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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 Vegetarian, on October 29th, 2013.

eggplant_parmesan

To say that my husband was in food ecstasy when I made this is almost an understatement. He swooned. Hmm – do men swoon? Well, for sure he purred! Eggplant Parmesan is one of his all-time favorite meals. And I haven’t made it in years because the usual method uses SO much oil to fry the eggplant. Not any more, with this recipe. It’s a keeper.

When we dine out at an Italian restaurant, my DH almost always orders Eggplant Parmesan. He adores it, and no matter how big the portion, he eats it all. A few times over the 30+ years of our marriage I’ve made it at home, and just cringed at all the oil the eggplant soaks up during the browning/frying process. And how heavy it tasted when you eat it – from all that oil. Eggplant is like a sponge!

Then I read this recipe over at Food52. It struck a chord for me. The raw eggplant first gets lightly floured and baked – then you use the slightly dried planks to layer the casserole. You also simmer down (reduce) a tomato type sauce until it’s thick. And of course there’s Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese AND some fresh Mozzie.

I will give you a heads-up here – it takes a bit of time to make this. A lot more than I’d anticipated, at least. I should have used 2 of my big baking sheets to roast the eggplant – but still, you’ll have to make at least 2 batches of eggplant to roast/dry out in the oven.

roasted_eggplant_planksAfter baking the eggplant slices, this (at left) is what I got. Maybe the two on the left toward the top you can see how “crisp” they are, sticking out sideways as they are. That’s why I call them PLANKS. There is still some moisture in them, but not much. They’re not dry like toast or chips. But a good bit of the water in the eggplant has been baked out of them, so they totally hold their shape. They need to bake at least 30 minutes (15 minutes per side), and you want them to get just a bit golden brown.

Meanwhile, I made the sauce – it’s nothing but good canned tomatoes (use San Marzano brand if you can), some shallot and a bit of herbs (I added the herbs – they weren’t in the original recipe). You need to simmer the tomatoes over a relatively low heat – once it gets thick it’s going to sputter out and all over, so I used a mesh cover. It won’t reduce if you leave a lid on the pan as the point is to evaporate the extra water in the tomatoes.

eggplant_parmesan_layeringNow you can see the casserole as I began to layer it. I’d made the sauce while the eggplant was baking. I pulled out a big wide casserole dish and put a bit of sauce in the bottom so the eggplant wouldn’t stick. I layered in some eggplant first (the Food52 contributor says press the pieces in like a jigsaw puzzle), then some little globs of sauce that I spread around some, some Parmesan, then a new layer. In one of the middle layers you’ll use the mozzarella. I used more Parmigiano-Reggiano than the recipe called for – and I like an ample amount on the top.

Outside of Italy, until the other day, I’d never had [water] buffalo-milk Mozzarella. My guess is that most restaurants don’t use it. I’d never cooked with it for sure. Why? I don’t know – just cuz I’ve thought that the cow’s milk mozzie was good enough. Well, I’m here to tell you, there is a HUGE difference between cow’s milk mozzie and buffalo-milk mozzie. buffalo_mil_mozzarellaTrue mozzie is made with the milk from water buffalo, but then, you all knew that already, right? And it has a wholly different taste. Whereas cow’s milk mozzie is bland, this stuff is positively umami in every way. I bought an 8-ounce little tub of it at Trader Joe’s, and it was a couple dollars more than the cow’s milk version. It was one big ball, which I sliced as thinly as I could. I took a taste. Oh my! It was full-flavored, broad, deep. Wonderful. It’s a bit sour – kind of like the difference between cow cheese and goat cheese. But the umami – it’s there – like you get in balsamic vinegar, anchovies, chiles, mushrooms.

Buffalo-Milk Mozzarella

Just trust me on this one – buy the real thing if you make this – you’ll be amazed at the depth of flavor.

The umami flavor aspect is kind of like the difference between cottage cheese and goat cheese. Or white bread and wheat grain. Or instant oatmeal and steel cut.

So, when you make this, do go to the extra trouble to find and buy buffalo-milk mozzarella. Truly it makes a difference. And I suggest you taste it. I may never use cow’s milk mozzie again. It’s that good.

If I make this again – oh yes, I WILL be doing that – I’ll be sure to have at least 6 layers of eggplant. eggplant_parmesan_casseroleI managed to have just 4 (because one of the eggplants we bought was spoiled – couldn’t tell from looking at the skin), so I made do with 2 pounds of eggplant (6 small servings). It was a little bit on the thin side (see picture at top). Not that it made any difference in the taste.  There at left you can see the casserole just before I stuck it in the oven. Not all that exciting looking, but wait until you taste it!

