The New England Fall Food Fest has begun, and for competitive cook Sherry Oliveri, it’s a chance to take home a prize—and take down a killer . . . Sherry’s hoping her Savory Shrimp Lettuce Cups will impress the judges, and she’s invited her brother, Pep, to serve as her sous-chef. The good news is that she takes first place in her category, the bad news is that it’s easier to win when your toughest competition is dead . . . After contestant Fitz Frye is found with a fishhook in his neck, Pep’s strange behavior doesn’t help his case when the police consider him top suspect. While Pep sits through a shakedown, Sherry searches near and far for the real culprit—before another deadly course is served . . . Includes Recipes from Sherry’s Kitchen!
Release date: August 25, 2020
Print pages: 304
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Eat, Drink and Be Wary
“Not we, you,” Pep replied. “And it’s not my fault you spent so much time meeting your neighbor’s new cat. We could have been here an hour ago.”
Sherry peered over her shoulder and caught sight of her brother checking his phone. “Expecting something important? I’ve seen you pull that thing out of your pocket every two minutes since we’ve been in here. When you have time to focus, I could use your help choosing the right wine.”
Pep lifted his gaze from the phone screen. “Message received. I’m all yours. I just didn’t realize signing up to be your cook-off sous chef meant I had to be in on all the recipe decisions.”
Sherry noted his sweet smile hadn’t changed a bit since childhood. But the scruffy, day-old stubble he sported was a change she hadn’t yet fully embraced. The whiskers aged him more than she was willing to accept. Even after not having seen her brother for nearly a year, his handsome features left Sherry’s heart warm every time she looked his way.
“It’s important you’re familiar with all the ingredients and how they work in the recipe. The problem is, the merlot I used in the recipe’s sauce was a gift from a previous contest. I can’t seem to find the maker here in Augustin.” Sherry sighed. “I’m looking for something light and fruity that pairs well with seafood.”
Sherry faced the wall of bottles. As she reached toward a domestic red, her fingers collided with an arm. “I’m sorry.” Sherry retracted her hand. “We seem to have the same taste in reds.” She giggled. “Go ahead, you take it.”
“I’m not too particular. I just like the design of the label and the fact that it’s from a Massachusetts winery,” the tall woman with wavy red hair explained. “I’m in a recipe contest tomorrow, and one of the prizes is a trip to the Mass winery, Risky Reward. I thought drinking a glass later might bring me good luck.”
Sherry heard Pep clear his throat with extra emphasis. She glanced his way, and sure enough, he tossed her a smirk. For a split second, she was ten again. Sherry let a snicker escape, despite trying to suppress it.
“Did I say something funny?” the woman asked.
“My brother and I are in a contest tomorrow, too. I’m assuming we’ll all be competitors in the New England Fall Food Fest?”
The woman gave Sherry a look that lingered. “Are you by any chance Sherry Oliveri?”
“I’m in big trouble now.” The woman lowered her head. “I thought I had a shot at winning with my Surf and Turf Shepherd’s Pie, but not now.” She lifted her head and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Donnie, come here a sec. I have someone I’d like you to meet.”
Sherry watched a man make his way from the other side of the liquor store.
“I’m Day Paulson, and this is my brother, Donnie, although he prefers Don. I’ll never see him as anyone but my little brother, Donnie, who bugged the heck out of me growing up, so that’s what I call him.”
Sherry pumped Day’s extended hand. “I don’t think we’re in the same category, unless you’ve found away to make shepherd’s pie a portable food that needs no utensils to eat it. That’s the category I’m competing in. Hands-On Foods. You must be in the One-Pot Wonders category.”
Day swept her hand across her forehead. “Phew.”
“Where are you two from?” Sherry took note of Don’s resemblance to his sister, especially his height. His gaze shifted her way. She felt a flush sweep across her cheeks.
“I’m from just outside of Chicago, and Donnie lives on Long Island. He wasn’t thrilled when I asked him to be my sous chef, but he nicely agreed.” Day pinched Don’s cheek.
