Chef Tom’s Food n’ Noir

Stories are back.

Reminder: these are from a writing program called Round Robin. Some RR’s are three weeks long and some are six. I have to write a short story every day based on a “prompt” I get from my teacher. The rule is to set the timer for twelve minutes and start writing, and stop when the timer goes off. I can do some research beforehand, and do some editing and polishing up afterwards, I just can’t make the story any longer.

I decided early on that I would treat the daily prompts like a “secret ingredient” on a cooking show. I have to come up with something tasty with whatever the teacher gives me. To come up with a “flavor profile” I choose a different literary genre. I love the variety, like trying out a new language. With some of the stories I really like the characters and the setting and the pace, so I’ll re-visit the storyline and keep it going.

Below is my attempt at Noir, or Hardboiled Detective. Four chapters so far. The titles are the daily prompts.

If you really want it to be fun, play the Noir jazz tunes at the end of this post while you’re reading.

 Noir

She is your life also

Walking in and closing the door behind her, she stands in front of my door window. Reaching behind without looking, she nicks off the overhead. She knew exactly where the switch was. The lamp from the hallway turns her into a shadow. The office goes dark save for my desk lamp. Enough of a glow that I could make out her long, blond hair, dark coat, and some painfully high pumps. There is a band of light across her face from the neon on the street. Red, blue, flashing back and forth. Her face lights up, goes dark, lights up again. A corner of her crimson lips turns slightly up in a subtle smirk. Little Mister begins to stir. No wonder she wants me to find her.

What’s your name?

Joe. Joe Smith. Can I help you with something?

(chuckles) Original. Listen up, Joe. You need to stop following me.

She reaches into her pocket and takes out a pistol. I can see the silencer. She aims it at my chest.

Wait!

I know why you’re following me. I know she sent you. You need to stop. Are you listening to me, Joe? She fires (PFFT!) and my desk lamp explodes off the desk. My favorite lamp. I paid good money. Took me months to find one with the fringe like in that movie Chinatown. She just killed my lamp!

Next one is in your gut. You know about a gut shot, Joe? It’s a slow bleed. A painful way to die. Stop following me. Tell her to fuck off. Tell her I came here tonight. Tell her I will end your life if she continues to hound me. (PFFT!) She shoots the paperweight and it flies away in pieces. My favorite paperweight. Gift from my boss’s wife. She and I didn’t last long, but I liked the thing. She knew I loved elephants. She gave it to me. Now that’s gone.

Please stop shooting my shit!

Are you listening to me, Joe? I know where you work. Where you live. I can put a bullet anywhere I want. Including in the middle of your sweaty face.

Ok, ok, I’ll stop! Jesus! She says she loves you. She just wants to know that you’re ok. She knows they’re coming after you. She hired me to find out if you’re ok. That’s all.

(PFFT!) My pile of open case files explodes into fiery papers.

Shit! Ok, just stop!! I’ll back off.

Criminal case

Door latch is busted. Joe removes his Colt from its holster and gently pushes open the door to her apartment. Place is dark. Fanny Brice singing My Man from a scratchy phonograph drifts up from the floor below.

He moves through the dingy hallway and steps into the living room, dimly lit by the flicker of a dying streetlight. A sudden crack in the sky is followed by a loud rumble of thunder. Smells of cigarettes and gin. A silhouette of a tall chair against the rain-streaked window. Someone’s sitting in the dark.

Joe flicks on the overhead and calmly says “Let me see your hands”

Nothing.

“Police!” he lies. “Show me your hands. I ain’t tellin’ ya again.”

Silence.

Joe inches forward to come around the side of the tall chair, his Colt aimed squarely at the shadowy figure. Headlights from the street below suddenly sweep the room lighting the face of the man in the chair. A trickle of blood runs down his forehead from the small black hole above his right eye.

“Shit.” thought Joe, recognizing the dead man’s face. “Murphy. I told the jerk to back off. That dame is my business. Poor sap shoulda listened to me.”

Joe crosses over to the window and peers through the downpour to the city street. A lone figure steps out of the shadows and stands under the flickering streetlamp.

“That fucking blond,” he curses. She slowly looks up to the window of her apartment and stares at Joe for two seconds before sinking back into the darkness.

