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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 Appetizers, on June 1st, 2014.

sicilian_bruschetta

So what makes this bruchetta Sicilian? All I can determine is it’s the cheese – a thin slather of cheese put on the toasted bread before you spoon on the tomato mixture. But whatever it is, this combo makes for some really good tasting bruschetta.

Daughter Sara asked me if I’d make bruschetta for a family gathering at their house. Everybody brought something. Sara made Bolognese sauce, other family members brought fresh pasta, another a salad, another some additional appetizers.

You really can’t make bruschetta ahead of time. You just can’t. Even toasting the bread I thought might make the bread more crisp. And there is a fine line (in my opinion anyway) between having a stovetop_grill_toasterpiece of toasted bread that is golden brown crispy on the outside but still retains softness inside (as this was made) and broil-toasting bread in the oven and the bread becomes little discs of hard crunch (which was not what I wanted). So I took along my handy-dandy stovetop toaster. In Italy it’s called a brustolina. A couple of  years ago Joanne Weir mentioned it on her website, said she had a shipment of them, while they lasted, etc. I bought one and have used it often. In Italy cooks use them for toasting bread (as I did in this case), but also for toasting polenta, and roasting peppers. It’s lightweight and really thin.

What’s a brustolina?

It’s a stovetop, thin, flat metal contraption that toasts bread brilliantly. See photo at left.

The metal underside (perforated) absorbs the heat from the flames, distributes it around that square thing. Then on the top there’s a wire mesh that keeps the food barely above the metal plate and it takes no time to toast things on it. I’ve only used it for toast so far. In case you’re interested, you can buy them from a Philadelphia store for $14.99 plus shipping. As I write this, they say it’s out of stock, but expected in a couple of months.

So anyway, my daughter kindly did the toasting for me while I made the tomato mixture. That part was easy, although you do need to remove all the seeds from the tomatoes (otherwise it gets too messy, oozy) and chop the tomato flesh (with skin is fine) into small dice. I added some fresh minced green onion, dried oregano, salt and pepper and just before ready to spoon it onto the toasts, I added fresh slivers of basil. And don’t even think about doing this unless you have good tasting RIPE tomatoes. I used Kumato – I do love those things. Trader Joe’s carries them and some regular grocery stores do too. They’re a dark brownish-greenish tomato, sort of, and the flesh inside is darker than usual, but it’s a really tasty, juicy tomato.

The inspiration for this recipe came from a cookbook I own called The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rosetto Kasper, from NPR. She calls her version Sicilian Farmer’s Bruschetta, and I’m assuming the farmer’s part of the name comes from the addition of some kind of country cheese (she calls for sheep’s or cow’s milk ricotta, mozzarella, fresh goat cheese or medium-aged sheep cheese). I had some regular goat cheese, but I grabbed a little tub of Boursin (flavored with garlic and herbs) and I didn’t end up needing the soft goat cheese at all. Her version uses thick-sliced bread, a lot of EVOO, red onion, red pepper flakes and oven roasted canned tomatoes. I just switched several things – I used thinner sliced bread (this was an appetizer, not the meal) – I used the green onion, none of the red pepper (we had kids eating this and didn’t think they’d like it much)very little oil, did scrape a couple of garlic halves across the hot slices of bread (actually Sara did that part), then I spread the cheese on top of the warm toasts and spooned some tomato on top. Done. Served. Do check for seasoning (we ended up adding more salt than I thought it would need, but it did). I used a fresh loaf of sourdough bread that was about 4” in diameter at its widest.

What’s GOOD: the addition of cheese to bruschetta was wonderful, but note, it’s not Parmesan. Certainly using Boursin cheese doesn’t give it an Italian flair, but I improvised and really liked the results. Use ample fresh basil, and very ripe tomatoes. Altogether delish.

What’s NOT: probably the only thing is this must be made at the moment. You could try toasting the bread an hour or so ahead and keeping it in a plastic bag, but then you’d lose the crisp part. The tomato mixture could be made ahead an hour or so – just don’t add the basil until the last.
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Sicilian Bruschetta

Recipe By: Inspired by a Lynne Rosetto Kasper recipe in her book: The Italian Country Table
Serving Size: 8

1/2 loaf French bread
2 cloves garlic — sliced in half lengthwise
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil — (a guess)
4 ounces Boursin cheese — herb and garlic
BRUSCHETTA MIXTURE:
4 medium tomatoes — (I used Kumato)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon salt — a guess
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 whole green onions — chopped finely
1/3 cup fresh basil — thinly chopped

1. Prepare Bruschetta mixture – slice the tomatoes and remove all the seeds, then chop up the tomatoes into small dice. Add to a bowl with the oregano, salt, pepper, green onions, and adding the basil just before you’re ready to assemble. Taste for seasoning.
2. BREAD: Slice the bread thinly. If the loaf is fairly fat, then you’ll want to cut each slice in half so the bread is handle-able for guests. Toast the bread (I used a stovetop toaster – alternately place all the bread on a flat sheet pan and broil – 6-7 inches away from the element – and watch it carefully – until the edges begin to brown. Turn them over and brown the other side. Do not fully toast the bread – you still want it to be slightly soft in the middle. Do not broil until all the bread is crunchy!
3. As the bread slices are done, using your hand, rub the raw garlic half over the top of the bread, then very lightly drizzle or brush a little bit of olive oil on the bread.
4. ASSEMBLY: Spread each slice with some of the Boursin cheese, then spoon about a tablespoon of the bruschetta mixture on top. Serve immediately.
Per Serving: 167 Calories; 9g Fat (46.5% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 19g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 17mg Cholesterol; 474mg Sodium.

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