29 December, 2012

What colour are your panties?

Not to appear nosy, but what colour panties will you be wearing New Year's Day?

I only ask because in many countries it is traditional to wear a specific colour (not necessarily "unmentionables") based on what you're wishing for in the new year.  But in South America, undies are the garment of choice. Those who wear red are hoping for a happy love life in the new year; those who choose yellow are wishing for money.  

In Ireland, from when my ancestors hail, it's too cold for skimpy undies and single women place mistletoe leaves under their pillow on New Year's eve, hoping to catch their future husband.  Not sure whether they dream about them or hope they tiptoe into the bedroom...now that might make a good mystery!

Polka dots (meant to denote coins) are a must-wear on New Year's day in the Philippines, as is eating round-shaped foods. Pizza, anyone?

Usually when you burn someone’s picture it means a bad break up, but in Ecuador, the New Year's fiesta includes everyone gathering together with pictures that represent something you do not want in the new year from the last year and burning it. I have a manuscript I'm willing to contribute!

But I digress.  Back to colours.  My research suggests the following:
  • Red evokes a powerful emotion of passion, lust, sex, & energy --a symbol of pride and strength.
  • Yellow represents youth, fun, happiness, sunshine and other light playful feelings. Not sure why, but in South America yellow is associated with wealth.
  • Orange represents fire, the sun, fun, warmth & tropical images. Orange also increases oxygen supply to the brain and stimulates mental activity, so maybe it would be a good choice for those of us hoping for literary inspiration.
  • Green is the color of nature and health. It represents growth, nature, money, fertility and safety.
  • Blue shows creativity and intelligence. It is a color of loyalty, strength, wisdom and trust.
  • Purple combines the stability of blue and the energy of red, symbolizing mystery, magic, power and luxury.
  • Black is often used to portray something evil, depressing, s or scary, but it is also associated with sex.
  • White is obviously pure, clean, fresh and good.

So, what colour panties are you wearing on January 1st, 2013? I'm thinking multi-coloured polka dots, maybe with a spring of mistletoe pinned on!

22 November, 2012

Happy Turkey Day

It's that time of the year again, when we all break out our biggest pots and pans to create the ultimate feast.  Generally, the family menu consists of a first plate of smoked salmon, half a deviled egg and salade ala russe (mixed veggies with mayo and salad dressing, although that sounds so plebeian.).  Then comes the main feature: brined, roast turkey with plain stuffing cooked in the bird, bourbon mashed potatoes, celery root and Yukon Gold mash, asparagus, and the ubiquitous canned cranberry jelly (jellied not chunky), all washed down with champagne. After we've pried ourselves away from the table and a couple of hours have passed, the chocolate pecan pie appears along with the vanilla ice cream.   OMG, I'm stuffed already just writing about it.

This year it's just me and my mom so things are definitely simpler. A nice plate of duck mousse pate with, cornichons,  a simple endive salad, and a fresh baguette for starters.  And champagne.  It's not Thanksgiving without champagne. I'm roasting a small turkey breast for the two of us. But that's no reason not to splurge, so the breast will be rubbed under and over the skin with  paste of fresh herbs, dried mustard, olive oil, and garlic, and accompanied with a savory porcini and wild mushroom stuffing, gravy spiked with porcini broth, asparagus and, yes, canned cranberry jelly. And dessert? A light chocolate mousse. Now I really am hungry -- and I can smell the turkey breast in the oven.

We have much to celebrate this year, including surviving Hurricane Sandy with nothing more than property damage. I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving, and time with friends and family to remember our blessings and joys.

24 October, 2012

Fiction Friday: Reading out of your Comfort Zone

I write traditional mysteries because that's what I like to read.  A traditional mystery, by my definition, is a novel of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred in a closely-knit setting with a limited group of suspects, and the amateur sleuth's job is to discover who committed the crime, and why. Think Agatha Christie, but allow for sex, bad language, and possibly unmentionable crimes such as molestation or prostitution.

