8 Questions with Award-Winning Mystery Author Micki Browning

Award-winning author Micki Browning worked in municipal law enforcement for more than two decades and is an FBI National Academy graduate. She retired as a division commander – wonderful fodder for her current career as a full-time writer.

Micki BrowningHer mystery, Adrift, set in the Florida Keys, won the 2015 Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence and the Royal Palm Literary Award for best unpublished mystery and unpublished book of the year. It was published in January 2017 by Alibi- Random House.

Micki also writes short stories and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in dive magazines, anthologies, mystery magazines and textbooks.

Micki resides in Southern Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment. She’s currently working on Beached, the second in the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. Learn more at www.MickiBrowning.com

MB: Thank you Laurie, I’m so pleased to be your guest today!

LS: I loved the opening to this mystery. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say it’s not your average dead-body-on-page-five first chapter.

MB: Thank you! I actually struggled a bit with this beginning because I knew I was bucking genre norms, but Adrift could not have started any other way.

LS: Are you a plotter or a pantser? How long did it take you to write Adrift, and what is your process?

Adrift by Micki BrowningMB: Adrift took about a year and a half to complete. I started out as a pantser—but mysteries require a bit of planning. That said, I hate outlining. I have yet to envision a story from start to finish before I’ve written half the book. I recently finished Beached, the second in the Mer Cavallo Mysteries. I knew what I needed in the end, but it wasn’t until I was writing the final confrontation that the details finally coalesced. Now I like to think of myself as a hybrid pantser/plotter. The milestones I need to visit along the way are clear, but the path I travel is often serendipitous.

LS: Florida is a fertile setting for mysteries and crime writing in general—Miami and Key West, in particular, offer lots of crazy for writers to work with. Key Largo, on the other hand, has a quiet, laid-back vibe. What challenges or advantages does this present as a mystery setting?

MB: I lived the life I wrote about in Adrift. After I retired from a twenty-two year career in law enforcement, my better half and I decided to leave Colorado and decompress in the Keys. The closest thing to snow in the Keys is a shaved ice and living there allowed us to dive almost any day we wanted. In the process, I became a professional divemaster and worked in one of the local dive shops. So as a setting, it was perfect. I know Key Largo. I know the dive industry. I’ve seen the crazy. The only drawback is that it’s a small community. That said, a LOT of people pass through. No telling what secrets they have.

LS: Your background is in law enforcement, yet you chose to make your main character a scientist. What inspired this choice?

MB: Most mystery writers would love to have my background, so it strikes them as odd that I chose to write about an amateur sleuth. But the fact is I had just retired, and I wanted a bit of distance from the profession. It seemed natural to write about someone who loved the ocean, loved her job, and was smart. I also wanted her to be a bit of a fish out of water. Adjusting to the laid-back life in the Keys was a difficult transition for Mer. As a newcomer to the area, I was able to capitalize on some of my own experiences learning about a new place.

LS: I love the subtle humor and snarky social commentary, such as when everyone on the boat is posting to YouTube, or my personal favorite, “It’s octopuses! Why can’t people get that?” It reminds me of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, if Warshawski worked on a dive boat. Do you plan to bring up issues in each of your books, or do these things just pop out as you write?

MB: Oh, good question! It’s fun to write through the eyes of characters because nothing is off limits. But it has to come from the characters not the author. If it is true to the character, it’ll pop out!

LS: What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned in the process of writing and marketing your first published novel?

MB: Celebrate the little things! Writing isn’t easy (at least it isn’t for me), and nothing in the publishing industry moves fast. Once a book is released, marketing never really stops. It also helps to have friends who write. They understand that wine and chocolate are both celebratory and consolatory indulgences.

LS: What’s the most fun thing about being a published author? Least fun thing?

MB: I’ve wanted to write a book ever since I was a little girl, so Adrift is truly the realization of a dream. I still pinch myself. Querying, on the other hand, was not a fun process. The feedback was fabulous, but rejection is hard. Hence the wine and chocolate…

LS: Sooner or later, I always have to ask about food. Mer is unable to resist when her neighbor grills a juicy tri-tip. Do you have a favorite recipe for Santa Maria-style steaks or any tips?

MB: For the uninitiated, Santa Maria Valley is located along the Central Coast of California. The regional staple is Santa Maria-style barbecue—a beef tri-tip seasoned with salt, black pepper a bit of garlic and then grilled. And not just any grill, either. All around the valley—outside grocery stores, next to produce stands, behind restaurants—you’ll encounter behemoth iron grills that have wheel cranks to raise and lower massive grates over oak-wood fires. Stands will sell plates of sliced tri-tip along with beans, fresh salsa, tossed green salad and slabs of grilled French bread. It’s standard fare for weddings, retirement parties, and impromptu lunches. It’s fabulous. To this day, I can’t eat a steak without salsa. When I first landed in the Keys, no one carried tri-tip. Now that cut of beef is easily found in all the markets. Maybe Mer got the word out! As far as a recipe, it’s beyond simple: Grill tri-tip to medium rare. Add salsa (I recommend fresh and spicy). That’s it. Bon Appetit!

