Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's what's for dinner

Beef – it’s what’s for dinner. That’s been the slogan of the Cattleman’s Association for ages.

Fine. If it’s for dinner, what do you do with it?

I’m not picking on beef. I feel the same way about chicken, pork, vegetables, or everything else. Surely I can’t be alone in this regard. More often than not, I simply don’t have any idea what to make for dinner.

My husband Joe and I go shopping most weeks, and often more than once. We buy food. Only somehow we never seem to have any ingredients to make anything. Most days I stare into the freezer or pantry, absolutely devoid of any ideas other than how easy it would be to order a pizza or pick up a rotisserie chicken. 

Don’t get me wrong. I like cooking. I find it creative and relaxing, when I’m in the mood for it. But somehow that mood only strikes on special occasions, or on Sundays, when Joe and I cook together. On the average weeknight, I can’t seem to think of anything to make other than things I’ve made thousands of times, which bore me silly at this point.

I know I could plan it out in advance, so I’d never have to be at a loss. I have a friend who does that. Every other week, she works out all the meals she’ll want to make over the next couple of weeks, and lists every single ingredient she’ll need, which she then heads out to buy. She doesn’t like it especially, but she considers her level of planning a better choice than the random approach I bring to my own meal-making.

I could plan as she does, too, of course. But I never will. I could say that I want to be more spontaneous, but that isn’t the truth. I just think there are simply two kinds of people in this world: the kind who plan for two weeks of meals, and the kind who like to stand before the pantry whining that there’s nothing there, but who are secretly relieved to have avoided all that planning.

I could shuck it off onto Joe more often, too. He can somehow find ingredients in our house that I failed to notice. But he typically works later at our bookstore than I do, so if I foist it off onto him, it means eating more creative meals, but later than I like them. Nothing is ever simple.

Since yesterday was the first day of spring, I took the trouble to make something unique, which I’ve called Extra Creamy Leek & Asparagus soup. I thought about how I could create a different variation on a standard cream of asparagus soup, thought about what I’d need, and since I found almost none of it in our house, I made a special shopping trip for it. 

Here’s the recipe:

1 bundle of asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced (white part only)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
5 large garlic cloves (or less, to taste)
4-6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
salt and pepper
1 cup milk, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
1 small package cream cheese
2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese

Rinse and cut up asparagus spears, discarding the tougher, fibrous bottoms of the spears. Rise leeks really well, and slice the white part into 1/4 inch disks. Heat oil in a pot, and sauté onion and garlic until tender. Add asparagus and leeks and sauté until they are tender. Remove from heat.

In another pan, heat butter. Add flour and stir to blend. Add salt and pepper. Whisk in milk to blend well. Stir until it thickens into a sauce. Cut one small package of cream cheese into pieces, and stir those into the sauce until well blended.

If you have an immersion hand blender (boat motor), puree the vegetables, reserving the asparagus tips. If you don’t have a boat motor, transfer the sautéed veggies, apart from the tips, to a blender and process until smooth. Combine with the sauce, and return asparagus tips to the soup. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve with crusty bread. 

Yum. Was that ever good!

The trouble with cooking, though, is that no matter how much effort you put into it yesterday, today you just have to do it again. And today, I’m as stumped as ever.

How about you? What are you making? If it’s restaurant reservations, I just might follow your lead.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What would elves make for breakfast?

While neither my Tracy Eaton mysteries nor my Samantha Brennan & Annabelle Haggerty magical mysteries are cooking novels, in the course of an entire book, it’s natural that my characters would eat. 

I bring considerable thought to their dining choices, and I make up recipes for those dishes, which I print as recipe cards and give out at signings, as well as posting them on a recipe page on my website.

The dish not only needs to suit the tastes the characters, it also needs to fit the story-circumstances. After all, if they’re being chased by bad guys, they can hardly take the time to prepare a five-course gourmet meal, which they consume in a relaxed manner. Since I create these dishes in my author’s test kitchen — which happens to be my real home kitchen — it also has to be something I can create, even if it means stretching in the kitchen.

