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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 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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