by Cynthia Chow
& Stephanie Cole
This week we have a review of the first book in a new food mystery series, Al Dente’s Inferno by Stephanie Cole. We also have a fun food guest post and recipe by Stephanie. Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Al Dente’s Inferno. We also have a link to order it from Amazon, and from an indie bookstore where a portion goes to help support KRL.
Al Dente’s Inferno: A Tuscan Cooking School Mystery By Stephanie Cole
Review by Cynthia Chow
It seemed like a dream come true. Ornella “Nell” Valenti had landed the perfect job in the perfect town, developing a premier cooking school in Camucia-Cortona, Italy. Perhaps Nell should have looked a little closer at the fine print of her agreement on the way out of Weehawken, New Jersey, though, as the villa of Chef Claudio Orlandini is not exactly up to code or ready-to-go in an optimistic six months. There is moss on the walls, a too-tiny kitchen, and a porcupine in one of the rooms. Even Chef seems a little past his expiration date, looking nothing like the culinary idol of her memory and far more focused on captaining his bocce team than being in the kitchen. What there is in the villa is outstanding assistant chef Annamaria Bari, a troupe of industrious sisters who are Sisters, and Pierfranco “Pete” Orlandini, Chef’s handsome son and a Cornell-educated source of sanity. Nell is going to need them all when her ex-boyfriend Buford Kaplan and his Netflix film crew descend upon them just in time to film a documentary on Continental cooking school start-ups. The welcoming dinner for Buford, a Contessa, and a prestigious food critic goes off the rails when Chef disappears mid-course and Nell finds Bu bludgeoned to death by the Villa fountain.
While happy that at least Bu Kaplan wasn’t poisoned to death – that would have been disastrious for an aspiring cooking school – Nell can’t help but worry that his murder is connected to Chef’s disappearance. While he ostensibly flew to rescue the love of his life who just announced her new single status, Annamaria is in tears and Pete wouldn’t mind dragging his father back home. Nell’s television therapist-to-the-stars father would probably be more than happy to offer advice, and the meditations learned from the culinary school she founded at the Prajna Retreat Center are proving less than soothing, so Nell instead enlists Pete’s help tracking down who wanted to cancel Bu and his documentary.
Now more than ever readers will appreciate this extravagant tour through beautiful Italy. While I admit to resorting to Google Translate for a few phrases, Italian is incorporated seamlessly into the novel and enhances both the characters and the descriptions of food. That is where this first of the new series excels, leaving readers hungering for more elaborations on crostini al drago, pappardelle di castagna con tartufo bianco (white truffle shavings over chestnut flour pasta), and panna cotta. Recipes are included for the ambitious, but the true joy comes from Nell and the cooks’ appreciation and artistry. Nell is a more than capable heroine when tracking down clues to Bu’s past and when standing of a bastion of sanity among the exuberant Italians, and her dynamic relationship with Pete is a tantalizing joy. Their banter and quips are fast and clever, and one can easily see Nell’s temptation to stick it out and develop the best tourist culinary school possible. This is a fun, tasty, and very grounded start to what promises to be a unique new series where cultures blend together to produce an exquisite main course.
When Dragon Fruit Calls
By Stephanie Cole
While I was writing Al Dente’s Inferno, I discovered dragon fruit. We all know those sections in the produce section of our supermarkets where the stores stick the exotic fruit. These are usually weird-colored spiny objects that look like hand grenades. Maybe that day I discovered dragon fruit I had spent a good day at the writing desk, I don’t recall, but I felt game. Downright experimental. I swaggered around the exotic fruits, eyeballing them, deciding against the likes of Buddha Hand (I counted two dozen fingers), Jackfruit (deflated volleyball), and Rambutan (I’m pretty sure I used to pick these off my dog).
Finally, I chose a yellow dragon fruit. Yes, the skin was leathery; yes, the skin was spiky, but there was just something about this fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand fruit that made me believe it hadn’t been a prop in an original Star Trek episode.
I trusted it.
When I got it home, all I had to do was slice the dragon fruit open, scoop out the pulp, and set it on my tongue, and I was sold. By me, it was unlike any other flavor. Its consistency came close to a kiwi fruit, only more, well, tender, and it wasn’t sour. So I made return trips to the store for more dragon fruit.
And when, in Al Dente’s Inferno, I came to write the scene of Chef’s Big Dinner at the Villa Orlandini Cooking School, attended by local luminaries, I found myself putting together a fictional “menu” of familiar goodies (for instance, the osso buco) and exciting culinary experiments. Chef’s signature antipasto, Crostini al Drago (literally, dragon croutons) went even beyond an exciting culinary experiment. It was completely made up.
Part of the premise of the Tuscan Cooking School Mystery Series is that my heroine is hired to set up a world-class cooking school for American foodies at the five-hundred-year-old Tuscan villa of a world-renowned Chef. If he’s on the culinary world stage, then invention has to be part of his reputation. Writing a character that intuitive about taste, that free with ingredients, cast off my suburban cooking inhibitions. I invented for Chef — Crostini al Drago! But all it became was just an intriguing possibility: Does dragon fruit have a role to play in Italian cooking? Finally, I couldn’t just leave it unelucidated on a book page.
All the reader knows for sure is that it has two ingredients: crostini and dragon fruit. Beyond that, what is it? I’ve always wondered. Even now, when I just finished the second book in the series, Crime of the Ancient Marinara (Berkley, January 2021), two years from writing the scene at Chef’s Big Dinner party in Inferno, when he serves his guests Crostini al Drago.
I became irresistibly curious. What else was Crostini al Drago? If I were to serve it to guests, what exactly would they be eating? So, Gentle Readers, I created the entire recipe for Chef’s signature dish —which means, for you — and it’s not so very complicated. But I’m partial to each of the ingredients. I hope you’ll try it, but more than that, I hope you’ll take it in new directions, adding your own flourishes. From fiction. . .to plate. Here’s:
Crostini al Drago
Grill (or toast) six slices of ciabatta (crostini!)
Spread 1 heaping TBS of Mascarpone cheese on each cooled slice
Scoop out at least two yellow dragon fruit, arranging decorative slices across the crostini
Drizzle honey to taste
Top with little clusters of chopped walnuts, garnished with snips of mint (or basil!) leaves
Notes: I use the yellow dragon fruit, but it comes in red and white, as well. For greater color, mix and match! You can also substitute baguette for ciabatta if you prefer a “base” with a little more give. I find walnuts don’t argue with the dragon fruit, but if you want more complexity, try finely chopped hazelnuts or pistachios instead. Finally, if you haven’t tasted Mascarpone cheese, you are in for a treat.
To enter to win a copy of Al Dente’s Inferno, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “inferno,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 18, 2020. U.S. residents only and you must be 18 or older to enter. If entering via email please include your mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted when the contest is over. BE AWARE THAT IT MAY TAKE A LOT LONGER FOR THE WINNING BOOK TO BE SENT DUE TO COVID 19 LOCKDOWNS. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
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