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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 Lamb, on November 18th, 2012.


It seems like lamb shanks are a real treat. You don’t see them at Costco, and rarely at a traditional grocery store, either. I never seem to think of making them, although my DH will order them at a restaurant any time he sees them on a menu. The day I made these it was rainy and almost stormy, certainly a fall-like day, so these just sounded so “right.”

Sometimes when lamb is cooking, it isn’t very appealing to me. The smell. I suppose that’s the part that’s almost like mutton. It must be the fat, which has a distinct taste. So I decided I’d make this in the pressure cooker. That way I wouldn’t have to hover over it so much or smell it all that long, either. I’d found a recipe over at, and it was really quite easy.

The lamb shanks were well-browned in a skillet first (at least that’s how I did it) in a bit of grapeseed oil. A whole bunch of whole garlic cloves were added later and sizzled just until they were light golden brown. Into the pot went chicken broth, Madeira (the original recipe called for Port, but I didn’t have any), dried rosemary, a bit of tomato paste, salt and pepper. Then the lamb shanks. That’s it. It rattled away for 35 minutes while I did other things. I made a green salad and some steamed broccoli and cauliflower too.

Once the meat was cooked, and the pressure released, I removed the shanks and to the small amount of liquid in the pot (which contained a lot of fat, I’m certain) I added a bit of fig balsamic vinegar. Probably plain balsamic would work too, but I thought a fruity balsamic would enhance the flavor a bit more. With the left overs I poured the sauce into a container, expecting I’d be able to remove the fat. There wasn’t any. I suppose that means the sauce was kind of homogenized, so it didn’t separate. Serve this on heated plates and drizzle the gravy on top and let it pool around the shank. You might want some bread too, to soak up any of that very tasty, garlicky, boozy gravy. Just sayin’.

What’s good: how easy it was to make – the pressure cooker just got dinner on the table in a bit less than an hour. The meat was tasty and meltingly tender. The gravy made itself, really – I didn’t have to reduce it at all – I merely added the balsamic vinegar and it was done. Easy meal beginning to end.

What’s not: if you watch calories and fat, well, you may want to give this one a miss. I was astounded at the statistics in this dish, although I’ll say in my own defense, there probably isn’t more than about a heaping 1/4 cup of meat on a lamb shank. Well, at least the ones we had were quite stingy with the meat. But that made each bite worth savoring.

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Lamb Shanks With Garlicky Madeira Gravy – Pressure Cooker

Recipe By: Adapted from a recipe on
Serving Size: 2
NOTES: You could easily cook this on the stove top – for about 2 1/2 hours, covered, adding more liquid as needed. Don’t allow pan to dry out. The fat didn’t separate when I made this – perhaps the mashed garlic and tomato paste allowed it to homogenize.

2 pounds lamb shanks
salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil
10 whole garlic cloves — peeled and left whole
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup Madeira — or Port
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar — fruit type (like fig or orange)

1. Trim excess fat from the lamb shanks and season with salt and pepper.
2. Heat the oil in the pressure cooker. Add the shanks and brown on all sides. (I did this in a wide nonstick skillet).
3. When the shanks are completely browned, remove to a plate and set aside. Add the garlic cloves and stir quickly until they are lightly browned but not burned.
4. To the pressure cooker add the stock, Madeira, tomato paste, and rosemary, stirring so the tomato paste dissolves. Add lamb shanks.
5. Close the pressure cooker and bring up to full pressure (15 pounds).
6. Reduce heat to stabilize pressure and cook for 35 minutes.
7. Remove from heat and let pressure release naturally.
8. Remove the lamb shanks, set aside and cover loosely with foil.
9. If you have a gravy separator (and have the time) allow gravy to sit for 10 minutes so you can drain off the tasty gravy without all the fat. If liquid is more than about 1/2 cup, simmer at a low boil until the mixture has reduced and slightly thickens.
10. Add balsamic vinegar, stir, then mash the garlic cloves with a spoon.
11. Serve the sauce over the lamb. If desired, sprinkle the top with some grated orange peel.
Per Serving (these numbers astound me – it must assume there was a lot more meat on the shanks than we had – or maybe there is something wrong with the numbers – I’m glad I only ate a few bites of it!): 1071 Calories; 68g Fat (62.0% calories from fat); 86g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 299mg Cholesterol; 947mg Sodium.

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