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Bouillabaisse of New Orleans June 24, 2012

Posted by inspiredbywolfe in Seafood, Wolfe recipe.
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While Nero Wolfe was at heart a lover of French classical cooking, he also became a great proponent of food cooked in his adopted homeland of America. Indeed, he was always grateful to the United States for providing him with a home and allowing him to live how he wanted, concentrating on orchids and culinary delights. While Nero Wolfe rarely left his house, he still managed to discover various uniquely American culinary treats, which he both replicated himself and highlighted to foreign chefs who were visiting.

One of the dishes Wolfe seems very fond of is what he calls Bouillabaisse of New Orleans. In Too Many Cooks, he states that the Marseilles version is “mere belly fodder” compared to the wonders of the New Orleans version. And with a description like that, naturally I had to try it.

I started by chopping up some green pepper, garlic and scallions. I sauteed these in some olive oil until they were soft.

Once they were soft, I added thyme, white wine and some beef broth and let the whole thing boil. I reduced the heat, and while it was simmering, I chopped some snapper into pieces and rolled them in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. I also had some prawns which I also rolled in the flour. The recipe called for small lake shrimp but since I didn’t have any of those, I used the prawns. It was only when I was halfway through the recipe I thought of using yabbies…oh well. Next time.

I dropped the floured pieces of fish into the soup, and once more let it boil before reducing the temperature and letting it cook the seafood gently. While the soup was simmering, I chopped up a breadstick and fried some pieces of it in butter.

At this point, I was ready to just eat the fried bread – it smelled so good and the crust had gone nice and toasty! But I refrained, and continued with the soup. At this point, it was almost done, with the fish and prawns cooked through. As a final step, I stirred through some saffron and added a bit more pepper.

Now it was ready to serve. I placed the slices of bread in a bowl, and spooned the bouillabaisse over the top. I garnished with some chives and it was ready to serve.

While I can’t make any comments about whether it’s better than the Marseille version, I did enjoy this bouillabaisse very much. The seafood had permeated throughout the broth and the saffron also came through. The broth had also thickened quite a lot due to the flour I’d added when I put the fish in; this was a clever way of thickening the broth without needing to make a roux or similar.

While the overall effect was very nice, my favourite part was definitely the soup-soaked pieces of bread. The crusts stayed crunchy while the inside of the bread had been completely softened by the soup.

Since Nero Wolfe rarely travelled to places where this would have been served, I hope he was able to reproduce this recipe in the comfort of his own home – something that I will definitely be doing over the winter – and find appropriate satisfaction in the Bouillabaisse of New Orleans.

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Slow-cooked squid June 20, 2012

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While I’ve cooked squid many times, I’ve never cleaned and prepared them myself. So recently, when I saw some fresh squid at the fishmongers, I decided I’d better give it a go.

I started by soaking the squid in cold water before I started cleaning them. There are lots of instructions online about how to clean a squid, but I used the description in Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s Companion as I was also intending to use her recipe. Now, there are no photos of the cleaning process as I was almost up to my elbows in squid. I separated the tentacles, cleaned out the innards and beak, pulled off the skin and collected the ink. I found the whole thing quite straightforward – provided I followed the steps in the correct order!

I chopped up garlic, tomatoes, onions, celery, basil and thyme and cooked them together briefly.

I chopped the squid and tentacles into bite-sized pieces and added them to the vegetables. I also added the squid ink and a bit of red wine. I found that while the ink was black in the bowl, when I added it to the pot it turned a purply colour and mixed in with the wine. Maybe I didn’t have enough ink for the amount of liquid I’d already added.

Once everything was combined, I just had to let it slowly cook for about an hour. When it was ready, I added some fresh basil on top and it was ready to serve.

The end result was fantastic. While I do like squid that has only been cooked for a couple of minutes, I enjoyed this dish even more. It was very rich, with the squid completely soft. The squid flavour had permeated into the vegetables but at the same time, the squid had also absorbed a lot of flavours making it very interesting to eat. I did think that the squid ink got lost and I did not think it had added much to the dish (although it was fun to extract the ink from the ink sacs!). While it takes a lot longer than just quickly cooking some squid, I’ll definitely be making this dish again – once I’ve cleaned the squid, of course.

