Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Susan Wittig Albert presents "What's Cooking"

Thank you very much, Susanna and Nancy, for hosting me here at Rosemary’s Sampler! Before I get started, I want to say that I have long been a fan of The Rosemary House. I love visiting the store. And your wonderful mom, Bertha Reppert, generously included China Bayles in her book, Growing Your Herb Business (published back in 1994 and still in print). I’ve always been grateful.

Now let’s get down to business, as Bertha would say! Welcome to all you blog readers, and thanks for joining us today. This blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery. China has traded her career as a criminal defense lawyer for a quieter life as the owner of an herb shop in Pecan Springs TX. Life in the garden is full of mystery, however, and China is often called on to solve them. But that’s what makes life fun, isn’t it? Mystery, gardens, and plenty of good food.

What’s Cooking? Food and Mysteries in the China Bayles Series

When I first started the China Bayles books, back in 1992, most authors didn’t include recipes in fiction. While China is always stirring up something with herbs (rosemary biscuits for breakfast, a tomato soup with basil for lunch, an herb-rich lasagna for dinner), it wasn’t until the fifth book, Love Lies Bleeding, that I included a recipe. This one was for Ruby Wilcox’s Hot Lips Cookie Crisps. The scene went like this:

Ruby handed me a plate of cookies. "Be careful," she warned as I took one. "They bite back.

"Oh, yeah?" The cookie was small, I was hungry, and I popped it, fast. It was nutty, sweet, and hot. Very, very hot.

"Wow!" I went for the milk. "Those are incendiary," I said, when my mouth was cool enough to get the words out. "What the devil is in them?"

Ruby grinned. "I thought that would warm you up a little. I'm calling them Hot Lips Cookie Crisps. Did I put in enough habenero powder?"

"They're soul-searing," I said. "Cookie monsters. My palate may never recover."

To this day, I get more requests for this cookie recipe than for any other recipe in the series. One lady told me that she baked the cookies for her husband as a joke—and he ate the whole batch and demanded more. Chile-heads love them!

The second most popular recipe in the series is for the herb quiche with thyme and lavender that China and Ruby serve in their tea room, Thyme for Tea. I always keep a couple of cans of condensed milk in my pantry just for this quiche—and of course, a supply of dried lavender blossoms, as well. Quiche is simple to bake and perfect for Sunday brunch or Saturday night supper. Garnished with lavender or chive blossoms, it’s a treat for the eyes, as well as the taste buds. No wonder people keep asking for the recipe!

Food in Fiction

Food plays an important role in most novels, and certainly in mysteries. In the first chapter of China’s new mystery, Nightshade, I use an eggplant dish to introduce China’s husband, McQuaid, and her stepson, Brian. (You can read the first chapter here.) Turns out that neither McQuaid nor Brian are eggplant lovers. Eggplant is a nightshade, so putting this dish on the table gives me a chance to introduce the nightshades, as well as a couple of major characters.

I love to set scenes in restaurants, like this scene in Spanish Dagger. China and McQuaid are having lunch at Miguel’s and discussing the death of Colin Fowler. Here’s what’s on the menu:

. . . chipotle enchiladas with spicy black beans and rice and another Dos Equis for McQuaid, an ensalada de nopalites and iced tea for me. Nopalites or nopales are the green pads of the prickly pear cactus, carefully stripped of their spines. They’re cubed, blanched, chilled, and tossed with thin-sliced red onions, corn, tomatoes, mild chile peppers, cilantro, feta cheese, and vinaigrette for a light, spicy salad.

Since this book is all about Southwestern herbs, prickly pear (which is both a traditional food and a medicine) certainly has a place on the table. Want to try making this salad yourself? You’ll find fresh nopales in the produce section of many large supermarkets, or canned nopales on the shelf in the Mexican food section. The recipe is here. And if you’d like more
information about nopales, the Gourmet Sleuth will help.

