Someone's in the Kitchen with . . . Cassie

by Dr. Roberta A. Isleib

I'm a serious culinary mystery addict. I've followed Diane Mott Davidson's caterer, Goldy Bear, through every adventure, drooling as she prepared feasts for hundreds of guests-and marveling when she still had the energy to whip up treats from scratch for her family on the side. If she didn't have the stamina to cook comfort foods in between finding corpses, her cop husband Tom did. They always had the right ingredients on hand for an emergency batch of double chocolate cookie bars. Or, if something critical turned up missing, they knew just what to substitute.

Recently, my addiction spread to Jerrilyn Farmer's Madeline Bean-not only can the woman cook, she needs very little sleep. This gives her all the time in the world to keep up with her catering business while catching murderers. Oriental chicken salad with deep-fried wontons, shrimp and pork dumplings, sticky rice-just reading about the preparations for her latest bash sends a reader exhausted and reeling to the phone for Chinese take-out.

Imagine the culinary raptures these authors must prepare for their families each evening! And imagine their backgrounds, steeped in food lore and recipes passed down for generations! Where else could they get the inspiration for their characters? A natural question followed when I started to plan my own mystery series: Could I breathe life into a chef protagonist?

Conspicuous barriers immediately became evident. For starters, where I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and Detroit in the fifties, haute cuisine consisted of adding a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup to the dish in question. Spinach, green beans, chicken-they all got the same treatment. Red meat selections, on the other hand, were married to Lipton's onion soup (pot roast) or Campbell's alphabet soup (meatloaf.) Just add a crisp, pale wedge of iceberg lettuce dressed with a glob of other-worldly-orange bottled French dressing and voila-fancy company fare. 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.

Maybe I could overcome this lack of early training, I mused. People learn to cook as they mature-it's not genetic. My husband, the ultimate pragmatist, pointed out that my stepchildren will remember me for cheese toast and hot dog casserole recipes. And, he added, when he's asked what I've prepared for dinner recently, I've sniffed in snooty tones that cooking saps my creativity.

Laying out these homely truths helped to clarify that creating a chef protagonist was not a realistic option for me. As predicted, Cassandra Burdette, the aspiring professional golfer in my new mystery series, has so far shown no signs of talent in the kitchen. (Cassie informs me, in snooty tones, that it's hard to cook when you're always on the road.) Notwithstanding our lack of background and talent, Cassie and I love to eat and to read about food. Was there a way to work this into a golf mystery, I wondered?

Then last summer, I participated in a professional-amateur tournament at the Shoprite LPGA Classic as research for book two in the series, Killer Lies. Eureka! Included in the price of admission were two tickets to the "Taste of the LPGA", a charitable fundraiser featuring chefs from over thirty restaurants, along with a smattering of the LPGA golfers. A sell-out throng of dressed-to-kill patrons sampled these chefs' showcase dishes, though my quick survey of the room revealed that the golfers served mostly as front women.

I asked Cassie to go, for the sake of my research. She didn't want to-not only was she in the middle of an important golf tournament, she'd just found a dead body. But she went. Here's her take on the party:

"I located my evening's assignment-a booth sponsored by an Italian restaurant from New York City called Mama Roseata's. Which sounded more like a disease than a gourmet hot spot. I pinned on a golf ball-shaped nametag, donned a tissue paper chef's hat, an apron, and a frozen smile, and took my place behind their table. The chef's signature dish, macaroni in a rich white sauce, studded with lobster chunks the size of small plums, was to be presented in martini glasses. A large, sweating man in a white uniform explained my job: stab a star-shaped Parmesan cheese wafer into the pasta, describe the dish (penne please, not macaroni), and offer it to the patrons.

"Creamy lobster penne with a homemade parmesan crisp," I said, presenting a glass to every customer who passed by, and smiling, smiling, smiling. I couldn't get the dead woman's cloudy eyes and the jellyfish feel of her skin out of my mind. Finally, my hands shook so hard that I missed the martini glass I was holding and stabbed Chef Roseata's arm with a Parmesan star."

Cassie walked out early on her assignment, so she didn't manage to snag any recipes from the celebrity chefs. She did agree, however, to share one of ours.

CASSIE BURDETTE'S COMPANY HOT DOG CASSEROLE

1 medium onion, chopped
1 small green pepper, chopped
6-8 best quality hot dogs, sliced into rounds
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons barbeque sauce
2 tablespoons molasses or brown sugar
1 very large can B&M baked beans
Worcestershire sauce

Saute onions and peppers in small amount of olive oil. Set aside. Sauté hot dog slices until brown. Mix these ingredients with the baked beans, pork fat removed and discarded. Add mustard, barbeque sauce, molasses or brown sugar, and Worcestershire sauce to taste. Mix and pour into a greased 9x11 casserole. Bake at 350 until bubbly.

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