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Comfort food and books for comfort

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Submitted Cover Photo J. Courtney White's mystery thrills the reader with its murder plot and gives an unusual insight into the rural way of life in New Mexico.

Teriyaki Chicken stir fry and author J. Courtney White’s mystery book, ‘The Sun’

The summer heat is upon us and with it, we long for light and easy meals that keep the kitchen cool. One of my favorite summer dishes I have made since moving to Roswell in 1999 is teriyaki chicken stir fry. My late husband David looked forward to it and would eat the entire pan in one sitting.

The first time I made the dish was on our shopping tour to Cannon Air Force Base, which happened every three months or so. My husband was a 100% disabled retired Marine Corps Veteran and enjoyed the international section on base that had German, Thai and Japanese food. We usually stayed overnight there — the first day we would shop for dried goods, like German dumplings and spices. The next day, I shopped for fresh produce and meat.

I always loved to try out something new and on one of those first shopping tours, I found a bottle of ready-made teriyaki marinade. When we got home, I followed the recipe and was addicted. It was 2000 and Roswell’s grocery stores didn’t yet have the variety of products that we have today. The internet was there, of course, but it was not as easy to find people who posted recipes. So, when I ran out of the teriyaki marinade, I walked down to our Roswell Public Library to see if they had a cookbook on how to make teriyaki sauce. Long story short, I found several books and started experimenting.

You might find it interesting that teriyaki sauce is a typical American sauce that was created by Japanese immigrants in the 1960s in Hawaii. There are many varieties and I experimented quite a bit myself. Here is my favorite:

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Teriyaki chicken stir fry

Serves 4 (or one very hungry Marine)

Ingredients

For the sauce:

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup pineapple juice

1 Tbsp brown sugar

2 Tbsp honey

1 Tbsp rice vinegar

1 Tbsp minced garlic

1 Tbsp minced ginger

1/2 Tbsp hot red chile flakes

1 Tbsp cornstarch

For the stir fry:

1 Tbsp cold-pressed olive oil

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into pieces (you can also use fajita-cut chicken)

5 cups chopped mixed vegetables that are in season (at the moment squash, bell peppers, broccoli, snap peas, mushrooms and onions)

1 8 oz can sliced water chestnuts, drained; and if they are thick, chopped

Preparation:

Either the night before, or early in the morning, prepare the sauce by adding all ingredients except the cornstarch in a sauce pot and bring to a boil. Mix the cornstarch with 2 Tbsp of cold water until there are no lumps. While stirring, pour the cornstarch water into the sauce. Cook, while constantly stirring, for 15 minutes or until the sauce is reduced and appears syrupy. Take 1/2 cup from the sauce and keep in a separate covered jar and refrigerate.

Let the rest of sauce cool for 10 minutes before pouring it over the raw chicken cubes in a covered bowl. Refrigerate overnight or at least 4 hours.

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan until it glistens, but doesn’t smoke. Add the chicken and fry until it is light brown. Remove the chicken and keep warm on a separate plate.

Add a little more oil and add vegetables, stir-frying them for 5 minutes on high. Return the chicken to the pan and add the 1/2 cup of sauce. Simmer for 15 minutes.

Serve by itself, with rice or rice noodles. You can easily double the portion and freeze part of it for later.

You can also decorate the plates with toasted sesame seeds or sliced green onions.

Books for comfort

‘The Sun’

Today, I have quite a treat for fans of mystery stories. Santa Fe native J. Courtney White’s 365-page book, “The Sun,” has everything a good mystery book needs: Murder, quirky characters and the vast openness of New Mexico’s ranch lands. Though White was born in Philadelphia, he headed West to Phoenix at the age of six and his love for the American West kept him in the region. His work brought him to the Sierra Club in 1994 when he became an activist wanting to conserve America’s West. He worked on the front lines of collaborative conservation and regenerative agriculture, exploring on-the-ground solutions to global issues, including land restoration. In 2014, he was inspired by his distant cousin, William Faulkner, and started his path into writing fiction. “The Sun” is the first in a mystery series set on a historic ranch in northern New Mexico during the tumultuous years of 2008-09.

I laughed out loud reading the reaction of the hero of the book, Bostonian pediatric oncologist Bryce Miller, when she arrives at the ranch The Sun, somewhere in the middle of nowhere New Mexico. She had inherited 140,000 acres from her estranged uncle, who had dropped dead in France, leaving her the ranch and cattle. Though she doesn’t even know the front end of a cow from its back, she talks to her uncle’s foreman to expect her arrival, only he is not there when she drives up to the ranch house; his truck has the key in the ignition and his tuna fish-eating cow dog is waiting in the back of the truck bed, almost giving her a heart attack when he barks at her. Her inner monologue and thoughts of how New Mexicans are is hilarious.

The book is a well-written, fast-paced murder-mystery that pulls the reader in from the start, when Miller meets neighbor Earl Holcombe, the only one who is helpful and on her side. He is a Republican who was friends with her uncle, despite him being a liberal Democrat. He extends this friendship to Miller, though she admits being a “urban-dwelling New York Times-reading latte-drinking, East Coast liberal.”

The mystery about the vanished foreman, a stolen rodeo horse and very unsavory characters who want to buy the ranch, show that author White knows what he is talking about. After all, for 20 years, White helped create a radical center among ranchers, conservationists, agencies and others to build economic and ecological health in Western working landscapes. There’s no doubt that one or another of the characters are based on real-life encounters. There is a country club developer, an oil and gas man, a naturalist with a fierce hate of fish-stomping cows, and a mysterious stranger, and they all try to convince Miller to sell out to them. Throw in a mysterious black helicopter and a Sasquatch hunter on the loose, and you have a wild ride ahead, trying to find out what, or rather who, actually caused the demise of — spoiler alert — the dead foreman.

Even if people don’t particularly care for a mystery, White’s astute insight into New Mexico’s ecological, economic and social challenges that he packs into this fiction are thoroughly entertaining. Through the chapters, love for a rural way of life shines through, and — despite the differences — at the end, love for New Mexico’s “New West” triumphs. I did not see the ending coming, quite like Miller who is so far out of her comfort zone.

For me, it was a page-turner until the last chapter, which is rare, and I can’t wait for Volume 2.

The book “The Sun” is available as an eBook and paperback at all online book stores.

For more information, visit jcourtneywhite.com.