Food by the Book: Mystery series will keep readers spellbound

Louise Penny makes abundant reference to cozy French dishes in her novels. Try out this springtime asparagus-goat cheese tart evocative of French cuisine for your Mother’s Day brunch.

If you are looking for a new mystery series with plenty of ambience, Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is right on track. With 16 novels in the series, there are plenty to keep one busy for the summer. The most recent release is “The Madness of Crowds,” available in August. Until then there is enough time to catch up.

Although a series, the novels stand alone. I started with number nine, “How the Light Gets In” (Minotaur Books, 2013) and it did not disappoint. Set in the Quebec village of Three Pines, Penny creates a complex atmosphere evocative of the region. When Constance Pineault is found dead, her identity is revealed as the last of the famous Ouellet quintuplets, born before the era of fertility drugs, and astonishing because all five survived. After decades of notoriety and publicity, the grown quints had assumed alternate identities to lead anonymous lives.

As the story unfolds, Chief Inspector Gamache is battling demons of his own. Being inched out of the Surete’ de Quebec police organization inch by insidious inch, his investigation is hindered by second guessing what personal attack will come next. Still, with the mind of an experienced, professional investigator Gamache thoughtfully observes everyone around him. Using clues from old films of the quintuplets, Gamache begins to realize there is a crack in their story that very well may lead to the killer. Penny’s acknowledgement says she took the title from a lyric by Leonard Cohen, “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” This is not a cozy mystery, but rather an intricate tale of a battle between the truth and lies, integrity and deception.

There are, however, abundant references to cozy French Canadian foods in the novel. From omelets with goat cheese and salad with baguettes to coq au vin, chicken and dumplings, and beef stew, Penny’s characters are never far away from a nourishing repast. Try out this springtime tart evocative of French cuisine for your Mother’s Day brunch. Serve with strawberry spinach salad and a baguette.

Asparagus-Goat Cheese Tart

4 ounces goat cheese

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 tablespoon dried marjoram

1/2 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Pinch of nutmeg

1 cup sour cream

1 sheet puff pastry, thawed

1 bunch thin asparagus, trimmed

Extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Freshly ground black pepper

Red-pepper flakes

1/2 cup shaved Parmesan

Lemon olive oil for drizzle

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Using a fork, blend together the goat cheese, egg, garlic, marjoram, lemon zest, salt and nutmeg until smooth. Using a whisk, beat in the sour cream until smooth.

On a lightly floured surface using a rolling pin, roll out puff pastry into a 13-by-11-inch rectangle about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Lightly score a 1/2-inch border around the edges of the puff pastry, if desired.

Spread the cheese mixture evenly to about half-inch from the edges. Line up the asparagus spears on top and brush them with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and the grated Parmesan. Bake until golden, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool on the cookie sheet for at least 15 minutes or hold up to 4 hours before serving. Just before serving sprinkle black pepper, red-pepper flakes, and shaved Parmesan. Drizzle lemon olive oil on top. Based on Melissa Clark’s “Dinner in French” (Clarkson Potter, 2020).

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