“I’m beginning to reconsider. She’s getting pretty bossy,” Don added. “Nice to meet you.”
“There aren’t many contests that allow a sous chef. The Fall Food Fest is such a prestigious contest, I think the sponsors want to ensure the contestants put out their best work without getting tripped up in the details.” Sherry put her arm on Pep’s shoulder. “Not sure how thrilled Pep was to be asked, either. Lucky for me, he’s Mr. Nice Guy.”
Day stepped back from the wine shelf and handed Sherry the wine bottle. “Take this. I’m not choosy.”
“Thanks.” Sherry read the label. She returned the bottle to Day. “Can’t use this one. I need a merlot, this one’s a blend. I’m looking for light and fruity.”
“If those are the qualities you have in mind, may I suggest another?” Don walked a few steps down the aisle. “I’m not a great cook like you and my sister, but I know something about wines.” He pointed to a bottle with a minimally decorated label. “This merlot’s also from Risky Reward. It’s fruity, not overly so, though more so than the one you’re holding.” He pulled the bottle from the shelf. “Can’t hurt to have the bottle in a prominent position on the table during the cook-off either.”
“I owe you one,” Sherry laughed. “I’m not completely comfortable with my sauce. One more practice session should nail it. Merlot’s the secret ingredient.”
“Competitor helping competitor. The world needs more of that,” a woman dressed in a blue pantsuit commented as she approached the foursome.
“Patti, so good to see you.” Sherry smiled at her friend. “This is a hopping place today. Let me introduce you to these nice people.”
Patti set down her shopping bag. “No need. Day Paulson from Illinois, Sherry from Connecticut, and these are your sous chefs, Pep Oliveri and Donald Johnstone.”
“Donnie, actually,” Day corrected.
“Don, actually,” Don corrected. “And you are?”
“Patti Mellitt, food writer for the Nutmeg State of Mind and podcaster. I’m covering the cook-off tomorrow. I’ve studied the contest literature, and it’s safe to say I can put a face to a photo for all the finalists and their seconds in command.”
“That’s why you make the big bucks,” Sherry laughed. “Devil’s in the details.”
“From your mouth to my boss’s ears,” Patti replied.
Out of the corner of her eye, Sherry saw Day nudge Don with her elbow.
“We’re gonna keep moving,” Day announced. “We’ll see everyone tomorrow morning at the cook-off.” Day took a step backward.
“Aren’t you going to the contestant gathering at the Augustin Inn this evening?” Patti asked.
“I’d like to,” Don responded. “But when my brother-in-law’s not with her, Day gets shy about going out. But hey, I’m single and ready to mingle.”
“I’ll be there. I’d highly recommend you attending, Day,” Patti said. “You didn’t hear it from me, but all the sponsors and judges will be there. Doesn’t hurt to let them see you at the scheduled events, even for a quick check-in.”
“I’d skip it if I could.” Pep placed his phone in his pocket.
“Sounds like we’ll see you there,” Day said, then turned and headed to the cash register with her purchase.
“Thanks for the wine advice,” Sherry called after her new acquaintances.
“Happy to oblige. All I ask in return is that you don’t use my knowledge against me.” Don gave a casual salute and followed his sister to the register.
“If only all competitors were so nice.” Sherry observed Pep tapping the toe of his hiking boot. She faced Patti. “Are you on duty tonight or can you let loose?”
“I’m not really a let-loose kind of gal. I’d think you’d know that about me by now. That’s why we get along so well.” Patti winked at Pep. “Am I right?”
“Yep. Sherry’s not as buttoned up as she used to be, but she’d still rather be the caterer to the party than the life of the party,” Pep said with a gentle tone. He reached for the bottle of wine in Sherry’s hand. “I’ll check us out while you guys finish up. See you tonight, Patti.” He waved the bottle of wine overhead and headed toward the front of the store.
“Your brother is so handsome. A young version of your dad.” Patti’s gaze followed him.
Sherry grinned. “And a few inches taller. Dad would deny he was ever that handsome, but I agree with you.”
