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Recently finished reading 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 Brunch, Miscellaneous sides, on December 26th, 2012.

winter_fruit_salad

You know what those little bug-like things are? Star anise. Not commonly in every kitchen, I suppose. I don’t use them very often, but when you need them in cooking, they’re essential. They wouldn’t normally go on top of the salad, but I wanted to get your attention.

For a brunch a couple of weeks ago I needed some kind of fruit. I have a wonderful Spiced Fruit dish I’ve made for years – it’s great for a morning kind of thing. Spiced Peaches also go well with a vanilla_star_anise_syrupbrunch, but this time I thought I’d try something new. I’d just read the recipe in The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century. My go-to cookbook these days. This is actually in the dessert section of the cookbook, but it says it’s great with breakfast or brunch. It’s flavored with whole vanilla, some lemon zest and the star anise, all soaking in a simple syrup kind of sugar and water concoction. The other good thing about this is you have to make it the night before – so the fruit has time to marinate in the tasty syrup. There above is the mixture before I brought it to a boil.

vanilla_star_anise_syrup2Here at left is the mixture after I brought it up to a boil – the sugar is dissolved and hopefully the heat will have opened up the flavors of the vanilla, lemon and star anise. The recipe calls for Bosc pears, fresh apple, dried figs and dried apricots. I added some dried Braeburn sliced apples I had in my box of dried fruits in my pantry. The syrup is mixed up with the vanilla bean (sliced in half to release all those lovely little tiny beads of flavor), a few strips of fresh lemon peel and the star anise. It’s brought to a boil, the sugar gets dissolved, then you pour that hot-hot syrup over the fresh fruit. You let it cool to room temp that way, then cover with plastic wrap, poke a couple of holes in it to ventilate it, store in the refrigerator. By pouring the hot liquid over the fruit, it almost “cooks” the fruit, but not really, and not quite. The fresh fruit still has texture, and the dried fruits and pleasantly toothsome. I liked the combination a lot.

When you serve it, you’ll want to remove the star anise, the vanilla bean halves and the lemon peel. So you’re left with the nice bowl of mixed fruit. I had ample left over and it’s still tasty some days later. The pears probably won’t last – as I write this (about 5 days after I served it) I still have left overs and the pears are not so nice in texture anymore, but all the remaining fruit is fine. So probably you could make this a couple of days ahead if you needed to.

What’s good: it’s make-ahead easy. Nice flavors, considering it’s all winter-type fruit. Went well with a brunch (an egg dish) and left overs were very nice for several days. Try not to make more than you’ll eat at the one meal. I made the recipe below and could have served about 10 people, I think. Keep that in mind, unless you’re feeding fruit fanatics! Save the syrup – you could use it to flavor and sweeten iced tea (or hot tea) or pour over other fruit. Strain out all the fruit dredges first, though.
What’s not: only that you must plan ahead – it’s got to be made the night before (or maybe 2 days before) you want to serve it.

printer-friendly recipe (CutePDF)
MasterCook 5+ import file – right click to save file, run MC, then File|Import

* Exported from MasterCook *

Winter Fruit Salad

Recipe By: Adapted slightly from New York Times, 2001 (Amanda Hesser)
Serving Size: 8
NOTES: The recipe assumes you will eat/drink all of the sugary syrup. You don’t, so it is not as caloric as the recipe indicates.

1  1/4 cup sugar
3 star anise — (I would add 4 of them next time)
1 vanilla bean — plump, split in half lengthwise
2 long pieces lemon zest — (2 inch) preferably Meyer lemons, (peeled with a vegetable peeler)
3 Bosc pears — firm
1 apple — tart type, firm
8 whole dried apricots — Turkish, if possible, cut in half
4 whole dried figs — quartered
2 ounces dried apples — (optional – not in original recipe)

1. Fill a medium saucepan with 5 cups water. Add the sugar, star anise, vanilla bean and lemon zest. Bring to a boil, and cook until all the sugar is dissolved. Then shut off the heat. Meanwhile, peel and core pears and apple. Slice thinly lengthwise and place in a large heatproof bowl. Add apricots, dried apples and figs. Pour hot sugar syrup on top, making sure all the fruit is covered. Allow to cool to room temperature. Cover bowl with plastic wrap; poke a few holes in plastic. Chill overnight in refrigerator.
2. The next morning, remove the star anise, lemon zest pieces and vanilla beans, then use a slotted spoon to ladle fruit into a serving bowl and serve. Store left overs in a sealed container.
Per Serving (inaccurate – assumes you drink all the marinating syrup): 528 Calories; 1g Fat (2.2% calories from fat); 6g Protein; 136g Carbohydrate; 16g Dietary Fiber; 0mg Cholesterol; 21mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on December 26th, 2012:

    This is so good! I got what appears to be the identical recipe from the Smitten Kitchen website when I was looking for a different fruit recpe to serve with Christmas brunch three years ago. It has become a tradition with us since then. I agree with your assessment as far as “keepability” goes. Everything but the pears stays surprisingly good for much longer than I’d have expected. Leftovers taste great stirred into steelcut oats for breakfast. (I just remembered Deb’s recipe has one more ingredient; it’s sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. This adds a nice bit of color for the holiday table.)

    I like the idea of the pomegranate seeds – the salad does need color, for sure! I finally had to throw the remainder out. .. . carolyn t

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