I started this practice with my first book, REVENGE OF THE GYPSY QUEEN. In that book, Tracy and her husband Drew traveled to New York to attend the wedding of his younger sister Marisa, only to end up dealing with Marisa’s kidnapping. Since Marisa and her fiancé owned a trendy restaurant, it was essential that the dessert they served at their family dinner be first-rate. That was a tough one for me. I’m a pretty decent cook, creative even. But I’ve usually regarded desserts as something to buy, not something to make.

It did help that I had a great love of tiramisu at the time (and still do!), and that I’ve always thought Bailey’s Irish Cream was a pretty spectacular drink. I put those together and created a winner — Irish Cream Tiramisu. Those recipe cards are always such a hit. I’ve given out thousands of them and people never fail to rave about it. I did make the dish a number of times, tweaking the ingredients until I thought it was absolutely perfect, and loads of readers have shared their experiences with it. But it’s hard to imagine how you could combine the ingredients of a classic tiramisu with Bailey’s Irish Cream in any proportion, and not have it turn out great.

Molly Westin, “Meritorious Mysteries” reviewer and “inSinC” editor, is a fan of my Bailey’s Tiramisu. Here’s what she says of it: “When I saw the recipe card for Bailey's Irish Cream Tiramisu from Kris's REVENGE OFTHE GYPSY QUEEN, I knew my family and friends would love it. And what a hit it has been. I never wonder what to take to special gatherings. In fact, one couple expects it every Thanksgiving! Thanks for sharing such a special dish.”

If you’re also a Bailey’s and/or tiramisu fan, you can find the recipe here:

Along the way, I’ve created other book-related recipes, including Tracy’s Favorite Chicken Crepes from REVENGE FOR OLD TIME’S SAKE and Fit for a Goddess French Toast for HIGH CRIMES ON THE MAGICAL PLANE. They’re all particularly good, and they all suit the novels they’re described in.

But the recipe for my latest title, Lefty Award-nominated MAGICAL ALIENATION, came with a particular challenge. All my earlier recipes were made by people. This recipe had to be for a breakfast dish created by elves. And it had to be a dish they’d make for a goddess. I mean, that’s like us cooking for the President, or the Queen of England, or even…Giada. It had to be that special.

What would elfin magic create (and I don’t mean that cracker company that co-opted my term…or I theirs.)? To inspire me, I decided it should involve one of my favorite ingredients. No, not Bailey’s. Sure, that is one of my all-time favorites, but I’ve already created some spectacular desserts with it—not just my tiramisu, but Baneful Bread and Butter Pudding with Last Gasp Sauce, which you’ll also find on the recipe page of my website. Besides, this had to be a breakfast dish, and I try to avoid the hard stuff at dawn.

That left one of my other favorites — cinnamon. It’s hard for me to imagine any kind of pastry that isn’t made better with lots of cinnamon. I decided this dish should be some kind of muffin. But was a plain ol’ cinnamon muffin good enough? Wouldn’t it need an outstanding premise and lots of really phenomenal ingredients to bring the muffin up to elfin level? 

Here’s what I came up with:

Elfin French Toast Muffins
as served in
Magical Alienation by Kris Neri

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for topping
½ cup butter, softened
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla, plus ¼ tsp. for maple glaze
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream
½ cup cinnamon chips
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon maple extract
1/4 cup milk

In a large mixing bowl, cream 1 cup sugar into butter. Add eggs, vanilla, sour cream and blend. In another bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and baking soda, and gently work into wet ingredients. Fold in cinnamon chips. Pour 1/3 cup into a paper muffin liners in a muffin pan. Mix together sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the top of the muffins. Bake at 350 degrees for 16-18 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Blend together maple extract, milk, powdered sugar and ¼ teaspoon vanilla. Drizzle icing over top of cooled muffins or spread with knife, if you prefer a thicker coating. Makes 12 large or 18 medium muffins.

