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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 Uncategorized, on January 7th, 2012.

For the last several years I’ve created a list, in January, of all my favorite recipes I’ve posted during the last 12 months. It’s really quite easy to do since I keep a list of my posts and they get highlighted as the year goes by. I wasn’t sure I’d have enough for 2011, but not so – I have more than I’ve had in some years. That was a surprise. I’ve ended up with about 19. That’s about 1 1/2 per month. As I looked back through the list I tried to delete a few from this list, but just couldn’t. They’re all just too good to not include. They’ve all been added to my Carolyn’s Favs list you can access on my home page (just under my main blog photo, a file tab far right). So here goes (kind of in a category order):

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Beef Burgers with Bacon, Thyme and Wine Sauce on a Spinach Bed – a recipe I created myself – the sauce from an old Julia Child standby, the bacon inside the burger to add flavor and juiciness, the bed of spinach on the bottom to round out the meal.

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Easy Cassoulet – oh my goodness, do I love this dish. Cassoulet is a French peasant dish, but this version is easy, has chicken (instead of duck), pork and sausage in it. Part of the deliciousness comes from the crunchy fresh bread topping. Make lots so you can freeze some.

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Have you always wanted to make THE perfect baked chicken? You’ve found it here, with this Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Weeknight Roast Chicken. Requires just a little bit more time, but uses a different method. The juiciest chicken you’ll ever eat. Promise.

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Really, I love Ina Garten’s recipes. And this Weeknight Bolognese is a blue-ribbon winner in my book. I’ve made this at least 7-8 times in 2011, and I make it in big quantities so I’ll have some to freeze in 2-person portions (without the pasta, of course). So worth making.

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This risotto – oh gosh – is so delicious. I really think I could make this entrée for my own dinner about every two weeks for the rest of my life. A Phillis Carey recipe, called Risotto with Turkey Sausage, Corn, Leeks, Fresh Spinach and Tomatoes. It’s chock full of vegetables too.

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There are days when I think I could live as a vegetarian, if I had some of these side dishes (here and below) to eat every day. Like this delicious Haricot Verts with Balsamic Vinaigrette. But then, if I were a vegetarian I’d have to give up turkey sausage. And grilled steak. And roast chicken. Nope, can’t do that!

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Regular, ordinary cole slaw just doesn’t hold a candle to the couple of recipes here on my blog. It’s obvious I just don’t like those mayo-based dressings. Period. If that’s you too, then try this Sweet Cabbage Slaw (I made it with Splenda so my diabetic hubby could have all he wanted). And it’s not that sweet.

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This rice and veggie salad has been a staple in my summer grilling rotation for years. And it’s the Silver Palate Vinaigrette that “makes” it. So really, this 2011 favorite is about both – the salad – Rice and Vegetable Salad – and the vinaigrette dressing – the Silver Palate’s one. They’re both in the same recipe/post.

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One of my favorite veggies is yellow crookneck squash. More so in the summer when the squash is at its prime sweetness. This casserole is just full of flavor – Summer Squash Casserole with Jalapeno and Cheese.  You could make it with zucchini too, I’m sure. But it’s really great with the yellow squash.

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This brunch dish – Corn, Bacon and Cheddar Strata – will just blow your socks off. At least it does for me. Nothing low calorie about it, but you could try smaller portions and it wouldn’t be quite so decadent! It’s the bacon that adds fat. But there’s also lots of carbs (corn and bread slices). But it’s sensational.

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It’s no secret around my house that I’m a nut for soups. I make them year ‘round. This one I made when we were visiting our Northern California kids and grandkids. A great way to use up some leftover pork roast, if you happen to have some. It’s called Pork and Hominy Stew, but it’s really a type of Posole, the Mexican hominy soup. Just add toppings of your choice (I used avocado, cilantro and sliced radishes). Even our teenage grandkids liked this soup.

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I’ve been on a mission for some years trying to find a great vegetable soup that satisfies me. That isn’t bland, or too heavy with carbs. I’ve found it, and since trying it just a couple of months ago, I’ve made it three times. It does contain some carbs (and you could add more if you want them) but mostly it’s all kinds of good-for-you veggies. Part of its secret is porcini mushroom powder (you grind up the dried ones in a blender or spice grinder) which adds great flavor to the liquid in the soup. It’s a Cook’s Illustrated recipe (from a recent issue) and it’s called Farmhouse Vegetable Soup.

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This is the dressing (turkey stuffing, but not stuffed into the bird) that I made this last Thanksgiving. And I suspect it will be my be-all, end-all dressing for years to come. It’s a very veggie-rich mixture (many more veggies than standard in most dressings). It also contains Italian sausage, but the flavor comes from the multitude of mushrooms and leeks in it too. It’s called Italian Sausage Dressing with Leeks and Mushrooms. It’s a Phillis Carey recipe.

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As I’ve been compiling these recipes I’m laughing at myself – I have three desserts with apples. I guess I really do love them, huh? This one, Ginger Apple Cake Torte is worth making. A winner of an online contest at Food52, a food blog written by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs. The two women wrote my latest favorite cookbook, The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century.

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Do note, those of you who know me well, that there is only ONE chocolate recipe in this list. Amazing, really. Apples must be my dessert of choice this year! Yet, these brownies are so good, so rich, so decadent. You’ll be very glad to have made them. Chocolate Chunk Brownies are a must-make.

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If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you know that last year I wrote up this post and this other post about how much fun I had reading the The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century. I’m still tremendously impressed with the cooking marathon performed by the authors (Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs) to compile the jillion recipes in the cookbook. They tested every single recipe, some more than once. And one of the most requested recipes is this one, Teddie’s Apple Cake. Oh so very worth making. And not difficult, either.

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On the coattails of the apple cake above, this recipe, the Purple Plum Torte, is THE #1 most requested recipe at the New York Times. And it’s SO easy. Trust me. You just need to have plums in season. This also comes from the The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century.

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As I’m writing this, I just made this Classic Gingerbread a few days ago. Again. I didn’t make the Pumpkin Spice Gingerbread Trifle with it, that was also delicious, but I made it just for a family gathering and topped it with some vanilla ice cream. And I snuck a little piece of it yesterday with my lunch. The best gingerbread I’ve ever had – tender, flavorful and packed with spices. After having this version of gingerbread, I can just about guarantee you’ll never try another recipe.

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And lastly, here’s the last apple dessert of 2011. A Cajun Apple Cake with Brandy Drizzle. It’s the drizzle that makes it. Not for tea-totalers. A tender cake filled with chunks of apple and lots of spices, then topped with nuts and the boozy sauce. Another great Phillis Carey recipe.

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