

So, as a result, we did only one thing, purely for the boys, which was our visit to Hershey's chocolate world. 

It was a great facility/installation to entertain your kids and maybe yourself too. 

The only thing I was unpleasantly surprised of was the pricing of all those activities which were highly over-priced. The website of the chocolate world advertises the only entertainment offered free of charge, which was 15-minute dark ride tour that shows a simulation of the chocolate making process. Unlike other amusement/entertainment installations, the website of the Hershey chocolate factory doesn't provide information about the prices of their attractions. 

Although Remi wanted to participate in Make-your-own-candy-bar, we persuaded him and went for two other attractions: Hershey's Chocolate Tasting Experience and Hershey's Great Chocolate Factory Mystery IN 4D. 

Hershey's Chocolate Tasting Experience was kind of okay as you could learn about the differences of chocolates according the level of the cacao. 

Kids were more, or rather only, interested in tasting the samples of the chocolates. 

It was okay, but quite tedious. I couldn't say I would recommend this tasting at the price of $9.95! ($6.95 for kids). It would be better to buy all different kinds of chocolate and taste a lot with that money.
On the other hand, the movie "Hershey's Great Chocolate Factory Mystery IN 4D"  made only for Hershey, was quite entertaining and fun! 

You would enjoy it. Were you wondering what 4D movie is? 

It's an entertainment presentation system combining a 3D film with physical effects that occur in the theatre in synchronization with the film (reference: Wikipedia). 

I will not spoil what kind of physical effect the movie had, for your own sake :) 

At least, I can tell you that the movie was amusing and worth money!

For the last part of fun, we took a dark ride in the guided vehicles, shown in the photo above, travel through the simulated chocolate factory which shows the entire chocolate making process. 

You can take it more than once if you want. It actually was very interesting to see and learn how they make chocolate at industrial level, from the scratch. 

You can get a free chocolate sample at the end of the tour. 

This is the tour you shouldn't miss.

Of course, all the tours and attraction sites are connected to the 'gift shops' before concluding the visit, aren't they? The shop was huge, fully filled with chocolate or chocolate related goods. A lot of those items are so cute and unique, you can't really resist from buying. 

At the end, as you might guess, the tour ends with a handful of souvenir(?) and a lighter wallet(or a longer credit card bill)~

The most important thing was that the kids had lots of fun! and we did something only for kids on this trip. :) It's worth visiting once, but probably not twice. I am almost 100% sure that we will visit Lancaster again though. Well, if it's for kids, why not? Just be prepared to pay a little bit more than you expect :)

You can see my Lancaster posts as below:

Hershey's Chocolate World