Gourmet Sleuths

2009.May.12 Tuesday · 0 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Food & Recipes

“The fact is that the whole of literature, absolutely all of it, is divided into detective novels and romantic novels. Quote me any title from any of the world’s literature and you will find that the subject matter either deals with an investigation into the violation of a taboo, in short a crime, or else is a love story.”

– Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Author, Writing is an act of free choice

Buenos Aires – Why gourmet detectives as a theme? And what, exactly, is a gourmet detective? The first question, easy – pure whim, happenstance that while planning out the weekend I was in the middle of reading a Pepe Carvalho novel, the gourmet detective who is the protagonist of a series by the author quoted above. The second question, far more difficult, as the range of what falls into this category is vast. Some are police detectives, like Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu, of the Botswana Police. Others are private detectives – Pepe Carvalho and Nero Wolfe come to mind. The Gourmet Detective, he who is never named, tracks down exotic ingredients, rare recipes… crimes against or about food. And Monsieur Pamplemousse is a food critic who simply seems to find himself drawn into investigating crimes related to restaurants. Those are just the five I chose to work with – there are home cooks turned amateur sleuth, restaurant chefs who do the same. There are “gourmets” that range from cookie bakers to full blown gourmands, and the food descriptions in the books cover full recipes, elaborate descriptions, or simple mentions. On to the food….

Chicken Beggar’s Purse in tomato-raisin sauce
Kubu was the tough one. While he seems to be constantly thinking about food, there’s very little information given by the authors as to what he eats. They often just refer to things as “the stew my wife cooked” or “ate some sandwiches” with no more detail. I seriously considered just dropping him from the quintet and picking another, as, by the time I finished reading the first novel, A Carrion Death, he seemed less of a gourmet and more of simply a large man who likes to eat. In the end, I decided to simply consult a couple of cookbooks and sites on Botswanan cuisine, came across a “chicken pie”, which I deconstructed a bit and turned into these beggar’s purses. The filling – chicken, apple and chilies sauteed in butter. The dough, I started off with the dough in the recipes, but it was really made as a pie crust, too crumbly to gather up into a bundle, so I tossed that and made a basic empanada dough, which has worked well in the past. The sauce – broiled some tomatoes and garlic and then pureed them with yellow raisins, wine vinegar and a little sugar. Seasoned to taste and kept it warm.

Mussel Soup
On to The Gourmet Detective, a series of books that I’ve not read any of, but in excerpts seem quite interesting. In a couple of those passages mussels are mentioned and I simply decided to make an interesting mussel soup. For the base I blackened some red bell peppers over an open flame and then the same for some yellow onions. Then I let them steam in a paper bag for a bit, rubbed the skin off of all of them and tossed them in a pot with one large tomato, more for acidity than anything else, several garlic cloves, salt and marjoram. I topped that off with water and simmered it for about a half an hour, then pureed it. I took fresh mussels, cleaned them, and then put them, still dripping wet, in a large covered pot with a couple of tablespoons of ground black pepper. Steamed them in their own juices until done, about five minutes. Let them cool a little then slipped the mussels out of the shells, right into the soup base, and then strained the liquid in as well. A little salt and it was delicious!

Spaghetti Annalisa
Some dishes are just my idea of heaven, and Pepe Carvalho’s elaborate description of making Spaghetti Annalisa is one of those. Perhaps it’s best if I just provide my translation of his description (he talks about making two dishes at once, so I’ve left in some ellipses where he goes on about making saltimbocca). (I’m not sure if this particular book in the series, Pajaros de Bangkok, was ever translated to English, couldn’t find it listed.)

