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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 June 2nd, 2008.

fiery peppered feta dip with pita bread

It was several years ago that Joanne Weir was making regular circuits of cooking schools. That’s when I first discovered what a kick-in-the-pants she is. I think she’s just about my favorite cooking instructor. As she teaches, she maintains a lively monologue about the different dishes, and about everything else under the sun. She teaches week-long classes in Italy, France and Spain too. Oh, if only our dollar and the euro were a bit more aligned I’d be on a plane to attend one of those European cooking vacations. She also has a PBS cooking show, but none of her spark shows through on it, in case you’ve watched it.  Joanne also teaches classes in her home in San Francisco (for a very small group) which sounds like fun too. But it’s also not a bargain. Alas. I’ll just have to stick to reading her cookbooks, of which I own many.

This recipe was one she served at a class some years ago. It’s from her book, Weir Cooking in the City. At this evening class, she whipped it up first thing so we could have some little something in our tummies while she prepared all the other dishes. I really liked it a lot. It’s spicy (from the cayenne), spreads nicely (as long as you let it the cheese or the finished dip sit out at room temp for half an hour before serving) and attractive (with olives or Italian parsley sprinkled on top). I’ve made it at least half a dozen times. You do need to like Feta cheese, however, and in this case she recommends buying barrel-aged Feta (sheep’s milk) if you can find it. Our local grocery carries it, and I’ve also purchased it at Whole Foods. But if all you can find is regular Feta, use it. It’s served with hot pita bread (not toasted, just hot), so you need to eat it immediately; otherwise the pita is cold. Not all bad that way either, but the bread is supposed to be served hot. This dip is EASY – takes less than 5 minutes to prepare once you have the ingredients out.
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Fiery Peppered Feta with Pita Bread

Recipe By: Joanne Weir, author and cooking instructor
Serving Size: 6

1 cup yogurt — Greek style, if available
Salt to taste, or may not need any at all
10 ounces Feta cheese — barrel aged if you can find it
2 whole garlic clove — minced
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika — sweet type (plain), not smoky or hot
1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 whole pita bread rounds
Black olives (imported) as garnish, if desired, or Italian parsley, minced

1. If using Greek yogurt, there is no need to drain it. If traditional yogurt, drain the yogurt in a paper-towel lined sieve for at least 4 hours, or overnight (covered).
2. Preheat the oven to 400°.
3. Place the yogurt, 1/4 tsp salt and Feta cheese in a bowl and with a fork mash together to make a smooth paste. Or, it can be pulsed in a food processor until smooth. Add garlic, cayenne, paprika and 1 T of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Refrigerate, or serve immediately. It is best served at room temperature.
4. Wrap the pita bread in foil and heat in oven for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, spread the cheese puree on a serving plate, drizzle with 1/2 T of the olive oil, garnish with olives or parsley. Cut up the hot pita bread and serve.
Per Serving: 265 Calories; 15g Fat (51.5% calories from fat); 11g Protein; 21g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 47mg Cholesterol; 707mg Sodium

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  1. Cora

    said on June 2nd, 2008:

    Carolyn – Another thing we have in common! I have been to Ramekins a couple of times for Joanne’s classes. I just love her! I sent my NC friends to her class when she was in Chapel Hill at Southern Season and they loved her too. Now we’re dying to go to one of her Europe classes too. Someday . . .

  2. Carolyn

    said on June 3rd, 2008:

    My friend, Cherrie, and I just long to go to just one of her classes. I’d probably not go to the one in Spain (not because of the food, but because she goes there in the summer when it’s so gosh-darned hot). I think we’ve talked about going to Tuscany. Since we’ve been to Provence and stayed at a farmhouse there (and attended a cooking class in St. Remy – not one of hers but somebody else’s) we’d probably opt for the Italy one. But, we need a lot stronger American dollar before we’ll be willing to spend the money!

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