Joe races through the apartment, out the door and down the dirty hallway to the stairs. Taking three steps at a time he makes the four flights to the lobby in record time, pushing out the front doors onto the landing. By now it’s really coming down. The roar of the rain sounds like the underground.

Joe looks right, then left, and quickly moves towards the alleyway. As he rounds the corner, he barely catches the tail of her long red trench coat as it disappears through a door.

“Got you now.” he says to himself, and takes off running.

They told me there’d be pain

The downpour was heavy, but he could see she’d dashed through the doorway. Joe was right behind her. Stairwell smelled like pee. He climbed three flights to an open door leading into a long, wood-slat hallway peppered with scattered bits of trash. Squatters. He stood in the door, adjusting his eyes to the dim light. No sound except the slow drips falling off his raincoat onto the wood floor.

Joe drew his Colt and stepped gingerly around the small piles of debris. At the far end of the hall was an open door. A thin sliver of light sliced the hallway in half. Not twenty feet away the stink hit him like a hammer. Death. Nothing like it. Nothing worse. Except that gray bullshit fish-from-hell the kid from Norway surprised him with. In a foxhole, for Chrissakes. Soon’s the kid cracked it opened, Joe threw up on his boots. Death in a can. Fuckin’ Norwegians.

Using the nose of his gun, Joe slowly shoved the door open. With his free hand he fished out a crumpled handkerchief and held it over his nose. An old brass bed took up most of the room in the shabby studio. On the bed was a body. From the smell it’d been dead a few days. He inched his way into the room, to the foot of the bed, to get a closer look-see. A woman. Decomposed, but he could see she had long hair. A cheap plastic clip held her scraggly hair above her head.

He heard a shuffling sound from behind him in the hallway and turned just in time to see a blurry glimpse of that damn red trench coat. “Fucking hell!” he raced into the hall and turned right. Standing on the fire escape outside the window was the blonde, the rain had plastered her hair against her face. She reached up and slammed the window closed, turned, and began to climb down the escape.

Joe raced to the window. The thing wouldn’t budge. He pulled up on it with all he had, but it was stuck fast. Turning away from the glass, he bashed the window broken with the butt of his gun. Kicking out the shards he stepped onto the escape and looked down the dark alley to the street. She was gone. Again.

“Two bodies in as many minutes. What the serious fuck. I was just supposed to watch her and give her a message, but she’s leaving a trail of stiffs behind her. I’m too old for this shit. Her girlfriend’s gonna have to pay double.”

Heavy and gray now

Joe left the apartment and closed the door. The smell was too much. He dropped a dime into the payphone in the lobby.

“Sarge, Joe Smith. Found a dead woman downtown. Body’s been there a few days, looks of it.” he said. “Abandoned place corner of Greenwich and 2nd. Sure, Sarge, I’ll wait.”

He lit a smoke under the landing light at the top of the stairs. Rain stopped. Still the air was heavy and gray as if about to bust wide open again.

First Murphy and now this stiff.” he thought. “Blondie (his new nickname for the elusive beauty who keeps running away from a crime scene) can’t be the killer. She keeps showing herself before she disappears into the night. What is she up to? Her girlfriend says she’s being chased. By who?”

Joe thought of the night she slipped into his office and shot up his desk. It was a warning. Leave me alone she says. She tries to scare me off her tail, but then two stiffs in an hour and she’s there, lookin’ at me, taunting me. She wants me to chase her. What the hell is that dame doin’?

Patrol car pulls up and Officer Koslowski steps out. Looks at Joe and climbs the stairs.

“Smith.” he says curtly.

“Koslowski.” Joe nods.

“Sarge says there’s a stiff upstairs?”

“Yeh. Third floor, last apartment. Been dead a while, so it don’t smell so good.”

“Coroner’s right behind me. I gotta file a report.  Stick around til I’m done, yeh?

“Sure.”

Patrolman walks through the door and takes the stairs. Joe flicks the end of his cigarette onto the sidewalk, and pulls his raincoat tight around his neck. The rain had started again. This time a drizzle. Still cold and wet.

======

This was a fun project. Got it from the New York Times. I love feta and am lucky to have a Middle Eastern grocery a few blocks away. They have three kinds of feta: French, Bulgarian, and Greek. I chose the French because it’s a little sweeter and creamier. They also have amazing produce and unlike Whole Foods, much of the time the produce is ripe and ready to eat. Feel free to mix and match your veggies, and switch out the feta for what you like.

