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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 March 4th, 2009.

guacamole

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)
GARNISH:
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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