by Sandra Murphy
& Leslie Karst
In honor of Easter, we are featuring a lot of food mysteries this week-including Death al Fresco by Leslie Karst. We also have an interesting interview with Leslie and an Easter recipe from her. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Death al Fresco, and a link to purchase it from Amazon, and an indie bookstore where a portion of the sale goes to help support KRL.
Death al Fresco: A Sally Solari Mystery By Leslie Karst
Review by Sandra Murphy
Sally Solari worked at her family’s Italian family-style restaurant until she inherited her aunt’s fine dining restaurant, Gauguin. Too bad her dad doesn’t understand the concept of having her own place now. He expects her to work during an emergency, but she doesn’t think a server calling in sick means she should leave her staff short-handed to help her dad.
He’s scheduled a huge dinner with multiple courses for a Sister Cities visit from their Italian counterparts. He expects Sally to source and price some of the food and give her opinion on the menu. Of course, he doesn’t listen and does what he wants anyway.
He wants to serve veal and call the meal a Columbus Day Celebration. Neither will go over well with the politically correct citizens of Santa Cruz. The price of veal solves one problem, but he’s already scheduled the advertising for Columbus Day and that brings out the protestors who claim Columbus didn’t discover America, he invaded it.
To save her sanity, Sally makes time to take a painting class with her ex. It works out better for them to be friends or at least she thinks so. Because she works so many hours, her dog often goes with her to paint on the beach. When the pup becomes fascinated with a big tangle of kelp and won’t leave it, you know it has to be hiding a body.
The dead man is Gino, a local fisherman who’s been a regular at Solari’s. On the night he disappeared, other diners saw him wobbly and looking like he had too much to drink. Even though his check shows he only had two beers, the thought that he was allowed to leave while impaired, costs Solari’s business.
Run one restaurant, help at the other, solve a murder, and find a tent in case of rain for the big outdoor dinner—all seem equally important to Sally. Add in disgruntled employees, painting, time with her ex, and exercise with her dog, it’s a wonder Sally remembers where she’s supposed to be and when.
This is the third book in the series. Sally has more patience than most people in dealing with the public and employees (and her Dad). There’s potential for a renewed romance, a beautiful setting and tasty food. What more could you want?
Recipes include Spinach Salad with Orange, Fennel, and Black Olives and the dressing for it; Black Cod with Miso and Sake, Tagliarini with Brown Butter, Sage, and Porcini Mushroom; and Duck ala Lilikoi (the Hawaiian word for passion fruit).
Interview with Leslie Karst:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Leslie: I spent twenty years drafting legal briefs, research memos, and appeals as an attorney before I made the switch to mystery novels, which (no surprise here) are way more fun to write. But if you count the literary criticism term papers I did as an English literature undergraduate, I’ve been writing since age seventeen.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What is it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Leslie: Dying for a Taste, the first of the Sally Solari culinary mysteries, came out in 2016. After losing her mother to cancer, Sally Solari quits her job as an attorney to help her dad run his old-style Italian eatery in Santa Cruz, California. But managing the front of the house is far from her dream job of being a real cook.
Then her Aunt Letta is found murdered at Gauguin, Letta’s swank Polynesian-French restaurant, and Sally is the only one who can keep the place afloat. When the Gauguin sous chef is accused of the crime, however, Sally must delve into the unfamiliar world of organic food, sustainable farming, and animal rights activists ? not to mention a few family secrets ? to help clear his name and catch the true culprit before her timer runs out.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Leslie: Sally Solari is a fourth-generation Italian, part of the community of fishermen who first emigrated to Santa Cruz, California back in the 1890s. Not yet forty, she’s already experiencing erratic hormones and hot flashes. As a result, she can tend towards over-the-top emotions and sarcasm (though cycling and bourbon help). However, she’s also smart, stubborn, and resolute, and rarely takes no for an answer, so when Sally sets her mind on tracking down a murderer, you do not want to be the one who gets in her way!
