Cooking Through The Nature of the Feast: A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

I was an information technology major in college, and in one exam, we were asked to write a program involving the colors black and white. Having an artistic bent, I named it Chiaroscuro, to the bemusement of my lecturer (and several of my classmates, who reacted in much the same way Inspector Beauvoir does to the word in this novel while at an art show).

Which, I’m hoping, goes some way to explain how much I enjoy the many references to the visual arts in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels—and especially in this, the 7th book in the series. Clara Morrow, Ms. Penny’s admitted fictional stand-in, is finally getting a solo show that looks set to launch her reputation and career. A party post-vernissage in Three Pines seems like the perfect way to celebrate … till a body is discovered in Clara’s garden.

I’m a big fan of Ms Penny’s, and I adored this novel as much as I did its predecessors. The mystery is well-constructed, and the language is deft and, where necessary, deliberately misleading. I loved how she added the artistic flourishes that made paintings come alive through words, and I especially loved how she explored the world of Alcoholics Anonymous, with its tenets of mindfulness and forgiveness. Her novels are always a cut above most of the other books being published today by the sheer generosity of their views on humanity.

But, I know you’re asking: What about the food? There were three recipes provided to accompany A Trick Of The Light, one of which was for pear and spiced blueberry crepes. Regular readers know how I love my sweets, but I might still be getting over the day I gorged myself on homemade “Pain Dore” and “Strawberry Shortcake,” so I skipped the crepes in favor of these two recipes instead. First, a cold soup:
 

Chilled Cucumber Soup with Mint and Melon

*Makes about 4 cups (1 liter); 4 first-course servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon unsalted butter 

1 leek, dark green parts and roots trimmed, light green and white parts coarsely chopped and washed 

1 cup (240 ml) water 

1 cup (240 ml) freshly made or purchased cucumber juice 

4 Kirby or 2 larger cucumbers, peeled, cut lengthwise into quarters, seeded and coarsely chopped 

Juice of 1 lemon 

Sea salt 

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves, plus some whole sprigs for garnish 

¾ cup (170 g) plain Greek or other thick yogurt 

1 cup finely diced (about ½ inch/1.25 cm), peeled and seeded cantaloupe or muskmelon (look for precut melon in the produce section of your supermarket and cut that into smaller dice if you don’t want to commit to a whole melon.) 

Instructions

1. Heat the butter in a medium (about 3½ quart/3.5 liter) heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Add the cleaned leeks. Cook, stirring often, until the leeks are very soft, about 15 minutes. Add the water and cucumber juice and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and stir in the cucumbers and lemon juice. Season lightly with sea salt. Cool to room temperature. 

2. While the soup is cooling, stir the chopped mint and ½ cup of the yogurt together and add a pinch of sea salt and a few drops of lemon juice if you think it needs it. Cover and refrigerate. 

3. Add the remaining ¼ cup yogurt to the soup and puree the soup in a blender, starting at low speed and gradually increasing the speed to full to make a very smooth puree. Pour into a bowl and chill until serving time, at least 2 hours and up to 1 day. 

4. Ladle the soup into individual bowls and top each serving with a dollop of mint yogurt, diced melon, and a mint sprig.

Now, I’m a fan of a cold soup, but if you’re not, this might not be the recipe that persuades you otherwise. It’s a good soup, with an almost dessert-like quality due to the mint and sweet melon, and I really enjoyed having it as a light meal on its own. If I ever do make this again, I’ll make a greater effort to find cucumber juice at the store, or at least strain the home-made version that I made for this attempt, as I found my version a bit too chewy. It also definitely tasted better the longer it was chilled.

Next, I made what the cookbook calls a salad:
 

Grilled Garlic Shrimp and Quinoa-Mango Salad

*Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

1 pound (450 g) medium shrimp (about 24 per pound/ half kilo), shelled and deveined 

3 garlic cloves, minced 

2 tablespoons olive oil (or a blend of 1 tablespoon each olive and sesame oil) 

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 

¾ cup (128 g) quinoa 

1¼ cups (300 ml) cold water 

Juice of 2 limes 

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro or scallions 

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil or olive oil 

1 ripe mango, peeled, pit removed, and flesh cut into ¾×¼-inch (2×.5-cm) matchsticks 

¼ cup (23 g) toasted sliced almonds (see Note) 

Lime wedges, for serving (optional) 

Instructions

1. Toss the shrimp, minced garlic, olive oil, (or olive oil–sesame oil blend, if using) together in a bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper and toss again. The shrimp may be marinated up to several hours before cooking. Cover and refrigerate. 

2. Place the quinoa in a sieve and rinse thoroughly under cold running water for at least 3 minutes. Drain. Bring the 1¼ cups water and a large pinch of sea salt to a boil in a small saucepan. Stir in the quinoa and return to a boil. Stir once thoroughly, then reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Cover the pan and cook for 18 minutes. 

3. While the quinoa is cooking, stir the lime juice, cilantro or scallions, and the 2 tablespoons of sesame or olive oil together in a serving bowl. Add the mango and let stand, tossing once or twice while the shrimp cook. 

4. When the quinoa is cooked, remove it from the heat and uncover it. Fluff a few times with a fork. 

5. Thread 3 shrimp onto each of 8 short (5- to 6-inch/ 13- to 15-cm) skewers. Preheat a grill pan or large heavy skillet (cast iron is ideal for either type of pan) over medium-high heat. Lay the shrimp into the hot pan and cook, turning once, until they are cooked through, about 4 minutes. 

6. Stir the still-warm quinoa into the dressed mango and toss well. Add more salt and/or pepper if needed. Pile some of the salad in the center of four salad plates. Scatter the almonds over the salad, and arrange the shrimp skewers around the salad. Pass extra lime wedges if you like. 

NOTE: To toast sliced almonds: Preheat an oven to 350°F (177°C). Spread the almonds out on a baking sheet and bake, stirring around once, until lightly toasted, about 10 minutes.

Personally, I don’t count any dish as a salad if it’s more grain than vegetable, but that quibble aside, this is one of the best quinoa dishes I’ve ever tasted. Heck, it may even be one of the best shrimp dishes I’ve ever tasted! I love how cooking the shrimp on skewers keeps the shrimp from shrinking down, though I did find it amusing that a French-Canadian cookbook defines as “medium” what American supermarkets describe as “jumbo.”

I also greatly enjoyed the Asian influences in this dish, what with the sesame oil and cilantro (which I opted to use instead of scallions), as well as the mango. I find it difficult to cut ripe mango into matchsticks so just used chunks, which worked out really well, in my opinion. This will definitely be one of the dishes I make when I feel like showing off without going to too much effort.

Overall, I was very pleased with both the novel and the recipes provided, especially for the quinoa dish, which I’ve already made more than once. Next week, I try out a cheesy casserole and skip another dessert, my goodness! Tell me how you’re doing as you cook along with me from The Nature of The Feast, Louise Penny’s free cookbook accompaniment to her bestselling Inspector Gamache series.

 

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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