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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 July 4th, 2011.


This recipe had been languishing in my to-try file for about 5 years, just waiting for the right opportunity when I had some good tasting, ripe and very red tomatoes. This is a Mario Batali recipe, from his cookbook that he did with some help by Gweneth Paltrow, Spain…A Culinary Road Trip. But actually, I’d clipped the recipe from an article in Food and Wine Magazine.

In the headnote to the recipe, Mario explained that the tomato concoction resembles a gazpacho – the very traditional type they make in Spain – that contains a goodly amount of fresh, toasted country bread in it. Since I love gazpacho, I thought this was a shoe-in for me.

You start with some freshly chopped garlic, then add the chunked-up tomatoes (no need to peel or seed them) into a food processor. Add some olive oil, sherry vinegar (an essential ingredient – do not substitute regular vinegar) and some salt and pepper. That’s IT. I stopped the processor once to scrape down the sides and blended it until it was smooth. Poured it into a serving bowl and refrigerated it for a few hours before serving.

Now, the garnishes are a little unusual. The recipe calls for Serrano ham, a unique ham from Spain. A quite salty ham in case you’ve never had it. In Spain the ubiquitous noontime snack is a ham sandwich. Almost always made with Serrano ham. I could hardly eat such sandwiches because the meat is SO salty. I’m not even sure you can buy Serrano ham in the U.S., so I substituted some andouille sausage I had on hand. Then I added the diced-up hard boiled egg. From the photo at top, you can see the little bowls of both. But I’d suggest that if you garnish the baguette slices (with the dip on top) it’ll be a lot easier than asking your guests to do it. If you had shaved pieces of ham, that might be fine. If you had slices of egg, that might work too, but to get diced egg and diced ham to stick on the dip was difficult. Just so you know.

What I liked: The flavor was wonderful. Everybody liked it – we had a bunch of family at our home that day and even the grandkids liked it. You don’t have to add on the ham or egg. But in any case, the flavor combo was really delicious. I’d make it again. The recipe also said that if you have leftovers of this, just add some water (a little bit) and serve it as gazpacho (soup). The dip was also very easy to make!

What I didn’t like: As I explained 2 paragraphs ago, diced garnishes were a bit difficult to stick to the dip, so either compose the bread slices in the kitchen or make the ham and egg pieces much larger.

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Salmorejo, a Tomato and Garlic Dip

Recipe By: Mario Batali, in Food & Wine Magazine, 9/2008
Serving Size: 8
Serving Ideas: I used a sourdough country bread for this, but you probably could use a baguette. Since it’s composed with some bread in it, I think bread is the ideal vehicle to serve it on, rather than crackers..
NOTES: The salmorejo is a Spanish dip, very similar to the tradtional gazpacho soup – the kind that’s thickened with leftover bread. That’s what gives this the lighter color. Here, though, it’s ladled onto toasted bread slices and served as an appetizer. Ideally make this with good, ripe summer tomatoes. I didn’t buy Serrano ham, so I used a bit of Andouille sausage to sprinkle on the top instead. If you have leftover dip, serve it as a cold soup. Divine!

10 slices country bread — or baguette
1 pound tomatoes — chopped
1 medium garlic clove — thinly sliced
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil — plus more for brushing Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 whole hard-cooked egg — coarsely chopped
2 ounces serrano ham — [or Andouille sausage] thickly sliced, or finely diced

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. On a baking sheet, toast 4 slices of the bread for 8 minutes, or until lightly dried out. Cut off the crusts; cut the toasts into 1/2-inch cubes.
2. In a blender, puree the tomatoes with the garlic, vinegar and the 1/4 cup of olive oil until smooth. Add the toasted bread cubes and puree until thick and creamy. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer the salmorejo to a bowl and refrigerate until lightly chilled, about 30 minutes.
3. Preheat a grill pan. Brush the remaining 6 bread slices with oil; grill over high heat, turning, until toasted. Transfer the bread to plates and ladle the salmorejo on top. Garnish with the egg and ham and serve. The salmorejo can be refrigerated overnight.
Per Serving: 292 Calories; 9g Fat (28.0% calories from fat); 10g Protein; 44g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 31mg Cholesterol; 608mg Sodium.

Three years ago: Sweet and Sour Eggplant
Four years ago: Joan’s Pasta Salad (one of my favorites)

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