But reading only one genre can be limiting, especially when you're developing your own writing style, so about a year ago I decided to branch out into reading other mystery genres—but not too far.  I've been adding thrillers, capers, historical mysteries and police procedurals to my library (along with lots of traditionals). I draw the line at supernatural and truly gory fiction, mystery or not.

I started with a list of contemporary authors (Grafton, Clancy, Block, Mosley, Rendall, Scottoline, Follett, P.D. James) and then decided I should go back to the basics, or more acurately, the classics.  I made a "To Be Read" list started reading.  I've finished Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe,  The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier, The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, and several in the Ellery Queen and Charlie Chan series.

There's a reason these are classics.  They have it all: suspense, character development, plot, setting—basically, every thing we all strive for in our own writing. If you're like me, you've taken courses on each of these skills, but what better way to learn than to see them all combined in one place? We learn by example, whether it's painting or writing, and who better to learn from than those who stood the test of generations of reader?

Here's my remaining TBR list:

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins   
  • The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, written in Chinese in the 1700s and translated
  • The Compleat Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Laura by Vera Caspary
  • The Mystery in the Yellow Room by Gaston LeRoux
  • The Widow Lerouge by Emile Gaboriau
  • The Case of the Crooked Candle by  Erle Stanley Garder
  • The Toff by Sir John Creasy
  • The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, England 
Any suggestions for additions? Which mystery writer do you aspire to rival?

26 September, 2012

The road to Scrivener conversion

I've been converted. I have seen the light and accepted the wisdom of a more intelligent being. I've adopted Scrivener.

 Up until two week ago I was a dedicated Word user. I adopted it the day it came out and upgraded faithfully, adopting new features and learning new shortcuts and toolbars as they came along. NO MORE!

I'd heard other writers talking about Scrivener and, on a whim, downloaded the trial version. I played around it, got hopelessly lost and, except for the corkboard, didn't see what all the fuss was about. I now admit the error of my ways. 

 I've been taking Gwen Hernandez's online course for Windows users (she also offers Scrivener for Mac). Talk about revelations. This software does everything but write the novel for you. 

Two-thirds of the way through the course, I've alread imported my WIP from Word, divided into chapters and scenes and discovered major flaws — in my mystery, not the software. I have a timeline problem that wasn't apparent until I brought up all the scenes in the corkboard view. Graphically it slapped me in the face with the fact that some Monday scenes took place before Sunday ones, etc. 

 You see, Scrivener's corkboard has powerful customization tools. Each "item" (chapter/scene/etc) has its own index card which can be color-coded, watermarked (status stamped), keyword coded and titled. And that's before you type in the synopsis for the text it represents! You can slice and dice these tools anyway you want. Here's one of my index cards: 

The title " " is my shorthand synopsis; the stamp is the dateline; and keyword colours down the side let me know what elements of the mystery are part of this scene. For example, I'm using purple to indicate the wine storyline and gold for the murder.  I have other colours for backstory, the romance storyline, etc. . 

In addition, I use the synopsis text to track goal/conflict/resolution for each scene since this is the aspect of writing I have the most trouble with. 

There are way too many features in Scrivener to list here, and I have another week of classes to discover many more, but I love the fact that I can keep all my research, character sketches and extra/deleted text all together in the same "binder" but not in the manuscript itself. And if you're a Margie Lawson follower, color-highlighting text is a snap. 

Now that I've finished gushing, I suggest you pop over to the Scrivener site http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php and download the software for a test drive. Then come back and let me know what you think. What's your favourite feature?

11 September, 2012

Fiction Friday: Murderous Inspiration from your Kitchen

I never fully realized just how dangerous a kitchen can be until I started my “fall cleaning.” It’s the perfect one-stop shop for murder weapons. Apparently, I have an entire arsenal at my disposal.

Consider knives. I mean, sure, everyone know about sharp knives, the weapon of choice in uncountable stories and movies from Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue to Psycho. Though not always kitchen utensils, knives are extremely popular with murderers.

