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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 Beef, Miscellaneous, on February 19th, 2012.

watermelon_barbecue_sauce

This barbecue sauce is so different than almost anything you’ve ever tasted. Who would ever – ever – think of making a barbecue sauce with watermelon? You need to like sweet BBQ sauce, however, to like this. It’s really very sweet. If that meets with your taste, you’ve just got to try this.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a cooking class with a different instructor. It was all about flank steak (pictured above). I really thought we were going to learn all about the meat itself – the chemistry of it, I suppose – the why of flank steak recipes. Flank steak is such a different cut of meat. Not that the instructor didn’t mention a couple of facts about flank steak – she did – but it was about 2 sentences and then she was off and running with a recipe. I expected at least one recipe (out of 5) that required a marinade, when in fact, not even one of them was marinated.

image imageNow my understanding about flank steak is that, of course, it’s extremely lean. Probably the leanest beef cut in the animal.

Here in the photo at left you can definitely see the lengthwise striations (the grain) in the meat – an important point since those long meat strands contribute to the toughness of the meat. Your butcher will have removed the fat flap and silverskin, so all you really see is the very lean meat. In the photo at right you can see the very thin slices that are ideal for flank. The thinner the better. You always want to slice flank steak across the grain. And if you can do it on an angle, you’ll get a nicer (bigger) slice of meat, and it’s a more attractive portion for serving.

cuts_of_beefFlank steak used to be considered a poor man’s meat, since the cut was not as desirable as other steak types. And it still is a distant cousin of  a Porterhouse, of filet mignon. Yet it’s not inexpensive today – over time it became more popular and therefore the cost of flank steak has risen considerably in the last 50 years. The problem with flank steak is that it’s a muscle meat – it is exercised with every step a steer makes. See the chart above – the flank is on the underbelly (see turquoise section just above the steer’s privates). Hence it has lots of connective tissue which is why it’s often a tough piece of meat.

There are two methods of tenderizing flank steakwith an enzyme (like papaya, pineapple, fig, kiwi and ginger) or with an acid (citrus juices, soy sauce, vinegar). Both methods work and they both have their pluses and minuses. One of the minuses is that enzymes mostly sit on the top of the meat and if you marinate meat for very long the exterior of the meat becomes mealy when cooked – because the enzymes don’t penetrate the meat, but stay over-concentrated on the surface. I’ve had that happen but never understood why. I learned more about flank steak in 10 minutes of reading my reference book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen this morning than I did in a 3-hour cooking class. That is my go-to book for understanding the science/chemistry of just about any food I might consume. And as for marinating – definitely my choice is to use an acid – and if it marinates overnight at least, you’ll end up with a much more tender piece of meat.

Now, back to the cooking class. I may not prepare a single one of the meat recipes from the class, although IF I decided to marinate the meat, all of the recipes would be improved. In all 5 recipes, the meat was too tough for me. And hard to eat in a classroom setting with just a regular knife. There were 3 sauces that went with the flank steak (one a salad dressing, and two sauces). It’s the sweet barbecue sauce that I’m going to share today. It was very good. Really, very, very good.

You need to love a sweet sauce, or you won’t like this at all. Since my DH is diabetic, I’ll need to use very little of this sauce on anything I might make. It contains a lot of ketchup, which also contributes to its sugar content. When I tasted the first bite of the finished sauce my mind immediately did a Proust-ian moment, the whole thing about our memories of food, like Proust’s madeleines. Anyway, my brain said watermelon rind pickles, a memory I dredged up from my childhood and long-lost relatives. There aren’t any watermelon rinds in this sauce, though – it must have been the proportion of acid to sugar that made me think pickles. But that gives you a clue as to whether you can taste the watermelon in this barbecue sauce? Yup, you sure can! I’m going to try a few of these recipes in coming weeks – using a marinade. I’ll let you know how they turn out, but meanwhile, the sauce is excellent and worth making. And if you ever have some leftover watermelon and everyone is tired of it – you now know what to do with it!

What I liked: the watermelon flavor that certainly came through. The sauce is reduced down (the watermelon provides a significant amount of fluid to the sauce, so it needs to be rendered down to a thicker consistency). It would be good on any meal – beef, pork or chicken. I wouldn’t do it on fish – not the right kind of sauce for fish. It should keep for weeks in the refrigerator.

What I didn’t like: really, nothing. It is sweet, though, so I’ve reduced the amount of honey added to the sauce as you’re cooking it.

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

Watermelon Barbecue Sauce

Recipe By: Katherine Emmenegger, Great News Cooking School 2/2012
Serving Size: 8
NOTES: I reduced the amount of honey in this recipe – if you like the sweet, add another 2 tablespoons.

3 cups watermelon — seedless, diced, pureed in blender to make 2 cups puree
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups ketchup
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke flavoring

1. Add all ingredients to a heavy-duty saucepan.
2. Simmer for about 40 minutes, or until the sauce reaches a thick consistency (or to taste).
Per Serving: 99 Calories; trace Fat (3.7% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 25g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; trace Cholesterol; 720mg Sodium.

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