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On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of aging high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, wealthy women) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Essays, on May 9th, 2013.

peppers_mixed

If you’re not all that interested in knowing more about bell peppers, well, I understand. Come back in a couple of days and there will be a recipe up again on the blog. The “food scientist” in me wants more info sometimes, just better knowledge about the food products I buy, even if they’re something I’ve been purchasing for decades.

Prior to about 1980, there was only one kind of bell pepper available – GREEN. Which is why I didn’t like them much. My Dad loved stuffed green peppers (filled with a ground beef and rice mixture and served with tomato sauce). I thought these were vile – I could eat the filling, but the pepper part was bitter, acidic. That stuffed pepper style was very popular during the 1950-70 time frame.

Somewhere around 1960 shoppers were offered a choice of colors –  and bell pepper sales soared. I do remember when they first began appearing in grocery stores – the ones from Holland. But oh, were they ever expensive – way beyond my food budget. In the 30 years after that our per capita consumption of bell peppers quadrupled. According to the USDA, on any given day, about a quarter of Americans were eating some amount of a bell pepper, which is double the amount we’d eat of a French fry. Well, that’s a good thing! The same percentage increase occurred with chile peppers too, although it’s leveled off in the last 20 years. All the credit is due to the Dutch, who figured out how to outsmart nature. You probably already know this – all peppers start out green, and it’s only because they are left on the bush or vine that the colors develop.

Why do Bell Peppers Turn Color?

The scientific explanation – as fruits begin to mature and develop sugar, the sweetness alters their chemical makeup and the chlorophyll start to break apart, which then permits the underlying colors to develop.

Because peppers are a very tender product, they’re very susceptible to bugs and viruses (who knew? viruses? really?). Only very careful farming can produce a fully ripe and colored bell pepper without it developing blemishes and soft spots. Holland’s farmers raise all of theirs in greenhouses, which is why they’re so pristine (and expensive).

Our taste buds really only recognize two tastes in peppers – sweet or hot. Well, I’ll add a 3rd one – bitter, which is what is in green bells – to me, anyway. There are 22 wild varieties of peppers out there and 5 domesticated ones. Most peppers are grown in California and Florida. Chile peppers mostly come from Mexico, where there are at least 3 varieties that grace nearly every Mexican family’s table with regularity. I’m guessing those are: jalapeno, serrano, and poblano. We can find those at our grocery stores every day here in Southern California.

bellpepper2What makes a chile pepper hot is capsaisin (cap-SAY-eh-sun), and if you remember nothing else from this little write-up, the heat in peppers comes MOSTLY from the ribs. Not the seeds. That’s not to say that if you bite into a piece of the green of a jalapeno, you won’t taste heat – you will, but the real heat is in the little whitish/yellowish rib membrane inside the pepper. Remove those and you’ll have a much milder pepper experience. Unless, of course, you WANT the heat, in which case leave it in! Different peppers contain different concentrations of capsaicin (like habanero, the hottest, to the bell pepper which has the least) . And the heat is caused by a recessive gene. That was news to me! What’s interesting is that the heat in chiles can vary not only by variety, but also from peppers on the same bush. Little Japanese shishito peppers (at left) are the most variable – about one in every dozen will be hot enough to blow off the top of your head. Figuratively, of course.

CHOOSING PEPPERS: With the bell peppers, choose the heaviest ones, the ones that are the most filled out and the darkest in color. They’re the sweetest. The recommendation is to choose the peppers that have the boxiest shape with the flattest sides. And obviously, don’t buy one that has a blemish or a soft spot anywhere. Chile peppers should be average size and also unblemished and definitely firm. No soft ones at all.  The best prices on all peppers is in the mid-summer when they are available in abundance.

STORING PEPPERS: They’ll keep best if wrapped well and stored in the refrigerator at about 45°. That’s the temp of most refrigerators. No colder than that, though, or the peppers will start to break down.

Nearly all this information came from Russ Parsons’ book How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table.

Peppers for Cold Meat – my favorite recipe you’ll find here on my blog that showcases bell peppers – it’s a sweet and sour kind of relish that’s just a match made in heaven for almost any kind of meat. It’s easy to make and keeps for weeks and weeks.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on May 9th, 2013:

    I don’t recall seeing any kind of peppers for sale here, until the very late 60s and then only the green ones. I have always disliked the taste of them too, but now I adore the roasted red ones that come in a jar.

    The Nightshade family include potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, tamarios, pepinos, pimentos, paprika, and cayenne peppers.

    I have a feeling that they used to be grown hydroponically in Holland.

    We still buy “Holland Peppers” here, although I would suspect they’re grown here. But I really don’t know, but yes, you’re quite right, they’re raised without soil. I forget about all the other produce that comes from the nightshade family. Thanks for the reminder! . . . carolyn t

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