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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 Lamb, Pasta, on May 27th, 2013.

greek_lamb_ragu

I’ve re-named this dish slightly from the original recipe over at Food52. I didn’t have orzo pasta for one thing, and I thought describing it as a Ragu might give you a better idea of what it is. And you just need to know that this is fabulous. Absolutely drop-dead fantastic. If you enjoy lamb (ground), and pasta, with Feta, lemon and Kalamata olives, well this is right up your alley.

You’ve heard it here before, that when I see other bloggers use superlatives when they describe a dish, I pay attention. Not only did the originator, Emily at fiveandspice wax glorious about it, but Amanda & Merrill at Food52 did too. That was enough for me to decide to make it. What clinched it was seeing a package of ground lamb at the market and that was that. The original called for fresh spinach. Well, I had arugula instead, but I doubt that would have made much of a taste difference. And, as I mentioned above, I used different pasta (farfalline instead of orzo). The original title is “Greek” Lamb with Orzo. The Greek part is all the Greek-style additions: Feta, olives, lemon juice, oregano, but otherwise it’s an Italian style ragu. The back story of the recipe is just the kind of history I love. The recipe came from Emily’s mother, from a magazine, and it was a family favorite. Here’s what she said: It was also the recipe she sent to each of us [kids], successively, when we needed something easy but impressive to cook for friends in college. It’s still one of my favorite meals, and a wonderful way to easily serve a crowd. Of course, as I’ve evolved, my lamb with orzo has evolved as well, gathering additional ingredients and spices like a glacier gathering stones. . . . I loved that last phrase Emily wrote – gathering ingredients and spices like a glacier gathering stones. I think Emily needs to be a writer . . .

The sauce is relatively easy to make – lamb browned, most of the fat drained, onions and garlic added, then tomatoes, seasonings (including some cinnamon and ground coriander, which are different). The pasta is made and tossed with some oil and lemon juice. When you spoon the ragu on top of the pasta you garnish with Feta cheese crumbles and Kalamata olives. Done. Serve.

What’s GOOD: I refused to put down my spoon until every single morsel was slicked off the plate. Does that tell you how good it was? The other great thing? One pound of lamb makes enough sauce to serve 8, supposedly. Hungry eaters? Well, maybe 6 then, but it’s very filling and comforting food. A definite make-again dish. My DH thought it was fabulous too. It’s going onto my Carolyn’s Favs list, in case that is any additional motivation for you to make this!
What’s NOT: nothing, other than you will dirty up a fair number of dishes, pots and pans in the making of it. Worth it, but then I don’t wash the dishes, my darling DH does. He did complain a bit.

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“Greek” Lamb Ragu on Pasta

Recipe By: Food52
Serving Size: 8

1 pound ground lamb
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large yellow onion — finely chopped
6 cloves garlic — sliced thinly
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
28 ounces whole tomatoes — drained and smooshed with your hands
14 ounces canned tomatoes — chopped/diced
5 ounces fresh spinach — chopped [I used arugula]
1 pound pasta — orzo suggested [I used farfalline, and I used 3/4 pound]
2 cups chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup lemon juice — freshly squeezed
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper — to taste
1/4 cup kalamata olives — pitted and finely chopped
1/2 cup feta cheese — crumbled [I used more]

Note: If you have hungry young people, maybe you’ll use all the pasta – I think 3/4 pound of pasta is sufficient for the volume of sauce. I also used more Feta than indicated.

1. In a good sized Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed pan, heat the one tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat until it is shimmering. Add the lamb and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Cook, stirring to break it apart, until it is nicely browned. Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon and drain all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.
2. Return the pot to the stove top and add the onion and garlic (still over medium-high). Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are softened and golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in the spices (cinnamon, oregano, cumin, coriander, and red pepper) and cook until they start smelling extremely toasty and fragrant (1-2 minutes). Then, stir in the smooshed tomatoes.
3. Cook the smooshed tomatoes in the spices, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Then, add the can of diced tomatoes and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
4. Add the cooked lamb back to the pot, give a good stir, then cover the pot and leave it to cook, stirring from time to time, for 20 minutes. At this point, stir in the fresh spinach and cook just a couple more minutes until the spinach is wilted. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste (keeping in mind you’ll be sprinkling just a touch of feta and olives on, which will add to the saltiness).
5. While the lamb and tomatoes are simmering together and marrying their flavors, bring a large pot of well-salted water (it should taste like sea water, basically) to a boil. Add the orzo and cook until al dente, about 7 or 8 minutes, usually. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water.
6. Drain the orzo. Toss the orzo with the 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the lemon juice, and all of the parsley, adding a bit of pasta water at a time, if you feel it needs additional liquid.
7. Spread the orzo out on an enormous serving platter. Spoon the lamb and sauce all over the top, then sprinkle with the feta and chopped olives. Pass the dish around the table and relax. A good red wine, on the dry side, is a highly recommended companion here.
Per Serving (you do pour off excess fat, so this is a bit high): 513 Calories; 24g Fat (41.7% calories from fat); 21g Protein; 55g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 50mg Cholesterol; 366mg Sodium.

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