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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 November 18th, 2010.

black bean torte

This recipe was written up just before we left on our long trip, so I’ll ease you back into some easy Mexican cooking . . . although the ingredients here are similar to a Mexican layered dip (you know, the refried beans, sour cream, salsa, etc.) – and I suppose those are the origins here, there’s nothing in this that’s spicy hot. No chile powder, or chili flakes. It’s just wholesome good stuff – beans, cilantro, a bit of feta, roasted red bell peppers. The only higher fat stuff is the sour cream and yogurt. Because it’s what I had on hand, I used full-fat sour cream and low-fat yogurt. It might be fine with fat-free too.

I’ve been making this for 20+ years – although I haven’t made it in the last five, I know for sure, or it would have appeared on this blog. The original recipe (I’ve altered it just a smidge) came from a 1980’s era Sunset magazine.

Picnik collageSo I started out with 3 cans of black beans. I rinsed them, then allowed them to drain for about half an hour.

Then I took out a cup or so of them and mashed them up with some ground cumin, a little salt and about 2 T. of concentrated chicken broth (mine is unsalted, so if you use a salted broth, don’t use added salt) until this smashed part was a bit looser.

That gets added back into the larger amount of beans and a bit more than a third of them are pressed into a loaf pan. Note that the pan is lined with plastic wrap. I will tell you that getting very sticky plastic wrap to wrap (two layers) was more difficult than I’d anticipated. All it wanted to do was stick to itself or to the other piece. I did the best I could.

There’s the first layer of beans. I used my offset spatula to spread it out evenly and push it all the way out to the corners so it’s as flat as possible.

Next I made the cilantro pesto mixture. It was whizzed up in the food processor (nearly three bunches, saving a bit for the garnish) with some pine nuts, garlic and a little bit of olive oil. Once it’s mush, you scoop it out on the top of the bean layer. Spread it all the way out to the corners too. You want it to go all the way to the corners too.

Next you add a layer of chopped roasted red bell peppers. I used a Trader Joe’s label of fire-roasted peppers, drained it, sliced and chopped it, then evenly spread it over the top. Save out about 2-3 T. of them to garnish the top when it’s served. Then I added the cup of crumbled feta cheese, all crumbled up.

Next, the remainder of the mushed bean layer goes on top. Once this has chilled for several hours (or overnight, or up to 3 days) you invert it, so the top (here) becomes the bottom. You know the drill on this kind of thing. Turn it out onto some large oval or oblong plate or platter, then bring out the garnishes. Remember? You saved some roasted bell peppers, some cilantro, and I also saved a bit of feta too. Then you mix up some sour cream and yogurt together and that gets gently spooned down the center of the torte, then the garnishes are put on top. I add some minced up green onions to the garnishes also, although it wasn’t in the original recipe.

This can be served with toasted baguette slices, but I prefer tortilla chips just because that is more authentic for a Mexican dish. We have a local brand of chips that are home made (meaning they’re old-fashioned fried). I rarely buy chips of any kind, but when I do, I buy the home made type. Or make your own. The beans are spiced up with the cumin, the cilantro layer is very garlicky (adjust if you’re sensitive to it) and it always gets raves (from me, too).

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Black Bean Torte Appetizer

Recipe By: Adapted from an ancient Sunset magazine, probably from the 1980’s
Serving Size: 12
Serving Ideas: For a picnic, slice the torte and wrap individually, then serve with fork on a paper plate. This could also be a side salad and the balance of the meal would need to be light. If there are leftovers, a slice makes a lovely lunch with summer sliced tomatoes or other vegetables. You could try to slice this into narrower slices, but you might have trouble holding it together. If the beans aren’t sticky enough, then it can fall apart more easily. It also would work very well with some grilled, spicy chicken.
NOTES: Originally this recipe called for making the beans from scratch. I just adapted the seasonings and used canned instead.

48 ounces canned black beans — about 4-5 cups
2 tablespoons low sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 cups cilantro — about 3 bunches, chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 whole garlic cloves
1/3 cup pine nuts
12 ounces roasted red peppers — canned or bottled, drained
1 cup feta cheese — Goat feta, if possible
1/3 cup low-fat sour cream
1/3 cup yogurt — low-fat is fine
1/4 cup green onions — minced The reserved cilantro,
1 pound tortilla chips — or baguette slices, toasted

1. IF MAKING BEANS FROM DRIED: Wash the black beans and sort and discard any debris. Cover with water and allow to sit overnight, if you have the time. Otherwise, cover beans with water, bring to a boil and let sit at room temperature for an hour. Drain off the water, then add the chicken broth and cumin and bring to a boil again, then simmer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until beans are just tender, but not mushy. Drain the beans, but save about 1/2 cup of the broth, if there is any. Set aside until they have cooled to room temperature. Remove about 1 cup of the beans to a flat-bottomed dish or bowl and mash well. If the beans are very dry, add some of the cooking broth to them so the mashed beans will stick together. Add these back into the pan with the other beans and stir. Season the beans with salt and pepper to taste. IF USING CANNED: drain beans, rinse, and continue from above where it starts with “Drain the beans . . .”
2. Use a traditional bread pan and line the pan with plastic wrap – one long piece each direction – and pat into place, leaving long edges overhanging the pan. Spoon about 1/3 of the beans into the pan and pat gently but thoroughly into the bottom of the pan. This layer needs to cover the bottom of the pan, so if you need more, scoop additional to cover.
3. Cilantro Pesto: Into a food processor drop the peeled garlic and a little salt and whirl until well minced. Allow to sit while you clean and wash the cilantro leaves. Chop into large chunks of leaves and drop into the food processor, along with the pine nuts and olive oil. Pour into the pan over the patted-down bean layer. Spread to cover the entire area. Drain the red peppers and blot onto paper towels if desired. Mince up with a big knife and pour those on top of the cilantro pesto and spread out, leaving about 2 tablespoons of peppers for decoration. Chop up the feta cheese and add that to the layers, and spread out as well as you can and pat into place. Now pour on the remaining 2/3 of the beans, patting these into place so the layer is firm but smooth. Pull plastic wrap over the top and seal top of pan with another layer of plastic wrap if necessary, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
4. When ready to serve, unwrap the plastic and place serving dish on top, then invert the pan onto your serving platter. Remove plastic wrap.
5. Mix up the yogurt & sour cream mixture and have it ready to serve. If serving as an appetizer for a group, put the creamy mixture down the center, sprinkle with the reserved peppers, feta, cilantro and then add the green onions. Spread the baguette slices around the edges (or crackers) and serve.
Per Serving: 393 Calories; 17g Fat (39.2% calories from fat); 14g Protein; 47g Carbohydrate; 10g Dietary Fiber; 13mg Cholesterol; 721mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on November 18th, 2010:

    I haven’t had any thing like that since my niece went to live in Arabia. Welcome home!

  2. Marie

    said on November 20th, 2010:

    Been playing catchup here with all of your posts this morning Carolyn. You and Dave certainly had an interesting trip to Australia and NZ! Sounds like the food in Australia was not all that great! Sounds like you had a pretty nice time though and that you have made some great friends along the way! Todd has always wanted to go to Australia and I had a penpal in NZ when I was a girl. You and Dave sure lead a fascinating life. I send lots of love and hugs to you both! xxoo

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