In COOKIN’ THE BOOKS, the first in my new culinary mystery series, Letitia “Tish ” Tarragon has just moved to the small town of Hobson Glen, Virginia, where she’s invested her life savings in a new business venture, Cookin’ the Books Cafe and Catering. Shortly after arriving, Tish’s hunky landlord, Schuyler Thompson, informs Tish that he’s recommended her to cater the annual library fundraiser, Hobson Glen’s social event of the year. Binnie Broderick, the library director, is a difficult woman to please, but Tish eventually comes up with a winning, albeit pun-laden, banquet menu featuring The Prime Rib of Miss Jean Brodie (standing rib roast with Stilton gravy) and For Whom the Vegan Stuffed Bell Pepper Tolls, among others.

One might expect a novel’s first love scene to occur over champagne or a rich, chocolatey dessert, however, it’s while Tish is cooking The Old Man and the Sea Bream for the banquet when Schuyler makes his first romantic move…

Tish, meanwhile, got to searing the sea bream or, in this case Virginia rockfish, on a wide cast-iron griddle. Within minutes, she found herself slapping the fillets on the grill, flipping them over, and removing them in time with the ragtime music the Dixieland band was playing in the reception room.

The selection of music gave Tish pause. Outside of New Orleans, the only place she had ever seen a Dixieland band perform was on Main Street in Walt Disney World. The genre was, she thought, a curious soundtrack to what Binnie described as Hobson Glen’s upscale event of the year.

Still, it was difficult for Tish to deny that the syncopated rhythms lent a positive, happy air to what was, otherwise, a repetitive culinary task. Placing the fish on to the oiled griddle, listening to the sputter and hiss of the oil and juices, turning the fish to the other side, letting it brown, and then removing it to a waiting platter had developed its own rhythmic pattern. Slap . . . sizzle . . . flip . . . sizzle . . . flop.

Tish repeated the words as she cooked the remaining fillets. Slap . . . sizzle . . . flip . . . sizzle . . . flop. Slap . . . sizzle . . . flip . . . sizzle . . . flop.

‘Looking good. Can I be of any help?’ A familiar man’s voice rang through the kitchen door, snapping Tish from her reverie. She turned to see a dashingly tuxedoed Schuyler Thompson standing near the plating station, admiring the children’s handiwork.

She felt the color rise in her cheeks. ‘Oh, hello, Schuyler. What brings you back here?’

‘Just wanted to check in and see how things are going.’

‘They’re . . . well, they’re going.’ She removed the last rockfish fillet from the griddle and placed on the tray. Flop.

‘I can see. By the way, erecting tents over the walkway was a great idea. Everyone’s talking about it. In a good way, of course,’ he quickly added.

‘I’m glad it’s working. I can’t imagine having to wade through this monsoon in a gown and stilettos.’ Tish eyed Schuyler as she covered the platter of fish. ‘Or in a tuxedo and freshly polished shoes.’

Schuyler bowed humbly. ‘This old thing?’ he teased. ‘So what can I do to help out? I’m not a cook, but I can plate with the best of them.’

‘Thanks, but I couldn’t possibly accept your help,’ Tish declined. ‘You’re a guest. You paid for your ticket.’

‘There will be plenty of time for me to mingle later this evening. Right now, let me help you. Please?’

Before Tish could open her mouth to decline the offer once again, Celestine stepped forth with an apron and a spoon. ‘She’ll tell you no. I say we need all the hands we can get.’

Tish laughed. ‘OK . . . Celestine might be right. Another set of hands would really help ensure we get the first course out on time. Thanks for asking.’

‘Not a problem,’ Schuyler replied. ‘So what will I be doing?’

‘You’ll be helping Kayla dish out the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Baked Ham and Cheesy Edgar Allen Poe-lenta. Not because Kayla isn’t doing an excellent job,’ Tish reassured her friend’s daughter, ‘but because the ham orders outnumber the veggie orders nearly two-to-one.’

‘Yep, the prime rib orders too,’ Celestine concurred. ‘I swear every steer and pig in the county must shudder in fear the second Binnie starts hanging flyers.’

