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GRATITUDE--The Heart's Memory


"A Taste For Romance" by Virginia Campbell


Since November is the month in which we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the United States, I wanted to talk about what I am so grateful for in my life. All of my immediate family has been gone for a while. I have lost many close friends and cherished pets. I also mourn the loss of friendships which I thought were unbreakable, only to see them fly away for fairer weather during the stormiest times of my life. When you choose to follow your own beliefs and stay true to who you really are as a person, you often walk that path alone.

My life has never been like I expected it to be, and if someone had told me as a child what I would have to face as an adult, I wouldn't have believed them. I am now in my early fifties, and I can see that I have mellowed in some ways and matured in others. It's also true that I am still a VA mountain girl, and I am still full of corn. I like corn, and I feel sorry for those who don't have it. Everyone should have a measure of corn, and by that I mean an appreciation for old fashioned storytelling, simple silly jokes, and the wry awareness of the unfailing ability of human beings to shoot themselves in the foot when they are already on crutches. If you don't have all that, then chances are you will take yourself far, far too seriously.
I have always been a person with big emotions, deep feelings, and my heart is worn plainly on my sleeve. Even though that makes me an easy target, I am glad that I will never be ambivalent about life, love, respect, and common courtesy. For most of my working life, I have been employed in some form or another of customer service. I genuinely like to help people. I am a problem solver, and I hate waste. It is very satisfying to identify someone's problem, know the solution or how to find the solution, and then resolve the issue for the customer. Some people really appreciate that, and others scream at you and talk to you as though you were an alien sub-species, something not even human. Those screaming people obviously lack corn.

"Hey, Grandpa, what's for supper?"--from TV's corniest show--"Hee Haw"

One thing that has never changed for me is my love of books and reading. As you know from viewing my blog posts and comments, I am hooked on comfort reads as well as comfort foods. Even in this great big world of the internet, ebooks, "nothing sacred" reality TV, and promotional banners in outer space, the sustenance found in a well-written story with involving characters still shines a light through the haze of human malcontent and misbehavior. Whether it is the expected skill of a favorite author or the joy of discovery of an appealing new writer or genre, taking the time to read takes you away from one situation and places you in a situation of your own choosing. You may still be sitting in your living room, a doctor's waiting room, or riding a bus to and from work, but at the same time, you can travel around the universe without moving more than your eyes back an forth across the printed words and your finger as it turns the page.

In these troubling financial times, when so many of us face financial difficulties, you won't find a better bargain than a book. I have a lot of respect for those who produce the books that I enjoy so much, and that includes the authors, the publishers, the cover artists and cover models, the booksellers, the publicists, the retailers, and the makers of the books. The making of a book starts with the seed of an idea that is nurtured and cultivated and pruned to its presentation point. Lots of fertilizer is spread along the way!

The thing that I am most grateful for in my life is the foundation for living that was given to me by mother and grandparents. While my life has been far from perfect, I wouldn't change having the three "parents" that I had--they made me who I am today. They enabled me to be a respectful, appreciative, grateful person.

I also love the few friends who have stayed with me throughout my life, no matter how awful things were or how stupid I have acted at times. Of course, there are no words to truly express the love given and received between my pets and myself. Really, no words are needed. I appreciate and admire all of you who are part of my book world. You are in my heart, and you make my heart full.

Little things still mean a lot. Life's simple pleasures are the best! Right now, my house smells heavenly. I made bread and I have a fresh pot of coffee brewing as I type. In a few moments, I will take out my little covertly hoarded (from myself) stash of real butter and pure concord grape jelly. Fresh coffee and homemade bread with butter and jelly--sheer bliss!

This morning, early, when I turned on the TV, I was lucky to start my day off with the movie "Rose Marie", starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. I love opera and operettas and big glorious movie musicals! My all-time favorite movie is "Show Boat" (1951), with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson. When I was a kid, my mother, grandmother and I would sing along with the movies. Mom had the high voice, mine was lower, and Gran did the "silly singing". We were silly singers extraordinaire! Corn Artistes!