As soon as I started fleshing out the first of my Sally Solari mysteries, I knew the town of Santa Cruz would play a starring role. Its old-time Italian fishermen and restaurant owners, now having to come to terms with the newly-arrived techies and hipsters and their passion for the modern food movement, make for a colorful cast of characters. With the stunning beauty of the town’s coastline, redwood forests, and famous roller coaster as a backdrop, it was a no-brainer that I had to use the real Santa Cruz in my books.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want readers to take away from your work?
Leslie: I like to think of the series as fun beach reads, but with underlying themes ? such as family, the food movement, and the problems that arise in running a restaurant ? to give the story added depth. Rather like a decadent milk shake with a dash of protein powder and brewer’s yeast for extra flavor and nutrition.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Leslie: I try to start writing as soon as I’ve checked my email and read the newspaper, with a cup of coffee or two to power me through the morning. But when a deadline looms, I might write all day long. Being retired from the law is a great plus in this regard, as I can write whenever I want.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Leslie: I absolutely have to outline. I once tried to go it as a “pantser,” and almost immediately found myself flailing about, the story floating around somewhere in the ether, but my outlines tend to be more what you might call a “treatment,” and I often deviate from them substantially.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Leslie: It took me a long time to get an offer of representation, three-plus years and over a hundred queries, but once I found my wonderful agent (Erin Niumata of Folio Literary Management), she landed me a publishing deal with Crooked Lane Books fairly quickly.
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Leslie: Sure. After over eighty rejections from agents, I was starting to have serious doubts about myself as a writer as well as the book but decided to give it one last shot by hiring a developmental editor. I needed someone who could not only help improve the manuscript, but who could also be objective and let me know if it was worth continuing to send out. After this rewrite I started querying agents again but continued to get rejections. In a fit of despair, I called my editor (the fabulous Kristen Weber), and what she told me truly helped: “You can get hundreds of rejections,” she said, “and many writers do. But remember: it only takes one yes.”
KRL: Most interesting book signing story in a bookstore or other venue?
Leslie: At the signing for my first book, Dying for a Taste, a good friend approached the table, book in hand, and I realized with horror that I couldn’t remember his name. “Uh, who would you like it made out to?” I asked, hoping he’d say, “Oh, to [his name], of course!” Alas, all he said was, “To me, of course.” Busted! Face red, I admitted I was having a bit of a senior moment and couldn’t recall his name. Although we still joke about it, the story still makes me shudder. This, by the way, is why it’s always a good idea to have someone at the bookstore write the person’s name on a yellow sticky and hand it to you for each book to be signed!
KRL: Future writing goals?
Leslie: I’m just finishing the first draft of Sally Solari number four, working title, Murder from Scratch. The mother of a distant cousin of Sally’s has been found dead at home of a drug overdose, and the cousin Evelyn, who is blind, is too freaked out to go back to her house right away, so Sally’s dad does a bit of arm-twisting to convince Sally to let her come to stay for a few weeks.
Initially leery of having to “babysit” this twenty-year-old while she’s busy running her restaurant, Gauguin, Sally quickly realizes that Evelyn is amazingly competent, and has a wry sense of humor, to boot. In addition, due to her lack of vision, Evelyn’s other senses ? in particular, that of touch ? are much more heightened than Sally’s. As a result, not only can Evelyn whip up a mean batch of fresh pasta for a nightly special at Gauguin, but she becomes invaluable to Sally as the two of them delve into the real reason for the death of Evelyn’s mom.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Leslie: In no particular order, Dorothy L. Sayers, James Joyce, M.F.K. Fisher, Lawrence Durrell, Sue Grafton, J.R.R. Tolkien, E.M. Forster, Michael Pollan, Julia Child, Frank Herbert, T.S. Eliot, John Donne (Can you tell I was an English lit. major?)
