29 February, 2012

Mystery Musings: Murder 203

No, this is not a course in how to murder your spouse, it's Connecticut's own, home-grown mystery conference.  Every Spring, the Easton Library sponsors a two-day event, bringing together mystery authors, readers, and aficionados.  Each day is packed with panels and talks for readers and aspiring writers, book signings, and opportunities to meet & mingle.

Saturday night's Cocktails & Crime reception - my personal favourite -  is a highlight of the event.  Not only is the food delicious, but it provides the perfect opportunity to get to know your favourite author(s) in a relaxed environment.

An if you're in the market for the perfect gift for your favourite mystery buff, look no further than the Silent Auction!

Register at http://www.murder203.com/  Register by March 1st (postmark) for a discount.


20 February, 2012

Culinary Cogitations: Lent & Meatless Meals

Lent doesn't have to mean PB&J sandwiches and Tuna Rice casserole, although I've eaten more than my fair share of those standard in my day. And I draw the line at fish sticks!

According to my parish priest - a bit of a hardliner, the rules are as follows:
  •  Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.
  • Every person between the age of 18 and 60 must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on all other Fridays of the year, unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance for abstinence.
It's that last one  -- the other form of penance -- that gives us an out.  I've often wondered if daily exercise counts as penance??? Personally,  I've never considered abstaining from meat a hardship, it's the perfect opportunity to experiment with seafood and vegetarian fare.  And here's an easy recipe to start you off right.

Ash Wednesday Shrimp Etouffee
  •  1 stick unsalted butter 
  • 2 Tbsp  all-purpose flour 
  • 1 cup yellow onions, chopped 
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped 
  • 1/2 cup green bell peppers, chopped 
  • 1/4 cup green onions, chopped 
  • 1 Tbsp garlic, minced 
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt 
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne 
  • 2 Tbsp dry sherry 
  • 1 1/2 cups shrimp stock (substitute chicken stock if you don't have shells to make shrimp stock) 
  • 1 lb  fresh or defrosted shrimp , preferably unpeeled
  • 1/2 cup corn 
  • 2 tsp fresh lemon juice 
  • 3 Tbsp fresh parsley leaves, chopped , plus more for garnish 
  •    Cooked long grain white rice, as accompaniment 
For the shrimp stock (if using):
  • 3 cups (or more) raw shrimp shells and tails 
  • 1 large onion, coarsely chopped 
  • 1 small carrot, coarsely chopped 
  • 1/2 medium celery stalk 
  • 6 cups water 
  • 1 cup white wine 
  • 1 medium fresh tomato, or 1/2 cup canned plum tomatoes 
  • 1 bay leaf 
Make the stock (if using): Peel the shrimp and remove tails. In a large saucepan over high heat, heat the oil until almost smoking and saute the shrimp shells and tails, onion, carrot and celery for 5 minutes, stirring. Add the water, wine, tomato and bay leaf. Reduce to medium, partly cover, and simmer 40 minutes.

Strain though cheesecloth or a fine strainer.

Make the etouffee: In a large heavy pot (cast iron, if you have one), melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour and cook. Using a spatula, stir the roux scraping the entire bottom of the pot every time. Using a spatula allows you to move all of the mixture around and you don't have to make more than a few passes to do it. Stir the mixture every 15 seconds or so. The roux will bubble at first then will get smooth as it cooks. WARNING: Don't be tempted to walk away and do something else, if the roux burns at any point during the process, it's trash. Cook until you have a blonde roux, the colour of light peanut butter. Add the onions, celery, bell peppers, green onions, garlic, bay leaves, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the sherry and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, add corn, and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice and shrimp and cook until shrimp are no longer translucent (about 2 minutes depending on size).

Stir in the parsley and remove from the heat.

Adjust the seasoning, to taste. Serve over rice, garnished with additional parsley.

Note: Anytime you have shrimp, just put the raw shells in a zipper bag in the freezer until you have enough to make stock.  The stock can be frozen for several weeks.

Got a favourite meatless recipe?  Please share!

18 February, 2012

Culinary Cogitations: "New Fangled" Appliances

When it comes to cooking, I'm a purist.  Sure, I have a drawer full of gadgets most people have never seen -- a manger pitter, a larding needing, a liqueur injector, a lichee nut knife -- but I use a charcoal grill, don't own a bread machine or a hot dog steamer and, until a few weeks ago, had never used a slow cooker.