I, personally, have a rather large collection (20+ not counting tableware), ranging from a two-inch fruit knife to a slim boning knife.  My favourite is the 14-inch chef’s knife I got at culinary school — just perfect for dissecting a body. Henckels and Wusthof are good brands; just avoid the Kyocera knives as their blades tend to break more easily, especially when used on hard objects like skulls.

For a quicker job, consider the electric knife, basically a mini-chainsaw. Think of all the time your killer could save, leaving him (or her) ample time to carefully bag the various parts before distributing them around town for the police to find. I recommend the Cuisinart CEK-40 Electric Knife. This knife contains an extremely powerful motor with two high quality stainless steel blades (one serrated and one ideal for carving) that are dishwasher safe. The four-foot cord might require an extension cord, but this beauty is only $54.95 on-line.

Too trite? Here are a few other equally lethal kitchen tools for your killer’s consideration:

The Shish kabob skewer. Skewers come in bamboo, stainless-steel, decorated or Plain Jane, but anyway you look at them, one good thrust through the frontal lobe (via a nostril) and you’ve either performed a lobotomy or you have a corpse.

The meat tenderizer. There are two primary varieties: the mallet and the blade/prong tenderizers. So much handier than the silver candlestick or the heavy crystal vase. Consider its purpose and then consider what would happen if your killer hit his victim in the face a dozen or so times. Not a pretty picture.

The “brulee” gun. In case you’ve never used one, this is nothing more or less than a kitchen blowtorch, used primarily to blister the skin on peppers or caramelize sugar on a dessert. It is also perfect if your killer has a sadistic streak. A bottle of cognac and a propane torch – what more do you need? Instant combustion.\

So much for my culinary weapons. Next time, I’ll take a look at kitchen gadgets that can help you dispose of your freshly killed body. After all, a tidy murder scene is a happy murder scene.

28 August, 2012

Tastey Tuesday:Tomato Overload

Every year I'm sure the plants won't survive/grow/bear fruit, and every year I'm wrong. So if you're like me, right about now you're plotting to sneak up to your neighbour's doorstep in the dark of night and leave a box of surplus tomatoes and zucchini.

Rather than dumping the raw veggies on the door stoop, why not surprise them with  a cooked dish instead - or leave a recipe for them!  Baked Tomatoes with Orzo, Feta and Olives makes a lovely, light dinner when served with a green salad and baguette.

Baked Tomatoes with Orzo, Feta and Olives

4 large tomatoes
1 1/2 cups orzo
1/4 cup Kalamata olives, chopped
1 tsp grated or finely minced garlic
3 Tbsp fresh basil
3 tsp pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the tops from the tomatoes, hollow them, salt the insides lightly and place upside down on paper towels to drain.

Cook the orzo according to package directions. Drain.

Mix all ingredients except the Parmesan cheese together and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Be sure to taste since Feta can be either mild or very salty.

Place the tomatoes in a shallow baking dish.  Fill generously with the stuffing mixture and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

Serves 4.


13 July, 2012

Tastey Tuesday:Cool Eating on a Hot Night

This weekend is going to be another scorcher, with rain to boot, so grilling is out.  Why not treat yourself to the perfect hot night salad.  It serves 4 and takes almost no time if you use pre-cooked shrimp.

