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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 26th, 2015.


Whenever I look at a scramble of caramelized onions, my mouth waters. And actually, in the picture above, the onions aren’t caramelized – they’re cooked thoroughly, but they’re tinted dark brown with aged balsamic vinegar, so they look caramelized. No matter – this onion stuff is really tasty. It didn’t take nearly as long as usual to make it because the onions only cook for about 20 minutes.

The title doesn’t tell you that there are a few prunes in this. People get so turned off about prunes – too bad, because they’re really good, and particularly so in this confit (con-FEE). With a French word like confit, it implies that it’s a French dish – and indeed it may be. By definition confit means meat (usually duck) but it can also mean any concoction that’s cooked low and slow with some kind of oil/butter/fat. In this case there’s a little olive oil and butter, but very little. And no meat.

red_onion_confit_ingredientsThe recipe had been in my to-try file for awhile (since ‘09) – I found it at Delicious:Days (a blog). She based her recipe on the original which came from a cookbook by Catherine Atkinson called Perfect Pickles, Chutneys & Relishes. So, I suppose this could be called a chutney (it would be wonderful on a turkey sandwich) or a relish (served with pork or chicken?). It is “pickled” as such because it does contain some GOOD aged balsamic vinegar – you need the acid in order to call it pickles!

There at left are all the ingredients. Hiding on the right side are the fresh thyme and the moscovado sugar. And the tall bottle is 10-year old Port. I used tawny port because that’s what I had, without using the really aged stuff that’s for sipping/drinking, not for cooking. Some people might say I should use that for cooking, but at $40 a bottle, no, I don’t think so! For drinking (which is rare, but when I want it I want it to be good stuff) I buy good Portuguese Port (from Oporto, the town in northern Portugal from whence nearly all their production comes).

The onions are cooked over low heat with the olive oil and butter for awhile, then you add in some of the ingredients and cook for about 15 minutes, then the remaining ingredients and cook for another 10-15 minutes. By then the onions are totally cooked through and the liquids have mostly evaporated and you’ll left with that unctuous tangle of onions that’s so good on a cracker or with cheese.

The recipe suggested serving it with an aged Gouda (see picture at top) and some other kind of French cheese I’d not heard of, so I bought some domestic Brie (not imported only because I thought the onions sardinian_crackers_trader_joeswould overpower the subtlety of a truly ripe and aged Brie). I scooped some of the onion mixture on top of the Brie and the rest I left in a bowl for people to scoop with the cheeses or with crackers. You could also serve it on top of cream cheese – it just wouldn’t be as authentic. Most of our group didn’t care for the onion confit with the Gouda – they either ate the Gouda with a cracker, or they ate the Brie with the onions.

The only thing I’d change in the recipe is to cut the onions in smaller pieces. Because they stick together, it was hard to manipulate a little pile of them. It was either feast or famine with too little or too much of the onion mixture on a piece of cheese or a cracker.

Currently, I’m in love with a new cracker. Have you seen these paper-thin Sardinian crackers (above) at Trader Joe’s? They’re called Pane Guttiau. In my Trader Joe’s they’re with all the other crackers on top of one of the freezer cases. Once you open the package, keep it stored in a Zipiloc plastic bag or the crackers will soften. You can’t really see through them, but they are ridiculously thin and crispy and sometimes I have one of the crackers (pictured) and a slice of cheese for my lunch.

What’s GOOD: loved the flavor of this red onion and prune mixture. It is sweet – just know that off the top – tawny Port is sweet, so I probably made it more so by using it rather than a drier style. You don’t serve very much on any one bite, but it is sweet. But then, red onions are sweet once you cook them down anyway. Next time I won’t use tawny Port. And I’ll probably eliminate the sugar altogether.

What’s NOT: nothing at all. Recipe says it only keeps for a few days. I don’t know why it wouldn’t keep for a couple of weeks. The acid and sugar should keep it fresh for awhile. If it lasts that long.

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Files: MasterCook 5+ and MasterCook 14 (click on link to open recipe in MC)

* Exported from MasterCook *

Red Onion Confit with Port Wine and Prunes

Recipe By: inspired by Perfect Pickles by Catherine Atkinson (on Delicious Days blog)
Serving Size: 8

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil — may use up to 3
2 cups sliced red onions — sliced about 1/4″ thick and cut into smaller pieces
5 fresh thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons muscovado sugar — light brown sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup prunes — finely chopped
1/2 orange — juice only [I used all the juice as it was a small orange]
3 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar — [I used a fig balsamic which is thick and sweet like aged balsamic)
3/8 cup port wine — (use a drier Port if you can find one)
Crackers to serve alongside
Brie cheese to spread it on, if desired

Notes: this mixture is sweet.  If you want it less sweet, use a dry style Port and don’t add the sugar.  Or cut down the amount by half.  I used all of the juice of an orange, and once cooked down, it added sweetness also.  Plus, the prunes are sweet as well.
1.  Heat the butter and half of the olive oil over low to medium heat in a large pot and add the sliced and chopped onions.  Cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes while stirring occasionally.
2.  Add the thyme sprigs, the bay leaf and muscovado sugar, then season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Cook uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes until the onions are tender.  Again, don’t forget to occasionally stir – the onions are not supposed to gain (much) color.
3.  Add the finely chopped prunes and the liquids: the orange juice, the balsamic vinegar and the port wine.Reduce heat until the mixture slightly simmers and keep stirring regularly until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 15 minutes.  Remove thyme stems and bay leaf and discard.
4.  Add the remaining olive oil to give a glossy finish and season to your own taste.  Perhaps more vinegar for an extra tangy note?  A bit more pepper to spice things up?  Keeps in the fridge for several days.  [I served it with crackers and with an aged Gouda and Brie.  We particularly liked it with the Brie.]
Per Serving: 123 Calories; 6g Fat (50.7% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 13g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 8mg Cholesterol; 31mg Sodium.

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