I love the old Harlequin Presents romances I pick up at thrift shops and used bookstores, mainly out in the hinterlands of Virginia: their heroine-centric perspectives, island and glamorous European settings, strong heroes who read like real people. But they are often just the slightest bit dissatisfying. Some endings seem rushed. The hero falls heads over heels in love and declares himself on practically the last page. Sometimes the heroine will leave her job or her family for a guy she’s known for three weeks. And while I love the sexual tension in them, I have often wished for a bit more physicality than just a couple of kisses. So when I read Roulette by Megan Mulry, I was pleasantly surprised to find all the things I love about my old HPs, but made current and with the heat turned up.
Miki Durand has a very balanced, normal life at the beginning of the story. She has a stable job at which she excels, a steady boyfriend who wants them to move in together, an affordable, reasonable home in a nice neighborhood, friends who love her and two parents. Miki’s parents are not especially stable, having never married and both lived lives on two different sorts of edges, prompting Miki to take the safe route in all her choices. Miki’s father is a Russian businessman and her mother a French actress. At the opening of the novel, Miki’s father is eager for her to take over the family business, but he dies shortly after her arrival for vacation in Russia, precipitating a series of events that have the potential to change Miki’s life forever.
Rome de Villiers is a French businessman. His first two scenes in the book are utter perfection, first in a confrontational phone call with Miki about business dealings he’d had with her father and then again when they finally meet in person. The book is written in first person, present tense from Miki’s perspective. This convention annoys me when it isn’t done well, but here it is and it’s essential to the story. Not having Rome’s thoughts makes him even more delectable and even more desirable than your typical brilliant, sexy, billionaire playboy with a French accent. The mystery of not knowing what he’s thinking really works in his favor, which it doesn’t always in old HPs. And we get where he’s coming from when it counts: namely, in his feelings for and actions toward Miki.
At no point does this story take a turn for the predictable. The romance genre conventions Roulette employs all get resolved in subtly unpredictable ways. There’s a Russian mobster to be suspicious of for much of the novel who doesn’t turn out to be who he seems. There’s an “evil other woman” who isn’t evil or, really, an “other woman”. The heroine being the one goaded into taking over the reins of the family business instead of the hero was also a fresh take. Even Miki’s wild, confident, brazen mother isn’t exactly who we think she is. The typical scripts don’t apply here and it’s wonderful to watch all the characters, even secondary ones who probably won’t be getting a book, develop from archetypes into people.
I thought Roulette was terrific, but there are a couple points I’ll address because they’ll hit some readers’ hot buttons. For one thing, the hero and heroine spend a great deal of time apart. While sometimes this will cause my attention to wander, being inside Miki’s head and preoccupied with business problems kept me engaged. The context of work at a grand, international scale is something Mulry has done well previously and it’s a strength again in Roulette. In addition, there is cheating; it’s not spouses, but it may still be a deal-breaker for some readers. It was a bold choice on Mulry’s part and it works in the context of the book, highlighting not just the immediate attraction between Miki and Rome, but everything Miki has missed and lost by adhering strictly to the safest of societal conventions when she’s capable of so much more.
It’s that final point that I think made this Mulry’s strongest work to date. Even in a world where women have many more choices and opportunities than they did in the old 1970s Harlequins, many of us still feel like we’ve settled: given up careers for children and home or taken less money in exchange for flexibility. For highly educated women built to excel and trained to succeed at the highest levels, some social conditioning still operates: be strong, but be polite; work hard, but take care of your family; be a leader, but be restrained. Miki has a good life at the beginning of the book, but by the end, not only does she have her dream guy, she’s affected her own life transformation from good to great. And we can’t help but cheer her on.
This pan-broiled lamb chop recipe has been one of my go-to dishes for many years. In fact, I first made it the year after college for my then-boyfriend, a guy who actually ended up photographing my wedding to my husband. The world does go round, doesn’t it? Anyway, he was (and still is) a serious foodie and stretched my culinary boundaries beyond the childhood staples of baked chicken, lasagna and stir-fry that had gotten me through school. I’d explored many of the fine restaurants in DC through the joys of parent visits and DC’s Restaurant Week, but it had never occurred to me to try cooking anything more complicated at home.
I’ve come a long way since then. But since lamb is probably my husband’s favorite meat, this recipe remains a favorite despite its relative simplicity. There are a couple keys to making this the best dish it can possibly be. First, the recipe in Joy of Cooking suggests that loin chops are just as good as rib chops. I’d say, well, bull pucky. For a dish this simple, it’s important that the meat be the best quality possible so rib chops, preferably “frenched” (with the meat/membrane of the upper bone cut off) is what you’re looking for here. I’d also use a quality brandy or Cognac since the flavor really comes through here and those typically aren’t all that cheap.
Finally, it’s totally reasonable to roast the garlic hours or even weeks in advance. Pureed, roasted garlic actually freezes well. Just add a splash of the roasting liquid when you puree and freeze by tablespoons in ice cube trays. It speeds up the preparation of this dish considerably and it doesn’t hurt a bit to have frozen roasted garlic on hand for soups, stews, garlic bread and other sauces.
Since this sauce requires constant attention in the final minutes of preparation, I’d recommend sides that you can prep in advance or that come together rather quickly once the lamb is done. I served steamed green beans and bleu cheese mashed potatoes with it this time, but often use roasted, chilled asparagus with lemon in the spring (made ahead) and wild rice pilaf (comes together on the stove without much attention from the cook).
Oh, and since I didn’t happen to have a bottle of 1982 Pauillac on hand, we went with a red blend from Romania, which a friend brought back for us from a recent trip. Truly a jet set meal!
Lamb in Roasted Garlic-Cognac Sauce
barely adapted from Joy of Cooking
Makes: 2 servings
Time: 1.5 hours (Hands on: 30 minutes)
4 heads garlic
enough beef stock to come 1/3 up the sides of the garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 lamb chops (preferably rib or loin chops, 1” thick)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon butter
Roasted Garlic-Cognac Sauce
1/3 cup brandy or Cognac
1/2 cup beef or lamb stock
2 tablespoons pureed roasted garlic
1 to 3 tablespoons of softened butter
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, lightly chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 325.
2. Cut 1/3 of the tops off garlic heads. Place in 8×8 inch baking dish. Add chicken stock. Drizzle olive oil over garlic. Place a spring of thyme on top of each head. Cover with foil and bake until garlic is soft and tender, about an hour.
3. Season chops with the salt and pepper.
4. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat with olive oil and butter until the butter begins to brown. Arrange the chops in the pan, cooking ~4-5 minutes each side for medium-rare, one minute more for medium.
5. Remove the chops from the pan and set on a plate in a low oven to warm.
6. Pour any fat out of the skillet, retaining juices and browned bits. Heat skillet to high and pour in brandy, scraping up any browned bits and boiling for 1 minute. Add the stock and boil until reduced by half. Whisk in any lamb juices from plate and the pureed garlic.
7. Remove from heat and whisk in butter one tablespoon at a time. Then add the thyme and additional salt & pepper (start with 1/8 teaspoon of pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of salt). Serve over lamb.
Disclosure: I am friendly with the author and received a copy of Roulette from the publisher for review purposes.