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Just finished reading The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant. A very, very intriguing book. The book is written from the voice of a Jewish grandmother as she tells her granddaughter the saga of her life starting about 1910, who struggles with her own individuality, with her domineering mother who never says a kind word to her. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story as she grows up, finds a job, makes friends, joins a literary girls club, moves out, but still suffers under her mother’s thumb and tongue. She becomes a reporter on a local newspaper, which opens her eyes to more of the world than she ever knew. She finally meets the right man (of course!) and she shares the stories about her life, and her friends and family members as she grows up, giving some sage advice along the way. Part of the time she’s talking to herself – to her young self  (really wanting to tell young Addie to keep on, forgive herself for her perceived transgressions, to live life, and experience the world).

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Rivers is a prodigious writer of Christian fiction, and I’d never read anything by her until now. As I write this, I’ve already read this, another one (below) and just purchased the Kindle trilogy called Mark of the Lion (Vol 1-3) that I haven’t yet started. (Two of my friends have said the trilogy is her best.) Redeeming Love details the fictional story of a godly man, Michael Hosea, forging his way in the era of the Gold Rush. He’s “driven” to rescue a beautiful prostitute who lives and works her trade in a nearby town. The entire book is about the story, the rescue, and it parallels a bit of scripture about Hosea who rescues a prostitute names Gomer. You get into the heads of both Hosea and the prostitute, named Angel. We read this for one of my book groups. A great read.

As soon as I finished the above book I promptly visited my church library and found a whole shelf of Rivers’ books, and grabbed one called The Atonement Child. This book takes place in the 1980s or 90s, about a young college student who is raped. She was engaged to be married, was a stellar student. The book chronicles what happens to her when she discovers she is pregnant from the rape. Every possible thing goes wrong in her life. I don’t want to spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it, but I couldn’t put it down. I ended up spending a good part of a day plowing through it. You hear her inner voice (I’m guessing this is a common thread in Rivers’ books) from a Christian perspective. Lots of meaty issues to discuss in a book club if your group would be interested and willing to talk about rape, abortion, adoption and the thorny issues surrounding all of those things, but with a Christian bent, for sure.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen. It’s kind of amazing how many and varied plot lines can be created from events of WWII. This is another one, about a current day woman who finds papers in the attic, after her father’s death, with references to “the child.” She never knew her father could have had another child – could she have a step-sibling somewhere? Her father she knew, had been shot down over Italy, but he never talked much about it. But of course, she must go to Italy to find out about this “child.” The book flips back and forth from this daughter on the search, to her father during the war, all of it taking place in a very small town in Tuscany. It’s about the varied people she meets who want her to go away and not dredge up anything about the war years (are they hiding something, you question), about how much she loves the landscape, and some of the people. And about the intense love affair between the injured pilot and a caring woman of the village. Very charming story. I could almost smell the flowers, taste the olives, hear the bees flitting, and loved the prose about the simple meals that were described. I really enjoyed the book. Perhaps not enough meat for a book club read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it nonetheless.

Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

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 and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. 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-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.

 

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.

Scroll down to the bottom to view my Blogroll

Posted in Utensils, on August 10th, 2011.

bob_kramer

Until a few months ago I’d never heard of Bob Kramer. First I read about him in one of my cooking magazines. And then I noticed he was teaching a class at Sur la Table. My DH is the one who carves meat and sharpens the knives most of the time. Though, I’m the one who bought the Furi knives a few years ago – stainless steel ones – and also purchased a knife sharpening system from Furi too. Those I use in my everyday cooking. But we – neither one of us – seem to have perfected the sharpening process very well. Some months ago Dave spent an hour or more with all the equipment out on the kitchen counter trying to get a good edge on my most favored knives. Unsuccessfully.

So, when I saw the Bob Kramer knife and sharpening class at Sur la Table, I signed us up for it. This was not a cheap expedition, I’ll tell you. The class was $100 apiece, so we decided to make that our birthday presents to each other.

Also, I’ll tell you that I have lots of knives in my kitchen. Years and years ago (this would have been the early 1970’s) I’d acquired a full set of Cutco stainless steel knives. They’re very good knives, and they’ve been a sturdy go-to group all these years. I have nearly every knife they make. Once you have Cutco knives, you can send them back to the factory to be re-sharpened (no charge except for the shipping to them). But it takes a couple of weeks to get them back. A nuisance, for sure. I try to remember to do it when we’re about to leave on a vacation. That way I won’t miss them so much! In the meantime, though, I mentioned above, I bought a couple of Furi knives too – the Santoku style. And those have been my day to day knives for mincing and chopping.

This Bob Kramer class, though, was fascinating. I was riveted to his every word (he’s a great story-teller) as he shared his life history and how he came to be a knife maker. A custom knife maker. But he also (now) has contracted with Henckels to make a specialized line of knives, using his lifetime knowledge of how to construct a knife (including the forging aspect of it) and sells them at Sur la Table. Some years ago he even spent time at a steel forge so he would really understand the composition of steel and the process of hand forging. He came to the conclusion after years of work that carbon steel is the only way to go to make a knife and keep it sharp.

bob_kramer_knivesHe didn’t disparage stainless knives at all; he just doesn’t use them. He finds them much harder to hone an edge, and the edge doesn’t hold as long as knives made with carbon steel. The only problem is that carbon steel will stain and discolor. He suggested that whenever you’re using a carbon steel knife keep a dry cloth next to your cutting board and use it frequently to keep the knife dry. Even water will stain a carbon steel.

