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Currently Reading

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Just finished Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

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 and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. 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-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.


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 Essays, on November 2nd, 2009.

granny smith apples

Every time I open Russ Parsons’ book, ‘>How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table, I learn something. His book is so informative without being pedantic (too wordy, drivel type or preachy). He gives you the facts in a couple of different forms, as well as a few recipes, his favorites for that particular fruit or veggie. So it was that I learned we Americans are quite proprietary about our apples. Parsons thinks it’s because of our pioneer heritage – we hold hardiness and plain goodness as really important. We used to dominate the apple market worldwide, but no more. Bet you’d never guess who’s moved into first and second place, would you? (1) China; and (2) Chile. Those were surprises to me.

China barely knew apples 30 years ago, but they now harvest a third of all the apples grown in the world. But, there’s a bit of trouble in river city . . . the Chinese haven’t worked out storage very well, nor have they excelled with apple quality either, so they haven’t totally controlled the market. Yet.

It used to be that Golden & Red Delicious were the “IT” apples here in the U.S. But they’ve slid way down the desirable scale (more on that story below). So varieties like Gala, Fuji, Honey Crisp and Pink Lady have slid up into top types. Apparently Golden Delicious apples used to be a really superior apple – but only when it was allowed to mature on the tree to a golden hue. But the farmers and producers were lured into harvesting and shipping early, when they were still green, and the apples suffered. That’s still the case, unfortunately.

Then there’s the Red Delicious. I can recall that being one of the few eating apples I ever bought from about 1965 to 1995. But something happened to the red variety farming. Because we consumers wanted redder varieties, the farmers began pushing the producers of tree seedlings to bring out redder skinned apples. Guess what? The taste suffered because when skin darkens it becomes more bitter. Now we see red delicious that are almost black in color. Not good. We continued to buy them, because we trusted the variety. I stopped buying them some years ago when I couldn’t seem to find a really crisp one anymore. Every Red Delicious I bought was soft and mealy. We consumers buy fruit too much on color and may not realize the blacker the skin the more bitter the finish.

Finally, apple eaters began complaining, but the farmers didn’t want to hear it. They thought they had a lion by the tail and weren’t about to change their ongoing success. Eventually we did stop buying this old favorite. So the farmers began selling their product abroad. No, they weren’t going to change the breeding. They found exporters, instead. Then, as Parsons puts it, the sleeping giant (China) woke up and began producing big time, so American farmers suddenly lost business. Big time. During the last 15-20 years thousands of apple farmers went out of business. Trees and orchards were upended and farms sold. Some apple farmers had begun growing Pacific varieties (Fuji from Japan and Gala from New Zealand) and when they couldn’t sell them abroad they began selling them here. Voila! We started seeing them in our markets. Now they’re fairly standard issue.

apples honeycrisp

So here are the different varieties he discusses (when I mention below about storage, it’s mostly the cold storage at harvest, not our home refrigerator chilling):

FUJI: a Japanese-bred cross between Red Delicious and Ralls Janet. Holds its shape during cooking, good sauce apple, buttery flavor. Stores well, but don’t buy them past mid-summer.

GALA: Cross between Cox’s Orange Pippin and Golden Delicious. A tart apple, golden with pinkish orange strips. Good for cooking, sauce, buttery flavor with a hint of spice. One of the earliest harvests. Does NOT keep well once purchased, so eat them up right away and stop buying in early Spring.

BRAEBURN: one of the first Southern Hemisphere apples to become popular. Probably a chance seedling from cross-pollination between Lady Hamilton and a Granny Smith. Spicy, tart bite, juicy crisp texture. Good for cooking, stores well and okay to buy into early summer.

JONAGOLD: New York apple, an offspring of Golden Delicious and Jonathan. Tangy, slightly soft, though, when eating out of hand. Not good for storing and don’t buy them after Spring.

EMPIRE: Also a New York apple, mostly available on the East Coast [I’ve never seen an Empire apple here in California]. A cross between McIntosh and Red Delicious. Good flavor, holds its shape in cooking, but buy before the end of Spring.

PINK LADY: From Australia. Crisp and honeyed, pinkish cast, a champagne tartness, and one of the last apples harvested, usually starting in late September. Stores well.

CAMEO: A chance mutation in Washington State from a Red Delicious. Bright red-striped with unique white spots. Good flavor, sweet and mildly tart. Lots of crispness and staying power. Because of its dense flesh, Cameos take longer to cook than most apples.

HONEYCRISP: Crisp and sweet, holds its shape during cooking, red with a golden background [our Costco has them right now in a 12-pack]. Developed at the University of Minnesota, mostly grown in northern Midwest. Remarkable storage characteristics, i.e. does well in long storage. Interesting to me is that scientists have done DNA testing on apples (yes, really) and have discovered the Honeycrisp is not a cross between a Macoun and Honeygold, and they still don’t know its heritage.

– – – – –

Grown: Washington State, New York, Michigan, California and Pennsylvania

Choosing: look for smooth skins, deep color; yellow apples should be golden, striped apples have a background that’s golden. Look for heavy apples that are firm.

Storing: In the refrigerator, as close to 32 degrees as possible; lots of humidity – best in a perforated plastic bag that will retain water, but not collect it. Your crisper drawer is best. Red Delicious apples are the first ones that turn brown once they’re cut – but all apples will keep for awhile if you put them in acidulated water – lots of water plus fresh lemon juice.

Recipes: Parsons included his favorite baked apple recipe (brown sugar and butter only); also an applesauce made with bourbon, sour cherries and hazelnuts; and a gratin of apples and dried cranberries.

Here on my blog you’ll find apple recipes for the following:

Escarole, Belgian Endive & Apple Salad
Bombay Cheese Ball (best served with apple slices)
Cinnamon & Apple Bread Pudding
Baked Brie & Apples
Caramelized Apple Gingerbread
Grandgirl’s Fresh Apple Cake
Crisp Apple Pudding (my all-time favorite apple dessert)
Apple Buttermilk Scone Round
Applesauce Spice Cake with Caramel Glaze (a real favorite)
Apple Pear Upside Down Cake
Apple & Parsnip Soup
Cranberry Relish with a Zip (I make this, without fail, every Thanksgiving)
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup (includes roasted apples and onions)
Apple, Dried Cherry & Walnut Green Salad
Crostini with Apples, Watercress & Blue Cheese (one of my very favorite appetizers)

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