In this 5th installment of the Maine Clambake Mystery series, we learn a lot more about the history of Julia Snowden’s mother’s family. Once rich enough to own and entertain lavishly on Windsholme—their estate set on an island in the bay of Busman’s Harbor, Maine—several generations later see Morrow Island used only for the Snowden Family Clambake Company’s seasonal clambakes, the present-day primary source of income for Julia’s family.
Now in the off-season, Julia is battling the gloomy northeastern weather while her boyfriend Chris embarks on a guys’ trip sailing a yacht down to Key West. She's only too happy to help pick up her mom's mail from the post office and trudge through the snow for a visit, not realizing that this fateful trip will set her on a path to finally meet distant relatives, including one thought long dead.
It begins with an unassuming parcel with no return address that contains a gorgeous—and very expensive—family heirloom. The note attached says “For Windsholme.” Julia and her mom entertain notions of selling the heirloom and restoring the property, but they are conscientious enough to know that other possible claimants need to be tracked down in order to sort out the legal paperwork. Julia is nervous and excited to finally meet some of her extended family … till she finds herself caught up in another investigation as they all come under suspicion for murder.
This was another excellent installment of what I'm starting to consider the quintessential cozy cooking mystery series: smart, well-plotted, and with an insight into the human condition that is at once sharp-eyed and generous in spirit. I'm afraid my reviews do little to convey how natural everything feels, how events flow organically even when, at a remove, they should seem contrived—as is often the case with mystery series featuring amateur detectives. Such is Barbara Ross’s skill that you buy wholeheartedly into Julia and feel that this is a genuine representation of one person's life, incidental corpses and all.
Specific to the subgenre also is the quality of the recipes included. For this installment, Ms. Ross gave us two recipes generously presented by her favorite seafood restaurant, Boston's Daily Catch, but also included four others. Of those, I chose the first recipe to try out—for Easter dinner, no less:
Vee’s Beef Stew
2 pounds of beef, cubed
6 carrots, cut in three inch chunks
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in half
1 15-ounce jar pearl onions, drained
1 3-ounce can tomato sauce
3 ounces of water
1 teaspoon sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
3 Tablespoons instant tapioca
Salt and pepper
6 drops Worcestershire sauce
In a bowl, mix well tomato sauce, water, sugar, lemon juice, instant tapioca, and Worcestershire sauce.
In a casserole dish, pile meat in center. Place all vegetables around the edges. Pour tomato mixture over all. Cover and cook in a preheated oven at 225 degrees for 6 to 7 hours. Can be prepared in advance and reheated. Makes a delicious brown sauce.
Serves 4 to 6
I'd never worked with instant tapioca as a thickener, so I was curious to see how this would turn out. It seemed—and proved in practice to be—such a simple recipe! I popped it in the oven in the morning, enjoyed the delicious aromas as it cooked, then seven hours later served it to wide acclaim. The seasoning was perfect, as I'd assumed the salt and pepper were optional and decided to leave that to the individual diner.
You'll also note that I used baby carrots instead of cutting up regular carrots, as they're essentially the same thing, and I had a package I wanted to finish. I imagine this would be the perfect dish to use up all manner of vegetables in—something I'll likely do the next time I make this hearty, delicious dish.
And that wraps up the series for us! I'm very much looking forward to the publication of the 6th Maine Clambake Mystery in December. Till then, however, we bid farewell to Maine and set our sights inland for next week's column as we visit a Midwestern creamery. Do join me!
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.