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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 Beef, on July 15th, 2008.

beef stew with lemon juice, allspice, Worcestershire, and dumplings on top

There are a whole lot of variations on beef stew out there. Even Asian. And my friend Cherrie’s version made with the addition of currant jelly and cream. I used to make a kind of bland one in the crock pot some years ago too. But my all time favorite is this one, which I hadn’t made in years and years. My DH doesn’t really love stew. Even he doesn’t know why. I had made this for him before, but I hoped that perhaps with a few modifications, he’d like it better. Oh, indeed he did. He wanted seconds, even. I didn’t add potatoes this time – just carrots, mushrooms and the flavoring vegetables.

This recipe has the strange name because it was a version prepared by a dear family friend named Ruth Cormack. After her husband died in the last 1970’s, she developed Alzheimer’s and one day when I phoned her she didn’t know who I was. She was still living alone at that time. It was heartbreaking to me. I didn’t have the phone numbers of any family, plus I lived hundreds of miles away from her, so I don’t know what happened to her. She had rather unpleasant step-daughters who probably neglected her. Sad story. But beef stew will forever be linked with my friend, Ruth. She lived in San Anselmo (a beautiful suburb of Marin County, across the bridge from San Francisco). I hope that where she’s observing me from a heavenly cloud, she’s smiling because I’m sharing her recipe.

What makes this version stand out from the other more mundane recipes are these ingredients: lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, a bit of sugar and some allspice. Not things you’d normally associate with beef stew. And I’m really happy with the changes I made to the good-old tried and true recipe. I added a heap of mushrooms, used a mirepoix to help flavor the broth, also added some chicken broth (you could use beef or chicken), and I thickened it a bit more with some added flour that I tossed around on the raw mushrooms. I made it with my new pressure cooker (see p.c. notes at the end of the recipe). It’s not exactly stew season around here, but we actually had a cool day when I made this. Try it and see what you think.
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(Cormack) Beef Stew with Dumplings

Recipe: Adapted from a recipe from an old family friend, Ruth Cormack
Servings: 4 (I really think this will serve 6 people)

2 pounds beef stew meat — in one-inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons flour — for dredging
1 cup mirepoix — (diced onion, celery and carrots)
2 1/2 cups beef broth — or chicken broth
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 cloves garlic — minced
1 whole bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar — [or Splenda added at the end]
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
3 whole carrots — halved
4 small onions — sliced
2 whole potatoes — quartered (optional)
1/4 cup Italian parsley — chopped
2 cups mushrooms — trimmed, halved
1 cup Bisquick® baking mix
6 tablespoons milk

1. Dredge meat in flour, seasoned with salt and pepper. Save the leftover flour. In a heavy Dutch oven, brown meat on several sides in a bit of olive oil. The more the meat caramelizes, the better tasting it will be. Do not crowd pan; you may have to do this is more than one batch, adding a bit more olive oil to the pan. Remove meat and set aside.
2. To the pan add the chopped mirepoix vegetables and all the sliced onions and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic for the last minute. Place meat back in the pan.
3. Add lemon juice, broth, Worcestershire, bay leaf, salt, and sugar. Cover and simmer for about 2 hours until meat is very tender.
4. Add the carrots and potatoes (if using) and continue cooking (lid on) for about 10 minutes. Add chopped parsley and mushrooms, which you can toss with the leftover flour mixture from the dredging (step 1) and stir in. Remove bay leaf if you can find it.
5. Mix Bisquick and milk together in a small bowl. Using a soup sized spoon, drop about 8 dollops on top of vegetables. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes, then remove lid and continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

PRESSURE COOKER VERSION: At end of step 3, cook meat, onions, and seasonings for 20 minutes under pressure. Cool and open pressure cooker. Add carrots and bring back up to pressure again for about 5 minutes. Cool again, then add in mushrooms and parsley and push them below the broth surface. Stir to distribute flour. Add dumplings on top and proceed with the 10 minutes lid on (not pressure cooked), 10 minutes lid off.
Per Serving (actually less because this will serve more than 4 people): 778 Calories; 32g Fat (37.0% calories from fat); 62g Protein; 59g Carbohydrate; 6g Dietary Fiber; 128mg Cholesterol; 1931mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on July 18th, 2008:

    Oh, I adore beef stew and dumplings! Especially dumplings! I’ve never tried Bisquick dumplings (we make ours with flour, suet and water) so will have to give them a try.

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