Today I’m pleased to welcome author Rich Sullivan to the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen! Rich’s first book, The Secrets of the Unadilla, was published by Karen Hunter Media/Simon & Schuster in August 2009. Rich is a cook at the Veteran's Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. Before that, he was a freelance writer and restaurateur. Thanks for coming by the blog, Rich!
I think that my love of food and mysteries started when I was a very young and impressionable lad, sitting in my living room in Brooklyn, watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents on our little black-and-white, rabbit-eared television set.
I distinctly remember one episode: A woman bludgeoned her cheating husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then thawed it out, cooked it, and served it to the investigating detectives. The gumshoes could not find the murder weapon, and this puzzled them. Said one as he chowed down, “You know, it might be right under our noses!”
Thanks to the glory that is Google, I discovered that what I was watching on that ancient evening was an Alfred Hitchcock episode that aired on April 13, 1958. It was titled Lamb to the Slaughter, starring Barbara Bel Geddes and William Stone. It was written by Roald Dahl, he of Willie Wonka and married-to-Patricia Neal fame.
April 13, 1958? I was barely four years old. No wonder it traumatized me, and made me the way I am. The child is the father of the man!
When I doubled in age, and was now an urbane and sophisticated ten years old, I came down with some horrible childhood disease: the measles, the mumps, the chicken pox, whatever. I was bedridden for about a week, and my mom tried to keep me there by giving me a “grownup” book to read. She challenged me, saying that I would not have the patience to finish it. I took her up on her dare, fluffed my pillow, and plunged in.
The book was Dame Agatha’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. By now, I was wise to the ways of the world, so I knew who murdered Roger by the third chapter. No “mystery writer” was ever gonna mystify me!
Then I read Poirot’s explanation of what really happened to poor Roger, and I literally fell out of the bed. I can still remember how completely stunned I was at the denouement. I thought I was sharp, but this Agatha Christie was something else. When I got better, I went to the corner candy store, where they had a rack of Pocket Books that sold for thirty-five cents each. I saw another Christie, Crooked House, and bought that. I was now prepared for all this “surprise ending” stuff. Miss Agatha (I wondered what she looked like) was slick, but she was no match for me, now that I was hip to her game. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, and all that. I was out for literary payback!
Of course, I read the ending of Crooked House, and fell off the couch, or wherever I was sitting. I then surrendered unconditionally to Agatha Christie, but it was a sweet surrender. I know when I’m defeated!
Food and classic British mystery novels don’t match, because the British, like the Irish and the Scottish, don’t have a cuisine, a delicious dish (with one exception), unless you consider Heinz beans on toast, boiled potatoes, and haggis (Blecch!) “cuisine,” and I don’t, with apologies to my forebears. Whenever Christie mentioned food in one of her books (which was rarely), it was usually a throw-away line about the butler putting out a “cold supper” on the sideboard. I have no idea what a “cold supper” is, but it doesn’t sound very appetizing.
But I think Dame Agatha knew what she was doing. Too much emphasis on food would have ruined a classic Christie. I can’t imagine Poirot saying, “Before I summon all of you to the library to explain the truth, shall we order some Chinese food? Quick,Hastings,may I see a take-out menu?”
Long ago and far away, I owned a restaurant, and the following was one of the most popular items on our bill of fare. It is the abovementioned exception to the bland-as-a-British-blancmange rule. Like Agatha Christie, it is a classic, though I’ve tweaked it a bit, to make it less caloric. I hope you try it, and enjoy it. As Poirot would say: “Bon Apetit!” As Miss Marple would say: “It reminds me of a dish my Aunt Shirley used to make.”
(Remember: Cooking is an art, baking is a science. Feel free to improvise.)
2 lbs. scrod (Scrod works best. Sole is too delicate, halibut is too expensive!)
About 15 small red potatoes
High-quality olive oil
About a half-cup of bread crumbs
Three pats of butter
Dried herbs, with the exception of nutmeg or allspice (Now is the time to put to use all those little bottles you’ve got sitting sadly on your “spice rack”: oregano, thyme, garlic salt, tarragon, rosemary, whatever.)
Salt and pepper
One fresh lemon (a must!)
Put the scrod on your working surface, and run your hand down it. If you feel any bones, you can either pick them out with a tweezers, or just take a knife (the bones run in a row), and slice them out.
Slice the scrod into roughly three-inch pieces. Scrod filets are like a long triangle—the pieces won’t be the same size, but that’s okay.
Take about a tablespoon of olive oil in the palm of your hand, and smear it on a baking dish big enough to hold the fish.
Place the fish in the pan. Drizzle just a little bit of the oil on top of each piece, then sprinkle with the breadcrumbs, and a few dashes of salt and pepper. Cut the butter pats into little pieces, and place one or two on top of each piece of fish. Then put the pan in the fridge, while you make the potatoes.
Cut the potatoes in half or in quarters, depending on their size. Put them in another baking pan. Again, drizzle them with no more than a tablespoon of olive oil. Then, working with your hands, add a bit of water, and mix the potatoes until they are all lightly coated. Put about a quarter-inch of water in the pan, too.
Then add your dried herbs, but go gently! Mix everything up. Turn on the oven to 350.
Put the potatoes in the oven, and cook for about twenty minutes. When you see that they are starting to get brown and crispy, take them out, and flip them over, then put them back.
Now put the fish in the oven. The fish cooks very quickly. Keep an eye on it!
When the fish turns white and the bread crumbs are a little bit browned, take it out of the oven. By then, the potatoes should be done, too.
Cut the lemon in half, and squeeze it all over the fish. Serve. Enjoy!
P.S. A bit of freshly grated cheese tossed onto the potatoes at the very end is delicious!
Folks, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Elizabeth. May your little grey cells continue to be fruitful, and multiply!
And thanks to you, Rich, for sharing that great Fish and chips recipe!
Julie’s first book in the Manor of Murder Mystery series, Grace Under Pressure, debuts June 1st! To help launch the book and to celebrate its release, she's running a very special contest: Pre-order Grace Under Pressure any time before May 31, 2010, and you're eligible to win a $25 gift certificate from Mystery Lovers Bookshop! (and if you've already pre-ordered, you just need to let Julie know!) No receipts required. Just email Julie at JulieHyzy@gmail.com with the date that you pre-ordered and the name of the bookstore you ordered it from, and your name goes in! (Please put "CONTEST" in the subject header. Thanks!)
Here are a few helpful links to get you started: Mystery Lovers Bookshop (free shipping on book orders over $10!) - Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore (my local bookstore - autographing available) - Barnes & Noble - Amazon.com