Fans of the classic murder mystery know about Nero Wolfe and food. The fictional detective is as famous for his gourmandise as for his crime solving. The elaborate meals Wolfe consumes are featured in every book. As a devotee of both the detection and the dining, when I discovered, years ago, The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, written by Wolfe’s creator, Rex Stout, I absolutely had to have it.
(I also have – and periodically reread – 58 volumes of Stout’s mystery stories, many in paperbacks so old that the price printed on them is 50 cents.)
I never made any of the book’s dishes, though. Its pleasure for me was in reading, since many of the recipes were introduced with excerpts from the novels they appeared in. And eventually it dropped out of my mind as a book to be cooked from. Recently, my new friend Ann, who also has the book, told me about a lamb shank recipe in it that she said was excellent. So I dug out my copy and decided to make it.
It was a great success. There’s nothing unusual in either the ingredients or the technique, but it’s one of those marvelous dishes in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You flour and brown lamb shanks in olive oil, then remove them to a dish. Bring beef broth and red wine to a simmer in the pot, along with tomato paste, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf; then return the shanks and cook them for an hour. Add a few chunked carrots and onions and keep cooking until everything is tender. Separately, sauté mushrooms in butter and add them to the pot just before serving.
The recipe effortlessly produced a gorgeous satiny-velvety sauce. I realized after a while that its secret was something I’d discovered before in certain Italian braises. That is, a really good homemade meat broth, long cooked with tomato paste and red wine, makes a sauce that you’d swear was based on a three-days-in-the-making French sauce espagnole.
My dish did need more liquid than the recipe called for, but Ann had warned me that it would, so I was ready for it. And I wouldn’t have wanted a drop less of that terrific sauce. The lamb shanks also took longer to get tender than the recipe assumed, but again, no problem. At the end, the lamb was dark and luscious, the carrots and onions just flavorful grace notes, and the mushrooms delicious.
Those mushrooms weren’t ordinary ones. The book didn’t specify a type, so I felt free to try something unusual. At my local Greenmarket on Wednesdays, there’s a stand that specializes in wild mushrooms – up to a dozen kinds, as the seasons progress. This week I tried a strange-looking variety called Sweet Clubs (clavariadelphus truncatus). They’re mostly cylindrical, with no gills or pores, and only a kind of ruffled widening at the top. They have a definite sweet taste, even raw. That flavor mellowed and blended beautifully in my lamb shank dish.
When I said, up above, that I’d “dug out” a copy of the book, that was more than a metaphor. I couldn’t find my copy anywhere. Then I remembered that I’d given it away a few years ago, in a fit of deaccessioning unused books. Arggh!
However, there’s a great used bookshop, The Strand, in my neighborhood. Hopefully rummaging through its crowded, dusty shelves, I came up with a nice clean copy of the book for $7 and bought it.
In that long-ago misguided giving-away fit, I also got rid of two other books that I now wish I’d kept: The Sherlock Holmes Cookbook and Madame Maigret’s Cookbook. Who knows what mystery-related dishes I might have been able to post, if I’d only known, back then, that I’d be writing this blog now?!