What’s GOOD: Oh my goodness, where do I start. Taste, texture, even the eggplant itself. The umami is all over the place. Worth the trouble. Make extra – you’ll be SO glad to have left overs!
What’s NOT: As I mentioned, it takes some time to make. Allow over an hour to prep the eggplant (unless you have 2 ovens – I do, but I used only one, so it took longer, of course), and at least another 30 minutes to do the rest of the prep. Baking will take about 30-40 minutes, plus some resting time (or you’ll burn your mouth big-time). So, that’s over 2 hours. Not a dish you can make after work unless you have other helping hands.

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Eggplant Parmesan with Buffalo-Milk Mozzarella

Recipe By: Adapted slightly from Food52, from Nancy Jo, a contributor
Serving Size: 6

3 pounds eggplant — (Choose the large globe variety. Make sure they are firm and smooth. Also choose male eggplants. They have fewer seeds and have a rounder, smoother bottom)
1 cup flour — (about)
salt
3 tablespoons olive oil — approximately (drizzled on eggplant)
1 1/2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese — grated
1/2 pound buffalo-milk mozzarella — sliced
TOMATO SAUCE:
56 ounces canned tomatoes — (28 ounce cans) San Marzano brand preferred – add another can if you want extra sauce left over. Use whole, peeled tomatoes. [I used Muir Glen diced]
3 cloves garlic — thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried oregano

Notes: You will need the full 3 pounds of eggplant to make this – don’t skimp. Ideally, you want enough eggplant for about 6 layers. You’ll be surprised at how thin the eggplant becomes once it bakes. Part of the secret to this recipe is cooking down the tomato sauce – it’s almost like a paste, but not quite – that way the casserole doesn’t ooze juice through the baking process. You’ll have a lot of concentrated tomato (umami) flavor by doing it this way. If you can’t buy buffalo-milk mozzarella, use regular cow’s milk type, but it just won’t taste as good!
1. Peel the eggplant and slice long ways into 1/4 inch slices.
2. Lightly sprinkle each layer with salt and place into a colander, overlapping and salting as you go. Each slice should be salted. After you fill the colander, place a plate on top and weight it with a heavy pan or a tea kettle filled with water. Let the eggplant sweat for 30 minutes or more. If you’re concerned about using salt, just stack the slices without salt, but weight it down. You’ll still get the eggplant to drain some. Dry it off before proceeding.
3. While the eggplant sweats, make the sauce.
4. SAUCE: Coat the bottom of a sauce pan with olive oil and heat over medium high heat. Add the sliced garlic and let it cook until is sizzles (do not brown the garlic). Add the canned whole tomatoes and their juice. Stir and chop coarsely using a potato masher or two knives chopping crossways. Lower the heat and simmer until reduced by almost half. [I used Muir Glen diced tomatoes.] Add dried oregano and taste for salt and pepper [I didn’t think it needed any].
5. Remove the eggplant from the colander and thoroughly swipe and pat dry each slice with paper towels.
6. Heat the oven to 450°F. Cover the bottom of a baking sheet or two with olive oil. [I used a piece of parchment paper and drizzled the oil on one side of each eggplant slice.]
7. Dredge the eggplant slices in flour, shaking off any excess. Place on the baking sheets and drizzle each slice with olive oil. Bake until brown on one side (about 15 minutes or so) and turn over and brown the other side. Repeat until you have cooked all the eggplant. The eggplant will be moderately dry – not burned – not exactly browned – but like a plank.
8. Using a 7×11 baking dish (ceramic or earthenware, or stainless is okay too), spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom and layer the eggplant until it completely covers the bottom (it’s like a puzzle!).
9. Sprinkle generously with the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Add another layer of sauce and then the eggplant. Continue to build the layers until you are about two layers from the top, then add a single layer of sliced mozzarella. Finish with a couple more layers of eggplant, sauce, and parmesan. Finish the top with parmesan – a bit more than you’ve sprinkled on any of the layers.
10. Bake in the upper third of a 400°F oven. Check after about 20 minutes. You may find that it throws off more liquid as it bakes. If so, press down on the eggplant and draw off any excess liquid. Cook for another 15 minutes or so or until the casserole is bubbling well all around the edges and a little bit in the middle. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.
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Per Serving: 328 Calories; 14g Fat (35.9% calories from fat); 15g Protein; 40g Carbohydrate; 8g Dietary Fiber; 16mg Cholesterol; 771mg Sodium.

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  1. Diana Campos

    said on November 15th, 2013:

    I made this in the morning without baking and popped it in the oven in the evening. It tasted great! Thank you for your post.

    You’re so welcome. I’m happy to HAVE the recipe as I’ll be making it again and again. . . carolyn t

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