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Recently finished reading 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 Beef, Miscellaneous, on July 8th, 2008.

beef hamburger sliders with onion red pepper relish and marmalade

I have a question – did your mother or grandmother can pickles? Both my mother and grandmother made a variety of pickles every year. They made regular whole pickles (sweet type, though), piccalilli, bread and butter pickles and sometimes even pickled watermelon rind. I was never very crazy about the latter (too sweet for me). And my mother would make some kinds of pickle relishes. Not the tiny-minced sweet relish that we can buy in the markets now, but bigger chunks of cucumbers, red peppers and onions. With a delicious sweet and sour flavor going on.

A month or so ago my daughter Dana and family came to visit and she brought with her my mother’s recipe box. I’d forgotten she had it. It’s like this really fun bonanza to re-discover some lost and found thing. Just now I went to the section for pickles and condiments, and pulled out a small stack of recipes. I found: Watermelon Pickle, Zucchini Pickles, Zucchini Relish, Chow Chow, my Dad’s Aunt Rosa’s Bread & Butter Pickles, Dill Crisps from my great, great Aunt Nora, my Grandmother Isis’ Bread & Butter Pickles, and Mustard Pickles.

Here’s a photo of the aging 3×5 cards. The top one is in my grandmother’s handwriting, I think. I’m flooded with memories of visiting my mother’s family, at their farmhouse in Ceres, California. This would have been in the late 1940’s, early 50’s. In the middle of the farming belt of central California. The house was located about half a mile from the railroad. Many a summer night do I remember trying to go to sleep in the attic room (you know how hot attics get in the heat of a San Joaquin summer?), trying not to think how hot and sweaty I was, hearing the whoo-hoo of the trains going by all hours of the night. Growing up within a mile of the bay in San Diego, the only sounds I heard at night were fog horns, so train noises would awaken me. I also remember helping my grandmother a little bit in the kitchen – usually baking something like biscuits. Or helping my grandfather kill a chicken for Sunday supper (I watched until it came time to start plucking the feathers). And of poking my nose into the icebox that sat on the inside back porch. And helping my grandmother feed clothes into the wringer of the round free-standing washing machine that sat out on the outdoor back porch. Of riding on the tractor out in the field on my grandfather’s lap, holding on for dear life, diligently trying to steer the darned thing (very difficult). And playing with the multitude of kittens that always seemed to be around whenever we visited. They always had cats to keep the mouse population in check. I also prowled around in the monstrosity of an old barn, listening intently for mice hiding in the stacks of hay, or scurrying into the bowels of an old abandoned tractor that would no longer run, that was covered with stuff. Wonderful fodder for varmints. And food for cats.

Well, back to pickles. Back in the 1970’s I did make refrigerator dill pickles when the canning cucumber variety were plentiful at the markets. I can’t find my Sunset recipe. I’ve hunted for it, but no luck. Dana remembers when I made them several summers in a row. She adored them, dipping her hand into the icy cold jar of brine and grabbing one to chew on outside on the patio, where the juice could run unhindered down her arm.

That’s what was conjured up in my memory a couple of weeks ago when I was contemplating the menu for our 4th of July barbecue. We grilled turkey burgers (Oprah’s recipe), and traditional burgers too, but all of them were the small slider size. I may never go back to regular size again – I like these smaller ones so much better. They’re easier to handle, even forming the raw meat was easier. And we all liked the rolls (King’s Hawaiian bread rolls). It’s a light, soft bread, and it scrunched down just fine to fit into your mouth.

Our grandchildren and at least one of our adult kids wanted pure, unadulterated burgers. No special relish. Nothing but the bun, lettuce, tomato and red onion slices. But I made this really piquant relish/marmalade stuff that I’d make again anytime. It was relatively simple to prepare – I sautéed a bit of sugar and some onions (I should have used red, but yellow ones were what I grabbed) while bell peppers (supposed to be red only; I used one red and one yellow) charred under the broiler. Once they cooled and the skins were peeled, they were tossed into the onion mixture with balsamic vinegar and some spices. It took about 30 minutes to make, and I thought their flavor on the burgers was sensational.

Pickle making is becoming a lost art, I suppose. We’re all too busy. What a huge loss, since refrigerator pickles are so easy to do, requiring no cooking. I found some recipes on the internet and gave them to my daughter, in hopes that she’d make them for her family. She’s interested, but might be too intimidated to try it without mom around to oversee. In the meantime, for me, this delicious relish/marmalade will have to do!
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Red Onion and Red Pepper Marmalade

Recipe: An ancient clipping from the Los Angeles Times Food Section
Servings: 8-16
NOTES: The butter may not be necessary – I didn’t use it – your choice. If you use Splenda, stir it into the finished marmalade.

2 whole red bell peppers
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 whole red onions — halved, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons sugar — or Splenda added later
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon coarse salt
3 tablespoons fresh basil — minced
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme — minced
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary — minced
2 tablespoons butter — optional

1. Preheat the broiler.
2. Stand the peppers on their end and cut each into 4 flat sides and remove seeds and ribs. Arrange the peppers skin side up in a single layer on a foil-lined pan and broil until blackened, between 5-10 minutes. Remove them from the oven and wrap the peppers in the foil. Wait until they’re cool enough to handle, then remove the skin. Cut them into thin strips and set aside.
3. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onions and sugar. Cook, stirring often until the onions are lightly colored (not dark brown) about 10 minutes. Turn down the heat if they appear to be browning too quickly.
4. Stir in the vinegar, mustard and salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft, about 7 more minutes. Stir in the red bell peppers; heat through. Adjust seasoning. This can be made to this point several days ahead and refrigerated.
5. To serve, gently reheat even if you’re serving it at room temperature. Stir in the herbs, and when hot stir in the butter until melted. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Per Serving: 85 Calories; 6g Fat (64.7% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 7g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 8mg Cholesterol; 274mg Sodium.

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