A dark and stormy night. Glass breaking. A thud.
A figure flees, leaving behind a plate of roast venison loin; a body and worse: a prized magnum of '28 Bordeaux shattered.Not to worry. The chef/caterer/gourmet is on the scene, solving the crime - and reciting a recipe for the venison's sauce, as well as finding a new source for the Bordeaux.
That's the idea behind culinary mysteries, one of the hottest genres to hit the whodunits in years, according to Otto Penzler, owner of The Mysterious Book-shop in New York City.
Penzler, whose store specializes in crime stories, says the books are the mystery-genre-du-jour. "They sell wonderfully well - almost relentlessly."
The books have chefs or other food pros somehow embroiled in a crime, with lots of cooking as the plot twists.
"Prime Cut" (Bantam Books), on The New York Times bestseller list, was written by Diane Mott Davidson, a Colorado author considered tops in the culinary mysteries. She has seven others to her credit.
Unlike many of the other writers, who have a food-writing background, she came to the genre as a mystery writer. Her first book, "Catering to No One," however, took an unexpected food turn.
"I started writing my story in the Evergreen (Colo.) Cafe, where I met this caterer. I put her in the story, and my critique group liked her so much, they suggested I make her the protagonist," she said.
With a caterer as lead character, food had to follow, so Davidson volunteered to work free with a local caterer to learn the business.
Goldy Shultz, caterer cum sleuth, is now her main character. "I try to get across how tough it is" being a caterer, Davidson said. With each new plot, Davidson works with the real caterer, still at no charge, cooking, serving at events - and taking copious notes.
Other authors bring a food background to their writing.
Phyllis Richman is the restaurant reviewer and food writer for The Washington Post. Writing her witty 1997 book, "The Butter Did It" (Harper Paperbacks), was a fantasy come true, she said.
The book, about the death of a highbrow chef catering a Capitol charity event, has inside foodie tidbits tossed in for spice. Savvy readers can read about the chefs she favors in real life (Jean-Louis Palladin, Patrick O'Connell and Robert Donna) and may recognize the ones she doesn't (she won't tell). Her protagonist is a sassy food reviewer, Chas Wheatley.
"I'd always wanted to write mysteries. I've been doing food reviewing and food editing for 22 years," she said. "People don't realize how tedious it is to write about the same thing day after day."
Readers, primarily women, want to discuss the recipes from the books at book signings, or critique the foods, Davidson said. "They're great. Occasionally, I've asked the readers to help with a mystery of my own. Once when I couldn't find the right malt to make a malted milk chocolate cake, I asked the readers to help and they sent all this malt! I had mail-order, health-food and every other kind of malt."
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1 cup cooked artichoke hearts
6 cloves garlic
Juice of 2 lemons
About 1/2 teaspoon each: paprika, cumin, kosher salt, white pepper
Olive oil (about 1/3 cup)
Combine all ingredients except oil in the bowl of a food processor or high-speed blender. Turn on machine, and slowly drizzle in olive oil as the ingredients are being processed to a creamy consistency. (Note: mixture should be thick enough to spread, not pour.)
Makes about 3 1/2 cups.
(From Death by Rhubarb by Lou Jane Temple, 1996, St. Martin's Dead Letter Mystery Books.)
GREAT-GRANNY YODER'S ONION CHEESE SOUP
1 cup onions, finely chopped
1/2 stick butter
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
4 cups milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
Croutons for serving
Saute onions in butter, salt and pepper until transparent. In measuring cup or small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup cold milk with cornstarch. Pour mixture over onions, stirring constantly. Add chicken broth and remaining milk. Add dry mustard.
Sprinkle shredded cheese over top while continuing to stir. Cook over low heat until the cheese is melted. Serve in bowls, and garnish with croutons.
Makes 4 servings.
2 cups peeled and diced Granny Smith apples
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1/2 cup raisins
Creamy citrus frosting (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch metal (not glass) pan.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the chopped apples with the brown sugar. Set it aside while you prepare the other ingredients. In a small pan, melt the butter and set it aside to cool. In a small mixing bowl, beat the egg slightly. Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.
Whisk the melted and cooled butter into the egg, stir this mixture into the apple mixture. Stir the flour mixture into the apple mixture, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in nuts and raisins (note: batter will be thick). Spread batter in prepared pan.
Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, or until the blondies test done with a toothpick. Cool in the pan, then frost. Slice and serve.
Makes 24 to 32 servings, depending on size of slices.
CREAMY CITRUS FROSTING
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 to 1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
Beat butter with orange juice until butter is very soft (note: they will not mix completely). Add sugar until desired consistency is reached. Spread on cooled brownies.
Makes enough to cover a 9-by-12-inch pan of cake or brownies.