I've been noticing the number of recipes on cooking programs and in various culinary magazines that use a slow cooker and wondered if I was missing something.  I'd eaten some truly bad crock pot dinners during my college years and never felt the need to sample them again.  Then Amazon offered me the top rated (per America's Test Kitchen) slow cooker for almost 50% off.  I couldn't resist the bargain. And can always sell it on eBay if need be.
I chose Asian Short Ribs for my first foray into slow cooking.  With lavish amounts of ginger, garlic, and brown sugar, as well as soy sauce, sesame oil and bok choy, who could resist?  Never one to blindly follow orders, I tweaked the recipe by browning the ribs first and deglazing with a little sake which I threw into the pot.  Deelish!

With one success under my belt, I wondered if I could adjust old-time family favourites to a slow cooker.  After consulting a couple of recipes to judge how much liquid to add -- I'm always amazed at how little you use -- I experimented with the secret family recipe for spaghetti sauce and meatballs.  Again, I browned the meatballs first, deglazed (red wine this time) and tossed everything in the pot.  Another success.

As I sit typing, the aromas of onion, ginger and curry are wafting into my office from the Chicken Tagine in my slow cooker. Fingers crossed.

There seem to be two distinct groups of slow cooker users - those who work all day and need something ready when they get home and those whose interest in slow cooking is the quality that slow cooking adds to many foods.  I understand that the beauty of a slow cooker is the ability to just throw everything in and walk away for 8 to 10 hours, but I think you lose a lot of flavour.  And while I appreciate the luxury of uninterrupted hours in which to write, I also value the taste of every meal I cook.

So what have I learned so far:
  • brown your meat first - not always, but usually -- and deglaze
  • add soy sauce, tomato paste and dried porcini mushrooms for hearty flavours
  • don't skimp on onion, garlic, and herbs as long, moist cooking mutes their flavours
  • use your slow cooker judiciously: it's not for everything!

Suggestions, anyone?

10 February, 2012

Culinary: Cogitation: Take the Lover's Leap with Lobster Stew

With less than a week to go until Valentine's Day, it's definitely not too soon to begin planning your special meal. You could go out to a fancy restaurant and shout sweet nothings at each other over the din of other diners, or your could elect to stay home and wow him (or her) with a special something you whipped up yourself.

And what could be more decadently special than lobster?  Some people believe are an aphrodisiac. I won't attest to the veracity of that statement, but I can tell you that a bowl of lobster stew and a glass of champagne can be the precursors to a cozy evening for two.

Note: This is best prepared the day ahead and reheated gently before serving. If possible, ask for at least one female lobster -- the roe (coral) will add a lovely color to the stew. If you're squeamish, you can eliminate the tomalley and roe, but they add a lot of flavor. In case you've never looked, the females' top set of feelers are soft and feathery (and usually crossed); the males' are hard, smooth and usually sticking out.  I regret to admit it, but the female also had a broader tail.

    2 1-3/4 pound lobsters
    ½ cup butter (1 stick)
    3 cups whole milk, heated 
    1 cup heavy cream, heated

    Plunge the lobsters into a large kettle of boiling salted water and boil them, over high heat for 15 minutes.
    Transfer the lobsters with tongs to a dish and let them cool.
    Break off claws at the body, crack them, and remove meat. Slit the underside of the body, remove and discard the sacs near the head and the intestines and reserve the tomalley and coral. Remove meat from the body and cut it into pieces.
    Force the reserved tomalley through a fine sieve into a bowl.
    In a large saucepan, sauté the tomalley and the coral in one stick of butter for three minutes. Add the lobster meat and sauté the mixture for five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture stand for seven minutes. Slowly add one cup of heated milk, stirring. Add remaining milk and cream in a stream, stirring. Add salt and pepper to taste, let stew cool to room temperature and chill overnight.
    Reheat stew over very low heat and serve in heated bowls.

Serve with a warm baguette and a chilled white wine -- or champagne, of course.

Serves 3-4.

06 February, 2012

Mystery Musings: Requiem for a Writer: Dorothy Gilman

So sad to hear of the passing of last week of Dorothy Gilman.

The Mrs. Pollifax series was one of the first I ever read.  I loved Emily Pollifax, a 60-ish New Jersey widow bored by the compulsory round of tea and good works, who offers her services to the CIA.  Picture your mother/grandmother as a cold ware secret agent, traveling to such foreign places as Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, China, Morocco,  and Sicily. She triumphantly completed fourteen missions for the CIA, each memorialized in a book:
  •     The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
  •     The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax
  •     The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax
  •     A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax
  •     Mrs. Pollifax on Safari
  •     Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station
  •     Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha
  •     Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden Triangle
  •     Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish
  •     Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief
  •     Mrs. Pollifax Pursued
  •     Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer
  •     Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist
  •     Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled
 In addition to the Mrs. Pollifax series, Gilman wrote   other books including her first, Enchanted Caravan in 1949, ending with Kaleidoscope in 2002. The Mystery Writers of America named Mrs. Gilman its 2010 Grand Master.

