Fritz Brenner, as every mystery reader knows, is Nero Wolfe’s personal chef. In any of Rex Stout’s Wolfe books, the famously fat detective seems to spend as much time at the dining room table as he does at exposing murderers. The dishes Fritz creates for Wolfe are no more than tantalizingly described, but faithful readers can learn more about them from The Nero Wolfe Cookbook.
I was recently re-reading one of the novels, in which Fritz serves a shrimp dish he calls Creole Fritters with Cheese Sauce. That gave me pause: I’d never thought of putting cooked cheese together with any kind of cooked shrimp, much less a cheese sauce on any kind of fritters. Would it work? I had to give it a try.
The recipe started out promisingly, simmering the peeled shrimp in just a little bit of wine and water, seasoned with bay leaf, peppercorns, and onion. The poaching liquid was then to be stirred into beaten egg and added to a bowl containing flour, baking powder, salt, and cayenne. Finally the chopped shrimps and some lemon juice were to be added, the batter shaped into cakes and fried in shallow oil.
I did all that – with some alterations, as you’ll see. The fritters behaved well in the pan, hardly absorbing any oil, and came out a nice golden brown.
Before composing the fritter batter, I had prepared the cheese sauce.
This started with making a flour-butter roux and stirring in cream. (The recipe specified light cream, but that’s hard to find in stores these days, so I used heavy cream and thinned it with a bit of water.) When that sauce base begins to thicken, the recipe said, add cayenne, lemon juice, and grated cheddar cheese; and when the cheese melts, stir in tomato paste and sherry.
Again, I did all that with some alterations. The mild cheese sauce went surprisingly well with the mild shrimp fritters. I’d thought there would be way too much sauce for the number of fritters I made, but we had no trouble finishing everything.
But now for the culinary detective work.
Clue #1: The recipe’s name. You may be wondering how a dish of mild fritters with mild sauce came to be called Creole. So did I. Shrimp preparations with “creole” in their name are always highly spiced. Typical seasonings are many or all of the following: bay leaves, allspice, cloves, cayenne, chili powder, mace, basil, thyme, chives, garlic, and parsley. The mere smidgens of cayenne called for in both the fritter batter and the sauce of this recipe were undetectable.
Clue #2: Using all the shrimp poaching liquid in the batter. That instruction troubled me immediately: There was an awful lot of liquid in proportion to the amount of dry ingredients. Cautiously, I left some of the liquid behind before adding the shrimp. And a good thing I did, because even so the fritter batter absolutely needed several more tablespoons of flour to hold everything together. Something had to be wrong there – especially since the recipe then said to form the fritters into cakes “with your hands.” That would have been like picking up handfuls of pancake batter! I used a ladle.
Clue #3: The initial taste of the sauce. It was totally dominated by the cheddar. I had to add a lot more cayenne, lemon juice, tomato paste, and sherry than the recipe called for to get any evidence at all of those ingredients. Once I did, it had an interestingly subtle blended flavor.
The Final Deduction: Something has to have gotten lost between the way Fritz Brenner made this dish for Nero Wolfe — if you believe in Fritz and Wolfe; but don’t we all? — and the way the recipe was published in the book. Either the quantities listed were wrong or some ingredients had been carelessly left out. (Small supporting clue: the instruction said to add “the drained poaching stock” to the dry ingredients. How do you drain a liquid? Presumably it should have been “strained.”)
Since I had made some corrections for these problems as I prepared the fritter batter and the sauce, the dish we ate was pleasant enough, but hardly spicy or in any way “creole-y.” I can’t help feeling that Fritz would never have made the dish just this way; and if he had done so, Nero Wolfe would not have eaten it.
Nevertheless, its basic concept is sound, and I may very well work with it again, boiling down the poaching liquid to reduce the quantity (and intensify its shrimp flavor) and adding many more creole seasonings.