 

Buckwheat blinis with sour cream and caviar May 17, 2012

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Adaptations of books are difficult things. In many cases, the book is far superior, as the time limitations of TV shows or movies mean that all the complexities of a book cannot be brought onto the screen. In some cases, though, the adaptation manages to concentrate and sharpen the book, making it even more enjoyable. In the case of the A&E adaptation of the Nero Wolfe books, it is fair to say I find most of them almost as enjoyable as the books. I think the characterisations are great, and the adaptations are certainly faithful to the books.

One of my favourite adaptations is of “Poison a la Carte”, from the Three at Wolfe’s Door trilogy. So many of the details are as I imagine them in the book, down to the colour of the jacket the murder victim wears. Of course, in this story, the murder victim dies after ingesting arsenic which was served in the buckwheat blinis. I was keen to try out these blinis, to see if they were worth dying for.

While it wasn’t difficult to make the blinis, it certainly took some time. There were two rising periods of about 5 hours in total, plus the time to cook and then assemble them. Naturally these are meant for the first course in a full meal cooked by Fritz, but there were enough of them that we had them for a light dinner.

To start with, I mixed buckwheat flour, milk and yeast together and let the first rise occur – about 2 hours.

After I’d decorated a cake and cleaned the house, I went back to add more buckwheat into the mix and let it rise again. Then I delivered the cake, had afternoon tea, exchanged pleasantries, and returned home to complete the next step. This was to add egg, more milk, salt and sugar to the mix, and then let it rest for another 20 minutes. Now it definitely looked like pancake mixture.

I cooked the blinis in batches of four, dropping spoonfuls of the mixture into the hot frying pan. For the first couple of batches, I was impatient, and flipped them over too soon. I quickly learned to wait and let them cook and brown properly before flipping them over.

It took a while, but eventually I had a full plate of variously sized blinis. I admit that by the end, I gave up on making small, cute ones, and made a few somewhat larger ones! Still, I did end up with a nice amount.

Now it was onto the filling! I’d made some sour cream the night before, by adding buttermilk to normal cream, and letting it sit overnight. Naturally the first batch I made had a base of sour cream and were topped with caviar and chives. Exactly like the recipe – except with no arsenic. I also made some others with smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers; and smoked trout, pea shoots and sundried tomatoes.

Now, the trout and the salmon blinis were both delicious, the sour cream and caviar ones were definitely the best. The buckwheat provided a spicy, almost beery taste which I wasn’t expecting from the blinis. They definitely added their own flavour, rather than just being a conduit for other flavours. Perhaps their beery taste is why Nero Wolfe likes them so much – he certainly was a fan of beer.

I thought the blinis were a fantastic recipe that I’ll definitely use again for a variety of toppings. However, I’ll always check to make sure there’s no grit – or arsenic.

Baked scallops August 31, 2011

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Amazing as it sounds, sometimes I get sick of the big, heavy meats. I want something finer, more refined in taste and texture. Recently, when I felt like this, I turned to seafood: scallops in particular. I decided to try out Nero Wolfe’s recipe for baked scallops, as I was hoping for a dish that was warm and comforting without being heavy.

To start with, I briefly cooked the scallops in a mixture of white wine, water, peppercorns and bay leaves. It only took 4 or 5 minutes for the scallops to be cooked – and I was wary of overcooking them.

I set them aside to cool, and got to work on the sauce. I chopped some shallots and cooked them briefly in some butter, before adding flour to form a roux. I added a couple of cups of the liquid I’d cooked the scallops in, and stirred it until it began to thicken. At this stage, I added salt, parsley and some grated nutmeg.

I didn’t quite follow the directions in preparing the scallops for baking. Instead of mixing the scallops into the sauce, I collected my motley collection of little ramekin-type dishes, and put some scallops in the bottom of each dish.