By the way, cinnamon chips can be hard to find. Actually, they’re called cinnamon chips, but they’re really cinnamon and chocolate, though the cinnamon taste dominates. They’re made by Hershey’s, and though the chip selection in the baking aisle typically contains loads of varieties now, cinnamon chips can be scarce. I only found them in one of the markets we have where I live. But I also live in a small town, so if I can find them, I’m sure you can. They’re also available online, if you’d prefer that route. If you love cinnamon as much as I do, you’ll want to keep some on hand anyway. They also make a great snack. Someone (She has a name - I'm just not sure if she wants me to use in a public blog.) also wrote and told me that if you're allergic to chocolate, you can find pure cinnamon chips with no chocolate here:

And the muffin? Absolutely to die-for. The elves and I promise you this will be one of the very best muffins you’ll ever taste. It also stays moist for days. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did all the times I made during my perfecting process. It’s a dirty job, but thankfully, I got to do it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Polishing the Hollywood Crime Novel: a question of integrity

Today I welcome guest-blogger, Shelly Frome. He's a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K.. His fiction includes Tinseltown Riff, Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. His latest novel is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey entitled Twilight of the Drifter.  He lives in Litchfield, Connecticut.
  There are times when you have to be on guard. Otherwise writers’ magazines, interviews on Charlie Rose and even lead articles in the New York Times Book Review may start to get to you and you’ll find yourself opting for “page-turning success.”
In a recent issue of one of these guides, a “pro” insisted that readers have a limited amount of time and money, genres like crime fiction are saturated, and you better be offering immediate, highly accessible entertainment. Another “pro” advised that you need a provocative plot question at the outset if you’re going to have half a chance of snaring readers’ attention. In one of Charlie Rose’s John Grisham interviews, Grisham claimed that readers have an insatiable appetite for scandal. What they really want is to pick up a book and keep reading to find out what’s going on behind closed doors. That’s why plotting and pacing are crucial. Never use too many words, says Grisham. Come up with the best idea, nail it down in one sentence and pitch it to someone who is really savvy—e.g., “A bright young lawyer joins a high-powered firm but can never leave because it’s owned by the Mafia.”
As another example of this preoccupation with a sure-fire hook and forward motion, you need look no further than last month’s issue of Book Review. The one  featuring Elmore Leonard’s photo on the cover and the caption “Back on the Case.” Predictably, the reviewer Olen Steinhauer declared that, as a successful crime novelist, Leonard is an advocate of rat-a-tat acceleration.
Admittedly, the first draft of my Hollywood crime novel Tinseltown Riff was  either consciously or subconsciously under the influence. And then, luckily, I began to recall Dan Brown’s novels like the DaVinci Code. I remember being so upset because instead of creating characters who had a life, he simply kept them running around from here to there in search of the key to some scandalous puzzle. There wasn’t even time to care about the victims, find out who they were and even take a moment to mourn their passing. And that undoubtedly was why Tom Hanks, as the film version of one-dimensional Robert Langdon, seemed to have phoned-in his part at every outing.

And so I stepped away from my caper for a while. I had all the ingredients Grisham advocated, but soon all the missing pieces and a sense of truth began to nag at me. Ben, my central character, was too unaware. It was interesting that he was a screenwriter hack who preferred to remain ensconced in and around Hollywood and was enamored of old movies. It was also interesting to, in a sense, have the old movie sets of an abandoned studio lot champing at the bit to come alive again. And it was also promising to have Ben unwittingly on a collision course with a lone wolf tracker in cahoots with a Vegas mob—this, in view of today’s economy, causing Ben out of desperation to accept a dubious gig.
But, despite this concern with readers’ expectations, I began to have second thoughts. Once you set these forces in motion, other realities come into play. Nothing ever just holds still for the sake of your plotline. Life-like characters have a backstory and are full of contradictions. There’s also the weather, the time of year, what’s going on within this world including the surrounding areas, ever-changing relationships and their  interplay. Not to mention the widening gap between what anyone wants and the complications that ensue when you force the issue making the outcome that much more problematic.
If you work organically, that is. And put aside all the advice from the pros and  worries about the market and enhancing your platform. Depending, of course, on what you’re really after.
Confession. I was a starving actor in New York, am keenly aware of the given circumstances and what rings true, and have an abiding faith in the spirit of the moment.