The Culinary Mystery

Gourmet Girl - September 29, 2014

Gourmet Girl's secret soft spot for mysteries featuring food...

 Photo Courtesy: marq

As the season turns to fall and the days are chilly with dark descending early, I long to spend the day curled up in front of the fire with a good book. And though I love great literature, I have a secret soft spot for mysteries. And not just those by the classics—Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, P.D. James—but those featuring food.  Whether as a weapon (remember the woman who murders her husband with a leg of lamb then cooks and serves it to the policeman who comes to investigate the death in Roald Dahl's short story “Lamb to the Slaughter?”) or as a red herring, food plays a role in some riveting mysteries that I gobble up like hotcakes.

Perhaps the best-known food mystery writer is Diane Mott Davidson, whose heroine Goldy Schulz is a caterer in the fictional Colorado town of Aspen Meadow. Goldy has a knack for making delicious fare for the rich and wealthy clients of her Goldilocks Catering Company, but she's also skilled at stumbling upon corpses, conspiracy and murder. Married to Tom Schultz, a handsome police officer whose help she often enlists, Goldy solves case after case—“The Cereal Murders,” “Dying for Chocolate,” "Prime Cut” and, most recently, “The Whole Enchilada.”

In between dodging bullets and solving murders, Goldy whips up batches of Chesapeake Crab Cakes with Sauce Gribiche; Prosciutto Bites; Mexican Egg Rolls with Spicy Guacamole Dipping Sauce; Journey Cake with Hard Sauce; Chocolate Coma Cookies and more. She lugs bins and batches of food from party to event, encountering an alarming number of corpses, suspects galore and close calls before the murder is solved. And despite the page-turning suspense, you just might find yourself abandoning the book in mid-action to whip up a batch of Goldy's Strong-Arm Cookies, Dream Cake or Terrific Toffee.

Davidson tests all the recipes in each of her books and often, they're inspired by recipes she's tried in restaurants in Denver and other places near Evergreen, where she lives. Surprisingly, she's not a lifelong cook but is self-taught from watching Julia Child on “The French Chef” and using Sunset Magazine cookbooks. In fact, Davidson and Child were mutual fans. Child enjoyed reading Davidson's mysteries and sent her a letter thanking her for mentioning Child in her books.

The “culinary mystery” was pioneered by Victoria Rich, a food columnist for The Chicago Tribune under the name of Mary Meade. Rich wrote three novels during the 1980s featuring widow and chef Eugenia Potter—“The Cooking School Murders,” “The Baked Bean Suppers” and “The Nantucket Diet Murders.” Like her heroine, Rich divided her time between a high-prairie Arizona ranch a small coastal town in Maine.  (Think “Murder She Wrote,” because Eugenia Potter could easily have served as the inspiration for the 1980's TV series starring Angela Lansbury.)

Virginia Rich didn't start writing mysteries until she was in her early 60s and she wasn't published until she was nearly 70. It helped that she was a wonderful cook and hostess and was a food editor for Sunset Magazine. She is noteworthy for creating a female American sleuth before they were popular and being the first to insert recipes into mysteries.

After Rich died in 1985, her family hired mystery author Nancy J. Pickard to complete an unfinished manuscript, which was published as “The 27 Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders.” It did so well that Pickard wrote two more – based on Rich's notes.

Today, “culinary mysteries” are a dime a dozen, with series by such authors as Joanne Fluke, Nancy Fairbanks, and Jerrilyn Farmer. The recipes in this genre often feature comfort food, which is helpful when you're working your way through a who-dunnit. I've included a few below to inspire you, not only in the kitchen, but when you're looking for a good yarn.

Goldy's Prosciutto Bites  (From “Dark Torte;' Yields 32)

4 butter croissants
¾ cup best-quality plum preserves, strained, with plums reserved
6 sliced prosciutto
½ cup goat cheese (or cream cheese)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Carefully slice croissants lengthwise. Place the halves on an ungreased baking sheet. Spread each half with 4 teaspoons of strained preserves, spreading just to the edge.

Slice reserved plums into fourths. Evenly divide them between croissant halves, placing plum slices at regular intervals on top of preserves.

Trim fat from prosciutto slices. Places slices over preserves and plums. Trim any overhang and place on top preserves. (Each croissant will need about ¾ of a slice of prosciutto. Chop and crumble goat cheese and dot the prosciutto with about ½ teaspoon of goat cheese on each croissant half.

Bake for about 10 minutes, or until cheese beings to brown. Let cool for at least 5 minutes

Tom Schultz's Savory Sausage Casserole (From “Dark Torte;”  Serves 6)

1 pound new potatoes
8 ounces mushrooms, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups minced onions
2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
1 pound Italian sausage, hot or mild
3 large eggs
1 ½ cup half and half
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 350. Butter a 9 x 13-inch pan.

Bring a large quantity of water to boil and cook potatoes until just done, about 10-15 minutes. Strain potatoes and set aside to cool, then slice.

Using a clean cloth dishtowel that is okay to stain, squeeze mushrooms by small handfuls to remove excess liquid. Melt butter in wide saute pan over low heat, add mushrooms and onions and cook until onions are translucent. Remove mixture from pan into a heat-proof bowl and stir in parsley. Raise heat to medium low and, using the same pan, cook sausage until browned. Set aside.

Slice cooled potatoes into 1/2-inch thick slices. Place in bottom of prepared pan and distribute mushroom mixture on top. Distribute sausage over mushroom layer evenly.

In large bowl of electric mixer, beat eggs with half-and-half on low speed until mixture is smooth, 3-5 minutes. Pour over ingredients in baking dish and sprinkle cheese on top.

Bake 35-45 minutes, until top is golden and egg mixture has set in the middle. Serve immediately.

Goldy's Dungeon Bars (From “Catering to Nobody;” Yields 32)

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13- inch baking pan and set aside.

Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with the sugars until the mixture is light and fluffy. Turn the mixer to low, and bet in the eggs and vanilla until well combined. Carefully stir in the flour mixture, oats, and raisins until well combined. Spread in the prepared pan (batter will be thick). Smooth the top. Bake from 20 – 30 minutes, until the batter has puffed and flattened, is brown around the edges, no longer appears wet in the center, and testes done with a toothpick. Cool slightly. While warm, cut into 32 bars. Allow to cool completely on a rack. Serve with best quality vanilla or cinnamon ice cream.

Makes 32 bars.