Cooking the Books: Toasting Up Trouble by Linda Wiken

This first novel in the brand new Dinner Club Mystery series introduces our heroine, JJ Tanner, an event planner with a penchant for the dramatic, and the members of the Culinary Capers Dinner Club. Each month, one member of the club picks a cookbook for the whole group to try, culminating in a delicious themed dinner.

While worrying over her choice of Nigella Lawson’s Nigelissima, JJ—who freely admits to enjoying looking at the pictures more than actually trying out the recipes in cookbooks—is also stressing over an upcoming event: a 21st birthday party for the well-heeled daughter of a local Italian-American magnate. The chef she hired to take over for a last-minute caterer cancellation is proving to be unprofessional and underhanded, despite his delicious food and excellent service. JJ and the chef, Antonio Marcotti, wind up having a very loud, very public fight…the very night before he’s found stabbed to death.

At first, JJ is determined to find out who really killed Marcotti in order to clear her own name, but as suspicion falls variously on those she calls her friends, JJ finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into the investigation. With the help of the Culinary Capers Club and a very good-looking private eye with his own motivations, JJ begins to untangle Chef Marcotti’s complicated business and personal lives, discovering possible suspects at every turn. Unfortunately, her snooping soon brings her to the attention of Marcotti’s killer, who is quite willing to add more bodies to the death count.

Toasting Up Trouble by Linda Wiken serves readers an intriguing debut mystery with all the hallmarks of a solid series to follow. JJ’s backstory unfolds naturally, leaving me wanting to know more about her and the rest of her friends. I also loved her addiction to cookbooks. While I don’t compulsively purchase them myself, I have definitely savored the few I’ve received in a manner similar to JJ’s, especially when the cookbooks are accompanied by beautiful photography and layouts, as many of the modern ones are.

For this column, I decided to try my hand at two of the recipes included in Toasting Up Trouble—a pasta entree and a dessert. I really appreciated Ms. Wiken’s encouragement to experiment with different oils for the pasta and toppings for the dessert, as personalization is an important tool in the arsenal of any home cook.

I’ve mentioned previously that Italian is the cuisine I apprenticed in, so I didn’t think the pasta would give me any trouble at all. Here’s the relatively uncomplicated recipe:

Spaghetti With Chicken, Broccoli, And Sweet Red Pepper

Ingredients

½ pound spaghetti

Himalayan salt—pinch

Regular olive oil

1 large broccoli crown, cut into tiny floret portions

1 sweet red pepper, sliced and diced

1 garlic clove, slivered

Mixed dried herbs (or fresh rosemary, basil, oregano)

Freshly ground pepper

Half package of frozen chicken strips

Tuscan herb-flavored virgin olive oil

Pecorino Romano cheese
 

Instructions

Bring large pot of water to boil and add a pinch of sea salt and spaghetti. Cook uncovered, as per instructions on package, usually 10-12 minutes

Heat skillet on stove and pour in enough regular olive oil to cover the bottom. Add the broccoli bits, sliced red pepper, herbs (either dried or fresh), and garlic. Saute until broccoli look crisp. Remove from pan, add more olive oil and the desired amount of chicken strips. Cook until thoroughly heated (if frozen) or until cooked throughout (if fresh). Add vegetable mixture and toss.
 

Drain spaghetti when al dente, place in a serving dish, and stir in Tuscan herb-flavored virgin olive oil. Add chicken/vegetable mix and toss.

Serve with grated fresh Pecorino Romano cheese atop. Adjust cheese and seasoning to taste.
 

My only real problem with this recipe was the instruction to sauté the broccoli until it looks crisp. With the amount of liquid coming out of the red pepper, crispiness took a long time to achieve. Perhaps I should have cut the broccoli into even smaller florets to make it crisp up more quickly, or perhaps I was thinking crispier than intended, crispness à la celery? I also used more garlic than the one clove, because I almost always love more garlic in an Italian savory dish.

Following Ms. Wiken’s advice, I also used Sicilian oil instead of Tuscan (hence the chili pepper you’ll see on the pasta: I like my food a little spicy.) For mixed herbs, I decided to take advantage of my Italian mother-in-law’s propensity for stocking my pantry with a varied assortment of dried seasonings, dosing the vegetables with liberal sprinkles from bottles marked “Garlic & Herb” and “Italian Seasonings” under the (correct) assumption that both would be perfectly fine.

In the end, I was thrilled by how well this dish turned out. Despite its seeming simplicity, the depth of flavor was fine-dining level, and I think that’s due, in large part, to the addition of the flavored oil to the pasta before adding in the chicken and vegetables.

I was also impressed by how little salt was used. Pecorino Romano is the perfect, if cheesy, alternative to salt and a terrific way for each diner to adjust the dish to his or her liking. These seemingly minor steps of adding oil and cheese really made this pasta dish better than anything I’d whipped up on my own before.

For dessert, I tried out the following recipe:

Roasted Pears

Ingredients

3 ripe pears

1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup

Zest from one large lime

1 cup Greek-style plain yogurt or smooth ricotta

Seeds from one medium pomegranate

Limoncello

Ingredients

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Line baking pan with parchment paper.

Halve pears lengthwise, remove stems and cores. Place pears on baking sheet, cut side up; drizzle with honey or maple syrup and sprinkle with lime zest.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, depending on size of pears, until softened.

When done, place portions on individual dessert plates, top with yogurt or ricotta, and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. Drizzle with Limoncello to taste.
 

Pomegranates not being in season, I went with a pomegranate sauce that I love instead. I also chose Greek yogurt over ricotta, because my kids prefer it. And, man, did they love this dish!

I’ve tried baking fruit before, but never to any great success. Drizzling honey and lime zest onto the pears beforehand really made for a terrific dessert that had just the right amount of sweet and tangy. I’ll definitely be trying out the fresh pomegranate and Limoncello version when the former are back in season, but the basic recipe for the roasted pears is one I’m filing away for future, constant use.

The little details really made these recipes outstanding, much in the same way that the subtle background notes strewn throughout elevated the story told in Toasting Up Trouble. A very useful addition to the library of the home chef who also enjoys cozy mysteries.

 

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.

Comments

  1. Penney Wilfort

    Thanks for the review and the recipe sounds good.
    Penney

  2. Doreen Sheridan

    I’d love to hear how you fare with the recipes, if you decide to try them!

  3. Lisa K

    Hi dvaleris,
    I’m featuring Linda’s spaghetti recipe on my blog tomorrow, Lisa Ks Book Reviews. May I use your photos? I will of course give you the photo credit on each one. (If yes, please tell me how you would like the photo credit to read.)
    Thank you for your consideration.
    Lisa

  4. Doreen Sheridan

    Sure, Lisa! Actually, if you send me an e-mail at dvaleris at gmail etc, I can send you original shots and we can discuss further. If time is of the essence, tho, feel free to credit me as Doreen Sheridan and link back to this post, please. Thanks!

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