 


2 Great Recipes for Cauliflower Rice

Laurie_Sterbens_Jambalaya_with_Cauliflower_Rice.jpg

Cauliflower rice works great in Jambalaya. 

In my last post  I shared how I make cauliflower rice that’s more al dente and less cruciferous-crunchy than other recipes I’ve tried.

You: Why are you still talking about this? I hate cauliflower.

Don’t worry; I won’t keep trying to push cauliflower on you if you’re staunchly pro-starch. That would be dysfunctional. Besides, I’ll be busy trying to get my husband to like bacon so I can make this meatloaf. However, if you’re on the fence, haven’t tried cauliflower rice yet or just learned how to make it and aren’t sure what to do with it, here are some ideas.

Cauliflower rice is perfect with stir-fries, especially with a few healthy sprinkles of coconut aminos (or soy sauce, if you’re not avoiding soy and sodium). But try throwing it into a Cajun recipe and the cauliflower flavor takes a backseat to the spices. You may not scream, “You’re lying! This is rice!” but you’ll save a lot of calories and carbs without feeling like you’re choking down a bowl of vegetables.

Caul.chart

Nutritional information from www.calorieking.com.

You can also sub pureed cauliflower for the grits in your favorite Shrimp and Grits recipe. I like this recipe for Deep South Shrimp and Sausage from Cooking Light. Serve it over cauliflower pureed with a tablespoon of butter, an ounce of half and half and a half cup of shredded Parmesan cheese.

If cauliflower’s working for you and you want to step up your game, you can try cauliflower pizza crust or cauliflower tortillas. I’ve only tried the pizza crust once with modest success. You have to make sure to squeeze as much water out of the cauliflower as possible to make it work, and you need to let it cool first so you don’t burn your hands. I may have skipped that last part. Ouch.

And then there’ s cauliflower “steak.” Okay, here I have to draw the line. Not even the most imaginative application of umami-inducing seasonings is going to make me look at a slab of cauliflower and confuse it with sirloin. That said, roasted cauliflower can be a great thing. Clean Eating offers up its take on cauliflower steaks here.

Jambalaya with Cauliflower Rice

1 recipe Cauliflower Rice

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth or stock
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 ounces andouille sausage, chopped
2 tablespoons sliced green onions

Prepare cauliflower rice and set aside.
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic; sauté 6 minutes or until lightly browned. Stir in bell peppers, paprika, salt, oregano, ground red pepper and black pepper; sauté 1 minute.
Stir in broth and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes. Add shrimp, sausage and cooked cauliflower rice; cover and cook 5 minutes. Sprinkle with green onions.

Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry with Cauliflower Rice

This recipe (minus cauliflower rice) is from Paleo Grubs, where it’s called Simple Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry. It’s delicious and not difficult, but since it involves more than 5 ingredients and chopping and mincing, not including the cauliflower rice, I deleted “simple” from the title when I saved it to my recipe planner.

1.5 lbs. sirloin, thinly sliced
4 tbsp coconut aminos, divided
4 tbsp red wine vinegar, divided
3 tbsp chicken broth
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp arrowroot flour
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
4 carrots, diagonally sliced
3 tbsp coconut oil, divided

1 recipe Cauliflower Rice

Place the sirloin in a small bowl with one tablespoon each of red wine vinegar and coconut aminos and toss to coat. Let marinate for 15 minutes at room temperature.

Meanwhile, whisk together 3 tablespoons each red wine vinegar, coconut aminos, and chicken broth. Stir in the garlic, ginger, arrowroot, honey, and sesame oil. Prepare a separate small bowl with 1 tablespoon of water and set it next to the stove along with the garlic sauce.

Melt 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the steak in the skillet in a single layer. The meat should sizzle; otherwise the pan is not hot enough. Cook for 1-2 minutes per side to brown, and then transfer to a bowl.

Add the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil to the skillet. Stir in the broccoli and carrots, cooking for 2 minutes. Add the water to the skillet and cover with a lid. Let cook for 2-3 minutes, then remove the lid and cook until all of the water has evaporated.

Add the garlic mixture to the vegetables and stir to coat. Add the beef back into the pan and toss until the sauce thickens and everything is well coated. Serve immediately over cauliflower rice.

