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Just finished The Letter by Kathyrn Hughes. It’s a very intricate tale. At first it’s about Tina, a battered wife [at which point I paused and wondered if I wanted to read any further, but I’m glad I did]. She tries to get the courage to leave her husband. Then enters the letter she finds in a suit pocket in the thrift shop where she volunteers. It’s old – sealed and stamped, but never mailed. Then you learn about Crissie, decades earlier, a young pregnant girl who is sent off to Ireland to a distant relative by her father, then to a rigid (meaning horrible) convent [the book takes place mostly in Manchester, England and in rural Ireland]. The letter is addressed to her. Jump forward decades and William, the adopted child Crissie gave up, tries to find his birth mother. William meets Tina in Ireland [a serendipitous moment] as she’s trying to find the woman to whom the letter is addressed. This book is the #2 best seller on Amazon at the moment. It’s a riveting tale and I really enjoyed it.

Read Grace Unshakled, by Irene Huising. From Amazon’s page, it says: “In the year 2025, 17-year-old Grace Duncan finds herself in shackles because of her faith in Christ. An obedient daughter and stellar student, doing time in jail was never on her mental radar, despite the changes in religious laws [this takes place here in the United States] over the past few years. Through twists and turns in circumstances, Grace and a small band of Christians in Newport Beach, California begin a journey to discover what it means to follow Christ with unwavering faith in the midst of increasing persecution. Facing the potential loss of all her hopes and dreams, would Christ be enough?” We read this for one of my book clubs, and it’s a scary thought about what it could mean if we take God out of our country. The author is a friend of a friend and she attended our book club meeting to share about how she came to write this book. I don’t often share my faith here on my website, but this book made me stop and think about the direction our government is going, removing more and more our ability to worship God. Or to worship in any religion. Will this book ever make waves in the book world? Probably not. My copy may be a pre-edited version, as it contained numerous typos and formatting errors. But they didn’t detract from the subject, just the cosmetics. The book doesn’t come to a resolution; in fact it leaves you hanging, as some books do. It was intentional (obviously), but left me wondering about the “end of the story.”

Also just finished reading The Muralist: A Novel by Shapiro. It tells the story of a young woman, an artist, who was part of the U.S.’s WPA mural project from the 1930s-40s (she is fiction, the WPA is not). As with so many artists, even today, they live in abject poverty through much of their lives. This woman, though, had family in France, desperately trying to escape before Hitler’s henchmen rousted them into concentration camps. The story, a bit of a mystery but not of the mystery-genre, is about Alizée Benoit, this young painter, who slightly captivates Eleanor Roosevelt’s help. It also skips into current time when the painter’s great-niece uncovers paintings she believes were painted by her aunt. The painter had disappeared into thin air in 1940, and her relative tries desperately to find out what happened to her. It’s a really good story including such Abstract Expressionist painters as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner well-woven into the narrative. It keeps you guessing right up to the end. A good read. The author also wrote The Art Forger: A Novel a few years ago.

Read The German Girl: A Novel by Correa. It chronicles the story of a wealthy German Jewish family in Berlin, as the Nazis arrive and make life a living hell. The family is lucky (I guess you could say this) to be allowed to purchase passage on the M.S. St. Louis, a passenger liner, to take them to “the Americas.” The destination is actually Cuba. The story is told from two voices – the teenage daughter in this story, and from a current-day distant family member who is trying to learn about her ancestry. Of the 900+ passengers on the ship, only a few were allowed to disembark since the Cuban President decided he needed more money to accept them. Most families had no money left, as the Reich had taken nearly all of their assets. The daughter and her very eccentric mother were allowed to stay in Cuba.  The remaining passengers are rejected by the U.S. too, and eventually return to Europe, where most of the Jews end up dying in concentration camps. The story goes back and forth from the 1939 journey to current day as the link between the two women is slowly revealed. I had a tough time sometimes, tracking the people in this book, but the story was very riveting. It’s based on facts about the ship (see Wikipedia link above if you’re interested). A shameful chapter in history.

Recently finished reading a magnificent historical novel. Not new. Philippa Gregory has been a favorite author of mine for a couple of decades. You may remember her most famous book, The Other Boleyn Girl, published some years ago. I thought that was a really great book. I’ve read other books by Gregory, but most recently I read The King’s Curse (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels). The time period is the 1450s to 1541, mostly under the rule of King Henry VIII, the infamous womanizer and wife/Queen-killer. The man who cursed Rome (the Pope) – he wanted his first marriage annulled because Queen Catherine couldn’t produce a living male heir. And subsequently made himself the head of the church in England in order to do so. It was a Catholic country at the time. This story (it’s fiction, but woven with intricate historical detail) is from the voice of Margaret of York (a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine),  who was a Plantagenet in her own right (which is key to the later events in the book). Certainly I’ve read other novels over the years that dealt with Henry VIII, but not with this much breadth of info. What a wicked, sinful man he was. And did I say tyrant. Wow.  I could hardly put it down, through its nearly 600 pages. In the author’s notes at the end, she shares relatively recent medical info that suggests Henry probably suffered from a rare problem, Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths IF the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. And that in his later years, he may have had McLeod syndrome, a disease only found in Kell positive individuals. Around the age of 40 it causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression and irrational behavior. All of those King Henry VIII had in spades. If you read the book, you might read the author’s notes (at the end) before reading the book. If you like historical fiction (I love any book about English history) you’ll just love this one. It’s interesting, though, as I think about the many books I’ve read covering this era in English history, that each book presented its hero/heroine as the most innocent and worthy individual vying for the crown of England. I remember thinking Anne Boleyn was dealt with so badly during her life (and certainly her beheading), and yet reading this book, I completely reversed my opinion. Anne Boleyn was called a wh–e by most people during the years she shared Henry’s bed. The “curse” from the title pertains to Henry’s inability or the curse on the Tudors, that caused him to fail in producing a male heir. In any case, none of Henry’s wives should have died for it – likely it was all Henry’s fault anyway. Just read this one, okay?

Also recently read News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a free-lance job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her family was killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of an old (wild) west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many. Just read this one first!

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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