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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 Veggies/sides, on March 26th, 2008.

monterey scalloped potatoes
You’d think . . . a scalloped potato . . . is a scalloped potato. But I’m here to tell you that not all scalloped potato recipes are created equal. This one is definitely different – it uses Monterey jack cheese, for one. And that may be about the only thing that’s truly unusual about it, although this version also requires you to make a cream sauce – one made with cornstarch and milk and cream.

Kitchen Tip:

Saute the onions a little if you’d like soft onions in the finished dish.

The recipe came from a woman who used to work for me, in the ad agency I used to own. Occasionally, usually around the holidays, we’d have a potluck, and as years went by, it was just accepted fact that Kathy would bring her scalloped potatoes. These are just so incredibly good, and I’ve never – ever – made another kind since she introduced me to them. I’ve changed her recipe just a little over the years (adding salt and pepper, and cooking the onions before starting to layer the potatoes). And I’ve altered the ratio of milk and half and half depending on what I have on hand. Kathy’s original recipe called for all half and half, but I changed it some years ago to half milk, and maybe just a touch of heavy cream if I happen to have it.
printer-friendly PDF

Files: MasterCook 5+ and MasterCook 14 (click link to open in MC – 14 contains photo)

Monterey Scalloped Potatoes

Recipe By: Kathy S, a former employee
Serving Size: 8
Cook’s Notes: be sure to use Monterey jack cheese – it is what makes this recipe. And don’t skimp on the baking time – it does require a full 90 minutes of baking. I salt and pepper the cream sauce to suit my taste (making it saltier than you’d make a sauce because after all, it has to salt the entire dish). If you have it, substitute a bit of heavy cream for an equal quantity of half and half.

5 large Idaho potatoes
10 ounces Monterey jack cheese — sliced
1 whole onion — sliced thinly
1 1/2 cups half and half
1 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 ounces butter
1 teaspoon salt — or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper — or to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350. Select a 3-quart baking dish with lid. Spray the dish with vegetable spray.
2. Slice onion and place in a microwave-proof dish. Cover with plastic wrap and cook for about 4 minutes, until onions are just barely tender. Remove from microwave, discard plastic wrap, drain and allow to cool to a handling temperature.
3. Slice potatoes (with or without skins) to fill halfway up the dish. Cover with half of the slices of cheese and half of the onion. Repeat potato layer, cheese and onions, until dish is filled.
4. Make white sauce with half and half, milk, cornstarch and butter. Heat until somewhat thickened and pour over the potatoes. Place lid on potatoes. Bake for 90 minutes, removing lid during last 20-30 minutes.
Per Serving: 348 Calories; 23g Fat (59.7% calories from fat); 13g Protein; 22g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 70mg Cholesterol; 561mg Sodium.

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