He went into the neat and tidy pantry and took down a cardboard box from which he removed an electrical appliance that could equally have been a meat grinder or a distilling apparatus of ambrosia. But, in reality, it was an Italian pasta making machine, for the simple process of pushing flour and water or egg through a plastic passage and on through a die of sorts for the type of pasta wanted and waiting for the tender creatures to emerge. And at the far end, a razor sharp blade for cutting off the little beauties at just the precise intervals. Too much water or egg could yield a catastrophe and Carvalho measured with the exactitude of a savior picking a chosen people. The machine began to churn and complain and when the pasta was just perfectly mixed, Carvalho opened the gate and the glacier of dough corkscrewed into the passage, attempting to escape, until it found itself confronted by the die, the final moment of shaping, when it would become tagliatelle, spaghetti, lasagna, spaghettini or macaroni. Carvalho waited with his knife at the ready and when the tender worms extended themselves to forty centimeters he cut them off, committing genocide against the mounds of tender spaghetti that he laid coiled in a glass bowl where they could firm up prior to cooking. Knife in hand and a growing mountain of spaghetti at his side, Carvalho experienced an emotion he could only equate to that of God when he cut off a branch of the primates and turned them into humans. Flour and water and the miracle of underrated mutation of the banal into that proud thing we call spaghetti, though if those wonderful filaments of magical texture were in German, Greek or Latin, the three languages with no banality, they would be appreciated as they truly deserve and placed in a seat of honor in the Museum of Mankind. He covered the pasta with a cloth and headed into the garden in search of leaves of fresh sage, indispensable for the saltimboca, and some of basil he grew in a pot for the plates of pasta. The cutting of the basil to dry was a ritual in a vital cycle and Carvalho would have some until the next spring. Like many he used basil that has been dried by the sun and chopped. … He also began the preparation for the spaghetti. Finely chopped onion, sweated slowly in butter until translucent, removed from the flame and inverted the contents into a bowl. Separately, beating the very cold cream until it was thick and then adding it to the butter and onions. Slicing the smoked salmon into this slivers, sufficiently large that one could detect their texture on the tongue and mixing that with the sauce, and finally, the addition of the basil, cut in a chiffonade. … Tossing the spaghetti into the salted and bubbling water…. the moment to try the spaghetti. His teeth bit into them without crushing and his palate noted the texture and taste of the flour at just the moment it was robbed of the aroma of grain. It was al dente. Draining off the water he added two lightly beaten yolks to the sauce and very carefully folded it together. Ladled the sauce over the moist spaghetti and with a spoon and fork, lifted and dropped the filaments like silky hair until they were impregnated with the ivory soul of the sauce.

Can I say anything more about it? I did it his manner the first night, the second, the photo above, I ladled the sauce over, but didn’t mix them up, purely for presentation, and let people do that themselves. Although not noted in the recipe, I thought it needed a touch more salt and just a few grinds of pepper.

Marinated roasted pork with maque choux
Nero Wolfe, the “New York Sherlock Holmes”, though far less active (weighing in at the heft of a small hippo), and an aficionado of food and beer – books replete with descriptions and the author, a gourmet himself, having published a cookbook with many of the recipes talked about in the books. Pork and corn a favorite, though my own recipes…. Pork chops, marinated in a mixture of soy, honey, vanilla, olive oil, orange juice and zest, and chopped red onion, for several hours, then baked in the oven. The remaining marinade, simmered on stove top until it reduced to about half the volume. The maque choux, a simple version – the corn cut off of half a dozen ears of fresh corn, a couple of thinly sliced leeks, and a chopped green bell pepper. A teaspoon or so of salt, a couple of tablespoons of butter, into a covered saute pan and cooked over the lowest heat possible for about three hours, stirring it up about once every half hour or so.

Apple and grapefruit tartlet
Monsieur Pamplemousse (series by Michael Bond, also author of all the wonderful Paddington Bear stories), French restaurant critic stuck in London, for a guide that is clearly based on Michelin’s, apple tarts a favorite, and his name meaning grapefruit, I struck out on my own. The crust, a simple pate brisee (5:4:3 flour:butter:sugar by weight), plus a small handful of poppyseeds. Parbaked until almost done. The filling, diced apples and finely chopped pink grapefruit, about 3:1, sauteed in butter and a mix of ground spices: ginger, allspice, cinnamon in equal parts, a small amount of peperoncino (red pepper flakes), and some brown sugar. Cooked until nearly done, spooned into the tartlet shells, then topped with a basic, unsweetened custard mix – 1½ cups of milk, 2 eggs beaten together. Into the oven just to set the custard and served still hot.


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