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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 March 4th, 2009.


There were a few years in there when I didn’t even make guacamole because of the cost of the avocados. Here in California, where most people were raised on the stuff, if not at home, in Mexican restaurants, that’s almost sacrilegious! Normally I don’t follow a recipe, but just add in ingredients to the avos (in case you live in an avocado free zone of the world, the shortened word is pronounced A-voh). Those add-ins are minced green onion, jalapeno, lime or lemon juice, sometimes tomatoes, sometimes sour cream, or mayo. But even I know that some of those ingredients are not true to the Central Mexican heritage of the dish.

But, since Costco has avos year ’round, and at a reasonable price, I pick up a bag (usually 5 of them) now and then. Mostly they’re used in salads around my house, but since we were going to our son’s home for dinner and I still had 4 of them in the fridge, well, hey, guac here we come.

Turning to Diana Kennedy’s tome, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, about all things Mexican food, I learned that the word guacamole is a combination of two Mexican words that mean avocado and mixture or concoction. Well, yes, that’s exactly what it is. I learned that in Mexico it’s always served immediately upon making it – no sitting around the the refrigerator at all, with the pit in it. And they make it in a molcajetemolcajete, (pictured right, from Wikipedia) that big, round stone mortar and pestle used all over Mexico to mash things (spices, beans, or whatever). Not owning a molcajete, I turned to my food processor instead. Kennedy suggests using a blender for the base mixture (white onion, chile peppers and cilantro), but no way would my blender grind up a bunch of dry-ish ingredients like that. My food processor did a fairly adequate job of mincing up the base, then I chopped in the avos by hand, added some salt and pepper. Then, because I was making this ahead, I added some lemon juice. Not much, and that isn’t in Kennedy’s recipe at all.

Surprisingly, there is no garlic in the authentic version. I was quite surprised. And really, I was surprised there wasn’t lime juice in it from the get-go. But what I’ll tell you is that it was fabulous. Absolutely off the charts delicious. So, if Costco carries avos in your part of the country, get some and make this. Then, of course, you have to serve it with really good, high-fat fried tortilla chips. Make your own if you can; otherwise packaged chips will do. And if you can, make it just before serving.
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Guacamole by Diana Kennedy

Recipe: Adapted slightly from Diana Kennedy’s book, The Essential Cuisines of Mexico
Servings: 8-12 (a guess – makes 2 1/2 cups)
Serving Ideas: Serve with crispy tortilla chips.

2 tablespoons white onion — chopped
4 whole serrano pepper — or substitute other chiles of choice
4 tablespoons cilantro — chopped salt to taste
3 large avocados — Hass, preferably
4 ounces tomatoes — diced finely
1/2 whole lime — juice only (optional – not in the Kennedy recipe)
1 tablespoon white onion — minced
2 tablespoons cilantro — minced

1. Grind together the onion, chiles, cilantro and salt to a paste. (Alternately, pulse to a fine mince in a food processor. Not authentic, but okay.)
2. Cut the avocados in halves, remove pits and squeeze the flesh out of the shells and mash into the chile base, to a textured consistency. This should not be a smooth mixture, but still have some chunkiness to it.
3. Add all but a tablespoon of the tomatoes. Taste for seasoning. (Add pepper if desired.)
4. Scoop out into a serving bowl and garnish with the tomatoes, and the white onion and cilantro. Guacamole does not keep, so eat it up the same day as it’s made.
Per Serving: 131 Calories; 12g Fat (72.7% calories from fat); 2g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 12mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on March 5th, 2009:

    As I have always suspected, one may add as much as is desired to the avocadoes. I have read some recipes that insist that tomatoes are not to be added but I always use what is to hand.

    Are you able to buy ripe, ready to eat avocadoes? We have to plan ahead in this country – for other fruit that has been imported too – they are picked hard and refrigerated until the point of display in store. It really gets on my nerves! There are only two types sold here as well. Same thing goes for Mango, I used to love to have several at home in the fruit bowl and the perfume would let me know when one was ready. That doesn’t happen anymore either.

    T-A: occasionally we can find ripe avos in the grocery stores, but the ones from Trader Joe’s or Costco come in a mesh bag, usualy 4-5 of them, and they’re rock hard when we buy them. So it’s usually 3-4 days until they’re ripe and ready to eat. I think the same is true of mango, too. . . Carolyn T

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