Frankly, the dressing and peanuts are the key.  After that, add, delete, substitute  at will: crab, chicken, cilantro, additional peppers (bird chile?) if you like it hot, radishes, leftover corn

Vietnamese Glass-Noodle & Shrimp Salad
1/4 cup sugar  
2 Tbsp Thai fish sauce  
1 1/2 Tbsp palm sugar or light brown sugar  
1 Tbsp cider vinegar  
1/4 cup fresh lime juice  
1/2 tsp minced Jalapeno chili, seeded
1 small garlic clove, grated  
3-4 oz uncooked bean threads (cellophane noodles)  
1 lb. cooked, peeled, shrimp, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/2 lb, fresh asparagus, boiled for 5 minutes, then shocked in ice water and drained. Chop into 1" lengths. 
2 cups torn romaine lettuce or sliced Belgian endive 
1 cup chopped tomato  
4-5 scallions, thinly sliced  
1/2 cut thinly sliced celery  
2 Tbs chopped, dry-roasted peanuts  
Prepare the dressing first. Combine the first 4 ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, and cook for 2 minutes or until the sugar dissolves. Cool; stir in the lime juice, chile, and garlic.
While the dressing sits and cools, prepare the salad, Cook noodles in unsalted boiling water 1 1/2 minutes; drain. Rinse under cold water. Drain. Coarsely chop noodles or cut with scissors. Combine noodles, shrimp, and next 5 ingredients (shrimp through celery) in a large bowl. Drizzle the dressing over the salad; toss gently to coat. Sprinkle with peanuts. 

10 July, 2012

Summer Replacement Joy

PBS has rescued my summer by adding a new series, Pie in the Sky, a series which manages to combine my two favourite things: mystery and cooking.

Police detective Henry Crabbe (played by Richard Griffiths, Uncle Vernon Dursley in Harry Potter films) wants to retire from the police force so he can open a restaurant.  Unfortunately for him, his last case, just days before his retirement, casts a cloud of suspicion over his involvement in a money fraud  scheme, providing his weaselly, lazy, unscrupulous superior officer with the ammunition he needs to blackmail Crabbe into remaining "on call" even after the restaurant opens.

Pie in the Sky doesn't have the dramatic flair of Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Morse, but it skillfully balances suspense and humor, with some mouthwatering meals thrown in.  Crabbe's accountant wife, who eats only out of necessity, prefers a chocolate bar to her husbands steak-and-kidney pie,and seems to lack a single drop of aesthetic blood, is the perfect foil to her husband's exuberance.  But who wouldn't love a man who buys a ridiculously expensive hen house for the back yard just so he can have fresh eggs for the restaurant?

I'm disappointed that this is not available in book form, but the full five series of the BBC production are available on DVD.  Hint, hint - Christmas isn't that far away.

Check your local PBS listings.  It's worth giving a try. 

06 June, 2012

Fiction Friday:Practical Skills for the Mystery Writer

Sad to say, but last night was the final class of my Police Academy before graduation next week.  But what a class it was.  Practical skills night.

We spent the first part of the night with the Police Chief going over the budgeting process and everything it entails, including the acquisition and training of a new K9 unit thanks to a grant from the Blue Buffalo Co. With a force of 43, the annual budget tops $7 million, and that's cut to the bone.  

Police protection is definitely not cheap.Take bulletproof vests for instance.  They cost around $800 each and need to be replaced every four to five years.  That's a $34,400 line item.  And now the dog needs one, too!Now add on weapons, ammo, vehicles and uniforms, not to mention salaries and benefits.  Oh, and overtime.  We had two major storms back to back last year as well as a homicide.  Lots of overtime there.

Next, it was on to the shooting range where we practiced our (nonexistent) gun skills.  After a short gun-safety course, each "cadet" fired a full clip with both a Glock and a M-4 carbine.  I'd used a small handgun before, but never anything like a .40 Glock.  If the instructor hadn't been standing behind me, the recoil would have landed me on my butt. And I discovered that I tend to aim a little low.  I did, however, manage to decimate the target's nose,  And the noise! Even with ear protection, two guns going off simultaneously creates one hell of a racket.

The carbine was both easier to aim with its EOTech sight (a small red dot inside a circle) and had less kickback.  I was able to take out the perp's left ear and gun.  One woman aimed lower, much lower, and her husband looked a little uncomfortable. . .

