"Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind, must like, I think, to read about them.”
~ W.M. Thackery
My series character caterer Faith Fairchild and I would add “and woman” to the phrase, but Thackery was definitely on to something. We enjoy reading about food. And for many of us, reading about food and murder is the real frosting on the cake. Why is the pairing of gastronomy and crime so seductive?
Dorothy Sayers delights us with her descriptions of Lord Peter Wimsey’s meals, with perhaps the best title in the annals of culinary crime: “The Bibulous Business of the Matter of Taste.” That short story describes a six-course dinner with the emphasis on the identification of the wines accompanying each course. Only the real Lord Peter is able to correctly name all of them. I like the breakfasts best and entertain fantasies of Bunter appearing at the door of my bed chamber, tray laden with tea, kippers, coddled eggs, and a rack of toast.
Meanwhile across the channel, Madame Maigret is taking excellent care of her husband, preparing traditional French dishes that Simenon writes about in mouthwatering detail. It is no wonder Maigret tries to get home for lunch so often. I would too if someone was whipping up boeuf bourguinon and a tarte à la frangipane for me.
On our own shores, we have Nero Wolfe, whose attention to food is as obsessive as his devotion to his orchids. He and Fritz Brenner, his chef, range over a number of cuisines in the pursuit of their art. Fritz is so gifted that he even makes milk toast “superbly”. Why on earth would Archie ever look for his own apartment? Would you?
It would be simple to say that each author uses food as a way of characterizing each sleuth, a way of extending our knowledge of the kinds of people they are— and leave it at that. An idiosyncrasy perhaps? But it’s more. We get hungry when we read these books and I’m sure the authors did too as they wrote. How could it be otherwise, given the emphasis they place on the joys of the table? Food is important. It makes a statement on its own. And following a recipe is much like solving a crime—assembling a number of often disparate ingredients. Whodunit is irrevocably joined to Whoateit.
Faith doesn’t have a cook, nor do I. If we want something tasty, we have to make it ourselves; something, fortunately, both of us like to do. I hope you will enjoy the following recipes and when you’re ready to sit down to the fruits of your labor, prop a good mystery up in front of your plate!
Baked Chicken With Red Wine, Sage, and Root Vegetables
2 1/2 pounds chicken
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound parsnips
1/2 pound carrots
1 large yellow onion
2 tablespoons fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup red wine (not sweet)
My family likes dark meat, so I use four whole chicken legs.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Rinse and pat the chicken dry with a paper towel.
Drizzle the oil in a casserole large enough to hold the chicken and vegetables. I like the oval ones from France, but Pyrex is just fine too.
Place the chicken pieces in the casserole.
Peel the parsnips, scrub (or peel) the carrots and cut into chunks, about an inch long.
Peel the onion and cut it into eighths.
Arrange the assorted vegetables around the chicken.
Strip the leaves off the sage stems. Roll them into a small cigar shape and slice into thin strips (a chiffonade). Sprinkle on top of the chicken and vegetables along with the salt and pepper.
Pour the wine evenly over the casserole.
Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour.
Uncover, baste with a bulb baster or a spoon and bake for another 45 minutes, basting occasionally. The chicken should be nicely browned. Let the dish rest for 5 minutes.
Serves 4 amply. Be sure to spoon some of the liquid on top of the chicken and vegetables when serving.
What is nice about this dish is that it omits browning the chicken, which you would do in a more traditional coq au vin. It takes less time to prepare and I created it as a heart-wise version for my husband. I use a salt substitute and take the skin off the chicken unless I’m making it for company. You can vary the vegetables—turnips are good also. I serve it with the following:
Sautéed New Potatoes With Sage
Small red potatoes
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh sage
Freshly ground pepper
While the chicken is baking, start the potatoes.
I figure 3 potatoes per person.
Wash the potatoes, cut them in half, and steam them until you can pierce them with a sharp fork.
About 15 minutes before the chicken is ready, sauté the potatoes in the butter and oil. Unfortunately a butter substitute does not work with this dish. Once the potatoes start to brown sprinkle them with the sage and add salt and pepper to taste.
The potatoes will be done at the same time as the chicken and should be slightly crispy.
I make this basic recipe often to accompany meat, poultry, or fish, varying the seasoning. Rosemary is one of my favorites.
Katherine Hall Page's series features amateur sleuth/caterer, Faith Fairchild. The Body in the Belfry (1991) won an Agatha for Best First; "The Would-Be Widower" (2001) won Best SS; and The Body in the Snowdrift (2005) won Best Novel when Katherine was Malice XVIII’s Guest of Honor.
The Body in the Sleigh (Wm Morrow, 2009), #18, is her most recent book. Upcoming is The Body in the Gazebo, as well as —finally— the Have Faith in Your Kitchen Cookbook (Orchises Press, September, 2010).
She gives thanks each day that her entire backlist is in print from Avon Books. Katherine lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts and may be reached on her web site: www.katherine-hall-page.org
Thank you for being our guest here today, Katherine!