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Just finished a stunning book, 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 (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. 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 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.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant. Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.


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 pressure cooker, Utensils, on March 20th, 2013.


This post isn’t about a recipe. It’s just about pressure cookers, what makes them tick (ha! that’s a joke, the old-fashioned ones did kind of tick or jitter, new ones don’t). Most of this is synopsized (is that a word?) from my latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated. It was so interesting I thought I’d share it with you.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you’ll already know that I particularly like to know the “why” of things. The science of cooking. I imagine this comes from the genetics I got from my dad – he was an engineer, and probably would have liked me to be one too, but I took a different path. Yet, when it comes to cooking, as I’ve gotten older (oh, excuse me, mature!) I really like knowing why things work. Like what is the maillard reaction (that’s the effect of caramelization or browning in a pan, mostly related to meat, but it could be anything that’s cooked to a high enough heat and creates a fond, that brown stuff that sticks to the pan, where all the flavor lies)? Or how/why does baking powder or soda makes things rise. Why is arborio rice different than long grain and why do they cook differently? You know, those kinds of things.

Just a bit of pressure cooker background here – I was given a pressure cooker in 1962 when I got married the first time. I used it, and then one unfortunate day I was cooking artichokes, got distracted, went outside and totally forgot about the artichokes jiggling away in the kitchen. When I came back through the door about 30 minutes later, the smell assailed me – burned is all I can say. The pressure cooker, one of those old-old Presto versions – was still on the stove, the jiggly top had blown off and the artichokes were burned to a crisp and obviously there was no more water inside. The interior couldn’t be cleaned up, and I discovered immediately that the bottom of the pan was warped. Big time warped. It had developed a rounded bottom – so bad that the pan wouldn’t sit level anyway, although it was still barely usable (amazing, when you consider what I’d done to it!). Plus, I couldn’t get that burned smell out of the pan in any event. I kept it for years, out of guilt, I think, that I’d been so careless as to ruin the darned thing. Hoping there would be a solution. (No.)

But I’d remembered all these ensuing years how much time they saved sometimes. It was at a cooking class about 5-6 years ago that the instructor (Deb Buzar) made short ribs, and she did it in the pressure cooker. It wasn’t a pressure cooker class – but she’d arrived at the class at about 5pm, was somewhat short on time to prep for the class. But, she explained that she always does her barbecued short ribs in the pressure cooker – mostly because the recipe she shared (linked just above – and is still my go-to short rib recipe) was from her mother-in-law, and SHE had always made it in the pressure cooker. It was at that class I decided to buy one.

Being a judicious buyer as I am, I went online and read reviews about PC’s. Mostly at There are all varying prices – from under $100 to nearly $300. After reading reviews, I decided to buy a Fagor, and purchased a variation of the 5-piece set (the one you see pictured at the top) – Fagor Duo Combi 5-Piece Pressure Cooker Set. It has 2 different sized pans, with two lids – one which includes the rubber sealing ring that allows the pan to come to pressure, and the second one just an ordinary glass lid,  and also came with a pasta/steamer insert. I think it’s about $150. The set I bought from amazon didn’t come with the pasta insert and didn’t have the glass lid. I’ve been nothing but happy with my purchase. I don’t use it every day. I don’t even use it every week, but when I use it – I’m very grateful I have it. Lately I’ve used it most often for cooking dried beans, which has been a revelation to me. I’m not trying to convince you to buy a Fagor. I’m only sharing my process and that I’ve been happy with my decision.

So fast forward to the other day when I was reading Cook’s Illustrated, and they had a lengthy article about PCs. Purposely I didn’t flip the couple of pages to read which ones were their winners. Here’s what I learned.

Pressure cookers function based on a very simple principle. In a tightly sealed pot, the boiling point of liquid is higher. As the pot heats up, pressure begins to build. This pressure makes it more difficult for water molecules to turn to vapor – therefore raising the boiling point from 212 to 250 degrees. Why does this matter? The superheated steam generated in the cooker makes food cook faster. And because the pot stays closed, cooking requires much less liquid than usual, and flavors concentrate.

steam_digesterContraptions for cooking under pressure have been around for a long, long time. They were first invented by Denis Papin in 1679. He was a French mathematician and physicist and invented it because he wanted to reduce bones (probably from cows, pigs and sheep) to bone meal. Some time in the 1900’s, after World War II, there was a big surge to develop them for the home cook. At one time I used my badly warped pressure cooker to cook chicken backs and necks (which were dirt cheap back in the 1970’s), reduce them to mush, and feed them to my female dog who had just whelped and was quite thin and weary from caring for and feeding her litter of puppies. It worked like a charm to give her lots of calcium. The bone mixture was loaded with calories too. She wolfed it down.