I've read most of her books, but in my mind, she will always be associated with Emily. Clever, plucky, intrepid and curiously naïve, with her trademark hats, Emily Pollifax practiced karate and meditation, was kidnapped, bonked over the head on numerous occasions, belonged to the garden club, and even found love late in life.  A feminist before her time.

If some of Gilman's plots seem a trifle improbable, they are none the less delightful reading.  At my age - which shall remain undisclosed -- it's refreshing to see a peppy granny heroine outwit the young and the sultry.  

I, for one, will be renewing my acquaintance with the charming Mrs. Pollifax very soon.

04 February, 2012

Mystery Musing: The World is Full of Potential Plots

People often ask me where I find my plots.  Was I born with a criminal penchant or do they come to me in my sleep?  The answer is neither.  The world around us is full of potential plots -- I have a folder full of newspaper clippings, jotted notes, and Internet printouts of facts, anecdotes, and research. 

For example. the the Stella Awards were recently announced.  This particular award was named in honour of 79-year-old Stella Liebeck whom in 1992,  spilled hot coffee on herself and successfully sued McDonald's  where she purchased coffee. You remember, she took the lid off the coffee and put it between her knees while she was driving. Who would ever think one could get burned doing that, right?   Yet she was awarded $2.9 million in damages.  Since then the Stella has been awarded to wild, outrageous, or ridiculous lawsuits.

Here are the Stellas for 2011!

SEVENTH PLACE: Kathleen Robertson of Austin, TX was awarded $80,000 by a jury of her peers after breaking her ankle tripping over a toddler who was running inside a furniture store. The store owners were understandably surprised by the verdict, considering the running toddler was her own son

SIXTH PLACE: Carl Truman, 19, of Los Angeles  won $74,000 plus medical expenses when his neighbor ran over his hand with a Honda Accord. Truman apparently didn't notice there was someone at the wheel of the car when he was trying to steal his neighbor's hubcaps.

FIFTH PLACE: Terrence Dickson, of Bristol , PA, who was leaving a house he had just burglarized by way of the garage. Unfortunately for Dickson, the automatic garage door opener malfunctioned and he could not get the garage door to open. Worse, he couldn't re-enter the house because the door connecting the garage to the house locked when Dickson pulled it shut. Forced to sit for eight, count 'em, EIGHT days and survive on a case of Pepsi and a large bag of dry dog food, he sued the homeowner's insurance company claiming undue mental Anguish. Amazingly, the jury said the insurance company must pay Dickson $500,000 for his anguish.

FOURTH PLACE: Jerry Williams, of Little Rock, was awarded $14,500 plus medical expenses after being bitten on the butt by his next door neighbor's beagle - even though the beagle was on a chain in its owner's fenced yard. Williams did not get as much as he asked for because the jury believed the beagle might have been provoked at the time of the butt bite because Williams had climbed over the fence into the yard and repeatedly shot the dog with a pellet gun.

THIRD PLACE:  A jury ordered a Philadelphia restaurant to pay Amber Carson of Lancaster, PA, $113,500 after she slipped on a spilled soft drink and broke her tailbone. The reason the soft drink was on the floor: Ms. Carson had thrown it at her boyfriend 30 seconds earlier during an argument.

SECOND PLACE: Kara Walton, of Claymont, DE sued the owner of a night club in a nearby city because she fell from the bathroom window to the floor, knocking out her two front teeth. Even though Ms. Walton was trying to sneak through the ladies room window to avoid paying the $3.50 cover charge, the jury said the night club had to pay her $12,000..

And...DRUM ROLL... in FIRST PLACE: Mrs. Merv Grazinski, of Oklahoma City, OK, who purchased a new 32-foot Winnebago motor home. On her first trip home, from an OU football game, having driven on to the freeway, she set the cruise control at 70 mph and calmly left the driver's seat to go to the back of the Winnebago to make herself a sandwich. Not surprisingly, the motor home left the freeway, crashed and overturned. Also not surprisingly, Mrs. Grazinski sued Winnebago for not putting in the owner's manual that she couldn't actually leave the driver's seat while the cruise control was set. The  jury awarded her $1,750,000 PLUS a new motor home.  NOTE: Winnebago actually changed their manuals as a result of this suit, just in case Mrs. Grazinski has any relatives who might also buy a motor home.

Yes folks, fact is better than fiction, but I reserved the right to incorporate fact into my fiction!