The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders: A Eugenia Potter Mystery, p.1Nancy Pickard
THE 27-INGREDIENT CHILI CON CARNE
“AN INTRIGUING ADVENTURE … Nice going!”
“SPRIGHTLY AND ACTION PACKED … Be warned: throughout, you will find yourself getting hungry.”
“DELIGHTFUL … Not only do we get a dandy mystery, we get a budding romance and the recipe for 27-ingredient chili con carne—of the nonlethal variety, of course.…”
—The Washington Times
“The late author’s sleuth is still cooking.… Mrs. Potter shines again.…”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“TASTY MYSTERY … Food for thought includes recipes.… Readers of the late Virginia Rich’s Mrs. Potter culinary mysteries can take heart, because the amateur detective’s baton—or ladle—has been passed to the very able hands of Nancy Pickard, writer of the popular Jenny Cain mysteries.”
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New York, New York 10036
Copyright © 1993 by the Estate of Virginia Rich and Nancy J. Pickard Trust
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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
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.
Mrs. Potter, however, felt herself cheered a bit.
How Peter, the restaurant owner she had known in Nantucket, would have adored this ridiculous conversation she was having with herself. “Potter,” he always said, “you’re one of my guys.” But her smile quickly faded at the actual memory of that friend, who had turned out to be so much less than one. It was to him that she owed the ache in her right arm and shoulder.
Well. Mrs. Potter straightened her shoulders. Gingerly. She’d lost some awfully good friends in the last few years, but who of her age hadn’t? The death of friends was to be expected in one’s sixth decade, although perhaps not in the untimely manner in which some of them went. She rubbed a knuckle under one eye, but was careful to keep the tips of her fingers away from her eyes. Even though she had washed her hands after chopping the onions and green chilis, she didn’t want to take a chance with the pain their juice could inflict on innocent eyes. What a good defensive weapon they would make! A woman could pour their juice into a spray bottle and have herself a nice domestic variety of Mace to carry in her purse. Mrs. Potter briefly entertained the notion of a Cookbook of Kitchen Weapons. Besides chili peppers, there was yucca root, which fit your palm like a club and was certainly big and hard enough to knock somebody out cold. And there was that funny-looking vegetable—what was the name of it?—with its hard bulbs and tough root, which you could swing like a club. You could probably beat somebody nearly to death with sweet fennel in its whole root form. Now, there was a rather nice ironic twist—done to death by sweet fennel! And then, if you were worried the courts wouldn’t let you off on the grounds of self-defense, you could always eat the evidence, as in that classic Roald Dahl short story that most people remembered only as an Alfred Hitchcock TV show. “Lamb to the Slaughter,” that was it. And of course, there was the onion juice.
(Mrs. Potter recalled a friend from years ago, when she, Lew, and the children were still living in Pennsylvania, who had claimed that a woman could wear mascara or chop onions, but not both at the same time. As Mrs. Potter never wore any more eye makeup than a dab of gray shadow, she didn’t have to worry about the agony of onion tears blending with mascara. Her own favorite method for preventing onion tears was to chew bread while she chopped.)
She sniffed away incipient tears that had nothing to do with onions.
“Nothing like a rainy day and pretty music to make a person sentimental,” she told her invisible companion. “Not to mention maudlin and macabre!”
The next time she sniffed it was to inhale the soft fragrance of simmering vegetables. At least there was one thing she wasn’t losing with advancing age: her sense of smell.
“The things you take comfort in, Genia!”
What was all this morbid dwelling on dying and old age today? She felt as if she needed a magic elixir, perhaps a jolt of instant youth to cheer her. Like a visit from her grandchildren. “Did I mention how perfect they are?” she inquired of her silent companion.
Mrs. Potter glanced outside again.
Still raining, and harder now.
She dipped a spoon into the vegetable mixture cooking in butter and lifted a fragrant sample of it to her mouth to test for taste and doneness. Yes, the onio
As Mrs. Potter licked warm butter off her lips, she thought wryly, I’m not losing my sense of taste, either, and glanced at her waistline. It missed her late afternoon swims at the ranch, not to mention her two-mile daily walks from the ranch house to the rural post box. Here, all she got was an easy hike into town to pick up her mail, and she’d even avoided that the last few days, although she religiously stuck to her usual thirty minutes of daily calisthenics. But she felt cooped up—especially at her waistband!—and sluggish, the effect of too many generous meals with too many generous Northcutt’s Harbor friends. Some of them were coming to dinner tomorrow night so that she might return their favors. Hence, the Albondigas Soup. It always tasted better the second day, when the cumin had calmed down a bit.
Since the vegetables were ready to add to the meat broth, Mrs. Potter abandoned the meatballs for the moment in order to slide the sautéed vegetables into the big pot. By the time she had the meatballs rolled, the broth was nearing a boil, which meant it was time for her to drop in the albondigas, one by one. She liked this part of the process; sometimes it was all she could do to resist the impulse to toss in the meatballs like tiny basketballs into a hoop. It was only the prospect of splashing boiling broth that dissuaded her. Each little orb disappeared beneath the surface of the dark, fragrant brew; when they were cooked clear through—and thus lightened of their fat content—they would float nearer the top, like cheery little ground-beef corks.
She set the burner to a simmering heat and the timer to thirty minutes.
“There. I do believe I’ve earned a cup of tea.”
The glass of wine still sat on the kitchen counter, untouched. At least it looked pretty.
Mrs. Potter boiled water and poured it over a bag of blackberry herbal tea. She lightly toasted half a piece of whole wheat bread, dabbed a bit of chilled apple butter on it, and cut off a little chunk of mild cheddar cheese (for the protein and calcium, she told herself). Taking cup and plate to her kitchen table, she eased herself down onto a chair. When she uncrooked her fingers from the cup, she felt a twinge of pain in her forefinger; rainy weather made her touch of arthritis act up. Carefully, she touched the back of that finger to the outside of the cup, and let the heat soothe it.
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