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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 aging 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, wealthy women) 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.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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.

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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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