Marion Moore Hill has been a reporter, ad copywriter, legal secretary, and college teacher, and was for 20 years an adult-literacy tutor. Cook the Books is her fifth mystery novel. Learn more about Marion and her books at her website.
I write about a librarian protagonist, but Juanita Wills is NOT the stereotypical librarian I have seen portrayed in some fiction. She's neither mousy nor rigid about details, and she does have a private life, thank you. She's far from perfect, but is responsible (most of the time), cheerful (most of the time), honest (most of the time) and kind (most of the time). She cares about her community and especially about people who have been dealt a tough hand in life.
Tracy Marie Riek is one of those. A doting mother and an attractive, hard-working young wife, Tracy Marie may seem to "have it all." But Tracy Marie doesn't read well, a fact she tries to hide in most interactions with others. Reluctantly, she has entered an adult-literacy tutoring program, and the local librarian is her tutor. Juanita likes and admires her tutee, although Tracy Marie's secretiveness and willingness to lie worry her. When Bobby Riek dies in his workplace, apparently the victim of nicotine poison introduced into a bakery cupcake that was packed in his lunch, Tracy Marie is suspected. Juanita risks her own life to prove her student innocent of a murder charge.
Juanita loves food (as I do) and is part of a gourmet group, but struggles with a weight problem. She doesn't obsess about wanting to weigh 105 pounds and have the waist of an anorexic teenager, but has been warned by a doctor that she needs to trim down and get fitter. Her on-and-off approach to dieting and exercising endures a reality check when long-time boyfriend Wayne Cleary lands in the hospital ER with a possible heart attack. Wayne's problem turns out to be gastrointestinal, caused by bolting greasy fast food too quickly, but the incident serves as a wake-up call about their eating habits for both Juanita and Wayne.
Writers' lives sometimes intersect in an eerie way with their characters'. I had finished writing Cook the Books, and it was in the publication stage when my own husband learned he had blockages in his heart that required triple-bypass surgery. Elbert's surgery got my attention, as Wayne's episode did Juanita's. My husband is now on a heart-healthy diet (low fat, low salt, low sugar), which I'm following, too, since that's easier than making two different meals. On the up side, we're both shedding pounds without making any real weight-loss effort. On the down side, a "low everything" diet can also mean low flavor. So it's a challenge to make interesting, varied meals these days.
But I've always liked a challenge. Over the years, I had developed recipes for friends and relatives who were diabetic, or gluten-intolerant, or had other food allergies. So this is just one more interesting food puzzle. Juanita and I will both work on solving it for ourselves and our loved ones, just as Juanita can't resist getting involved in solving mysteries.
(This dish may be used either as an hors d’oeuvre or as an entree (served with either rice or rice sticks.)
1/2 lb. very lean beef, sliced cross-grain very thinly into 2-3-inch squares
4 cloves garlic (more if desired), mashed
2 green onions (white part only, more if desired), finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh lemon grass (available at Asian markets), chopped (frozen or dried can be used
if fresh isn’t available)
2 teaspoons fish sauce (available at Asian markets)
pinch black pepper, ground
1/4 teaspoon red pepper, ground or flakes
2-3 teaspoons juice off Vietnamese pickled leeks (available canned at Asian markets)
—OR use 2-3 teaspoons lime juice if pickled onions aren’t used
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons canola or peanut oil
6 Vietnamese pickled leeks (available canned at Asian markets), cut into very small strips
1/4 teaspoon 5-spice powder (optional)
1/4 cup chopped peanuts
Slice beef and place in bowl with mashed garlic. Add chopped onion, chopped lemon grass, fish sauce, salt, black pepper, red pepper, pickled-leek juice, sugar, oil, and 5-spice powder (if used), and mix altogether well.
Tear or cut aluminum foil into 3-to-4-inch squares. Place a slice of beef diagonally on each foil piece. Top each with a few pickled-onion strips and a little chopped peanuts. Roll up each beef square, then roll a foil square around the beef. Twist and turn up ends of each foil roll (somewhat resembles a Tootsie Roll). Place completed beef rolls in an oven-proof dish. Broil in an oven for about 8 minutes, OR bake in 500-degree oven for about 10 minutes.
(The beef rolls may also be baked without the aluminum-foil wrapper, which is faster to do but makes a less showy presentation.)
NOTE: Beef Candy is referred to in Cook the Books when protagonist Juanita Wills cooks for an evening with her gourmet group. The recipe is one given to me by a Vietnamese friend, Quynhgiao Hoang.—Marion Moore Hill
Cook the Books
The third book in the Scrappy Librarian Mysteries takes Juanita Wills, intrepid public librarian in small-town Oklahoma, into the secretive world of adult-literacy studies as she strives to prove her student innocent of murdering her husband. Who poisoned that tainted cupcake that was in the victim's lunchbox--his wife or a co-worker at the same big-box hardware store? Or someone else?