Kramer also sells a line of stones (sharpening stones). His are water stones (not oil, as some are), and you can buy several types. We bought one. I learned a lot about stones during the class. I remember watching my dad sharpen knives for my mother when I was a child. He’d spit on the stone and use the same round motion Bob Kramer uses. The trick is the angle. We learned that most knife sharpening units (the free standing types you pull a knife through) are set to sharpen at about 20° tilt. He recommended about 12-15°. He also explained that to get an edge you need to exert about 4-6 pounds of pressure on the knife. How do you know? Simple! Get out your kitchen scale, set a soft surface on it (like a towel), zero out the weight, then press the knife blade onto the scale until you reach 4-6 pounds. It’s a whole lot more pressure than you think. It’s clear to me that whenever I’ve sharpened knives before I’ve never exerted enough pressure on the blade.

He also talked about testing the burr. That’s the little tiny edge (bend) that develops from using your knives on a hard surface (cutting boards). The chopping motion eventually curls the edge over slightly. And as long as there’s a burr, you’ll never get the knife sharp. I knew that part – from another class I took some years ago, and at that time I bought a Chantry which I’ve used with regularity ever since. Successfully. But now that I know more about better sharpening methods (using the water stone) I’ll probably retire my Chantry.

In the process of sharpening he tested each blade periodically – he did the magazine test, he calls it – you take a page out of a magazine, or a piece of newsprint and cut with the knife. If it doesn’t slice right through it, it’s not sharp enough. Back to the stone it went. And he tested it at several places on the knife edge – you want that sharpness the full length of the blade. If you use a larger, longer knife for chopping, and you  use the pivot method (leaving the knife point down, just picking up the back end and moving it over to continue chopping) or something close to it, you know that the bulk of the cutting action is done toward the rear – nearer the handle end of the blade. And all the way to the rear end of it too.

In demonstrating the sharpening process (with the wet stone he’d soaked in water for about 20 minutes), after he’d finished sharpening each knife, he took them a couple of feet away where he had taped down a regular, ordinary piece of cardboard. Probably about 6 x 14 inches long, approximately. He gently massaged the knife on the cardboard – just like he was honing with the stone. That smooths out the edge. Cleans it, too, of any steel shavings. Then he wiped it very clean with a cloth. All of his knives are stored with a knife guard too. Good thing since they were razor sharp when he got done! You can buy those at Sur la Table also.

The knives he manufactures have a few unique characteristics. All things he learned over the years of professional cooking he did, and during the years he ran a knife sharpening business (mostly for restaurant chefs) in Seattle (he doesn’t have time for that anymore). He makes all of his knives with wider blades, because he (like most cooks) uses the flat side of the blade to carry mounds of food to a bowl or cooktop. He also rounds the top of the blade (the non-cutting edge) because he learned that most professional chefs develop a mean callus from constant pressure on that part of the blade. Made sense to me! He also constructs a heftier handle. He does make custom knives (now he does an auction on his website for them – you don’t even want to know how much they sell for – but they’re stunningly beautiful) and makes different shapes of handles with different woods. This line of knives at Sur la Table, though, all have the black handles as you’ll see in the photo above.

imageThere were lots of questions at the end, which he was happy to answer. One was meaningful to me – he recommended using an end grain wood cutting board.  Here’s a photo of the Boos brand available at Williams-Sonoma, although you can find them at numerous kitchenware stores.  You can tell they’re an end grain because it has a checkerboard look to it – each square is an end cut of wood. The point is that chopping is what’s hard on a knife, obviously. An end-grain board is softer because the knife blade will be cushioned slightly by the grain itself. He also said that bamboo boards are inherently soft, so they’re okay too. He particularly discouraged us from using the type of boards I use all the time – I have several of them, the Epicurean line (I bought them because they have a very tight grain, they’re actually some kind of wood composite, can go in the dishwasher and supposedly inhibit bacteria growth). Unfortunately, for just those reasons, the surface is extremely hard, so it’s hard on knives. I don’t own an end grain board, so guess that will need to be added to my wish list in the future.

My DH had said before we went to the class, that he thought we should buy one of the knives. We did. I’d really liked to have purchased two of them, but they’re pricey. Beyond pricey, so one will be fine for now. If you want to learn more about his sharpening techniques, he has videos with better explanations than I’ve given you. Click on over to the sharpening page on his website for that.

If you have a Sur la Table store near you, you might look to see if Bob Kramer is teaching there. I’d definitely recommend the class. You’re going to want to buy one of his knives, though, so take your checkbook or credit card!

Two years ago: Sizzling Rib Eyes with Red Pepper Sauce
Four years ago: Goat Cheese Chive Muffins

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