“Erno is still handsome. I’m assuming Pep’s off the market? If I were only ten, maybe fifteen years younger.”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Getting information on his private life is more difficult than getting meringue to set up. He’s only been in town twenty-four hours, so I haven’t gone too deep with him. He lives the life of a single guy, that’s for sure. Over the last year he’s lived in Europe, followed by Nova Scotia. He’s currently working and living in Maine. He studied geology in college.”
“Good profession. Can’t find too many places without rocks.” Patti picked up her shopping bag. “I’m off to review the new café in town, The Hunger Dames. It was started by three ladies—one a widower, one a divorcée, and the third, a spinster. Supposed to be fantastic.”
Sherry patted her stomach. “My dream profession. Restaurant reviewer.”
“Not always my dream. Last week, I got food poisoning from the new diner in Eastport. Fingers crossed for today’s assignment. Gotta squeeze a review in before I switch gears and begin full coverage of the Fall Food Fest. See you soon.”
On the way home, Pep was quiet. Sherry drummed on the steering wheel as she considered how to enter the uncharted waters of her brother’s love life. She held her tongue until they approached a red light.
“What did you think of Amber? She’s been such an asset for The Ruggery. You know the whole story—how she and I met at a cook-off and became fast friends. Fast forward a few months, she moved down here from Boston. Left her family therapy practice behind after her divorce and traded it all in to work with Dad selling the Oliveris’ famous hand-crafted hooked rugs. Did you know she also writes a family therapy advice column? So well rounded. Funny thing is, I think you and her would make a good match.” A quick side-eye Pep’s way revealed nothing but the back of his head. His sights were aimed out his window. A honk from behind nudged her attention back to the road.
Pep pointed at the windshield. “Green means go. Mind if we listen to the radio?” Before Sherry could respond, Pep tapped the knob, and the sound of seventies rock filled the car.
Back in her kitchen, Sherry watched the timer tick off the final seconds. She plunged her wooden spoon in the saucepan and removed the thyme sprig. “Look how the spoon is coated with the deep red goodness.” She waved the blushing spoon in front of Pep’s face.
“Is it done?”
Sherry lowered the heat. “Not yet. Can you hand me one tablespoon of butter and the cream?” Sherry tipped her head in the direction of the dairy products gathered on the counter. “Those two additions will make the sauce creamy and glossy and perfect. Added too soon, it might curdle, too late, and the sauce won’t be blended.”
Sherry stirred until the cream was incorporated and the butter was melted. “Taste this balsamic merlot reduction and see what you think.” Sherry thrust the spoon toward Pep’s mouth. Bits of shallot dotted the creamy sauce. One bit fell to the floor, only to be lapped up by a furry Roomba.
“Thanks, Chutney.” Sherry smiled at her dog, who remained under foot to wait for more spills.
Ding, ding, ding.
“Time!” Pep took a taste and licked his lips. “Wow, that’s good. Maybe a touch more salt and pepper. I’d advise using the sauce sparingly, so it doesn’t overpower the shrimp.”
“Phew. Perfect timing. The sauce will be warm and fresh for the plating if tomorrow’s prep goes as well as today. Glad there are no problems with the sauce and happy the merlot Don picked out worked. You’re right about the amount to put on. I wrote ‘drizzle on lettuce wraps’ in the instructions. The judges who picked it to compete must have liked the result.” Sherry loaded the spoon in the dishwasher and rolled up the sleeves of her shirt. “Ready to move onto the other steps in the final practice session?”
Either Pep didn’t hear the question or was too engrossed in scrolling through his phone.
Sherry raised her voice. “Pep?”
“Sorry, did you say something?” He didn’t lift his head.
“We’re going to run through the recipe prep, minus the sauce, since I mastered that.” She held up a piece of paper. “It’s not as easy as reading the recipe and getting it right the first time. If you could put down the phone for a bit, we could get the run-through completed from start to finish, and we’ll all sleep better.” Sherry eyed Pep’s phone as if the device was a worm in her spinach salad.