 

Kinder, Gentler Cauliflower Rice

17834863_10213048136377311_5256907209492004099_o

This recipe for Cashew Chicken is an excellent reason for cauliflower rice.

About a year ago, my husband and I did a 30-day Paleo challenge.

  • Pros: Lost some belly fat, found great new healthy recipes.
  • Cons: Lots of planning, prep and cooking, not super travel-friendly, not cheap. Also not supposed to have dairy or alcohol. More on that later.

For the uninitiated, the Paleo Diet is based on what humans ate before the Agricultural Age and way before our current era, the Additive Age. The theory is that the human body wasn’t meant to process agricultural products, especially now that the food production industry has turned even originally healthy foods like grains into bionic alien pseudo foods. You’re supposed to eat clean, grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish and organic produce and avoid processed foods, grains, legumes, dairy and refined sugar.

I eventually failed dairy because coffee and cheese, but I definitely felt better without grains. Now I just try to eat Paleo during the week with limited dairy. Also not sure which era was when we learned about fermented grapes, but I’m pretending that happened.

paleo_house_divided

A house divided: Not everyone was on board with the Paleo plan.

The first thing you’ll learn when you go Paleo is that there are a lot of recipes out there trying to make something good you used to eat, like pasta, out of a vegetable you’re not that attached to, like zucchini. That low-carb classic, faux mashed potatoes made with cauliflower, is still around. Rice is another Paleo problem, and people have turned to cauliflower to solve that, too.

At first I was not a fan. Rice is a starchy comfort food, so, ideally, it shouldn’t break your teeth. Most recipes say pulse it in the food processor until it’s the size of rice, then saute it in oil, but all I got was warmer, oilier, mostly raw cauliflower.

I found that partially steaming the cauliflower first results in a softer, more rice-like texture.  Here’s how I make it now:

Cauliflower Rice

1 head cauliflower, cored and chopped
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon coconut or olive oil
Salt and pepper

Place the chopped cauliflower in a microwave-safe dish with 2 tablespoons of water. Cover and microwave on high for 8 minutes. Remove immediately, uncover and allow to cool.

Place 1/2 of cooled cauliflower in a large food processor and pulse until it resembles rice. Repeat with remaining cauliflower. Heat coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add cauliflower to skillet. Saute 5 minutes or until desired tenderness. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Q&A with Malice Guest of Honor Victoria Thompson

Winner of the Career Achievement Award for Mystery from RT Book Reviews, Victoria Thompson is the bestselling author of the Edgar ® and Agatha Award Nominated Gaslight Mystery Series and will be the Guest of Honor at the 2016 Malice Domestic conference. Her latest Victoria Thompson photois  Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue. She has published 18 mysteries and 20 historical romances and contributed to the award-winning textbook Many Genres, One Craft. She currently teaches in the Master’s Degree program for writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University. Victoria is a founding member and past president of Novelists, Inc., and a co-founder and past-president of both PENNWRITERS and  New Jersey Romance Writers. She lives in Indiana with her husband and a very spoiled little dog.

Contact her at: victoriathompson.com or Facebook: Victoria Thompson.Author or Twitter:  @gaslightvt.

What/who inspired you to write your first novel?

My first published works were historical romances set in Texas.  My inspiration came from a collection of Louis L’Amour short stories that I picked up by chance.  Captivated with the Old West, I went on to read all of L’Amour’s books, and then devoured all the classics by Max Brand and Zane Gray and many others.  I was so immersed in the Old West, that I started dreaming about it, and one of those dreams became the seed for my first novel, Texas Treasure.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of getting your first book published?

Overcoming my own ignorance!  I thought I’d written a Western, so I sent it to 5 publishers of Westerns. They all rejected me, of course, because what I’d really written was an historical romance set in the Old West.  When I finally figured that out and sent it to the right publisher, it sold immediately.

After 20 romances, you began writing mysteries. What inspired you to switch to mysteries, and what was the most challenging aspect of the genre change?

What inspired me to change genres was when my romance publisher told me they were dumping me.  This was the mid-1990s, and publishers had flooded the historical romance field.  Sales of individual titles dropped, and many authors did not have their contracts renewed. I was one of them. Unable to sell any more historical romances, I was trying to write a contemporary thriller when my agent told me Berkley Prime Crime was looking for authors to write mystery series.  She knew I could write mystery because I’d been putting mystery subplots into my romances, so she encouraged me to write a proposal for a series.  The result was the Gaslight Mystery Series.

The most challenging aspect of the genre change was having created my two protagonists, Sarah Brandt and Frank Malloy, and knowing they were perfect for each other but having to keep them apart. In a romance, they would have gotten together by the end of the first book, but I managed to keep them apart for 15 books.  Frank finally proposes in #15 and they marry in #17.

