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Just finished 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 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 parents were 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 a old 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.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

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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