‘Well, Binnie warned us there had better be meat on the menu. Now we know why.’

‘Guilty carnivore here,’ Schuyler raised his hand sheepishly. ‘Although I admit to being tempted by The Old Man and the Sea Bream. Local rockfish is a favorite of mine, especially when cooked properly.’

At Schuyler’s remark, Tish placed the mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and asparagus spears on the same griddle she used to cook the fish. ‘You mean with fresh veg, lemon, wine, butter, dill, and capers?’

‘Is that what’s in the fish dish?’ Schuyler asked as he hung the apron on the back of a nearby chair and started spooning polenta and ham into ramekins.

‘Uh-huh,’ she smirked.

‘Is it too late to change my order?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Will you still let me buy you a drink later?’

‘How about I buy you a drink to thank you for your help? Besides, I’m friends with the barman,’ Tish countered with a wink.

You don’t have to be catering a banquet to give Tish’s Old Man and the Sea Bream a try, but it does scale upwards quite nicely. Nor do you need to be in the throes of a new romance. This fish dish is the perfect Valentine’s meal to share with a spouse, a significant other, a best friend, or to feast upon alone with a lovely chardonnay and your favorite show. (Never underestimate the importance of self-love!) And although it’s light and healthy, the roasted potatoes and lemony sauce make it a satisfying main course that still leaves room for a decadent chocolate dessert. (Tell-Tale Heart cupcakes, anyone?)

What’s more, it’s also easy to prepare, so you can spend your time on more important matters.

Although there are a few moving parts to this dish, nothing is overly complicated or time consuming. Still, if you’re under the gun to get dinner on the table quickly, feel free to substitute the roasted potatoes with basmati rice or orzo.

The Old Man and the Sea Bream

3 large roasting potatoes, i.e. Yukon Gold or Maris Piper, sliced thinly

Olive oil, salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

juice of one lemon

grated zest of one lemon

2 tablespoons small capers

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 14 oz(250g) can artichokes in water, drained (not the marinated variety) OR 9 oz (255g) frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted

1/2 lb (230g) bunch fresh asparagus, ends trimmed

1/2 tablespoon (7 grams)butter

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon white wine

salt and pepper to taste

Two 4 to 6 oz sea bream filets or other white fish filets (See note above)

2 tablespoons corn starch/corn flour

2 tablespoons all purpose flour

1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning (or dried thyme or dillweed)

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Chopped dill or flat leaf parsley to serve

Preheat oven to 425F/220C. Slice potatoes approx 1/4 inch (6mm) thin and spread evenly across a baking sheet or a glass baking pan. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast approximately 30 to 40 minutes, until potatoes are brown and slightly crunchy on the exterior.

While the potatoes roast, place 3 tablespoons olive oil in a medium sized bowl to make the sauce. Add lemon juice, lemon zest, mustard, capers and mix until combined. Set aside.

Place 1/2 tablespoon (7 grams) butter and 1/2 tablespoon olive oil into a large skillet (I use cast iron) and heat on medium high until butter is melted. While the pan is heating, make sure the artichokes are fully dry by patting them with kitchen towel, if necessary. When butter has melted, place artichoke hearts and asparagus into the pan and cook by moving around the pan, until slightly brown on all sides, approx 7 minutes. Add white wine and steam the vegetables just two to three minutes more, until asparagus is tender but not mushy.

Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside.

Place corn starch/corn flour, flour, and spices in a resealable plastic bag and shake to mix. Put fish filets in the bag and shake to coat.

In same skillet in which you cooked the vegetables, add one tablespoons olive oil (There should still be oil left from the vegetables, but if not, add another tablespoon oil). When oil is hot and shimmering, add fish, flesh side down and cook until golden, approximately three to four minutes. Flip and cook another three to four minutes. Remove from pan.

By now the potatoes should be finished. If not, put aluminium foil over vegetables and fish to keep warm. When potatoes are done, serve up a portion to each plate. Alongside the potatoes, arrange a layer of artichoke hearts and asparagus. Top with a filet of fish. Drizzle with the lemon, oil, and caper sauce and top with fresh chopped herbs. Enjoy!