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Just finished reading 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 Novelby 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 (she arrived after the birth, actually). 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 father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. 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.

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 middle-aged 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, and wealthy) 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.

 

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 Beverages, Brunch, Desserts, on May 25th, 2013.

horchata_lua_2

Horchata is a refreshing rice-based drink from Latin America. It’s very easy to make, and if you’re so inclined, you can add some Kahlua to it as we did. Not traditional, but oh-so good.

Recently our four-couple gourmet group got together for a brunch. What fun we had, even though it wasn’t a nice day – one of those cloudy, overcast days that we, here in Southern California, don’t understand much, except in June, when we usually  have that kind of weather for the entire month, hence we call it “June Gloom.” But it was on Cinco de Mayo (the 5th). Early May!

One of the gals brought my Tuscan Sangria with Tuaca. We had 4 different salsas with chips (2 of them you’ll see here in a few days), then our main food included a egg/chile/cheese baked dish, caramelized carnitas tacos served with hot flour tortillas, guacamole and slivers of radishes. We also had a no-bake vegetarian enchilada dish that was surprisingly good. I’ll post that too. This, our dessert, was a horchata milk shake. I’d seen the recipe in Food and Wine, and since I like horchata, this one, with ice cream, sounded more like a dessert than a beverage to serve with a meal. So that’s what I did. And most of us ended up adding some Kahlua to the drink – making it a boozy drink, but not much. Just enough to taste it.

Horchata (hor-chaatah) is an agua fresca (meaning fresh water). All agua frescas are non-alcoholic and are common refreshing drinks served all over Latin America. In many Mexican restaurants here in California anyway, they serve some type of agua frescas – either horchata or tamarindo (tamarind) or hibiscus (also a favorite of mine – have never made it, I just buy it when I see it). We visit a Saturday morning farmer’s market some miles from us, and one of the food trucks there almost always has the hibiscus agua fresca, or the tamarind one. They’re all sweet, including horchata.

Anyway, horchata is easy enough to do, but since I’d never made it before, it was all new to me, other than I knew it was rice based. First I measured out rice, added water and whole cinnamon sticks (horchata typically is a cinnamon flavored drink). That sat overnight (out on the kitchen counter, not refrigerated). You remove the cinnamon sticks (see ERRATA below), then pour the entire mixture into the blender. The rice was not cooked at all, but after it sat in liquid all night, it was softened somewhat. Nothing is heated up during the making of horchata. I turned on the blender and let it go a bit, then added in some toasted sliced almonds, sugar and cinnamon. And here’s the most difficult thing you’ll do – pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer. Do NOT try to push the mixture through – you want the sieve to catch whatever rice it can, although it is ground up, you understand! I poured in about a cup and just let it sit until it had drained through. I rinsed the sieve and did it again, and again. It will take a few minutes for that, but truly that’s the most time consuming thing you’ll do making horchata.

Kahlua Tip:

If you do add Kahlua to this drink, don’t use much – you still want to taste the cinnamon, banana and almond flavors.

At that point in the making I poured it into a pitcher and refrigerated it (several hours before our get-together). When I was ready to serve it I put it back in the blender, added sweetened condensed milk, the banana, vanilla ice cream and ice. I tasted it and put in a tiny bit more horchata_lua_1of the sweetened condensed milk. Truth to tell, in our drive to the hosts’ home, my pitcher, with lid, slid and some of the horchata ended up on the carpet in my car’s trunk. Ooph! I wasn’t sure how much quantity I really had left, so needed to guesstimate how much to add in. Pour into glasses, add a straw and sprinkle the top with the cinnamon sugar mixture.

OPTIONAL: I served the horchata milk shakes in silver tumblers – they’re actually mint julep cups. Some people were drinking coffee with whipped cream on top and Kahlua was on the table. One person added a little jot of Kahlua to their horchata and he made very noisy mmmmmm’s, so someone else added Kahlua, and in short order nearly everyone had added Kahlua. Knowing that horchata is really a non-alcoholic drink, I wasn’t so sure it would be a good thing! Oh, was I wrong. It was fabulous. My only caveat: don’t add too much Kahlua or it does overpower the delicacy of the cinnamon, almond and banana flavors.

ERRATA: I have to confess, I forgot to take out the cinnamon sticks after the rice had soaked overnight. I glanced at the recipe and didn’t see the instructions. I just missed it. So our horchata was a bit grainy from the ground-up cinnamon – but you know what? Everyone seemed to love it that way. They said they liked it grainy and would definitely do it that way if they made it. Well, okay then!

What’s GOOD: every little sip of it was fantastic. I’d definitely make this again, with or without the Kahlua. I didn’t mind the grainy texture from the cinnamon sticks, but that’s up to you. Traditionally, remove the cinnamon sticks! You could lighten up the recipe some by using sugar-free ice cream, or light ice cream. There’s also low-fat sweetened condensed milk in grocery stores too. This one’s a keeper.
What’s NOT: nothing. Absolutely nothing wrong with this at all!

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Horchata Milk Shake

Recipe By: Food & Wine, May 2013
Serving Size: 4 (maybe 5)

1 cup long-grain white rice — rinsed well
3 cups water
4 medium cinnamon sticks — cracked
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon — plus 1/4 teaspoon
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk — plus 2 tablespoons
1/2 banana — (2 ounces)
1 pint vanilla ice cream
1/2 cup ice
OPTIONAL: Kahlua to taste, about 2 tsp per serving

1. In a bowl, cover the rice with the water. Add the cinnamon sticks and let stand at room temperature for at least 3 hours or overnight; discard the cinnamon sticks.
2. Meanwhile, in a skillet, toast the almonds over moderate heat, tossing, until fragrant, 3 minutes. In a small bowl, stir 1 tablespoon of the ground cinnamon with the sugar.
3. Transfer the rice and its liquid to a blender. Add the almonds and puree for 2 minutes. Strain the horchata through a fine sieve into a bowl. Rinse out the blender.
4. Return the horchata to the blender and add the condensed milk, banana and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon and puree. Add the ice cream and ice and blend. Pour the shake into glasses, sprinkle the cinnamon sugar on top and serve.
5. OPTIONAL: Add Kahlua to each glass (about 2 tsp). Don’t overdo the Kahlua as it will overpower the delicate cinnamony flavor of the horchata.
Per Serving (this is off some because you don’t consume all the rice – some yes, all? no): 482 Calories; 15g Fat (26.0% calories from fat); 10g Protein; 83g Carbohydrate; 10g Dietary Fiber; 36mg Cholesterol; 91mg Sodium.

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