Sheet-Pan Bake

Sheet-Pan Baked Feta with Broccolini, Tomatoes and Lemon

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:
1 bunch broccolini, ends trimmed, thick stalks split lengthwise, or broccoli, stalks trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces

1 pint grape tomatoes, halved (about 2 cups)

1 small red onion, peeled, quartered and cut into 2-inch wedges

1 bell pepper (I used red)

1 large apple, cored and sliced into ½-inch wedges

1 lemon, halved and cut into thin half-rounds

3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving

1 teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes

Kosher salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

2 (6- to 8-ounce) blocks feta, cut into 1-inch slices

Cooked grain/pasta for serving: orzo, farro, polenta, rice

½ cup fresh basil or cilantro leaves and fine stems, roughly chopped (optional)

Directions:
Heat the oven to 400 degrees with a rack set in the lower third. On a sheet pan, combine the broccolini, tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, apple, and lemon slices with the olive oil and toss.

Add cumin, herbs, and red-pepper flakes, season with salt and pepper, and toss again until evenly coated. Nestle the feta slices into the vegetables. (It’s OK if they break apart a little.)

Roast 15 to 20 minutes, stirring halfway through but leaving the feta in place, until the

broccolini is charred at the tips, the stems are easily pierced with a fork and the tomato skins start to blister and break down.

Serve over orzo or farro. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with the remaining lemon half for squeezing. Top with fresh herbs, if using.

CHEF NOTES: I used these larger-than-a-cherry tomatoes, called Campari and cut them in half, but you can use any tomato, even a big beefsteak, and just slice it into large wedges. I threw in a red bell pepper and a Fuji apple. I also had a bag of sweet peppers and just halved them. Go for big chunks and lots of colors. Didn’t really need the half-way stir, either.

Dinner

Adapted from the brilliant pastry chef, David Lebovitz. Do not be intimated by the fancy French name. This is a simple recipe and really delicious. It’s pronounced flew-nyard, btw. Beautiful method for using up ripe, sweet plums. I imagine it’d work with any blend of firm, ripe stone fruit (peaches, apricots, nectarines).

Plum Flaugnarde

Plum Flaugnarde

(serves 4-6

Ingredients:
12 ounces (350g) assorted plums, pitted and thickly sliced

3 large egg, at room temperature

1/2 cup (70g) all-purpose flour

1/4 cup (50g) sugar, plus 1 teaspoon for sprinkling over the finished dessert

1/4 cup (60ml) heavy cream

pinch of salt

3/4 cup (180ml) whole milk.

1 1/2 tablespoons fancy alcohol: kirsch, Cognac, brandy, or dark rum

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Generously butter a 6 to 8 cup (1,75l) baking or gratin dish, or a large pie plate. (I like to use one that’s narrower, but deeper.) Strew the plums over the bottom of the baking vessel.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, flour, 1/4 cup sugar, heavy cream, salt, and about a third of the milk, until there are no lumps in the mixture. Whisk in the rest of the milk, the kirsch, and vanilla extract.

Pour the custard over the plums in the baking dish. Bake on the middle rack of the oven until the custard is just barely set in the center, about 20 minutes.

Remove from the oven and set on a cooling rack. Wait a minute, then sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over the top.

CHEF NOTES: Use a variety of ripe, sweet plums. The first one I made I spent time placing them in a fancy design because for some reason I thought I was going to invert it. Nope. Just pile them in. I played with different combos of cream and milk and my fave so far was half a cup each. You’ll want a slight jiggle to the middle when you remove it from the oven. It’ll continue to cook as it cools. I took the last one out at 20 minutes and it was fine. The flaugnarde is best served warm or at room temperature, the day it’s made. I nuked a slice for 30 seconds and it was delish.

ON THAT NOTE

Noir Jazz

A World of Blue (Instrumental) by Matthew Pablo

Background Noir

=CTH=

Chef Tom is currently transitioning from Personal Chef to Private Chef. He also teaches cooking classes, caters small parties and leads overseas culinary tours. His specialty for the last twelve years has been cooking for people with food allergies and sensitivities. His motto is “Food should give you pleasure, not pressure.”

Check him out at www.hippkitchen.com

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