My group was the second to shoot.  By the time we'd finished, over 200 rounds had been fired inside the 50' indoor shooting range in the Police Dept.'s basement. The smell was overwhelming.  Just glad I didn't get stopped on my way home as our hand and clothes were all covered in GSR. Then again, it might have been the perfect time to pull off the perfect crime.  The smell of cordite is hard to describe, but I know I'll be trying in my next book. Kind of like smoky kitty litter?

Finally it was time to test our fingerprinting skills.  A special scanner is used when someone is arrested and brought in to the station, but in the field, it's still a case of locating, photographing and dusting for prints, as well as collecting DNA from the prints.

I opted to use the "cleaner" magnetic powder. As you can see, I lifted a reasonable print.  The detective leading the class suggested, however, that he preferred to rely on hi-res photographs when possible, as they can be enhanced and do less damaged to the victim's house. That sticky tape you see them use on TV can do real damage to wallpaper and drywall.

After lifting several prints, from different surfaces with different tools, I'm anxious to show off my new talent with a burglary in one of my books!

So, anyone want their house dusted for prints?

31 May, 2012

So Glad I'm not a Parent - My Nerves couldn't cope!

Police Academy is drawing to an end. Next week is fire arms, when we actually get to shoot tasers, pistols, and rifles. That's the fun part. Last night was a lot less light hearted. 

Our class was given by the School Resources Officer (SRO). As his title implies, he liaises between the police department and all the town schools, both public and private. And frankly, after hearing him, I'm thankful I don't have kids because I'd never have a peaceful moment. 

It's not just incidents like Columbine, although every school has a lockdown plan and annual drills. It's also technology. You may not know a lot about sexting, but every teenager( and probably a lot of preteens) does. Check out www.sextingpics.com - that's where the angry ex-friend/boyfriend/girlfriend posts the pictures, by area code, for everyone to see. Believe me, you don't want to find your daughter's picture on this site. And once it's up, it's there forever. 

Next on the worry list: pedophiles. It's terrifying how easily predators can find a child. The SRO took us from a pretty vanilla FaceBook page, one that listed only a screen name and a state, and demonstrated how, in a few simple steps, a predator can friend and identify a person if the page is not "locked down". And we all know how hard FaceBook makes it to secure your information. The predator doesn't even have to ask any leading questions like "where do you live" or "what school do you go to." All he has to ask is: what's your school mascot, go to Google and type in: high school mascot, [mascot], and the state from your child's FB page. Bingo, he's got a town and can keep narrowing down his search. We also learned the tricks predators use to make sure they're not chatting with a cop.

Did you know that iPhones (and many other smart phones) embed GPS information into photos taken with the phone? And that there is free downloadable software that can easily read that info from any web site where the photo is posted and bring up an image of the location where it was taken, i.e. your house? So from a picture of your cat or a flower in your yard, someone can find your house. Scared yet? 

In kindergarten, first and second grades, the SRO appears only as "Officer Friendly," but by fourth grade, he is teaching kids internet/phone safety. The dangers of sexting are addressed in 6th grade (including the impact it can have on the rest of your life), along with drugs, alcohol, and the other obvious dangers of being a teenager. This message is repeated in middle and high school. 

There are also programs for parents: what to look out for, how pedophiles "groom" their victims (scary stuff), and the tools available to safeguard against predators. 

I don't know if I'll use any of this information in a mystery any time soon, but I have lots of notes on the juvenile justice system, the differences between juvenile and adult law, rights and punishments, and anecdotes which may come in handy!

21 May, 2012

'Tis the Season

'Tis indeed the season for reunions.  I graduated from UNH (Durham) and received graduate degrees from BU and Rollins, but I've never been to a reunion at any of them.  Instead, every five years, I head my car north on the Merritt Parkway and attend my prep school reunion weekend.  


I think those were the most important, and definitely most formative, years in my life.  I know I've stayed closer to more of those classmates.  We shared not only Latin I, calculus, and hideously unflattering uniforms, but also teenaged angst, first loves, first broken hearts, acne, SAT scores, and everything else that went with being in high school.