What lessons from writing romance did you apply to writing mysteries?

My agent and my editor both warned me that mystery readers don’t like romance in their mysteries, but I did put in a hint of it in the first book. Readers were hooked and they sent me fanmail for 15 years begging me to get them together. So lesson #1 I brought with me:  People love a good romance.  The other lesson I brought was to create characters readers will love or will love to hate.  I managed to make even a corrupt and jaded police detective loveable, and his harridan mother is the one everyone loved to hate.

You wrote romance novels set in pioneer-era Texas, and your current series is set in turn-of-the-century New York. Is it an era or a setting that inspires you most?

I have to really love the setting, and that includes the time period.  I grew up watching Westerns on TV and in the movies, and the Cowboy is America’s mythic hero, so I was pre-programmed to love the Old West.  I’d visited New York many times and loved the energy and variety of the city. When I started the series, my daughter had just started at New York University, so we spent a lot of time visiting her and getting to know the city the way a native does. I am also very fond of the turn-of-the-century time period, when the modern era had just begun and life was changing every day.  What I love most about that time period and that place is that the social issues people were dealing with then are the same ones we’re still dealing with. The technology is different, but people are still very much the same, so I can show Frank and Sarah considering an issue that people understand completely because they’re thinking about it, too.

We talk about food a lot here. Amid all the births and murders and poverty and corruption, Sarah and Frank have to eat, and you can’t just have them hit a drive-thru. Old photos and news articles can give you an idea of the setting, but how do you go about finding the right foods?

Years ago, I moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and I had to leave my critique group who had helped me tremendously through my early books.  As a going away gift, they gave me a book called Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams.  It has menus and recipes and descriptions of how people ate in the Nineteenth Century, and I refer to it often, especially when Sarah’s nosy neighbor, Mrs. Ellsworth, is baking something. I’ve added more books about everyday life to my library since then, but this is my primary reference. I also own a lot of books that are collections of period photographs. Some of them show holiday celebrations, which shows what the table would have looked like and what people wore.  Nothing can replace a good recipe, though!

Back to births, murders, poverty and corruption, I’m seeing a lot of buzz among mystery writers lately about cozy classifications, particularly cozy noir and edgy cozies. As a historical, you’re safely outside the fray, but as a teacher in the genre I’m curious about your take on this. How far do you think a cozy can go before it’s not a cozy?

I’m happy to report that the term “cozy” is slowly being replaced by the word “traditional.”  This is because “cozy” just doesn’t cover all the variations of mystery found in that subgenre.  StNicholasAs a teacher, I will tell you that there are 3 main subgenres of mystery:  PI/Noir, (Police) Procedural, and Cozy.  The PI/Noir category used to be just jaded PI’s like Sam Spade, but now we have lots of mysteries with that same Noir feel who may not have a PI protagonist, so we have to expand that definition a bit.  Police Procedural originally just featured real cops doing what they do, but then we started seeing other professionals featured in mysteries who weren’t cops but who were still professionals whose job it was to solve crimes, like medical examiners, so now I just call them Procedurals and they feature a professional doing his/her job and show readers inside that secret world. Since my books aren’t PI/Noir or Procedural, they have to be Cozy.  They do fit the definition in that they don’t have sex or gratuitous violence, and they do feature one amateur sleuth, but I always got a lot of pushback when I told an educated audience of other writers or avid readers that they were cozies. I’d explain that Cozy is a Big Tent with room for lots of variations, but I am glad to see someone actually came up with a better descriptor, Traditional, that really says what all these books are.  So to answer your question, I think a cozy can go pretty far so long as it doesn’t gross out the reader or turn the lights on in the bedroom, but there is also plenty of room in the Noir subgenre for books that cross those lines.

You recently “retired” from your full-time day job as a fundraiser. I say “retired” because you’re still an author, which involves a lot of travel and work outside of the writing part, and adjunct professor and mentor in Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program, which also involves travel and a lot of work. How on earth have you managed to turn out 38 novels? Any time management tips?

People would often ask me how I found time to write when I was still working a day job, and they actually still ask me that! The answer is that we always make time for the things we like to do best.  I didn’t watch a lot of TV or even read nearly as much as I would have liked in order to have the 2-3 hours every day I needed to write a novel. I also gave up a lot of weekends and holidays and spent them in front of a computer, even when I was on vacation.  I was willing to make those sacrifices because they didn’t feel like sacrifices at all.  I was doing what I loved, and that’s really what I preferred to do.

In Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, your two main characters, Sarah and Frank, are on their honeymoon and it’s up to other characters to solve the murder. What inspired you to let the other characters take over in this story?

My publisher inspired me when they asked me to write a Christmas book featuring secondary characters from the series.  The timing was perfect because Frank and Sarah were getting married in the previous book, and with them in Europe, it was perfectly logical for the others to take center stage. I had a ball writing that book, because I really had an opportunity to get to know these people myself.

Any writing projects in the works aside from the next in the Gaslight series?

I’m currently finishing up the first novel in what I hope will be a new series. Now that I’m retired, I have time to write a second series, and this is an idea I’ve been nursing for about 5 years.  The heroine is a con artist and the hero is an honest attorney.  Berkley is considering it at the moment, so I hope to hear soon if they’ll publish it. If not, we’ll seek other outlets for it.

 

‘Puh-men-uh’ Cheese, Please

It’s late at night and you’re snuggled up in bed with a good book, hoping to fall asleep after a few more pages, when the character goes into a restaurant and orders something delicious, or worse, goes to her kitchen and bakes. So then you’re laying there in bed, all comfy and cozy but thinking, mmm, cookies sound good. You try to keep reading, but before you know it you’re out of bed, ransacking the kitchen and WHO ATE ALL THE OREOS, DAMN IT?

Snack danger lurks in all types of fiction, but the cruelest genre by far is the culinary cozy, a sub-sub-genre of mystery fiction in which the amateur sleuth may be a caterer, a coffee shop owner, or owner of a bakery. Authors of culinary cozies don’t just tempt you with descriptions of delicious foods; they often include recipes. Not only do you have to get out of bed—they expect you to cook!

Pimento cheese is easy to throw together in the food processor. Did I forget the celery sticks? How did that happen?

The most recent book that set me off chasing a craving was Fatal Reservations by Lucy Burdette. The main character, food critic Hayley Snow, orders pimento cheese as an appetizer in a Key West restaurant. Being from the South (located somehow thousands of miles north of Key West), I do know a little something about pimento cheese. As a  child I consumed gobs of the gelatinous orange store-bought concoction known as puh-men-uh-cheese, on Wonder Bread or similar. It seemed a fine thing at the time, but then I grew up, married a New Yorker who wouldn’t understand, and forgot all about puh-men-uh-cheese.

That is, until friend’s party a couple of years ago, where she served up a big bowl of what she referred to as pimento cheese. This was not the pimento cheese of my childhood. This was freshly shredded cheddar and jack cheeses, the tart bite of chopped pickles, held together with good mayonnaise, not that sweet salad dressing stuff. Served with celery sticks and/or crackers, it’s an easy appetizer to throw together in your food processor to serve at a party (or when your latest read demands a salty, cheesy snack). You can find that recipe, from NPR, here.

Lucy Burdette, aka bestselling mystery author Roberta Isleib, shared “Lucy Burdette’s Pimento Cheese Two Ways” on mysteryloverskitchen.com. She graciously answers a lot of questions here.

Q&A with Author Lucy Burdette/Roberta Isleib

LucyBurdette

Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib, is the author of the bestselling Key West Food Critic mystery series. The latest in the series, Killer Takeout, is due out in April. Catch her weekly blogs with other food-loving mystery writers at MysteryLoversKitchen.com and another group of crime fiction writers at JungleRedWriters.com.

What/who inspired you to write your first mystery?

I call this my mid-life crisis! I was playing lots of bad golf and trying to figure out how to “use” the wasted hours. Somehow that worked out to be writing a mystery about a neurotic golfer. It helped that I’d always read and loved mysteries, and that I love watching characters grow and change (like the psychologist I am.)

What did you find to be the most challenging part of getting your first book published?

I truly had no idea what I was doing when I began to write. I did have some strengths: I’d always read mysteries and I was a clinical psychologist—very handy when it comes to creating characters. But I don’t think I realized how difficult the getting-published path would be. Luckily, I enjoy research—and so I read books about writing and publishing, and took whatever classes I could find, and joined a writers’ group, and gradually began to make some connections in my field. Doggedness counts, so does a willingness to take constructive feedback. You didn’t ask for advice, but I’ll offer some, just in case. These are all things I learned through trial and error:

  • Read a lot, making sure you include books in the genre in which you’re writing. Fans of each genre have expectations and are disappointed if you don’t meet them. For amateur sleuth mysteries like the ones I write, some of the necessary conventions include playing fair with clues, avoiding the trap of the female in jeopardy, not withholding necessary information from the reader, and not allowing a gimmick (in this case, food) to take the place of a good story.
  • Writing and publishing are both difficult, not for the faint-hearted. You’ll need friends who don’t roll their eyes when you talk about your characters as if they were your kids. And friends who can buck you up when you get a rough critique or bad news. And friends who might cook for you or lend you a quiet room when you’re on a crushing deadline. And friends to be happy for your success and come to your book signing.
  • And finally, never rush to send your work out. With agents and editors and contests only a mouse click away, it’s easy to hit send before the work is the best it can be. Rewriting is a writer’s best friend–whether you are a newbie or an old hand. Put the precious words in a drawer, cyber or real, and let them simmer. Get feedback from trusted sources, rewrite again.