Pep lifted his gaze from the phone and met Sherry’s. “I’ll be sleeping fine. Take a deep breath, and you’ll realize you made the right choice when you picked me. Time’s ticking away. Let’s not waste a second even talking about my phone.” His voice had a bit of an edge to it.
“I apologize for losing my patience. If you’d come a few days earlier, we’d have had more than a few hours to prepare.”
“I couldn’t, so let’s make the most of the little time we have. I’m sorry, too. Don’t, for a minute, think I take your favorite hobby lightly.” He clicked the side of his phone. “Mute. I’m putting you in the naughty timeout corner.” Pep walked over to the edge of the kitchen counter. He set his phone down and gave it a mild whack. “You’ve been a bad boy.” He sidled up to Sherry. “I’m ready.”
Sherry groaned before resettling her attention on her written list. She tapped into the compartment of her brain crowded with the experiences of competing in recipe contests and cook-offs. “I need to remember, practicing at the last hour has served me well. Things seep into my short-term memory, so tomorrow I’ll be able to recall tiny details quickly. You’d be surprised, I’m still learning what works best. If I hadn’t made that sauce just now, I wouldn’t have learned cream before butter, rather than the other way around, makes for a better blended sauce.”
“How do you know when enough is enough?” Pep asked. “Practice, I mean.”
Sherry scanned her list of steps needed to execute a winning recipe in two hours. “I wish I knew the right answer. Once, I was in the finals of a cook-off with the theme Cake-Mix Creations.”
“Let me guess. Was that when you were in your Cake-Mix-Kitchen-Sink-Cookie phase?”
“Exactly. Sounded like such a fun contest, until I was notified I’d made the finals.”
“Nothing wrong with that good news,” Pep commented.
“The finals were in Denver. How was I going to practice for high-altitude baking here at sea level?”
“You love challenging cooking conditions. What you don’t love is lack of control, but I sense something is different about you. Dare I say you have given up some control in favor of less stress and anxiety?”
“Don’t try to overanalyze the situation. I’m working on going with the flow, as they say. But, like the perfect dry-aged steak, good things take time.”
“I like what I see. Continue with your Denver story.”
“I’ve competed at an underequipped and undersupplied pro football stadium at halftime in front of a crowd who only wanted more beer and hot dogs, in an outdoor tent with no additional outlets other than the one the single burner unit we were allotted was plugged into, and in the back alley of a television station in the driving rain with no protection from the elements. Denver was the toughest.”
“I don’t remember how you did.”
“Not well. Baking isn’t my strength. It’s too precise. The cookies were bumpy and uneven. The edges were burnt, and the center was raw. The winner was a Denver native, surprise, surprise. To answer your original question—I was never going to be prepared for that contest, but I vowed to step up my prep for the contests I’m best at. Oh, and I’m staying away from high-altitude contests.”
Sherry ran her finger down the paper in front of her. “As sous chef, your job is to be my equipment and ingredient supplier, workspace tidier-upper, chopper on demand, recipe place checker, timer watcher . . .” Sherry drew in a deep breath before continuing, giving Pep a chance to interject a thought.
“What the heck is your role? There’s nothing left after I do everything else. Perhaps testing the merlot for fruitiness?” Pep hummed a note of question.
“If I may continue. I know it sounds like grunt work, but since the cook-off is a two-hour contest, your help will cover a range of tasks. Very important tasks, may I add.”
“I’m kidding. I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t feel needed. That, and I haven’t seen you and Dad in so long. Killing two birds with one stone.”
Sherry stole a look at her brother, and a recurring thought entered her head. She’d never lost hope he would one day move back to Augustin. After college, he became a man consumed by wanderlust, often losing touch with her for months, but the sibling bond had always managed to pick up right where they left off when he reconnected.
“I’d be happier if you weren’t gone for such a long span next time, please. Doesn’t this time in the kitchen make you yearn for the good old days when you, Marla, and me played Recipe Piggyback? We’d take turns adding a surprise ingredient to a Dutch oven until an interesting casserole was born. Admit it, those were fun times.”
“Agreed. The best times were spent with my two sisters. Now, let’s keep our eye on the prize and get a move on.”
“The contest begins at the stroke of ten, tomorrow morning at the pavilion at Oyster Bed Harbor. It’s over at the stroke of noon. You’re in charge of watching the time.”
Pep nodded. “Time keeper—check.”
“Pretend you heard the opening bell. Team Oliveri is now in go mode. First on the agenda is laying out and measuring all the ingredients for the Savory Shrimp Lettuce Wraps in order of usage.” Sherry turned to her brother. He was running his finger down the list of ingredients and acting out putting them side-by-side on the counter.
Pep stopped at one listed ingredient. “Will the shrimp be peeled with tails off?”
“That’s a potential problem.” Sherry pointed to a line on the recipe printout. “In the recipe I submitted to the contest—the one chosen for the finals—I listed, ‘one pound large shrimp, peeled, heads and tails removed’ in my ingredients. Right here, though, is the recipe they have in their contest book. Only ‘one pound large shrimp’ is specified.” Sherry waved a flyer in front of Pep’s face. “Not much I can do about that now. Are you ready to deal with deveining, peeling, and, possibly, chopping the head off if you have to?”
“No worries. I’m an old hand at shrimp cleaning. It was one of my many jobs over the years.”
“Remind me to ask you about that later.” Sherry paused for a moment. “Onward we go. If they only provide us with one measuring cup, you’ll have to be the wiper-outer before we can measure the rice. That involves paper towels and a trip to the sink, where there’s sure to be a line waiting for a turn. Thank goodness we have two hours, right?”
Sherry’s attention left the recipe and traveled to Pep. “Pep? Are you with me?” Sherry squeezed her eyes shut for an instant and took a deep breath.
“I’ve rinsed a measuring cup before. I can do it again.”
“You seem preoccupied.”
“Nope, I’m with you every step of the way.”
They continued on, through each item on her list. After an hour of reenacting the steps of the recipe in double time without any actual ingredients, Team Oliveri was satisfied.
“There’s a fine line between being prepared and being overprepared.” Sherry folded her information sheets. “Let’s quit while we’re ahead.”
Pep tiptoed over to his phone. “Okay to touch my phone now?” He held his hand hovering over his connection to the outside world.
“All yours. FYI, Dad should be stopping by any minute to say hi. After that, we need to get over to the Augustin Inn for the contestant cocktail hour at six-thirty.”
In the next room, Chutney began a barking tirade.
“Speaking of the devil, he must be here.” Sherry let the tall, slim man in his early seventies in, accompanied by Ruth Gadabee, who was wearing an unusual wardrobe choice. The sight of the woman, nearing seventy, wearing overalls, came as a bit of a shock. Sherry’s gaze lingered on her father’s girlfriend’s baggy, denim farm fashion.
“Where’s my son?” Erno called out. He gave Sherry a passing hug. He continued onto the living room, leaving Ruth at the door.
“Good to see you, too, Dad.”
“He’s so excited to have Pep home. Too bad it’s not for longer.” Ruth tugged at one of the straps that slid off her shoulder. The stauesque woman, whose overalls were missing the mark of full ankle coverage, extended Sherry a broad smile. “You’re probably wondering why I’m dressed in these duds.”
“Overalls are a left turn from your normal pretty dress, but I’m not one to talk. Sweatpants and T-shirts are my preferred outfits. Overalls could be an upgrade.” When she observed Ruth’s brow rise, Sherry hoped she hadn’t offended her in some way.
“Actually, these’ll be my working clothes. Tomorrow, I’m volunteering at the Fall Food Fest. I thought I’d give the outfit a test drive. All the volunteers are required to wear this getup, in honor of the region’s farming history. Now that I’ve been wearing it for the past hour, I have one question. Do farmers ever use the restroom? I mean, it takes the fl. . .
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