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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 Appetizers, on August 2nd, 2007.

(photo from artichoke-festival.org)
One of the things – – that I may have mentioned before – – is that when I attend a cooking class, even though I usually know what the menu is before I go, a class will often open my taste buds to something different. Not necessarily a different food. There aren’t many American foodstuffs I haven’t eaten (except deep fried insects, and most organ meat). No, I mean that the chef/instructor makes something with a different twist. Or, makes something that would not have appealed to me if I’d just read the recipe. But at a class, it’s there, he/she is making it and I eat it. And I find that I enjoy it. It’s one of those a-ha moments. Like wow, this is really good. That’s what keeps me going back to cooking classes.

So, this recipe came from a class several years ago, and I wrote on the recipe handout that it was “really good.” I have my own culinary shorthand for note-taking at cooking classes. I scribble all over the handout, adding little notes here and there, describing cooking techniques, alternatives to ingredients, and even food additions the chef mentions. You’d be surprised how frequently the chef forgets to write in an ingredient or has the wrong measurement. Then, when the dish is served I have my hierarchy of (adverb) superlatives that I scribble in larger writing after the dish is served:

• no superlatives means it’s not worth making

• “Good” means it’s okay, probably not worth making

• “Very good” or “really good” means better than average and probably worth making

• “Excellent” or “delicious” means it was really very, very good

• “Fabulous” or “outstanding” means I must make this dish

So this one was a Very Good on my scale. Worth making, but maybe won’t gain “oh my gosh” kinds of comments at a dinner party. But still worth doing. You can’t have every single dish be the recipient of the highest of superlatives.

The chef/instructor was Nadia Frageri. She’s a native Italian who lives in San Diego, and still has a very pronounced accent. In fact her speech is so thick you must pay very close attention to her speaking, or you’ll miss things. She’s a very accomplished cook. Doesn’t have her own restaurant. Doesn’t even have a website. I don’t think she does computers. I don’t think she does catering. Hasn’t written a cookbook, either. But she teaches lots of classes in the San Diego area, and some in our area of Orange County. Nadia isn’t flamboyant or a comedian like some instructors are – she doesn’t have a running glib commentary to offer; she’s just a very good cook and wants you to go home with some of her family recipes.

So this is one of Nadia’s recipes. She recommended buying the artichoke hearts frozen at Trader Joe’s. The last time I checked they weren’t stocking them, however. You don’t want marinated ones for sure. If you can’t find frozen, then use canned. But still don’t use marinated. The goat cheese is the trump card here. It gives the artichoke hearts and garlic and cheese mixture a softness it wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s quite easy to make, the mixture can be made up ahead, and you just have to have the Italian bread on hand. French bread will work, but it has a much firmer crust, which you don’t want. And a smaller loaf – smaller around that is – is what you want, rather than a 4-inch diameter loaf. Or buy 2 smaller loaves. The larger slices are too hard to handle as finger food. Try it and let me know what superlatives you’d give this one.
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Bruschetta with Artichokes & Garlic

Recipe: Nadia Frigeri
Servings: 16
Serving Ideas: If you’re watching the calories, you can reduce the amount of cheese, or eliminate it altogether, and add sun dried tomatoes, minced, instead.
COOK’S NOTES: Italian bread is quite soft, and doesn’t have a firm crust like French bread does, but you can use French bread instead. Just be careful not to over bake the slices.

12 ounces artichoke hearts — Trader Joe’s frozen
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup Italian parsley — chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 cloves garlic
6 ounces soft goat cheese — crumbled
1 whole Italian bread
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 whole garlic cloves — peeled and sliced
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Defrost the artichoke hearts and drain. In a medium skillet add olive oil, parsley and artichoke hearts. Season with salt and pepper and cook about 3-4 minutes, adding a little water or chicken broth if necessary to keep the vegetables from browning. Remove from heat, cool, pour out onto a cutting board and chop coarsely. You may also pour mixture into the food processor and process just until the hearts are minced, but do not puree the mixture.
2. Add a little olive oil to the same pan and cook the garlic slowly. Do not brown; in fact, add chicken broth to prevent it from browning. Cook until the garlic is soft. Then, in a bowl combine the artichoke mixture, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper. You may make this ahead to this point. When ready to proceed, add the crumbled goat cheese and the first portion of Parmesan cheese.
3. Meanwhile, slice the bread in 1/3 inch slices. Brush them with olive oil and quickly grill or bake until barely toasted on the edges. Do not over bake these or they become too brittle. Allow to cool briefly, then with the pieces of sliced garlic, rub each slice with it. Mound the bread with the artichoke mixture, then sprinkle them with the additional Parmesan cheese and dust with additional Italian parsley.
Per Serving: 126 Calories; 11g Fat (73.9% calories from fat); 5g Protein; 4g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 8mg Cholesterol; 145mg Sodium.

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  1. Anonymous

    said on September 17th, 2007:

    This was delicious!!! I have been wanting to make this for a while and this weekend I finally got the chance. The flavors blended together were great. This is definately a keeper for my dinner party get togethers. I had a few slices left over, and this mixture is good cold as well, on crackers maybe or just by itself.

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