What/who inspired you to write about a food critic?

The short answer is that my editor at NAL was looking for a proposal about a series starring a food critic. When I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and Detroit in the fifties and sixties, haute cuisine consisted of adding a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup to the dish in question. Oh, we had ethnic dining options too: Heat up a can of slimy lo mein noodles and flaccid vegetables and sprinkle with crunchy faux-noodle topping.

Killer Takeout-1With that background, you might wonder about my qualifications to write about a food critic character. Basically, I love to eat. And I love to eat good food–not fussy, just delicious. My husband teases that “Isleib” (my family name) means “is stomach” in German. His other fictionalized translation for my name is “large lunch followed by a restful nap.”

We love flawed main characters. Your food critic, Hayley Snow, is romantically challenged. She’s got some self-sabotoging habits and has some family issues. Do you find inspiration in your background as a psychologist for creating your characters?

From the very beginning, I wanted to use my training in clinical psychology by including reasonable psychologists in my novels. The challenge was to dream up characters who could use the principles of psychology to help solve mysteries without imploding with self-importance, stumbling over personal issues, or crossing ethical boundaries. I wanted to do it right. But I also wanted to encourage my characters to get into therapy!

Hayley Snow, the star of the food critic mysteries, struggles against psychoanalyzing her life, just as Cassie, my neurotic golfer, did. But both her psychologist friend Eric and her tarot-card-reading friend Lorenzo help her puzzle out people’s motivations, including her own. Thinking about the life arcs of my characters is the most fun part of the book for me.

How do you choose the quotes at the beginning of your chapters?

Thanks for asking—I really enjoy including these! In the beginning, I searched the Internet for quotes about food and begged friends to tell me their favorites. Now the more I read foodie memoirs and novels, the easier it is to find them. I keep a running list of great quotes as I come across them—as a result they’ve gotten more unusual and less familiar. Sometimes I fit them into the chapters as I go along, but always I choose a quote for each chapter before I sent the draft to my editor.

How do you choose the recipes that you include in the books?

Both Hayley and her mother are amazing cooks. So many of the recipes come from imagining what they’d whip up at home. Others are based on delicious food we’ve had in Key West restaurants. I blog every Thursday with a new recipe at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, so I always have options!

When you’re eating out in Key West, who gets to pick where and what you eat — you or Hayley? (That’s an interesting situation: you, Roberta, as Lucy, eating for Hayley. You’re eating for three!)

That makes my head spin! We have to try new places because Hayley can’t always write about the same restaurants. But of course, once we find something consistently, we go back over and over. (My mouth is watering as I think about the yellow snapper in Thai curry sauce at Seven Fish restaurant.)

In the An Appetite for Murder, Hayley writes a column about Key Lime pie. Where is the best Key Lime pie?

Hayley Snow would say the best pie comes out of the home kitchen. But it won’t hurt a visitor to do some research herself!

Root Beer Pulled Pork the Hard Way

If you cook at home and are inclined to things like pulled pork, you’ve probably heard of root beer pulled pork. Easiest thing in the world: Throw a bottle of root beer in the slow cooker, plop a pork roast in, cook. So I don’t mean to be misleading with that headline. Slow cooker pulled pork is not difficult.

However, it’s not without its issues. For one thing, root beer. Option one is to buy a six-pack of pricey craft-brewed root beer, then figure out what to do with the other five since we don’t normally drink soda, and never with sugar. Hey, we may eat pork and throw chemicals on it, but we have some rules to live by.

The other option is to buy a 2,000-pack of diet root beer, and then we end up drinking diet root beer until it’s gone, which is even worse than drinking five fancy root beers.

I found my solution when I went to a party where a friend was drinking hard root beer. You see where I’m going with this. Huge epiphany. Root beer, pork, alcohol — there’s no going wrong here, and leftover hard root beer is not a problem because alcohol.

Actually there is one way to go wrong here. The first time I tried this, I used a pork loin roast. This is a lean cut and, of course, healthier. It made pulled pork with a nice root beer flavor, but it was not as tender as it could have been. Use a pork butt or pork shoulder roast instead.

Serve with whole wheat hamburger buns and sweet potato fries to try to maintain some nutritional dignity.

