Cooking the Books: Silence of the Jams by Gayle Leeson

Hurray, we’re back in Winter Garden, Virginia, to visit with the delightful Amy Flowers and her family and friends! This is one of those series where I’m there as much for the cast and their personal issues as I am for the mystery itself, and immersing myself back in the series was as truly cozy as wrapping a nice toasty blanket around myself.

Here in the second installment, Amy has finally realized her dream of opening a healthy, homey cafe after helping to solve the murder of her former boss in the series debut. Business at Amy’s Down South Cafe is good, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the only other place to eat out in this small town is a somewhat greasy pizza parlor.

Businessman George Lincoln is still after her to sell him the property so he can build a bed and breakfast there instead, but Amy is getting used to rebuffing his near-daily offer. She’s expecting to do the same while he’s breakfasting in her cafe one morning, when he very suddenly and dramatically expires.

At first glance, it looks like heart failure, but the cops—including Amy’s new boyfriend, Deputy Ryan Hall—can’t be too careful. When it turns out that George was indeed murdered, Amy’s shock and sorrow turn to worry that this will be another blow to her reputation and business. Fortunately, she’s not under (much) suspicion for this death. But as the repercussions of George’s death start spreading through town, as menacing strangers come to visit and the secrets of prominent citizens come to light, Amy finds herself investigating nearly in spite of herself.

I really liked how Amy didn’t just plunge in, disregarding the advice of the police, in order to solve the murder. One of the highest compliments I can give a book—particularly a cozy mystery—is how organic everything feels. Here, in Silence of the Jams, everyone behaved exactly like a normal person would if thrown into such circumstances. Nothing felt unduly contrived or unnatural, and there was a real small-town feel to everything that felt authentic.

I also really loved how the book handled the family drama involving Amy’s wild Aunt Renee. Her storyline not only worked perfectly in the context of their family but also in the overall themes of the murder—a very nicely drawn parallel that will hopefully provide more room for exploration in future books.

And, of course, there were six delicious recipes to try out! After last week’s dessert bonanza, I decided to try out a hearty family meal:
 

Beef and Cheese Pasta Bake

Ingredients

1 8-ounce package elbow macaroni

Cooking spray

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup shredded carrots

2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 pound lean ground beef

1 cup tomato sauce

1 teaspoon salt, divided

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon flour

1 ½ cups shredded cheddar cheese
 

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350°.

Cook the pasta and drain. Lightly coat the pasta with cooking spray. Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Coat the pan with cooking spray. Add the onions and carrots to the pan and sauté for around 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté a minute longer. Add the ground beef and cook until the meat is browned. Add the tomato sauce, ½ teaspoon salt, and pepper. Cook for 2 minutes. Add the pasta to the beef mixture. Spoon into an 11-by-7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

Place the milk, flour, and remaining ½ teaspoon salt into a medium saucepan. Stir until blended. Cook over medium heat for 2 minutes or until thickened, stirring constantly. Add 1 cup cheddar cheese, stirring until smooth. Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta mixture and stir. Top with the remaining ½ cup cheddar cheese. Bake for 20 minutes until lightly browned. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Yield: 8 1-cup servings.

This was so delicious and so easy to make! And this is sort of embarrassing, but this was the first time I realized I could buy chopped onions at the grocery store. It’s such a time saver, and it really eliminates the need to suffer through chopping onions myself.

As to the dish itself, my lovely assistant Karin and I practically inhaled our first helpings, then went back immediately for seconds. My family were also fans, and I’ve already made this dish once more since first testing it for this column. I used a 4-cheese Mexican blend the second time around, and it definitely wasn’t as good as just cheddar. I was also pleased that it wasn’t as salty as I’d feared, given my memories of the otherwise very tasty meatloaf recipe from the first book.

Gayle Leeson built beautifully off of the promising debut of the Down South Cafe Mystery series to present us with a really absorbing portrait of felony and family in small-town Virginia. I’m excited to see where she goes with it next and to try out what will undoubtedly be more delicious yet uncomplicated recipes in future installments.

Next week, however, we head west to Arizona and I lose my mind over cupcakes. Do join me!

See also: Cooking the Books: Town in a Maple Madness by B. B. Haywood

 

To learn more or order a copy, visit:

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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.

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