In many crime novels, deals are made over coffee, plots are hatched over tea and cookies, and mysteries are solved over dessert. But when I use a recipe in the China Bayles novels, you can bet it’s going to feature an herb—usually the “signature herb” for the book itself. So when you’re reading A Dilly of a Death, you can find out how to make “A Dilly of a Tomato Soup” (you’ll find the recipe here, at the bottom of the page). Or when you’re deep in Lavender Lies, you can enjoy some Lavender Muffins.
When China and Ruby opened their tea room, Thyme for Tea, they found out that things don’t always go right in the restaurant business. But I certainly had fun collecting recipes for their monthly tea parties. You can find them all by clicking on the “tea party” link on the Thyme for Tea website. April’s coming up, so why not check out China’s ideas for a “spring-thyme tea”? Please feel free to use their ideas for decorations and refreshments.

Food, cooking, and kitchens will always play an important role in this series. There are plenty of recipes on my website, and I’m always looking for more. Yes, I do test the recipes that appear in the book—that’s why they’re usually pretty simple. China and I don’t have time to stir up complicated dishes. If you have an idea for an herb-flavored favorite you’d like to see featured in a book, why don’t you leave a note here? We’ll see what China can cook up!

Well, that’s all for now. Thanks again, Susanna and Nancy, for hosting me. And
thanks to all you readers who’ve dropped in to read today’s post. I’ll be around today and tomorrow to answer your questions and read your recipe suggestions. Please don’t forget about the drawing. And do check the calendar to see where I’ll be blogging next. Hope to see you there!

About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour

If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of
Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for Rosemary’s Sampler closes at noon on March 28, 2008.

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog
tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.


Carol said...

I had no idea how hungry I would get on this blog tour. My niece once made some cookies very similiar to Ruby Wilcox's Hot Lips Cookie Crisps. I'm not much of a baker, but that's a recipe I want to try because that combination of heat and sweet is delicious!

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

Michele said...

Me, too, Carol! It isn't even near lunch time and my tummy is already growling for soup and cookies.

Becky T. Lane said...

Have you tried any of the artisanal chocolates with a touch of chili pepper in them? You don't really taste it until it hits the back of your throat, creating a warm glow going down. To die for!

susanalbert said...

Chiles and chocolate--an age-old combination! The Aztecs (who valued chocolate so highly that they used it as currency) brewed up a chocolate/chile drink they considered an aphrodisiac. Here's China's version (scroll to the bottom of the page for the recipe).


Martha said...

What a wonderful start to my day--visiting a favorite blog and finding your guest appearance today. It certainly makes me want to read your books and following all the links was such fun. Thank you!

Janet Grace Riehl said...

What fun! what a great way to add the sense of taste to the written word...and then expand on that through your blogtour. Brilliance on all fronts!

Janet Riehl

Kim said...

I'm definitely a recipe collector and I have saved and tried many of the recipes on the website. My favorite is Mint Nut Bread. It quickly became a family favorite and I have been making it for 3 years now!!!!

Anonymous said...

Edible flowers seem to receiving more publicity - they were recently featured on the cover of Woman's Day magazine in a mixed green salad with edible flowers, and also in a recent issue of Victoria magazine. Do you think China and Ruby will use them in the tea room?

Annie in Austin said...

Should I bake some Hot Lips Cookie Crisps to celebrate planting 'Hot Lips' salvia?

Susan, have you used Mexican Mint Marigold in a recipe? All I've done with it so far is throw some leaves in chicken soup or chicken salad.

Now off to explore Rosemary's Sampler!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

susanalbert said...

Kim, nice to see you here! China says that mint bread is one of her favorites, too. It freezes very well. But she has to bake a double batch, or there won't be any to freeze!

Janet, thanks for stopping by. I'm enjoying your blog.

Re: edible flowers. China and Ruby use them quite a lot, from chive and borage blossoms to calendula petals to lavender. Mmmm, lavender. Check out the recipes here: http://www.abouthyme.com/China/TeaRoom/party/0107.html)

Last night, Bill and I had a salad with redbud blossoms. And here's one you might not have thought of: daylily buds.

But do NOT eat lilies of the valley! They contain a cardiac glycoside that can be fatal. A cookbook had to be recalled a few years ago, because the cover featured a cake decorated with LOVs.

