Monday, January 30, 2012

Mystery Cuisine

I love to read. Books are my most favorite possessions, right alongside my Kitchen Aid mixer and gourmet cheese.

When I’m not reading a cookbook, food essay, or culinary magazine, I like to escape into the world of cozy mysteries. These are the ones where someone is murdered but the crime is never horrific enough to make the reader afraid to turn out the lights. Most are written as a series of books, and what keeps me coming back are the characters and the settings where their lives unfold. Each new book is like catching up with old friends—who happen to solve the occasional murder.

I started with Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who…series. I read all 29 installments. (And I was sad to learn she passed away in June.) I moved on to Leslie Meier’s Lucy Stone Mystery series, each with their holiday-themed titles, and Sarah Strohmeyer’s Bubbles mysteries (such fun!)

Then I discovered cozy mystery heaven—at least for a food writer: Mysteries that also included recipes within the pages! The first were the Diane Mott Davidson Goldy Schulz mysteries, and now I’m working my way through the Cupcake Bakery Mysteries, Jessica Park's Gourmet Girl series, and the Farmer’s Market Mysteries, plus many, many more. (I have an entire stack of them waiting for my attention.)

My absolute favorite cozy mysteries are Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen Cookie Shop mysteries. I’ve read them all, and kept each one because of all the recipes I would like to try. I even have her latest, Cinnamon Roll Murder, on preorder to ship when it's released at the end of February.

Last fall, Fluke released the Lake Eden Cookbook, with almost all of the recipes from the Hannah Swensen series! The first one I tried was the Wanmansita Casserole, primarily because I thought it would be one my husband might enjoy. He did! This is the perfect dinner casserole for a large gathering on a cold winter’s evening. My only criticism was there didn’t seem to be enough of a sauce in the dish. It was a bit dry. Next time, I plan to add a can or two of tomato sauce to see if that solves the issue. And perhaps a teaspoon more of chili powder.

Let me know what you think!

Wanmansita Casserole
From Joanne Fluke’s Lake Eden Cookbook
Serves 8 to 10 people

2 pounds lean hamburger
2 medium onions, sliced
1 cup diced celery (about 3 stalks)
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 large package of crinkle noodles [I used egg noodles.]
2 cans (14.5 ounces each) diced tomatoes with juice
1 can (5 ounces) sliced water chestnuts [I omitted this for my husband.]
1 can (4 ounces) mushroom pieces [I omitted this for my husband, too.]
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cups grated cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 325 degrees with the rack in the middle position.
Start by spraying a 9-inch by 13-inch cake pan, or a half-size disposable steam table pan set on a cookie sheet, with Pam or another nonstick cooking spray.

Pour 6 quarts of water into a big pot and put it on the stove to boil.

Crumble the hamburger and brown it over medium heat in a large frying pan, stirring it around with a metal spatula and breaking it up into pieces as it fries. This should take about 15 or 20 minutes.

When hamburger is nice and brown, put a bowl under a colander so that you can save about 1/3 cup of fat to use with the onions. Dump the hamburger into the colander to drain it.

Put the drained hamburger into the prepared baking pan.

Pour the 1/3 cup of hamburger grease back into the frying pan. Place the onion slices, celery and green bell pepper into the frying pan. Cook over medium heat until they’re tender when pierced with a fork. Drain them in the same colander you used for the hamburger, and then mix them up with the hamburger in your baking pan.

Add some salt to your boiling water on the stove. Then dump in the noodles, stir them around, let the water come back to a boil, and then turn down the heat a bit so the pot doesn’t boil over. Set your timer for whatever it says on the noodle package directions and cook the noodles, stirring every minute or so to make sure they don’t stick together.

Drain the cooked noodles in the same colander you’ve been using all along, add them to your baking pan, and mix them up with everything else.

Add the diced tomatoes, juice and all, to your baking pan. Open and drain the cans of water chestnuts and mushroom pieces and dump them on top of the tomatoes. Sprinkle the cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper over the top.

Now it is time to mix it all up. This might not be easy if the baking pan’s too full to stir with a spoon. If that happens, just wash your hands thoroughly and dive in with your fingers to mix everything up. When you’re through, pat the casserole so it’s nice and even on top, and call it a day.

[Since I planed to divide this dish into two smaller casserole pans, I mixed everything together first in a extra-large bowl.]

Cover the baking pan with a single thickness of foil. Bake for 60 minutes, or until you peek under the foil and see that it’s not and bubbling.

Remove the pan from the oven. Remove the foil slowly and carefully to avoid burning yourself with the steam that may roll out. Set the foil on the counter to use again in a few minutes.

Sprinkle the 2 cups of shredded cheddar cheese over the top and return the baking pan to the oven. Bake it, uncovered, for another 10 minutes, or until the cheese melts.

Cover the pan again with that foil you saved, and let your casserole sit on a cold burner or rack to set up for at least 10 minutes and then serve and enjoy. [I didn’t do this step—we were hungry!]


  1. Diane Mott Davidson is my favorite...perhaps because we lived in Colorado so long. Lovely to mesh your love of reading and cooking! I make those chicken and noodles your Grandma made too, though sometimes I buy the frozen "homemade" noodles, which are wonderful.

  2. I added tomato sauce to the next batch and it was perfect!

  3. Curious what grade of ground beef did you use. It's mentioned that if it's extra lean there won't be enough fat to help keep things moist.

  4. I typically use 85/15 ground beef, but 80/20 would work, too.