I strained the sauce, removing the pieces of onion and parsley, and spooned the sauce over the scallops. I topped each dish with a mixture of cheese and breadcrumbs, and put them in the oven for about 25 minutes.

After about 25 minutes, the topping had gone brown and crunchy, and the sauce had mostly set.

The combination of the scallops and the sauce was very nice, with the sauce having an almost vinegary tang thanks to the parsley and onions. However, I wasn’t sure if the sauce was meant to set during the baking process, or remain a liquid. Mine ended up about halfway between – a thick sauce, but not set. I think I would have preferred this if the sauce had been fully set, and that seems more consistent with its name of baked scallops.

Having said all of that the flavour was great, and the cheese on top added a nice texture. This dish definitely fulfilled my desire for something a bit lighter but still comforting. When I make this again, I’d like to try thickening the sauce so that it does set when baked, but that would be the only change I’d make.

Brazilian lobster salad January 24, 2011

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Or, how I learned to stop worrying and trust Nero Wolfe.

You’d think by now I would have learned. I’ve cooked many recipes now from the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and most are fantastic. Some are just OK – but none have been terrible. I don’t know why I was so skeptical going in, but when I read the recipe for the Brazilian lobster salad, I scoffed. “That just sounds like a fancy shrimp cocktail”, I even said. Which it kind of is – but that’s a description that really doesn’t do it justice.

I still have questions about this salad, however. Primarily: why is it called a Brazilian salad? Did Nero Wolfe ever go to Brazil? Where did he get the recipe? I’m afraid these questions may never be answered.

To start with, I sliced up some avocado, and added white wine, mustard powder, a small amount of onion, parsley and chives. I mixed this together and placed it in the fridge while I prepared the other ingredients.

Next, I prepared the mayonnaise that acted as a dressing for the salad. I’d never made mayonnaise before and confess I did not use the recipe that is provided in the Nero Wolfe Cookbook but instead turned to my Ratio app. I blended two egg yolks with water and lemon juice, then began to drizzle in oil while H whisked furiously.

After some more whisking and the addition of all the oil, I was lucky enough to have my emulsion not break, and for mayonnaise to be created.

I mixed some of the mayonnaise with tomato paste, and left the rest plain, to be mixed in with the rest of the salad later on.

Next, I prepared the meat. I must confess I didn’t use lobster meat – I went to the market all set to buy a lobster only to discover that there were none available! I settled on a nice crayfish instead, figuring that it was close enough to lobster to not dramatically affect the final recipe.

My preferred method of dealing with live lobsters or crayfish is to pop them in the freezer for a good 20-30 minutes, and prepare a pot of boiling water with lots of salt in it. When it’s boiling, I remove the critter from the freezer and dump it straight into the boiling water.

Once the crayfish was cooked, I let it cool slightly and then removed all the meat. I find it easiest to separate the tail from the body, and split the tail down the middle to extract the meat. It can also work to split the body in half and pull out the meat – although this is more fiddly than the tail.

With all the elements prepared, it was time to assemble the final salad. I placed some big leaves of lettuce in the bowl, then added some of the mayonnaise I’d mixed with tomato paste. Next I spooned on some of the avocado mix on top of the mayonnaise, and placed the crayfish on top of that. I added some of the plain mayonnaise and topped the whole thing with paprika. I added some capsicum slices on the side as a garnish.

A glorified shrimp cocktail this may be, but a shrimp cocktail this is not! While each element was nice in its own right, the combination of the crayfish with the avocado and tomato mayonnaise was brilliant. It was sweet, tangy and savoury all at the same time. The paprika on top added a nice amount of spice without being overwhelming. Overall, the thing that struck me the most about this dish was the balance. Every element was balanced so well, complimenting every other part of the dish, it was great to get a portion of every element on the fork and eat it together.

Once again, Nero Wolfe has shown me that I should trust his (and Fritz’s) judgement and not be skeptical of his recipe instructions! I have learned my lesson and will be sufficiently humble when I next approach his recipes.