Susan, www.abouthyme.com

Kerri said...

You have me itching to take a trip to the library, come home, cook up something delicious from China's collection, and then curl up with a good mystery :)
This blog tour is great fun. Thank you!

susanalbert said...

Hello, Annie--Ruby thinks it would be a great idea to celebrate Hot Lips salvia planting with her Hot Lips Cookie Crisps!

Annie, don't you just love Mexican Mint Marigold? For you Northerners, this (Tagetes lucida)is Texas' answer to tarragon (which we can't grow successfully). I have a patch of it by my front porch and love its sunny yellow marigold blossoms in October. There's a great chapter on it in Lucinda Hutson's Herb Garden Cookbook, with several recipes: stuffed tomatoes, MMM vinaigrette, chicken (with mustard and MMM), and catfish. I've used it, with lemon, to flavor fish baked in foil or parchment.

Hey, guys, we should have packed a picnic lunch! We're all going home hungry!

Valerie Zagami said...

Susan how wonderful to find my favorite author on my favorite friends' blog. Thank you for giving so many like myself wonderful hours of entertainment. I want to know how you get inspired to write so well while weaving food into your story? It is a great gift. thanks, Valerie

Storybook Woods said...

Well I am so glad you think food pays important part in novels, since I think it plays an important part in life. Food tells stories, creates memories and makes us stop and appreciate. This is why I love your books, you use these so well in your novels. Thanks for the yummy recipes. Clarice

Marion said...

I love your blog and your tour Susan, I'm planning on following it all the way. I'm a great fan of your books, started to read them in the Dutch translations, but soon turned to the English versions. It's so good for my english herbal vocabulary. :D I tried dying wool and cross stitch fabric with Marigold, but I think I'll keep using those herbs for ointments, they don't give much colour. Maybe Ruby can give some great yarn dying tips. I can see her spin and knit. :)

susanalbert said...

Valerie and Clarice, I think the plants and food are inspiring. As Clarice says, they tell stories and create memories. And when characters (China and Ruby and the others) care about such things, it gets woven into their lives--and ours. I love discovering the stories that lie behind the plants. Sometime I'll have to tell you about buffalo gourds!

And Marion, nice to hear from somebody who met China in Dutch! There weren't very many of those translations: the international market fell apart in the late 90s. So I'm glad you've switched to English. When you tried dyeing with "marigold," I hope you were using calendula--which is sometimes called "marigold" but isn't. Marigold (Tagetes sp.) doesn't have any dyeing capabilities. Calendula does. Confusing, I know!

susanalbert said...

P.S. Calendula is the Herb of the Year for 2008. Here's a photo and some information: http://www.crimson-sage.com/calendula-2008-herb-of-year.html

White On Rice Couple said...

Hi Susan,
We're so happy to be here from a referral by a blog friend! Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful book drawing!
We are especially excited to see your prickly pear recipe because it's something we've been wanting to cook with for the longest time!
Even if we don't win, we will certainly be reading your novels!

Crafty Gardener said...

I love seeing the recipes in the books. I've enjoyed reading todays post on the blog tour.

Mary said...

I have been reading the China Bayles books since the first one in 1992. I had just graduated from UT Austin and missed Texas so much. I love the way the food, the plants and the characters bring a little bit of the hill country to NY. When my Texas friends and I are a little sick of the snow we cook McQuaid's favorite cornbread and chili. No peanuts!
Mary in central NY

susanalbert said...

I think it's interesting, the way we associate foods with a certain region. There are foods that almost spell T-E-X-A-S, and every time we eat them, we think of a place: a barbecue joint, a Tex-Mex restaurant, a chile cookoff, a beer fest in New Braunfels. It's one of the reasons I enjoy writing mysteries set in Texas. (That, and the fact that Mediterranean herbs grow so well here!)

Annie said...

I'm so glad someone (another Annie as it turns out!) asked about Mexican Mint Marigold. I was just thinking about that the other day. I would love to see a book featuring lemon grass. The only recipes I know for lemon grass are thai curries.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog