The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders
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“Delightful . . . Ms. Pickard has given the protagonist a new least on life!”—The New York Times
When Eugenia Potter receives an urgent phone call from the manager of her ranch near Tucson, she's only too happy to drop everything and fly home. Something inside of her is calling her back to the desert. Why else would be preparing spicy Mexican meatball soup at her cottage in Maine when the menu clearly calls for clam chowder?
But once she arrives home, Mrs. Potter discovers that her ranch manager and his granddaughter are missing from her ranch, Las Palomas, and feared dead. When a guest at a dinner gathering thrown by Mrs. Potter is food poisoned—apparently from eating her famous 27-ingredient chili—she knows she must act quickly before the murderer strikes again. And it doesn't hurt to have the help of a long-lost beau to spice up the danger with romance . . .
Release date: October 5, 2011
Print pages: 288
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The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders
5:30 P.M., Saturday, May 3
Northcutt’s Harbor, Maine
For the first time in her life, Mrs. Potter welcomed bad news.
When it arrived, she was alone in the kitchen of her cottage in Northcutt’s Harbor, Maine, preparing albondigas soup for company for dinner the next night. “Albondigas” sounded so much more elegant than “Mexican meatballs,” which is what it was. Mrs. Potter knew from experience that her guests were bound to ask, What’s that wonderful smell coming from your kitchen, Genia? They’d look impressed and befuddled when she replied, Chef Dennis’s Albondigas Soup. Albondigas? they’d say. And what’s that when it’s at home? She had learned to hold off her translation until after they’d tasted and murmured their compliments. Only then would she confide, serenely, that yes, Chef Dennis always did make the best Mexican meatball soup I ever tasted. By then, of course, it would be too late for her guests to look doubtful and say, “Mexican? Oh, well, I don’t know about spicy foods … I hate to be difficult, and I know you’ve gone to a lot of trouble, but maybe I’ll just skip the soup, if you don’t mind, Genia.” Albondigas was spicy, all right, but subtly so, and gentle enough for most tummies. Sometimes Mrs. Potter mischievously liked to inform skeptical guests that the essential oils of at least one of the seasonings—cilantro—was used in the preparation of pharmaceutical digestive aids. So there!
The soup was an odd selection for a dinner party in May, she conceded, and more like a rib-sticking lunch that one might serve on brisk autumn days. But Maine was enduring a dreary, chilly spell that made folks want to burrow deep into their blankets of a morning, and which seemed to Mrs. Potter to practically cry out for food that would warm body and (one hoped) soul.
That’s why her menu for tomorrow night included the soup. It would be preceded by Salsa Mexicana with blue corn chips as an appetizer, and followed by hot apple cider and ginger cookies for dessert. The salsa, with its tomatoes, onion, green chilis, garlic, cilantro, vinegar, and drop of oil, was as refreshing as a salad and low-cal to boot, if one didn’t overindulge on the chips (150 calories for 10 enormous ones, surely more than any one guest could, with any degree of virtue, consume). And if it wasn’t quite as nutritious as a real salad, the soup would make up for it.
Unfortunately, the rainy cold spell set Mrs. Potter’s right shoulder to aching, where an old wound she’d once received had healed. The emotional hurt of it had not, quite. Her right arm, burned around the same time, felt stiff and awkward as she maneuvered her paring knife.
Perhaps that’s why I feel so restless and discontented today, Mrs. Potter thought as she diced onions. And clumsy, she added when her knife slipped, gouging her cutting board. It’s just a physical thing, that’s all, she thought, like the depression some people suffer in weather like this.
Ordinarily, Mrs. Potter would have been happy to spend a stormy afternoon cooking for friends. But on this particular afternoon, she’d poured a glass of good burgundy wine to sip while she worked, and hadn’t even tasted it yet. She’d put on her favorite apron—purchased at a church bazaar in Northcutt’s Harbor—and promptly stained it when she poured the wine. She’d tuned her kitchen radio to a station playing some of her favorite music—Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, the Mills Brothers—but it didn’t make her tap her foot or inspire her to waltz now and then around the room with an imaginary partner.
She couldn’t even seem to keep her mind on the ingredients, and narrowly escaped several mishaps—like noticing just in time that she was about to measure chili powder instead of cinnamon into the ginger cookies! Mrs. Potter could usually cook without even thinking much about it, “with one eye on the recipe and the other on the children,” as a nanny of her acquaintance used to say. But on this particular rainy Saturday in Maine, none of the usual ingredients to a happy day in the kitchen were blending to a create a happy cook.
As she worked at her sink, she occasionally glanced out the rain-streaked window above it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean down at the gentle, curving cove where the Atlantic spanked the rocky shore. But even when she squinted, she couldn’t see a thing except the trees right outside her window. Rain dripped like tears off the branches of the evergreen trees, making even them look despondent, poor things—as who wouldn’t be after standing out in this weather for so long? It looked like the whole world ended at the edge of her trees. Where normally that might have imparted a warm and cozy aura to her cottage, on this day it left her feeling secluded in a cabin at the center of a very small universe, and a sadly colorless one at that. All of the world’s brightness and color was inside today, in the yellow of the zucchini and the green of the chili peppers. She hadn’t yet planted geraniums in the red clay pots that perched outside on her window ledge, so there wasn’t even that bit of crimson to brighten the day. Mrs. Potter, ordinarily not a great sigher, sighed. She imagined her guests arriving in cars on which the windshield wipers had been put to constant use, shedding their oil slickers and umbrellas in her hallway, making quickly for the welcoming blaze in her fireplace in the living room. She felt sure they would be comforted by her choice of companions and her menu.
So why don’t I feel comforted? she wondered.
Instead, she felt uncomfortably distracted, as if something were tugging at her mind, trying to get her attention like a child at her elbow. She stayed her hand just as it was about to chop twice as much cilantro as she needed. Whatever was on her mind, it certainly wasn’t dinner tomorrow night!
“I hope I’m not coming down with something,” she said aloud.
Mrs. Potter cleared her throat. No, not scratchy.
She sniffed. Not stuffy.
Finally, she pressed the back of her right hand against her forehead, but her skin felt cool.
So it wasn’t physical, whatever ailed her.
“Well, something’s the matter with me today.”
Actually, she would realize later that there was something about her menu that was even odder than its inappropriateness to the season. But Mrs. Potter would not fully appreciate that fact until after she received the telephone call that seemed at first like good news.
And that was still a few minutes away.
She lifted a pretty sprig of cilantro, held it to her nose, and sniffed again. What a lovely, distinctive fragrance it had! There was a hint of peppery onion to it that revived memories of fresh-cut grass at her childhood home in Iowa. Sometimes that seemed like only yesterday. Today it felt long ago—all of her six decades and even more, if that were possible. Mrs. Potter tore a small leaf off the cluster—cilantro was like parsley in appearance, although the leaves were more feathery and less flat—and chewed thoughtfully on it. Yes, there’s a heat to cilantro, she decided, which produces quite a dramatic contrast to the cool freshness of its aroma.
“Such an interesting herb,” she pronounced, as if to an invisible companion. “And all the rage, which astonishes me.”
Mrs. Potter saw no reason to feel embarrassed about talking to oneself; most of her friends did it, they admitted. If you didn’t discuss things with yourself, how did you ever decide anything? In recent years, she thought she detected increasing notes of patience and tolerance in her arguments with herself and she hoped that meant a melding of the many sides of Eugenia Andrews Potter. Of course, since Lew’s death, and without him to bounce her ideas back to her with all of the funny, intriguing little spins and twists he put to them, talking to herself came easily.
She plucked the peppery leaf off the tip of her tongue and washed the remains down the drain. Until recently, who, outside of professional chefs and devotees of Southwestern food, had even heard of cilantro? “Now it’s everywhere,” she observed, as she began chopping it with her paring knife, “including places like scrambled eggs and omelettes, where it has no business poking its pungent self.”
Why, only a few years ago, pesto was the fashionable herb that turned the whole world green, she recalled. (The “herb du trend,” as her friend Gussie Van Vleeck had jokingly put it.) Before that, we grilled ourselves to a crisp over Texas mesquite. And what a number of small fortunes that must have earned for some enterprising cowpokes. Mrs. Potter smiled. Her fellow ranchers down in Arizona got such a kick out of the mesquite fad; they figuratively doffed their ten-gallon hats to those smart Texans who devised such a brilliant (and profitable) method of open range weed control! The only thing to compare to that kind of money-making in Arizona was the “harvest” of rare cactuses, which retailed for upward of ten thousand dollars each, but that was illegal, an ecological tragedy, and certainly no cause for amusement anywhere.
Using the flat of her knife, Mrs. Potter slid chopped cilantro into the frying pan in which diced tomatoes, green chilis, zucchini, chopped garlic, onions, and green cabbage were already sautéing in three ounces of butter. In a large, separate pot, three quarts of meat broth was bubbling its way to a full boil. While those ingredients cooked, Mrs. Potter turned her attention to the albondigas themselves. After putting two pounds of lean ground beef (lean was important so that the soup wouldn’t be fatty) into a big mixing bowl, she added to that a half teaspoon each of garlic powder and ground cumin, along with pinches of oregano and ground cilantro.
“I’m worried about oregano,” she confided to her invisible companion as she measured the dependable old herb into the meat mixture. “I think it went ‘out’ when cilantro came ‘in.’ Is poor old oregano the dodo bird of herbs?”
Her companion kept silent, perhaps reserving judgment.
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