Here are some recent reads that made me laugh out loud, pulled at my heartstrings, expanded my reader's imagination, and were simply pure reading enjoyment:

"LOVE AT ABSOLUTE ZERO" by Christopher Meeks--With some books, you can sense in advance that you are in for a reader's treat, that you will be taken outside your normal reading zone and sent on an involving and entertaining journey through words. "Love at Absolute Zero", by Christopher Meeks, is just such a book. I knew that I would love the hero, Gunnar Gunderson, and that I would be captivated by his adventure of self-enlightenment. What I didn't know, since this was my first read from Chris Meeks, was that the author would blow me away with his skill as a storyteller. Since Gunnar is a physicist, his thought processes center around science and logic. He even uses physics to rationalize human behavior and sexuality. Full review...

"A NIGHT TO SURRENDER" by Tessa Dare--I smiled all the way through "A Night to Surrender" by Tessa Dare. The humor and banter and romantic sparks were just right. There were also moments of exquisite tenderness as well as evocatively erotic interludes. The appreciation between the hero and heroine of each other as individuals was as profound as it was passionate. Neither of them knew that they had spent a lifetime searching for each other until they actually met. Full review...

"WINTER BLOOM" by Tara Heavey--Just as the garden of "Winter Bloom" is lovingly and skillfully brought back to life, so are the lives of the characters revived and renewed. Tara Heavey tells the story of five people who work together toward a common goal and discover much about themselves and each other along the way. When young widowed mother Eva Madigan spies the sadly neglected walled garden of the elderly Mrs. Prendergast, she is struck by the desire to restore the wasted space to its former glory. It takes some convincing, and Mrs. Prendergast warns her that the garden is meant to be sold, but Eva is given permission for her project. Full review...

"ONCE IN A BLUE MOON" by Leanna Ellis--As I began reading "Once in a Blue Moon", by Leanna Ellis, I soon realized that I was in for a rare treat. I have my favorite genres and types of characters, and those are my comfort reads. However, I love it when an author can take me some place new, make it a journey to remember, and introduce me to new friends to whom I don't want to say goodbye. That's exactly what Leanna Ellis did with "Once in a Blue Moon". Bryn Seymour is a journalist with a college-aged daughter, a divalistic cat, and real difficulty with close personal relationships. Full Review...

"CAPTIVE OF SIN" by Anna Campbell--Nothing pleases me more as a reader than to be captured by a story line and to become so involved with the characters that I am actually immersed in the book. With "Captive of Sin", I was turning the pages, leaning forward in my seat, and I think I spoke out loud in response to what I was reading! Full Review...

Southwest Stuffed Peppers
4 extra-large, or 6 medium, sweet bell peppers (red, yellow, or orange)
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup white rice
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb very lean ground beef
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 (3 oz) can mild green chilies
1 (14 oz) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp sugar
salt & pepper to taste
1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes with Mexican seasoning
1 1/4 cups shredded Monterey Jack or mild cheddar cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare peppers by washing, slicing tops off, and removing insides. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 teaspoon salt. Boil whole peppers for about 3-4 minutes, until they begin to soften. Remove from water with tongs and place on paper towels to drain. Prepare rice per package directions and drain well. Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef, onions, garlic, and chilies and cook until meat is done. Add corn, beans, cumin, sugar, salt, and pepper. Stir until corn and beans are heated through, about 5 minutes. Place peppers in a greased baking dish. Remove skillet from heat and add rice, tomatoes, 1 cup cheese. Stir to combine well. Taste mixture and if needed, add extra seasoning. Evenly divide mixture between peppers. Top peppers with remaining 1/4 cup cheese. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.

Plum Easy Cake
2 cups ripe plums, unpeeled, pitted & diced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup vanilla yogurt
1/4 unsalted butter, melted & cooled
3 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 400 F. Spray and flour the bottom of either an 8 X 10 baking dish or a 9” square. Place plums in a bowl with lemon juice and set aside. Combine flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, and salt in a small bowl. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and yogurt, whisk in melted butter. Add flour mixture to yogurt mixture. Drain off excess liquid from plums. Fold plums into batter. Pour into a baking pan and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of cane sugar. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when tested.

