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Just finished a stunning book, 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 (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. 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 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.

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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.


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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