I graduated from an all-girl school,  with 72 other girls,  in an intimate ceremony on a tradition-rich campus.

Four years after we graduated the school went coed and the our school was amalgamated into our "brother" school, moving to its campus.  We lost our campus, our chapel and many of our traditions - it's hard to move the 150-year-old tree seniors criss-crossed with daisies on graduation day.

Now 45 years (no comments, please) after graduating we return to a much larger, alien campus, our friendship still strong despite time, distance and circumstances.  

Going to a reunion is like slipping on your oldest flannel pjs: they're a little worn and faded, but they're familiar, comfortable and warm.  Maybe they don't fit the same as the day you bought them, but you adjust and feel good. 

Some returning alumnae are now retired, some have grandchildren, some are reinventing themselves into second and third careers, yet we still share bonds that go deeper than yearbook scribblings.  We fly in from London, California and elsewhere to spend three days reminiscing, swapping pictures and enjoying our time together - and discovering that we've all turned into our mothers!  We leave with new shared memories of the weekend and a determination to do it all again in five years.

 So, for all of you who don't go to reunions....why not? Try it, you might just like it.

And for those of you who do go back, what's the best part? Or your best memory?

14 May, 2012

Doggie Deliberations: Mystery Reader's Quiz

Do you write pets into your mysteries?  Do they play a significant part?  Are they modeled on your own pet?  See how much you know about other writer's literary characters.
1. These dogs are NOT huskies, although many people think they are.  What breed are Rowdy and Kimi, featured in Susan Conant's Holly Winter Mysteries?

   a)    German shepherds
   b)    Alaska malamutes
   c)     Irish Wolfhounds
   d)    Hungarian sheepdogs

2. These dogs, featured in Laurien Berenson's mysteries, were originally bred in Germany as hunting dogs.

   a)    Schnauzers
   b)    Dachshunds
   c)     Poodles
   d)    Weimaraners

3. Toby the Spaniel assisted which human detective?

   a)    Philip Marlowe
   b)    Lord Peter Wimsey
   c)     Sherlock Holmes
   d)    Hercule Poirot

4. What breed of dog does Columbo own?

   a)    Beagle
   b)    Blood hound
   c)     Dachshund
   d)    Basset hound

5. Bonus Points:  What is Columbo's dog's name?

   a)    Him
   b)    Dog
   c)     Max
   d)    Rex

6. What mystery featuring the dog Claudius is set in Roswell?

   a)    Please Don't Cry, Wolf
   b)    Howl with the Wolves
   c)     Lone Wolf
   d)    Wolf at the Door

7. Rachel Alexander and her dog Dash are both a Private Eye team and a Therapy dog team.  What unlikely breed is Dash?

   a)      Pitbull
   b)      Chihuahua
   c)       St. Bernard
   d)      Corgi

10 May, 2012

Mystery Musings: DUI is hazardous - and expensive!

Most of us get in our cars, turn on the ignition and drive off with little or no thought beyond our destination. At least I did until last Tuesday night.

Did you know that if you're on the road, one in ten drivers around you is drunk? Kind of makes you stop and think, doesn't it? 

And what about that $45 bottle of wine you ordered with dinner?  According to our instructor, Any amount of alcohol will affect driving ability. Alcohol's effect is magnified by emotions, physical condition, use of prescription drugs or other types of drugs, some over-the-counter medications (muscle relaxants, pain killers, migraine pills) and some herbal supplements. 

