Background: Julie Barenson is a young widow in her late 20s who resides in the small coastal town of Swansboro, North Carolina. She lives in a cottage with her Great Dane Singer, a gift from her late husband, Jim, who died of cancer far too young. Mike Harris, Jim's best friend from childhood, is a thirtysomething mechanic working for his older brother Henry, who has a shop just down the street from the beauty salon where Julie works. Julie and Mike have remained close friends since Jim's death, but their friendship has never developed into anything more than that. Julie has some close female friends, as well--especially Mabel, her boss and the owner of the salon, and Emma, Henry's wife; but Mike is often the person Julie confides in when she really needs someone to talk to. So why the heck aren't these two dating? Probably because since Jim was Mike's best friend, they both are a little bit frightened of pursuing a romantic relationship. One day tall, dashing, charming Richard moves into town and catches Julie's eye. Richard asks her out and the two of them begin dating. This is enough to drive Mike to distraction (since he's been secretly in love with Julie for years, of course), and as he learns more about this mysterious Richard fellow, he begins to suspect that Richard is just a little bit "off," and he's pretty sure it's not just his own jealousy talking. Turns out Richard is a dangerous psychopathic nutjob who's been charming Julie into trusting him, wining and dining her and luring her into his sinister trap. When Julie finally realizes that Richard is a little bit wacko, she dumps him. Meanwhile, it's beginning to dawn on Julie that the right man for her has always been right under her nose. Mike and Julie start spending more time together, and eventually their relationship becomes more than platonic.
For one of their first official "dates," Mike invites Julie to his house for dinner. He's been a bachelor all his life and really doesn't know how to cook, so he whips up just about the only thing he knows how to prepare: a little dish he calls "Creole Burgers." What the heck are those, you ask? Julie wonders the same thing. In fact, she's quite skeptical when Mike sends her to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for them, which include ground beef, some canned Campbell's Chicken Gumbo, mustard, ketchup, and sweet pickles. She discovers, and Mike confirms, that it's kind of like a sloppy Joe with a Cajun twist. I will say I was a little skeptical, too, especially when I discovered that the Campbell's Chicken Gumbo on our grocery store shelves is actually Campbell's Chunky Chicken and Sausage Gumbo. The ready-to-eat variety that you don't have to add water to. Would this make the Sloppy Joes too runny? I guessed we'd find out soon enough. I used my bread machine to make my own buns, using a recipe I like from my bread machine cookbook:
HAMBURGER BUNS AND HOT DOG ROLLS Makes 9.
1 egg (or 1 1/2 heaping tsp Ener-G Egg Replacer beaten with 2 T water)
7/8 cup milk (I use soy and/or rice milk)
4 1/2 tbsp butter or margarine
3 Tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt 3 cups bread flour (regular all-purpose flour works just fine)
1 tbsp yeast 3 tbsp milk*
sesame seeds, optional*
Put all ingredients except 3 tbsp milk and sesame seeds in bread pan in order suggested by your bread machine instructions. Set for white bread dough stage. Press Start. When dough is ready, remove from bread machine and punch down. Cut into 9 equal pieces (or 8 for bigger buns). Let dough rest 5 minutes while you butter one large or two medium-sized baking sheets(I spray them with Pam. For hamburger buns, roll each piece into a ball and flatten it to form a patty about 3 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. For hot dog buns, roll each piece into a 6-inch rope and flatten to 1/2 inch thickness. Place rolls on baking sheet. Cover loosely and set in a warm place to rise for 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly brush tops of rolls with milk and sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired*. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, until a skewer inserted in roll comes out clean. (From The Complete Bread Machine Book by Margie Lambert, p. 127)
*Since Moe is allergic to milk and sesame seeds, I leave these off.
Fresh from the oven. Boy, do these make the house smell good. (*UPDATE: I just realized I already posted this recipe, when we made barbecue. Check it out!)
In The Guardian, Mike browns the ground beef (I threw a little bit of chopped onion and garlic in with mine, just because I feel the need to do than when I'm cooking ground beef), dumps in the chicken gumbo, and adds a little mustard and ketchup.
Mike and Julie slap the meat sauce on a bun, throw a sweet pickle and a handful of potato chips onto their plates, and dive in. Julie is pleasantly surprised at how good it tastes, and guess what? So was I.
Moe got to try them first, since it was a weeknight and he was off to Tae Kwon Do. This is Moe's plate; we don't much like sweet pickles, so we ate them with dill spears instead. And since I'm on a gluten-free diet these days and can't eat my oh-so-delicious homemade buns, I toasted a couple of slices of gluten-free bread, filled a bowl with the sauce and ate it like a thick stew. My family's consensus was that it was good, and that they'd enjoy having it again, but they like the sloppy Joes that I usually make (with this recipe from Rachael Ray) even better. I will definitely make this one again, though--once I've made everyone happy with Rachael's Super Sloppy Joes first.
The Guardian was the second Nicholas Sparks book I ever read (The Notebook was the first) and it's still one of my all-time favorites. I've been skimming and re-reading all of Nick's books to get food blog ideas and to help me remember plot details, and in most cases I'm going through them very quickly; even (I'm sorry to say) skipping over some sections to save time. With The Guardian, I took my time. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. It's not just a love story; it's an edgy suspense thriller as well (and probably the only Nicholas Sparks book that includes the word "semen.") I won't tell you much more about it, other than the fact that creepy Richard is not too pleased with Julie's rejection of him and her budding romance with Mike. As for Singer the Great Dane? He's an ever-present figure in this saga, and once you've read it you'll realize he's a hero as well.
Up next: The steak dinner Mike and Julie cooked but never got around to eating. Stay tuned...