Those of you who have been following this column will know that I was not particularly happy with the ending of the previous book in the series. I was very much looking to this one to assuage my fears as to whether Louise Penny was an author I could implicitly trust with the difficult, moral narrative choices. It was a great relief to find that my fears, while valid, had come to naught here, as The Nature of the Beast is another terrific installment of the award-winning Inspector Armand Gamache series.
It was also the first novel of the series where I genuinely had no idea who might have been the killer, right up to the thrilling conclusion. The amount of misdirection was superb, but I suppose that’s to be expected in a tale that encompasses clandestine operatives and their shady dealings stretching back decades.
And all unexpectedly centered on Three Pines—the quiet village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships that appears on no maps—where a little boy with a fondness for tall tales comes across something long hidden that could mean millions, both of dollars and of deaths. It’s perhaps inevitable, and undoubtedly tragic, that that little boy does not live much longer than it takes for word of his discovery to disseminate. Driven at first by guilt that he took no heed of the boy’s story, the retired Inspector Gamache refuses to believe that the boy’s death was an accident. His insistence on investigating soon uncovers more murders, past and present, as an almost indescribable evil is awakened from dormancy once more.
First and foremost, this was a really good story. Drawing on recent history, Ms. Penny creates a disturbingly realistic and politically topical tale that had me quite frightened for one of the characters near the end. I was also heartened by the message that has run through all her books: that hatred and evil might win their battles, but they will always be outshone and defeated by humanity’s love for one another in the end.
On a less emotional note, I also really enjoyed the two apple dishes that were whipped up to accompany this novel, though one more than the other:
Apple and Avocado Salsa with Honey-Lime Dressing
*Makes 1½ cups salsa; about 8 servings
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon light honey
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small Hass avocado, peeled, pitted, and cut into ½-inch (1-cm) dice (see Note)
Half a red apple, peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch (1-cm) dice (see Note)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh cilantro
Chips of choice
Put the lime zest and juice into a bowl. Whisk in the honey, salt, and pepper. Fold in the avocado and apple until coated with the dressing. Add the cilantro, if using. Taste and add a little pinch more of salt and pepper, if needed. Spoon the salsa onto the chips. The salsa is best eaten when freshly made, but can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a few hours. If refrigerating, gently press a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the top of the salsa, then cover the container. Bring the salsa to room temperature about 15 minutes before serving.
NOTE: Choose a slightly firmer (but still ripe) avocado than you would for guacamole and a naturally soft red apple such as a McIntosh. The quantities may be easily doubled to serve a larger crowd.
This makes a terrific alternative to salsa for those allergic to tomatoes or seeking a fresh and slightly sweeter twist on a party staple. While that is my lovely assistant Karin’s nicely manicured hand in the photo, I was the one who gobbled down most of this tasty dip. It had a delightful texture to go with all the deliciously balanced sweet, salty, acidic, and fatty flavors, as well. Easy and quick to make, this is definitely joining my party snack repertoire.
Our next recipe involving apples—which show up quite often in The Nature of the Beast—has them prepared in the form of a soup:
Parsnip and Apple Soup with a Drizzle of Walnut-Infused Oil
*Makes 6 servings
For the walnut-infused oil
½ cup (60 g) walnut pieces
¼ cup (60 ml) walnut or vegetable oil
For the soup
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium leeks, dark green tops and roots trimmed off and discarded; light green and white parts cut into
1-inch (3-cm) lengths and washed
1 large celery stalk, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 parsnips (about 12 ounces/340 g total), peeled and thinly sliced
2 firm green or red apples (such as Granny Smith or Gala), peeled, cored, and coarsely chopped
3 cups (750 ml) chicken broth (vegetable broth if you prefer)
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
Juice of 1 lemon
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Yogurt or sour cream
¼ cup thinly sliced fresh chives
1. Make the walnut-infused oil: Preheat the oven to 350°F (177°C). Spread the walnuts out on a baking sheet and bake until well toasted, about 12 minutes. While still warm, add them along with the walnut or vegetable oil to a food processor. Process until the walnuts are very smooth. Scrape the walnut oil into a small bowl. Cover tightly and let stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour or up to 6 hours (but no longer).
2. Make the soup: Heat the olive oil and butter in a 5-quart (5-liter) pot over medium-low heat just until the butter is foaming. Stir in the leeks and celery. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, just until the leeks have softened, but not browned, about 8 minutes.
3. Add the parsnips and apples, reduce the heat to very low, and cover the pot. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until the parsnips and apples have softened, about 10 minutes.
4. Add the broth, orange juice, lemon juice, turmeric, cardamom, and cinnamon. Bring to a boil and adjust the heat so the soup is simmering. Cover and cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Set the soup aside to cool slightly. Puree the cooled soup well in a conventional or high speed blender, or through a food mill fitted with the fine disk. The soup may be made to this point up to 2 days in advance. Return the soup to the pot and reheat gently until simmering. Stir in the yogurt or sour cream and chives just before serving. Spoon into warm soup bowls and drizzle some of the walnut oil over each serving.
After this and the also sweet “Chilled Cucumber Soup with Mint and Melon” from an earlier column, I think I can safely say that my preference is for more savory soups. That said, this isn’t a bad dish at all. The soup itself is inoffensive, but it really benefits from the addition of the sour cream, chives, and that marvelous walnut-infused oil (which, in my experience of it, came out as almost a walnut butter in consistency). Both additions add depth and complexity to the soup, even as it isn’t a favorite of the recipes I’ve tried out for this column so far.
Dear readers, there is only one more book left in the Louise Penny oeuvre for me to cook through! Next week, I savor both a fancy sandwich and the last Gamache novel out in publication now. 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:
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.