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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.

Scroll down to the bottom to view my Blogroll

Posted in Appetizers, on May 11th, 2009.

A black bean combo with poblano chiles, onion, spices, topped with sour cream then a roasted chile salsa

A black bean mixture with roasted poblano chiles, onion, spices, spread with a layer of sour cream and topped with a roasted New Mexico chile salsa

Making this a couple of days ago, I could hardly keep my tasting spoon out of the food processor as I was whizzing up the bean mixture. Oh is it good! Thanks to Phillis Carey, who made this at a recent cooking class. It took me about 3 days to decide this needed to be on the menu for our weekend family birthday.

Now, I’ll be the first one to tell you that there is a moderate amount of prep to making this – it’s not like buying canned bean dip and spreading on some sour cream and jarred chile salsa and calling it done.

There’s a fairly simple chile salsa to make (dried chiles, fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, oregano, cider vinegar and salt) first. The bean layer isn’t all that hard exactly, but you do have to char the chiles first (poblano/pasilla), peel, seed and chop them. With onion, garlic, fresh lime juice, cilantro, then some seasonings, it does take a few minutes to prep too. A note about the chiles . . . New Mexican chiles are nothing more than dried Anaheim chiles (they’re not hot). You may also see them as “California chiles.” I believe they’re the same thing. These are not necessarily chiles FROM New Mexico – but once Anaheims are dried they seem to be attached to New Mexico (they do grow thousands of pounds of them).

black-bean-layered-dipThe bean layer is spread into a flat dish (like a decorative pie plate at right) and allowed to chill awhile. Meanwhile you can make the chile salsa (including a bit of broiling and baking time for the tomatoes, onions and garlic). The food processor makes simple work, though, of the sauce once the ingredients are all ready to go. The salsa recipe makes more than you’ll need, but it can be used for other things (another recipe from the class that I’ll share soon). I actually used two poblano chiles when I made it, but I like that chile flavor.

An hour before you’re ready to serve this, remove the bean mixture from the refrigerator (so the dip isn’t chilled-cold), then just before serving you spread on the sour cream, then the salsa. Done. Your guests will just not recognize this from the throw-together-from-cans-type of layered bean dip. The flavors are deep (not hot) and complex. Serve with tortilla chips, and I defy you to stop at one! I heard comments like this: “wow, what’s IN this,  “Mom, this is amazing,” and “is this ever GOOD!”
printer-friendly PDF (two pages)

Black Bean Layered Dip with New Mexican Chile Salsa

Recipe: Phillis Carey, cooking instructor and author
Servings: 8

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic — minced (use large cloves)
1 whole poblano chile — roasted, skinned and diced (or use canned Ortega)
1/2 cup onion — chopped
30 ounces canned black beans — drained, rinsed
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup cilantro — chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne — or to taste
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons cilantro — chopped, for garnish on top
1/2 cup Roasted New Mexico Chile Salsa (below)
Tortilla chips

1. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, poblano chile and onion. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. In food processor blend beans, lime juice, 1/4 cup cilantro, spices and water until smooth, adding up to 2 T. more water if necessary to make a fairly smooth consistency. Add onion mixture and blend until smooth. A bit of chunky texture is okay. Spread mixture into a shallow bowl or pie plate, cover and chill for 2 hours, or up to 1 day. Allow bean mixture to sit out for an hour before continuing.
3. Spread top of bean mixture with sour cream and spoon salsa over the top. Sprinkle top with additional cilantro.
Per Serving: 111 Calories; 2g Fat (13.1% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 17g Carbohydrate; 6g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 545mg Sodium.

Roasted New Mexico Chile Salsa

4 whole dried New Mexico chiles
3 medium plum tomatoes
1/2 small white onion — sliced
6 cloves garlic — peeled
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano — Mexican, if available
1 1/2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup water — approximately
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1. Pull the stems off the dried chiles, tear them open (flat) and shake out the seeds. Place in a bowl, cover with hot tap water and lay a plate on top to keep them submerged, for about 20-30 minutes.
2. Preheat broiler. Place whole tomatoes on a broiler pan or baking sheet (line with foil) and broil for about 6 minutes, or until blackened in spot. Turn them over and roast another 6 minutes or so, until soft and blackened in spots. Cool.
3. Turn oven to 425. Separate onion on a baking sheet and combine with garlic cloves. Set in the oven. Stir carefully every few minutes, until the onions and garlic are soft, about 15 minutes.
4. Place roasted tomatoes and drained chiles in blender (or food processor) and process to a fairly smooth paste. Scrape 2/3 of the puree into a large bowl. Roughly chop the onions and garlic, and add to blender with the remaining chile-tomato mixture. Pulse repeatedly until all are finely chopped, adding a bit of water as necessary, to keep the mixture loose. Scrape puree into the bowl, then stir in oregano and vinegar, then add enough water to thin it a bit. Taste it and season with salt, and maybe a bit of sugar if it tastes bitter. Use immediately, or keep refrigerated up to 5 days. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
Per Serving: 96 Calories; 1g Fat (6.7% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 22g Carbohydrate; 4g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 3226mg Sodium.

A year ago: Lemon Rice Pilaf

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