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Just finished reading 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 Novelby 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 (she arrived after the birth, actually). 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 father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. 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.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.

 

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.

ginger_spice_chai

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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