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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 Beef, Soups, on October 31st, 2012.


If you’re the kind of person who really avoids chiles, in any way, shape or form, this heat-less beef and pinto bean soup/chili may be just up your alley. But even for people who like spicy foods (me), this mixture is full of flavor. It has one different ingredient in it too – something I’ve never used before. Intrigued? Read on.

When I read this recipe over at Kalyn’s Kitchen, it just looked and sounded so good. Maybe it was merely because it’s late summer here in Southern California and I haven’t had chili for many, many months. In fact, Kalyn doesn’t even call this chili, but pinto bean and beef soup. In her photo, it looked like chili and my brain and taste buds looked at it and said chili! Maybe the last time I made something similar it was turkey chili last Thanksgiving.

We were still in summer doldrums when I read the recipe, but I went about gathering all the ingredients. I’d intended to try Kalyn’s pressure-cooker method of cooking beans. But we ended up going to our Palm Desert house, and I don’t have a pressure cooker there (I’d intended to take along the one I have, but forgot). So, I made it the old fashioned way by soaking the beans for about 6 hours and slowly simmering them until they were “just right.” And then making the chili and simmering it on the stove for 45 minutes.

The soup/chili mixture is standard – onions, garlic, ground beef, beans and (typical chili) seasonings. What’s different about this one is: (1) there is no heat in it – no chiles of any kind, not even black pepper, so this mixture is not hot – at all; and (2) it uses dried cilantro. I’ve never owned dried cilantro. Why should I, when we can buy fresh cilantro year ‘round at our local markets? But Kalyn mentions in the recipe that using the dried cilantro is highly recommended. I trusted Kalyn’s judgment here, so I went out and bought dried cilantro. Imagine my surprise when, after simmering the chili (with the dried cilantro in it) for the requisite 45 minutes, I tasted it. Wow. Citrus. Lemon or lime juice to be exact – yet there was no citrus in the chili up to that point. It’s the cilantro that gives it that citrusy taste – probably from the cilantro stems. To me, there was no typical cilantro taste – what I know of as cilantro taste from the fresh herbs – just the citrus. I need to remember this for use in other dishes. At the very end you add in freshly squeezed lime juice, then for garnish some freshly chopped green onions and chopped cilantro. No cheese needed at all. Thank you, Kalyn.

What I liked: the fresh taste of it all – this is not a complex-flavored chili (which is probably why Kalyn called it a soup!) but a quick-cooking type (and you can use canned beans if you don’t want to take the time to cook the beans). And that’s a big compliment. Usually I like as much complex flavors as I can get in a soup mixture, but in this one I really liked the simple-ness of it. The chicken broth adds lots of flavor too (usually I would use beef or pork broth, but this one particularly calls for chicken broth). All in all, this one’s a winner.
What I didn’t like: not a thing, really. Just know this is a “lighter” version of traditional chili – not lighter in calories so much as lighter in flavor and complexity. It’s a delicious soup/chili – don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I liked it a lot, no matter what it’s called!

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

No Heat Chili (or Beef and Bean Soup)

Recipe By: Kalyn’s Kitchen blog, 10/2012
Serving Size: 6

1 cup dried pinto beans — unsoaked (or can use 2 cans pinto beans, rinsed and drained)
2 tablespoons olive oil — divided use
1 pound ground beef — (Kalyn uses ground beef with less than 10% fat)
1 teaspoon Spike seasoning
1 whole onion — chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons dried oregano — Mexican, not Greek
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon dried cilantro — (not required, but recommended)
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup water — or liquid from the beans
2 tablespoons tomato paste
14 1/2 ounces canned tomatoes — diced
1/2 cup sliced green onions
1/2 cup fresh cilantro — or more to taste (highly recommended)
2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice

1. Soak pinto beans overnight covered in cold water. Drain. Add fresh water, covering beans by at least an inch, bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes, or until tender. Drain, but reserve liquid.
2. Heat 2 tsp. olive oil in large heavy frying pan (large enough to hold all of the chili/soup mixture, add ground beef and season with Spike seasoning, then saute until beef is well-browned, breaking apart as it cooks. When it’s well browned, remove beef and set aside.
3. Heat 2 tsp. more olive oil in same frying pan, then add onion and saute about 5 minutes, or until onion is starting to brown. Add minced garlic and saute 2 minutes more, then add Mexican oregano, cumin, and dried cilantro. Saute about 2 minutes more.
4. Add beans, ground beef, chicken stock and a cup of bean liquid or water. Bring to a simmer, then add tomato paste and canned tomatoes.
5. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add lime juice and continue cooking for another minute. Taste for seasonings (salt), spoon portions into soup bowls and add sliced green onion and chopped fresh cilantro. Add additional chopped cilantro to add at the table if desired.
Per Serving: 439 Calories; 26g Fat (53.0% calories from fat); 23g Protein; 29g Carbohydrate; 10g Dietary Fiber; 64mg Cholesterol; 587mg Sodium.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on October 31st, 2012:

    It looks very good. I thought I would have problems locating dried cilantro here but it is available locally. There is a problem though, I have no idea what Spike seasoning is!

    Spike – well, it’s just a seasoning mixture (sold in a bottle in the spice section). Just don’t put it in this recipe – or add just the tiniest of pinches of the ingredients (the list is from their website): Salt crystals (earth and sea), nutritional yeast, hydrolyzed soy protein (NO ADDED MSG), mellow toasted onion, onion powder, orange powder, soy granules, celery leaf powder, celery root powder, garlic powder, dill, kelp, Indian curry, horseradish, ripe white pepper, orange and lemon peel, summer savory, mustard flour, sweet green and red bell peppers, parsley flakes, tarragon, rosehips, safflower, mushroom powder, parsley powder, spinach powder, tomato powder, sweet paprika, celery seed ground, cayenne pepper, plus a delightful herbal bouquet of the best oregano, sweet basil, marjoram, rosemary and thyme. . . . lots of luck with that! I think I’d just not add anything! To tell you the truth, I don’t have Spike on my shelf anyway, so I didn’t put it in my version. . . . carolyn t

  2. Kalyn

    said on October 31st, 2012:

    So glad you liked it! (And I need to send you a bottle of Spike. I bet you would love the depth of flavor it adds!)

    You don’t need to send me a bottle, Kalyn – I can buy it at my local store – I just never have! I’ll go get some! . . . Carolyn T

  3. Toffeeapple

    said on November 2nd, 2012:

    That solves my problem then! I shan’t add anything…

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