Drunkenness in Connecticut is based on blood alcohol content (BAC), as follows:
  • Drivers under 21 with a BAC of .02 or higher. 
  • Any vehicle requiring a commercial driver license with a BAC of .04 percent or higher. 
  • All drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher. 
 Penalties differ from state to state, but here they are pretty harse: 
  • First Conviction: Either (a) up to six months in prison with a mandatory minimum of two days or (b) up to six months suspended with probation requiring 100 hours of community service PLUS a $500- $1,000 fine, PLUS license suspension of 45 days, followed by one year driving only a vehicle equipped with an ignition interlock 
  • Second Conviction: Up to two years in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 120 consecutive days and probation with 100 hours community service, a fine of $1,000- $4,000, license suspension for 45 days, followed by three years of driving only a vehicle equipped with an ignition interlock 
  • Third and Subsequent Convictions: Up to three years in prison, with mandatory minimum of one year and probation with 100 hours community service, a $2,000- $8,000 fine and permanent evocation of your driver's license. (Eligible for reinstatement after six years. If reinstated, must drive only interlock-equipped vehicles for 10 years from date of reinstatement.) 
In addition to these penalties, the court can order a driver to participate in an alcohol education and treatment program. In all cases, the car will be towed and held for 48 hours -- even if it's a teenager driving and the only family car.  Good luck getting to work the next morning, Dad.

Total cost to driver: an estimated $18,000 just for the first conviction, mainly for the purchase, installation and monitoring of the interlock. 

That was one expensive bottle of wine! 

Fact:  Most times when a couple are stopped for DUI, the husband is driving drunk and the wife is sober.  Asked why she is not driving, she answers "well, he always does the driving and I thought he was okay."

On a lighter note, my  favourite tidbit of the night:the  bank robber who fled the scene and hid in an unmarked police car. True story.

05 May, 2012

Variations on a theme: Ham & Cheese

What's more American than a ham and cheese sandwich?  Unless it's French? Or contains turkey?

When we were little,  Mom would slap boiled ham, American cheese and French's mustard on Wonder bread and send us off to school.

A few years later, we moved to Europe where we discovered the Croque Monsieur  and its more feminine rendition, the Croque Madame.  The Monsieur was a sandwich made up of a grilled Gruyere cheese loaded with thin slices of ham and fried in clarified butter, and covered with Bechamel or Mornay (Bechamel with cheese) sauce. The Madame substituted turkey for the ham.  Strangely (at least to me) recent menus list the sandwiches as identical except for a fried egg topping the Madame.  When did that happen? It should be a Croque Monsieur à cheval (on horse back).

It you want to go Made-in-the-USA, you can stick with "The Hot Brown," an open-faced sandwich of turkey and bacon, covered in Mornay sauce and baked or broiled until the bread is crisp and the sauce begins to brown. Many Hot Browns also include ham with the turkey, and either pimentos or tomatoes over the sauce. 

None of these are exactly diet food, but if calories are really not a concern, go for broke with a Monte Cristo: turkey, ham and Swiss cheese on battered egg bread, and deep fried.  It's served dusted with powdered sugar and a side of strawberry jam.
Me, I'll stick with the Croque Monsieur. 

Croque Monsieur

3 Tbsp unsalted butter   
3 Tbsp all purpose flour   
1 1/2 cups whole milk, gently warmed   
1/2 tsp salt   
pinch of nutmeg   
4 Tbs grated Parmesan cheese   
8 oz grated Gruyère cheese ( 1 1/2 cups)   
12  very thin slices  Black Forest Ham   
Dijon mustard   
8 slices thick-cut French sandwich loaf   
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature  

Make the sauce: In a small saucepan on low heat, melt butter until foamy. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly with a flat whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Slowly add milk, stirring continuously, and cook until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and season with nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in Parmigiano and 4 tbsp grated Gruyère. Set aside to cool. It should be very thick.

 Preheat oven to 375° Set aside 4 Tbsp of the grated gruyere. Place the bread slices on a rimmed sheet and bake for 5 minutes, turn and toast an additional 5 minutes. Remove pan from oven.

Butter one side of 4 slices and place, butter side DOWN back on the rimmed pan. Spread the top of those slices with mustard. Lay down three slices of ham on top of the mustard, then top each with a quarter of the remaining cheese. Cover with the remaining bread slices. Bake in oven 3-5 minutes until cheese starts to melt.

Turn on broiler.