Root Beer Pulled Pork

1 2-pound pork butt or pork shoulder roast
1 bottle hard root beer
Sea salt and and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Barbecue sauce
Hamburger buns
Shredded cabbage if desired

Place roast in slow cooker. Pour root beer over roast. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4 hours.

Drain liquid from pan. Pull meat apart with two forks until all shredded. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir.

Serve on hamburger buns, topped with barbecue sauce and, if desired, shredded cabbage.

Clowns and Dolls: ’50s Cakes Were Scary

This post originally appeared in Not Another Food Blog on Oct. 11, 2010, when, shortly after my premature departure from the newspaper business, I lost my  mind and took all the cake decorating classes.

This month I’m spending a couple of hours each week in a cake decorating class learning how to make flowers out of buttercream frosting, gum paste and fondant. This is my second cake-decorating class; I spent eight hours in August earning a certificate in The Wilton Method Decorating Basics.

Judging by this image from “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating,” less was not more for the brides of 1954.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, to be honest, I don’t really like cake. Sure, I can be tempted by pretty much anything chocolate, and a fresh, homemade carrot cake or coconut cake may turn my head, but for the most part, your standard office party bakery cake isn’t worth the extra calories. Plus, there’s the  icing. The day I found out bakery buttercream contains neither butter nor cream but is mostly shortening and powdered sugar was the last day I was able to enjoy those office cakes. I don’t know why, when I am so in love with butter and bacon, I’m so repelled by shortening, but I am.

So, why am I spending hours up to my elbows in powdered sugar and shortening? I have a 6-year-old son who’s allergic to eggs, and most bakeries don’t do eggless cakes.

There are a lot of cake-infested situations in a first-grader’s life. Mostly I handle this by keeping eggless cupcakes in the freezer. Whenever there’s a birthday party, I pull one out and frost it and take it along to the party so Trevor doesn’t have to sit and watch all the other kids eat cake. But Trevor has his own birthdays, and he deserves cakes that are just as cool as his friends’ cakes. OK, maybe cooler. “Happy birthday from your obsessively competitive mommy!”

Little Bobby required years of therapy after finding this cupcake clown on his plate.

When my mother-in-law found out I was taking the cake classes, she gave me the book her mother had used when she took Wilton cake-decorating classes in the 1950s, “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating” by McKinley Wilton and Norman Wilton. Flipping through the pages, I immediately fell in love with this book. All of the color pictures have that pastel, slightly out of focus look, like Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink.” Even though I know in reality it couldn’t be the case, I like to imagine there was a time when life’s colors were soft and sharp edges were blurred, when my son might have asked for a simple cowboy cake instead of Transformers.

Scary doll cake circa 1954: Take naked scary doll. Insert scary doll into Bundt cake. Cover cake and scary doll up to armpits with buttercream.

Though I recognized many of the techniques illustrated in the book, it was immediately apparent that cake styles have changed in the decades since it was published. For the most part, this appears to be a good thing. Compared to today’s wedding cakes, elegantly covered in sheets of smooth fondant with restrained displays of gum paste flowers or themed patterns, wedding cakes in the ’50s were riots of buttercream, royal icing and spun sugar. Why have just one border on each layer when you can have six or seven? Lace, ruffles, roses, birds — they only stopped when they ran out of cake to cover. Intervention was clearly needed. “Harry, put down the pastry bag and step away from the turntable. These nice men are going to take you to a lovely place where you can get some rest.”

Cake themes have changed with the times as well. Little boys and girls in those days would be happy with a simple piped-on rendition of an astronaut or a ballerina instead of whatever major movie marketing campaign had the biggest hold on them at the moment.

There is one cake theme that has, unfortunately, survived to this day, and that is the clown cake.

Dolls, frankly, creep me out a little bit, so I’m hoping the doll cake trend stays safely stuck in the 1950s.

First of all, let me just say right here that I do not like clowns. Clowns are scary. Looking at both modern clown cakes (you can see some here at Cakewrecks.com) and the ones in the book, it appears that the cake decorators may have intended to make happy clowns (as though such a thing existed), but clowns are just inherently scary.

Fortunately, another scary ’50s cake trend seems to remain safely in the past, and that’s the doll cake. OK, I know there are a lot of people out there who collect dolls and love them. I had dolls, too, when I was a little girl. But as an adult I have come to realize something: Dolls are scary. Doll collections — a room full of dolls just staring at your with their lifeless plastic eyes? Scary. There was an episode of “Ghosthunters” in which the property being investigated had one room filled with dolls. Dolls in the dark. This was more frightening than the prospect of a ghost popping out, if you ask me.