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Leslie: I interview experts when I can (e.g., police, restaurateurs, fishermen, criminal attorneys, the crane operators out on the Santa Cruz wharf). I also read widely on the subject I’m writing about, in particular, about food and cooking, and I test much of the dishes I feature in my books (now, that is fun research). And of course, like everyone else, I do lots of Google searches!
KRL: What do you read?
Leslie: “Golden Age” mysteries, culinary and other modern mysteries, food writing, science fiction, literary fiction, science writing, my local newspapers, the New York Times, and various magazines. Oh, and the cereal box while I’m eating breakfast, “natch”!
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Leslie: TV: The Sopranos, The West Wing, Frasier, Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch); Star Trek: The Next Generation, Rita (a Danish show); The Crown.
Movies: True Stories (directed by David Byrne of Talking Heads); Ishtar (yes, I know its reputation, but if you’ve ever been a song-writer—and I have—it’s hilarious and spot-on); The Thin Man; The Wizard of Oz; All About Eve.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Leslie: Realize that rejections are the norm in the publishing business. Literary agents receive dozens, if not hundreds, of queries every single day, and most only represent between twenty and thirty authors at a given time. So not only does your book need to be well-written and compelling, but it needs to jump out as special to that particular agent or acquiring editor. In other words, although getting traditionally published takes an enormous amount of hard work, it also takes a certain amount of luck for your manuscript to land on that one agent’s desk at the time the agent is looking for something just like your book. So, my advice is never give up and never stop believing in yourself as a writer.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Leslie: Some words of wisdom: If you’re hosting a dinner party and something has gone awry with one of the dishes you’ve prepared, do not mention it to your guests. If you act as if everything is perfect, they will likely never notice the problem, especially if you’re serving cocktails and/or wine, as well. Even if they do notice, your mentioning it will only serve to make everyone uncomfortable. Believe me, I tell you this from personal experience.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Leslie: I was the lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and songwriter for two different bands in my younger years, a new wave group called Enigma in the early-1980s, and a country-rock band called Electric Range in the ’90s.
KRL: Cool! Website? Twitter? Facebook?
Easter Recipe From Leslie Karst
Green Bean Salad with Feta and Tomatoes
(serves 6 as a side dish)
This delicious salad is quick and easy to make, can be prepared in advance, and is bursting with bright, spring colors. As a result, it would make for a terrific side dish for your Easter feast.
Make the topping first, so it can sit for a few hours and the flavors can blend. Cherry or grape tomatoes are the best, as they are sweeter, and their slices make for a nice presentation, but any sort of tomato would work fine.
½ lb. feta cheese, cut into small chunks
1 lb. cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced into thin wedges (diced, if using a larger variety)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil (plus a little extra to toss the beans with)
freshly-ground black pepper
1½ lbs. green beans, de-strung if necessary
Mix the feta cheese and tomatoes together in a bowl, then drizzle on the oil and mix again. Be gentle with your mixing, as you don’t want to break up the chunks of feta more than you have to. This may seem like a lot of oil but remember, this is essentially your salad dressing. Add black pepper to taste. You may also want to add a little salt, depending on how salty your cheese is.
Place the dressing in the refrigerator and stir it every half hour or so until the flavors are incorporated.
Get a large pot of salted water boiling and drop in the beans (keep them whole). Cook for just a few minutes (2-5, depending on how many there are). You want them to still have a bit of bite.
While they beans are blanching, get ready a colander and a bowl of ice water. Pour the pot of cooked beans into the colander, then dump the drained beans into the ice water. Stir them around with your hands to cool them off as quickly as possible (but be gentle, so you don’t break them). By stopping the cooking right away like this, the beans will retain their bright green color.
Lay the beans on a dish towel to dry. Once dry, toss them lightly with olive oil and salt and pepper, then put them in the fridge until time for service.
To serve the salad, lay the beans artistically on plates (see photo). Give the feta/tomato dressing a quick last stir, then top the beans with the dressing.
To enter to win a copy of Death al Fresco, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “fresco,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen March 31, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
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