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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 Beverages, on August 22nd, 2011.


What about you – do you like chai? I certainly do, and order hot chai in the cold winter months when I visit a coffee store like Peet’s or Starbucks. I love the spicy foam from a hot chai that they’ve frothed for me. But I’ve not had iced chai, I don’t think. Maybe the coffee places make it, I just haven’t noticed or tried it. So many of those drinks are overly sweet to me, unfortunately. I do order sugar-free when it’s available. But the sweet ones – why do they DO that, I want to know? Even the blended and freddo drinks are too sweet. Sadly, these stores are just contributing to our dependence on sugar, and increasing the calories in those drinks by huge leaps. Oh well. . .

Anyway, over at Elana’s Pantry (a blog) she recently made a spicy ginger chai. And since we were entertaining a group of 15 for dinner, I thought I’d make a big pot of it for anyone who wanted something other than wine or soft drinks. Elana called hers just “Iced Ginger Chai,” and I suppose by my adding the word spiced in the title makes it redundant since chai means spiced tea. But I wanted you to know that this stuff is not just a chai, but it’s spicy (warm to hot) from a lot of ginger and black peppercorns. I’m enjoying  a large glass of it right now as I write this, and after sipping some a couple of minutes ago, I can still feel the residual heat in my mouth, on my tongue. It’s not unpleasant – in fact I LOVE the taste of it. (If you’re sensitive to any kind of spice-heat, you might want to reduce the quantity of ginger and peppercorns in this by about a third.)

I did make one change (an optional one) since I didn’t have any rooibos tea. Rooibos is that popular (and fairly new to the U.S. markets anyway) herbal tea – also called bush tea or red bush tea (because it makes a very dark reddish-brown colored tea) – made from a legume plant grown only in South Africa and it IS caffeine free. I’m not all that crazy about it as a straight tea (too grassy-like or tree/twig tasting for my tastes), and I gave away my can of it some months ago to someone who loves it. So I substituted a traditional black tea, thereby making it a caffeinated drink. Fine for daytime, maybe not at night. So, if you choose to make this with regular black tea (I used a black tea blend), do as I did – let the black tea soak in the mixture for about 7 minutes, then remove (I used tea bags so it would be easy to get them out). I actually did it after the 30-minute rolling boil – you don’t want to BOIL black tea, a no-no to tea aficionados as it quickly becomes bitter after that magical 5-7 minutes.

Nothing about making this is hard to do – but it does need to steep overnight. Making it the rooibos way, you bring all the ingredients (cardamom pods, whole cloves, peppercorns, the rooibos tea, and fennel seeds) to a boil – not the milk or any sweetener – reduce it to a rolling simmer and let it go for about 30 minutes. At a rolling boil the mixture reduces down some. Elana said hers reduced to about half – mine not that much, so I suppose I didn’t keep mine at the same high boil she did. Then you turn off the heat and let it sit overnight (at room temp – there’s nothing in it to spoil). Easy! In the morning strain out the ginger, tea and spices, and chill the mixture. Whenever you want to use it, either in a single glass or in bulk like I did, you merely use a cup of the chai concentrate and 1/4 cup of almond milk (chill it first) and pour it over an ample number of ice cubes. I added just a bit more of the almond milk (I doubled the recipe and used the full cardboard box of almond milk). Add some sweetener if you choose and you’re ready for a refreshing treat. Most traditional chai drinkers use sweetener, but you can decide that for yourself. When I served it, I didn’t sweeten it but left the sweeteners next to the tall beverage dispenser I served it in. Some people asked what it was, but most didn’t and I was way too busy to go around and tell everyone. Next time I’ll need to make a little sign to place conspicuously near it.

What I liked: the ease of making it; the spicy combo (you’d never know there are fennel seeds in the brew), and the spice-heat from the ginger and peppercorns; it only takes a little bit of almond milk to smooth out the flavors and make it a creamy chai.

What I didn’t like: nothing at all – loved it. It may become a regular thing in my summer kitchen. You do need to plan ahead, however – at least the day before.

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Indian Spiced Ginger Chai (Tea)

Recipe By: Adapted slightly from elana’s pantry blog, 7/2011
Serving Size: 4

2 quarts water
1/2 cup fresh ginger — finely chopped (skin on)
10 whole cardamom — pods
5 whole cloves
10 whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/4 cup tea — (organic loose rooibos, or substitute black tea – see directions below)
1 cup almond milk — or more if you prefer a more milky tea
Sweetener – stevia, agave, or sugar

1.  Place all ingredients (except almond milk and sweetener) in a large pot and bring to a boil.  If you are using black tea, use tea bags or a tea diffuser to contain the tea, and add it later (see note in #2).  If you’re using rooibos, add it in with all the other ingredients and leave it in for the full steeping time in the recipe.
2.  Reduce heat and allow to simmer (rolling simmer) for 30 minutes.  Turn off heat (and add the black tea now, if you’re using it, and remove it 5-7 minutes later), then allow tea to sit overnight at room temp to continue steeping.
3.  Strain mixture into a 1-quart jar.  This is your “concentrate.”
4.  Fill a glass with ice, pour in 1 cup of chai concentrate and add 1/4 cup (or more) almond milk, or milk of your choice.
5.  Add sweetener if desired – stevia, sugar or agave nectar to taste and serve.
Per Serving: 97 Calories; 4g Fat (27.5% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 19g Carbohydrate; 8g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 43mg Sodium.

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