Anyway, early pressure cookers had some inherent problems (and the article said there were some unscrupulous manufacturers too), but as the years have gone by they’ve been tested and designed for ease of use – and safety for home use. No toggle thing that ticks. With mine, I bring it up to temperature and it starts to spit steam. Once it’s a steady stream of steam, I reduce the temp, and it sits on the range with no need to watch it at all, until the minutes have ticked away. Once done, you can just let it cool down on its own. You can flip a toggle and release the steam, or I put it in my kitchen sink and run cold water over it for about 15 seconds and it’s down to a regular/no pressure. Mine has a tiny little plastic plug and when it’s under steam pressure the plug sticks up (kind of like those little plastic thingies that come in turkeys, that supposedly pop out when the turkey is done). Once pressure is released, the plastic plug slips back down into the lid so I know it’s safe to remove the lid. It’s very easy and I feel very safe using it.

The article concluded that 6-quart pans aren’t very useful. Mine is an 8-quart, which was the preferred size. They also highly recommended a 9 inch width. Some are 7 1/2 inches, but they didn’t like them much. The bottom of pressure cooker pans enclose a heavy-duty aluminum ring, encased in stainless steel, that regulates and retains heat. If that ring is too small, food on the outer edges can burn. And they cautioned about using pans on a burner where the flame can lick up the sides and can damage both the locking mechanisms in the lids and the rubber gaskets. So don’t use the cooker on a really high BTU burner (those are always a wider ring of flame). Better to use a regular burner, although it will take a bit more time to bring it up to temperature. The 2 winners had base thicknesses of over 7 millimeters thick. Several other models were under 7 millimeters and didn’t perform as well. Some models didn’t quite reach/maintain the 250 degree desired temp. Only the top one did. fissler_vitaquick_pressurecookerThe 2nd best, their Best Buy model (the one I own, above) didn’t quite get to 250 degrees, but was very close. All the others were less, so cooking times were longer. Some models also lost fluid (meaning they vented too much steam). The two top models lost a very tiny amount, which is ideal. The number one model was the Fissler Vitaquick Pressure Cooker, 8.5qt.  It’s $279. The #2 choice was the one I own (see link in top paragraph if you’re interested).

Electric pressure cookers were also examined and found wanting, for a variety of reasons: smaller size (too small), the nonstick coating inside was less durable than the stainless steel in regular models, they lacked handles, they spun around when stirring, and weaker heating elements. The only model they half-heartedly recommended was Emeril by T-fal CY4000001 6-Quart Electric Pressure Cooker, Silver.

If you’re interested, the article says that 5 recipes from Cook’s Illustrated’s new book, Pressure Cooker Magic (not out yet, I gather, since I can’t find it online anywhere), are available for free for 4 months (until May 13th, 2013). You will have to sign in/up (free) in order to access the recipes. There’s one for Asian-Style Boneless Beef Short Ribs, Chicken Broth, Easy Chicken and Rice, Easy Ziti with Sausage and Peppers, and Parmesan Risotto.

I do have a number of recipes on my blog prepared in the pressure cooker. In case you’re interested, click on the links below. And I just posted 2 days ago an article about cooking beans – if you click on this link, you’ll go to that one, and do print out the 2-page chart which includes the cooking times for cooking every possible kind of bean in a pressure cooker.

Malaysian Inspired Pork Stew
Parsnips in Orange Sauce
Lamb Shanks with Garlicky Madeira Gravy
Sweet and Spicy Barbecued Country Ribs
Carnitas Tacos
Italian Pot Roast
Mushroom Risotto
Beef Stew with Dumplings
No Heat Beef Chili (the beans are made in the pressure cooker)

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  1. Kim

    said on March 20th, 2013:

    I will admit that the pressure cooker intimidates me. It’s one tool we still don’t have in our house. We’ve been making a lot of carnitas at our house, and now I’m intrigued by your pressure cooker version. It appears to save a lot of time if it can be done in 30 minutes. 🙂

    Hi Kim – if you want to you can borrow mine for a week and try it out. You’ll be amazed. . . carolyn t

  2. David

    said on June 27th, 2014:

    Thanks for this post. I’m in the process of buying a pressure cooker and there’s just so many things to look at. I’m leaning towards the Fagor too after reading good reviews here about their product.

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