Let’s go on a little trip all the way back to 2014. I had just started Cooking Up Romance and joined Twitter when I discovered a brand new, unpublished writer named Tamsen Parker talking about her “technical virgin hero”. Now, I love me a virgin hero and the technical part was too intriguing not to inquire about. But when asked, Tamsen said that the book didn’t yet have a publisher and there were a few releases planned before that one so I filed it away as a hope for the future and didn’t think too much more about it. Until School Ties came out.
School Ties is a kinky m/f romance between Erin Brewster and Zach Shepherd that’s got a little bit of a taboo built into it–when they meet, Erin is Zach’s teacher at a New England prep school and several years older. So even if this hero hadn’t been a virgin, this was already my catnip up one side and down the other. I love teacher-student romances (more about that in a minute because I know it won’t work for everyone), love age gap romances and love New England settings. So you can pretty much picture me bouncing with glee when I read the summary. Luckily the book was truly everything I hoped for.
Erin Brewster is a prep school math teacher who has returned to the school where her uncle was headmaster after being shipped around by her nomadic father her entire childhood. She is eager to settle somewhere and prove her worth as a new teacher. While she and Zach have some instant chemistry though, Erin knows anything more than the quick conversations and sidelong glances they occasionally share would get both of them in serious hot water. So when another teacher expresses a romantic interest, she goes along with that relationship even though he doesn’t really hit all her secretly submissive sexy buttons.
Zach meanwhile is struggling with family problems since he’s not super privileged like a lot of the other students at the pricey prep school. He watches Erin’s relationship with the other teacher progress with disappointment and concern, but knows there’s nothing he can or should do about their highly tentative connection. Finally graduation rolls around and Zach goes off to college without his relationship with Erin going beyond short conversations and mild flirtations. For those worried about the ethical issues inherent in the playing out of this trope, there is one kiss, but it doesn’t take place until after the gradation ceremony. While this isn’t quite a fauxboo scenario–the emotional intimacy that develops between Zach and Erin is more than is probably strictly appropriate–nothing physical of any note happens until years after he is no longer her student.
Fast-forward several years to Zach having graduated from college and learned some tools of the kinky trade (in granted a slightly contrived way, but there’s a scene in there that’s so fab I was willing to overlook that–I don’t want to spoil it, but don’t worry, you’ll know when you get to it) and returned to the prep school as a teacher. Though it takes a while, a relationship does eventually develop between Erin and Zach, the ultimate in slow burns. Another aspect I really enjoyed is the over-the-top care-taking in this book. Zach is incredibly sweet to the tentative Erin. There are several points where she’s hurt, scared, uncomfortable or worried and he manages to coddle her without infantilizing her.
If I have one quibble it’s that for a brief period the book does go down the “I’m too dirty/kinky/scary for you” path that has become rather a cliche in BDSM romance. I’d rather that have not been a feature of the early days of the second part of the couple’s romance. But it quickly recovers.
The more I thought about this book the more I liked it. In addition to containing some of my favorite tropes, most of the book is sexy set to simmer. When they do eventually develop a romantic and sexual relationship, it’s super fulfilling because we’ve been cheering for them for so long. Plus the sweetness of the hero made it an extra special squishy romance without tipping over into the saccharine. Definitely worth waiting two years for!
Is there any more vile relic of the 1960s than pot roast? Overcooked, undercooked, congealed vegetable mush burned into the bottom of a pan–we’ve all had terrible pot roast. But it remains comfort food for these long, cold days. Zach certainly seems to regard it that way when he’s served pot roast after a certain ordeal in School Ties. After trying out the usual version though, I decided it required sprucing.
Most of the steps in this recipe are identical to the traditional method–browning the roast, adding celery, carrots and onions to a few inches of beef broth and cooking in a low oven for several hours. There are two real tricks to good pot roast. The first is to obtain the right cut of meat. Typically this will be chuck roast, three to five pounds from the rib of the animal. You need a piece that isn’t too lean and has some connective tissue in it. If you’ve got a good butcher nearby, I’d definitely recommend heading there as a lot of grocery store meat will have all the fat trimmed off and trust me, you need a bit of fat in this dish to keep the meat juicy. The other trick is not to rush the cooking. It’s probably going to take three to four hours in a 275 degree oven. Even bumping the temperature up to 350 seems to result in a drier, tougher dish.
I’ve also stopped pretending that vegetables steam-boiled for the duration of a Pride & Prejudice marathon will ever be good. Instead I’ve slightly deconstructed the dish with easy cider-glazed carrots as an accompaniment and served everything over mashed potatoes. And the bit of horseradish and mustard added to the gravy at the end make for a flavorful take that actually does just to this humble comfort food.
- 1 three-five pound chuck roast
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 medium onions, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- 3 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
- 3 carrots, peeled & cut into 1-inch chunks
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 3 cups beef stock
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1/3 cup yellow mustard
- 3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch, whisked into 2 tablespoons water (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit/135 degrees Celcius.
- Salt and pepper the roast.
- In a large, oven-safe pot with a lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Brown the roast on all sides, about 2-3 minutes each side and remove to a plate.
- Cook the onions, carrots and celery for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Remove the vegetables to a plate, reserving the fat.
- Whisk the flour into the fat and cook until nutty-smelling and browned. Whisking constantly, add the red wine and beef stock.
- Put the vegetables back in the pan with the thyme, bay leaves and rosemary. Add the roast on top of the vegetables. Cover the pan and bring the liquid to a boil.
- Place the pan in the oven, covered until cooked, about 3-4 hours depending on the size of the roast. It's done when the meat flakes when poked with a fork.
- Remove the roast to a cutting board to rest. Discard the vegetables, reserving the liquid in the pan.
- After skimming the fat from the juices, bring the liquid back to a simmer over medium heat. Whisk in the mustard and horseradish and allow to cook for 5 minutes. Depending on your preference for gravy thickness, you can whisk in the cornstarch slurry to thicken it.
- Serve with mashed potatoes and cider-glazed carrots and gravy poured over.
September 20, 2016