Spread the sauce generously all of the top of each sandwich. Make sure to spread it out over the edges so they don't burn. Sprinkle to reserved Gruyere over the top of the Mornay sauce. Place this under the broiler until the cheese is nice and bubbly and everything is warmed through, roughly 4-6 minutes.

Serve with a tossed green salad and chilled white wine! 

26 April, 2012

Mystery Musings: How to lift that fingerprint?

There's more than one way to lift a print. And did you know that there are three types of prints?  Latent, patent or visible, and plastic or impression. 

Visible fingerprints can be photographed directly, and impression fingerprints can usually be photographed under special lighting conditions. It is only the invisible latent fingerprints that are difficult to photograph. They must first be made visible, and the fact that they are easily wiped away with a cloth or Clorox only makes it harder.

The old stand by standard fingerprint powder is still used, but it's no longer the method of choice.  One reason being that the volcanic ash it is made is extremely fine and almost impossible to remove if dumped on a rug or upholstered furniture. Regular powder can be applied smooth, shiny surfaces such as windows, televisions, kitchen counter tops, painted surfaces, and vehicles—either the painted surfaces on the exterior or on glass. Prints are then lifted using adhesive film.

The Magna Brush uses standard powder with pieces of iron metal added and also works best on shiny surfaces. When dusting for fingerprints with magnetic powder, crime scene investigators must use a magnetic applicator which has a magnet. Besides being available in the colors of black, white, silver/gray and biochromatic, magnetic powder is also available in fluorescent magnetic powder colors like red and green which are useful for objects like soda cans. The fluorescent powder will reveal the print under black light or with a specially coated camera lens. Since it is applied with a magnetic brush, there is less diffusion and less mess, making it the preferred method in most cases.

But what about some of the gee whiz stuff we see on TV?  Turns out NCIS's lab guru Abby Sciutto is right: super glue is effective.  Actually it's one of the glue's components—cyanoacrylate—which, when mixed with heat and humidity, adheres to a print. The print can then be dusted using one of the available powders.  Don't try this at home! Cyanoacrylate contains cyanide and must be used in a closed container.

Finger prints consist primarily of ordinary sweat and other organic components exuded through the fingertips. Sweat is mostly water, and will dry after a fairly short period of time, making them difficult or impossible to lift with powders.  In this case, a ninhydrin solution can be sprayed, swabbed or dripped onto the surface. Ninhydrin reacts with the amino acids in the prints, forming a purple or pink compound.

Iodine crystals can also be used for card stock. The crystals are placed in a glass tube known as a fumer. The CSI then blows into the fumer, causing the transformation from solid to gas. The iodine vapours are emitted from the other end, and if the tube is aimed at a latent print, it will become visible for a short time. Do not try this at home! If inhaled, the fumes will convert back to crystals in your lungs and they are highly carcinogenic.

Silver Nitrate is a less toxic way of detecting prints on paper. Silver chloride turns black in light, and one of the components of sweat is sodium chloride. The silver nitrate is placed with distilled water and applied to the paper. The paper is exposed to light, and any prints will turn black.

On wet surfaces, if there is no time to allow it to dry, police use a small particle reagent (SPR) . The SPR can be sprayed on  wet surface, for instance a car, then hosed off.  Fingerprints will stay clear.

Fingerprints on duct tape, sticky tape, or labels can be lifted using crystal violet which is absorbed by the fatty constituents in a fingerprint, thereby coloring it purple. Again, don't try it at home, as it is highly poisonous and easily absorbed through the skin.

And finally, there is Amido Black, a chemical used to develop fingerprints in blood. A fixing agent is first applied to the blood stain, and then amido black is used, resulting in a dark blue to black staining of the protein that can enhance the contrast and visibility of patterns and impressions and allow for easier documentation.

Fingerprints will not adhere to unfinished wood or rock, although there is a solution which can be used to enhance prints on these surfaces.  Unfortunately it costs $500 per ounce!