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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 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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