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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.

 

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.

red_onion_confit_port

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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