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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 Salad Dressings, Salads, on May 31st, 2008.

syrian pita bread salad with lemon dressing
Searching through my salad recipes the other day, I rounded up about 5-8 recipes that I’ve made before (but prior to when I started photographing all my cooking) or haven’t made, but want to. As soon as I saw the piece of paper this recipe was on, it flooded back fond memories. Back in the days when I was working. Once in awhile we’d have a potluck lunch. We had some goooood cooks amongst our staff, and I count a number of my favorite recipes as products of those potlucks. Among them, that I have blogged about: Vicki’s Harlequin Pinwheel Cookies, Kathy’s Monterey Scalloped Potatoes, Kathleen’s Almond Custard. Others that I haven’t blogged:  this, Joanne’s Syrian Bread Salad. Also her Triple Chocolate Cookies. And Debbie’s Apple Pie. Or yes, Kathleen’s Pretzel Dessert, and Eileen’s Pineapple Cream Cheese Dip. Audré’s Curried Deviled Eggs. And on and on it goes.

Joanne is Swedish by heritage, and the last I heard, she was living outside Paris with her hubby and family. She used to kid herself that she’s a SAP, a Swedish American Princess. She married a successful businessman, who happens to be Lebanese by heritage. So Joanne learned to cook a lot of Lebanese dishes including this salad, which is often called fattoush (pronounced fah-toosh). Joanne brought it to several of our potlucks, and we all loved it. It’s tart (from the lemon juice dressing), crunchy (from the pita) and altogether very refreshing (from the combo of cucumbers, green onions, tomatoes, parsley and mint). It also has the addition of zahtar. Since I assume that some of you don’t know much about zahtar, you’re about to be educated.

Zahtar is to the Middle East like curry powder is to India. Meaning that it’s ubiquitous to that region. But, zahtar is also a combination of herbs and spices and can be different from one cook to another, just like curry powder. If you’re interested in a lot of history, read Wikipedia’s explanation of zahtar. But suffice to say that zahtar is generally a mixture of oregano, hyssop, marjoram and thyme. My zahtar (that I buy from Penzey’s) contains sesame seeds, sumac (which gives it the red color), thyme and salt. So, you can see how different purveyors will make a different product.

The salad is very easy – providing you have the fresh lemon juice (check), the pita (check), the mint (I prefer fresh, check), tomatoes (check), green onions (check), and parsley (Italian, check). I always have the other stuff on hand (lettuce, in this case romaine, cucumber, garlic, scallions, olive oil, zahtar and ground allspice). Since I’m a huge fan of lemon juice in salad dressings, there’s no question I love this salad. The original recipe didn’t indicate it, but I toast the pita bread pieces in the oven for about 4-6 minutes until just beginning to turn golden brown. That way they’re a bit crunchy in the salad.  I also prefer the fresh mint (a lot of it, actually, and I use more than the recipe indicates). The two recipes Joanne gave me had one with fresh and one with dried. So, your choice. Although the salad is called a bread salad, the pita chips aren’t predominant in the salad. It’s a green salad, but with the lovely crunch of toasted pita chips. And the delish lemon dressing. And mint. Well, you all got it. I love this salad.
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Syrian Pita Bread Salad

Recipe adapted from: Joanne H.
Servings: 6
NOTES: To toast the pita, separate into pieces and spray with olive oil spray, then bake at 400 for 4-6 minutes until golden brown. Allow to cool before proceeding. And since lemons vary in tartness, taste the dressing – it may need more or less (in which case add a bit more oil).

1 large pita bread round — separated, chopped, toasted
1 small clove garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice — or more if preferred
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon zahtar
1 head Romaine lettuce or other salad greens
1 cup cucumber — diced
2 whole scallions — minced
1 cup Italian parsley — chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint — chopped
4 medium tomatoes — chunks

1. In a blender container combine garlic clove and salt. Blend and allow to sit while you gather other ingredients. This draws out the garlic flavor, makes it more prominent.
2. Add allspice and zahtar, then oil and lemon juice to blender bowl and blend until thoroughly combined. Pour into a container. You may not use all the dressing in the salad.
3. In a large salad bowl combine all the remaining ingredients. Pour dressing over the salad and taste. May need additional salt. I also add pepper, although it’s not in the original recipe.
Per Serving: 237 Calories; 19g Fat (67.6% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 16g Carbohydrate; 5g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 436mg Sodium.

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  1. Sue (coffeepot)

    said on June 1st, 2008:

    I love bread salads. Thanks for the info on zatar because I had never heard of it.

  2. Carolyn

    said on June 3rd, 2008:

    You can make your own zahtar if you have the ingredients. I don’t suppose zahtar keeps all that long (any herbs and spices mixed up together seem to lose potency much faster) but I don’t use it all that often. The most common thing (based only on observation) is that they use it for sprinkling on sliced tomatoes, which are standard fare for breakfast, lunch or dinner anywhere in that part of the world. We saw it in both Egypt and Turkey – sitting next to the platter of quartered tomatoes, along side the hard boiled eggs and sliced cucumbers (that was for breakfast).

  3. yvette

    said on July 5th, 2010:

    I served this salad at my Fourth of July party. The dressing was so tasty. I also loved the crunch from the pita in the salad. I found the spice, zahtar, at Whole Foods. This does belong on “Carolyn’s Fav” list.

    Thanks, Yvette. So glad you enjoyed it! . . . carolyn t

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