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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 Veggies/sides, on February 11th, 2012.

asparagus_addictive1

The name isn’t mine – it came from Food52.com, from their contest last year. Fresh asparagus, pancetta (I used speck), leeks (I used shallots), orange and lemon zest, toasted pine nuts. Delish.

A couple of weeks ago we visited one of our favorite restaurants here in Orange County – Lucca. A very authentic, upscale Italian eatery in nearby Irvine. I can’t believe I haven’t written up the restaurant here on my blog, since we like it so much. Well, I’ll take photos next time we go there and write something about it then.

It was there that I ended up buying 4 ounces of both speck and a delicious domestic prosciutto. We sampled the imported prosciutto but it was very, very salty. Too much so for my tastes. So the speck won out. What is speck? It is a smoked prosciutto, from the Tyrol region of Italy (near or on the Austrian border). Until just a couple of years ago the FDA wouldn’t allow it to be imported. Period. This I learned from Joanne Weir, in one of the cooking classes she taught, when she talked about how much she loved cooking with speck and lardo. And I’d never had it until I sampled it at this Italian restaurant. What was really interesting, though, is that there are now U.S. producers making speck. So hooray. We don’t have to pay the import prices!

We entertained a large group of friends for dinner one night a couple of weeks ago, and I decided at the last minute to buy some really good-looking asparagus. I didn’t have a recipe with me when I saw the asparagus at the market, so ended up improvising with what I had on hand. This recipe was one I wanted to try anyway – from the cooking contest held by Food52 in 2011. I have two favorite asparagus recipes (Roasted Asparagus with Chile Butter and Crumbled Asparagus), but I make them several times each season and wanted to try something different. Hence I substituted shallots (for the leeks) and speck (for the pancetta). I used a whole lot less shallots than you’d use leeks, and the speck probably gave this dish a totally different flavor (from the smoky flavor). Nevertheless, it was tasty. I got everything done ahead of time, so all I had to do was cook the asparagus and add in the shallots, garlic (lots), orange and lemon zest and Italian parsley. I sprinkled the toasted pine nuts (also done ahead) on top just because it looks more attractive, I think. I am going to try this dish again with the leeks and pancetta. Below is the recipe exactly as written at Food52. My substitutions are in parentheses.

What I liked: the mixture of flavors – and textures. A great way to fix asparagus. Really liked the citrus zest in the dish.

What I didn’t like: With my slight alternations to the recipe, I’m not so sure speck is the right thing for asparagus, so as I mentioned, I’ll try it with pancetta next time. I think the smokiness of the meat overshadowed the subtle flavors in asparagus. It was still very good, though.

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Absurdly Addictive Asparagus

Recipe By: Adapted slightly from Food52, a 2011 contest winner
Serving Size: 4

4 ounces pancetta — cut into 3/8 inch to 1/4 inch dice (or speck)
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound asparagus — woody ends trimmed and sliced into 2 inch pieces on the bias
1 1/4 cups leeks — thinly sliced crosswise, white and pale green parts only (or shallots – about 2 large)
2 cloves garlic — minced
Zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon orange zest
2 tablespoons pine nuts — toasted
1 tablespoon Italian parsley — chopped (1 to 2)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. In a large non-stick pan, sauté pancetta, stirring frequently, over medium heat, until crisp and lightly golden.
2. Add 1 tablespoon of butter to pan. Add leeks and sauté about 3-4 minutes, then add asparagus and continue cooking until asparagus is tender crisp, about 3-4 minutes.
3. Add garlic, lemon and orange zest, toasted pine nuts and parsley and sauté for about 1 minute, until fragrant. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and salt and serve immediately. You can also add the pine nuts to the top of the finished dish, as a garnish.
Per Serving: 139 Calories; 8g Fat (47.6% calories from fat); 11g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 28mg Cholesterol; 801mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on February 11th, 2012:

    Local Asparagus is months away yet unfortunately. I never think of doing anything with it other than roasting it in butter and garlic, so predictable! This way sounds very tasty and, if I remember, in May, I will try it.

    Roasting it is my favorite way too. SO good. And this might not be as good, really, if you’re an asparagus “purist.” But it’s different. . . carolyn t

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