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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 17th, 2012.

poblano_potato_corn_gratin_casserole

Not exactly typical scalloped potatoes – not in the least. This one has sautéed poblano chile strips, corn, cheese, and thinly sliced potatoes (of course). Layered in a casserole and baked for about an hour, it’s a delicious side dish for some grilled meat. The dark strips in this are the poblano peppers which take on a very dark brown hue with the cheese on top.

For a dinner party recently, I wanted to make some different kind of potato casserole. I was ready for some new tastes somehow. Looking at my to-try file I found this recipe I’d clipped out of Bon Appetit a couple of years ago. I read the comments and changed the recipe a little bit – I added more corn, more cheese and more poblano chiles. Also, I increased the salt slightly, and pepper, and the half and half. It calls for just 1 1/3 pounds of potatoes (that was about 4-5 Gold-type potatoes). Not all that many considering it serves 8. But then it has the corn and chiles in it too.

pasilla stripsThere at left are the poblano peppers (also sometimes called pasilla) – I sliced them much thinner than shown here – they needed to be 2” x 1/4 inch strips. I sautéed them in a frying pan briefly – I think that’s done to make sure they’re cooked through during the baking process.

The thinly sliced potatoes are layered in a large casserole dish (make sure it has much higher sides than you think as these kinds of potatoes often bubble over during baking) along with the corn (I used Trader Joe’s fire-roasted frozen ones plus a bit from a fresh ear of corn), cheese and chiles. The original recipe called for Oaxacan cheese – I have no idea what that is. Or it suggested whole milk mozzarella. I didn’t have that either, so decided to use a combination of Monterey Jack and Fontina – both good melting cheeses. The half and half mixture (with salt and pepper) is poured in on top and some cheese is reserved for later. It was covered in foil and baked for 30 minutes. Thenpoblano_potato_corn_gratin_spoonful I removed the foil, added the reserved cheese and it baked another 25 minutes or so. I tested it and found it needed a little longer in the oven. About another 15 minutes and it was done. It sat out on my kitchen counter for at least 20-30 minutes before it was served (our pork roast took longer than I thought it would) and it was still piping hot.

What I liked: the combo of flavors – the poblanos add a stringent taste, as peppers do. Corn added some nice color and texture. Loved the cheese. DO not under-salt this dish – potatoes need a lot of salt, if you haven’t noticed. A very nice company casserole.

What I didn’t like: gosh, nothing really. I thought the leftovers were even better than the first serving of these. I’d make this again. Probably add more cheese.

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MasterCook 5+ import file – right click to save file, run MC, then File|Import

Poblano, Potato and Corn Gratin

Recipe By: From Bon Appetit, 2010
Serving Size: 8-9

3 teaspoons olive oil — divided
3 large poblano peppers — stemmed, seeded, cut into 2 x 1/4-inch strips
1 1/4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes — peeled, cut into 1/8-inch-thick rounds
2 cup frozen corn kernels — thawed
3 cup grated cheese — [I used half Fontina, half Monterey Jack]
1 3/4 cups half and half
2 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Rub 9 1/2-inch-diameter deep-dish glass pie dish or cast-iron skillet with 2 teaspoons oil. Heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add poblano strips and sauté until tender, about 5-8 minutes. Remove from heat.
2. Arrange 1/3 of potato rounds, overlapping slightly, in prepared pie dish. Sprinkle 1/3 of poblano strips over, then 1/3 of corn and 1/3 of cheese. Repeat with 1/3 of potatoes, 1/3 of poblanos, 1/3 of corn, and 1/3 of cheese. Top with remaining potatoes, poblanos, and corn, reserving remaining 1/3 of cheese. Place pie dish on rimmed baking sheet.
3. Whisk half and half, flour, salt, and freshly ground black pepper in small bowl. Pour over potato mixture in pie dish; press potatoes to submerge. Cover dish tightly with foil. Bake 30 minutes. Remove foil; sprinkle remaining cheese over gratin. Continue to bake gratin until potatoes are tender and cheese is golden brown, about 25 minutes longer. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Per Serving: 327 Calories; 20g Fat (53.4% calories from fat); 14g Protein; 25g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 57mg Cholesterol; 497mg Sodium.

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