For certain ’50s situations, however, it was apparently the custom to take a scary, lifeless-eyed figure, stand her up in a cake and surround her with layer upon layer of buttercream borders, ruffles and roses. Sugarcoated, but still scary.

So you won’t be seeing any clown cakes or doll cakes from me. The scariest thing I’ve done so far was when I tried an experimental tinting technique on a fall-themed anniversary cake. It was supposed to be burgundy mums surrounded by a cascade of fall-colored leaves. It ended up looking like three sea urchins on a bed of bacon strips. But we learn our lessons and move on. The only thing that matters is that every April one little guy has the coolest birthday cake ever.

Eggless Homemade Ravioli

This post originally appeared in Not Another Food Blog on Jan. 14, 2013.

Recently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

  • Food processor, pasta machine, ravioli mold, rolling pin, small cookie scoop
  • 1 recipe ravioli (see above link)
  • Filling (see above link and recipe below)

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.

8 ounces ricotta

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch nutmeg

Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

I Am So Over Gardening

This post originally appeared in Not Another Food Blog on Jan. 19, 2013.

Here’s a photo from about a year ago showing my backyard vegetable garden:

garden.501

Here’s a photo of that garden now:

scarygarden3

The only things growing there now are one insane Italian parsley plant and a rogue tomato vine that is only thriving because I was was completely unaware of it until I went outside to dump something into the compost pile a couple of weeks ago. (There’s another trend I’m getting over; more on that later.)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have tried and failed to grow tomatoes. My mother, who effortlessly grew lush, eight-foot-tall tomato plants in boxes on her deck, tried to help me out by sending me the boxes she used, which were supposed to make the gardening process practically automatic. They were self-watering, and all I had to do was refill them occasionally and watch out for pests. Right. Fail, fail, fail.

I tried buying big, healthy plants. I tried starting my own seedlings. I tried inside, outside, upside down. There was apparently no way on earth a tomato would come to fruition in my care. Then, outside, in the middle of winter, there suddenly appears a healthy, fully grown tomato plant, as if to say, “Ha ha, Laurie, look at us! We are better off without you!” The plant is not staked, is surrounded by weeds, has not been watered or fertilized, and yet there it is, strong, healthy and rebelliously producing fruit. This is just the final proof that plants don’t like me.

My delusional adventures in gardening began about two years ago. I believe this can be partially attributed to identity crisis following my earlier-than-planned departure from the newspaper industry. This coincided with the major economic downturn that had many people looking toward getting back to basics, and so I jumped onto a national bandwagon of growing organic food at home, and planned to also hop on the home-canning trend, too. We would be stocked up with healthy, flavorful organic vegetables year-round!

Despite a lifelong history of having plants generally ignore my friend requests, I planted squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes and peppers, with marigolds in between that were supposed to repel insects. The squash, as you can see in the top photo above, sprouted up beautifully. Then, just as quickly, it developed an incurable disease and rotted. The cucumbers spread wildly but never grew much past cocktail gherkin size. Two rows of corn provided a nice snack for the squirrels, and you know how it went with the tomatoes. The only success I had was with peppers, but this brings me to a major problem I learned about gardening, which is, if you do grow anything, you end up with too much of that thing, so you end up eating salsa with everything for weeks and still have to go to the store to get onions and all the other things you don’t grow.

I know a lot of successful gardeners, and they’re probably shaking their heads right now, wondering what’s wrong with me. Maybe some will side with the plants and unfriend me. However, I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Last spring I interviewed a local landscaper for a story on upcoming home and garden trends, and he told me that he was getting fewer requests to put in vegetable garden beds. In fact, the major upcoming trend seemed to lean toward paving over the backyard altogether and maybe putting in some artifical turf. (This is in Florida. If you’ve ever cared for a yard here in the summer, you will understand this.)

The other thing I may abandon is composting. I never did that right, anyway. You’re supposed to invest in, or build, a nice compost bin and use official composting techniques such as layering with leaves or newspapers and flipping it all around occasionally. I never did any of that. I just piled some bricks in a corner and dumped my kitchen scraps out there. Sometimes I put leaves on it. It worked fine for a while, though it pretty much disappeared under weeds before I actually got to apply it to the garden. Now I suspect that it’s behind our recent fruit fly invasion. It has also occurred to me that I am taking away valuable organic material from the landfill. Wouldn’t it help the landfill to put good things in it, too?

I’m still dumping things in the yard as I ponder this, and in my defense I will say that I do recycle everything. Oh, and I haven’t killed the herbs, so I plan to keep them going. The tomatoes and I will remain civil but will probably never really be friends.

Are you a great gardener? Or are you ready to give up?