Baked Acorn Squash with Maple Sausage
2 acorn squash
2 tbsp. soft butter
1 lb. maple-flavored pork sausage
1 Granny Smith apple, unpeeled, small-diced
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
2 tbsp. brown sugar
ground cinnamon
ground nutmeg

Wash squash well, cut in half to make two round halves from each squash. Scrape out the seedy middle. (**Save seeds--see below). If necessary, slice a very thin piece from each end of squash to make the halves sit flat while cooking. Place the squash halves on a foil-lined baking sheet. Rub the inside of each squash half with soft butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes, or until soft. While squash is baking, cook sausage in a large skillet until almost done, breaking up sausage as it cooks. Add the apple and continue to cook until sausage is done and apple is softened. Add chopped walnuts and sugar. Sprinkle with light shake each of cinnamon and nutmeg. Continue to cook and stir a few more minutes until mixture is well combined. Remove from heat and cover. Heat again just before adding to squash. When squash is done, place each squash on serving plate and fill with heated stuffing.

**Toasted Squash Seeds: You can wash off and bake the seeds just like pumpkin seeds. Sprinkle with salt and bake for about 7 minutes on 350, or until toasted. For a different flavor kick, instead of salt sprinkle seeds lightly with ground cinnamon, chili powder, or garlic powder.

Fettuccine with Shrimp and Bacon
1 pound uncooked fettuccine
2 bacon slices (uncooked)
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 cups frozen green peas, thawed
1 cup shredded carrot
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
chopped fresh parsley or fresh chives for garnish

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain well; keep warm. Cook bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat 6 minutes or until crisp. Remove bacon from the pan, reserving 1 tablespoon drippings in pan. Crumble bacon; set aside. Add shrimp and garlic to pan; sauté over medium-high heat 2 minutes. Add peas and carrot; cook 2 minutes or just until shrimp are done. Transfer shrimp mixture to a large bowl; keep warm. Combine milk, flour, salt, and pepper, stirring with a whisk. Add milk mixture to pan; cook over medium heat 3 minutes or until thickened and bubbly, stirring constantly with a whisk. Remove pan from heat; add cheese, stirring until blended. Add milk mixture to shrimp mixture; stir until combined. Add pasta and toss gently to coat. Transfer pasta mixture to a platter, or divide evenly among each of 8 plates; sprinkle evenly with parsley or chives and crumbled bacon. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

Cranberry Cheesecake Bars
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups quick or old-fashioned oats
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 (12 ounce) package white chocolate chips
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 (14 ounce) can whole berry cranberry sauce
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 13 x 9-inch baking pan. Combine flour, oats and brown sugar in large bowl. Add butter; mix until crumbly. Stir in morsels. Reserve 2 1/2 cups morsel mixture for topping. With floured fingers, press remaining mixture into prepared pan. Beat cream cheese in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice and vanilla extract; mix until smooth. Pour over crust. Combine cranberry sauce and cornstarch in medium bowl. Spoon over cream cheese mixture. Sprinkle reserved morsel mixture over cranberry mixture. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until center is set. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Cover; refrigerate until serving time (up to 1 day). Cut into bars.

Hot Mulled Cider Tea
1 (32 oz) bottle cranberry juice cocktail
1 (32 oz) bottle apple juice
6 cinnamon-apple herbal tea bags
brown sugar or honey to taste
cinnamon sticks

In a 3 qt. saucepan over high heat, bring cranberry juice and apple juice to a boil. Remove from heat. Add tea bags, cover, and let brew for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags and stir in sweetener. Pour tea into mugs and add a cinnamon stick to each mug.

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Muffins
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
4 eggs
1 (15 oz) can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup water
3 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1 bag (11 oz) mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray and add paper liners. Mix sugar, oil, eggs. Add pumpkin and water. In separate bowl mix together the baking flour, baking soda, baking powder, spices and salt.. Add wet mixture and stir in chocolate chips. Fill muffin cups 2/3 full with batter. Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until muffins spring back lightly to touch. Makes about 2 dozen muffins.