On Sunday night I prepared two dishes from the “Breakfast in the Old Brownstone” section of the Nero Wolfe Cookbook by Rex Stout. Although both of these were recommended for breakfast, after reading the ingredient list I thought it would be crazy to serve early in the day. I do think it would make a perfect weekend or special occasion brunch.
Just a couple of things: I was shocked – shocked – at the amount of butter! Now I suspect I know why Archie Goodwin reported that Nero Wolfe weighed, “a seventh of a ton”. An entire stick of butter for 4 eggs and two cups of potatoes? Nuts!
I have to confess, I was tempted more than once to go off the rails and bring a more modern approach to preparing the dishes. In the end, I followed the rules with the hash browned potatoes, but skimped on the butter for the “Eggs Au Beurre Noir”. I really should have done it the other way around. The hash browns could have done with less butter, while maintaining the correct measurements for the shirred eggs would have yielded even more delicious clarified butter and sherry sauce for the baked eggs – and, I must say, that sauce was magic.
Other than that one adjustment, I followed the instructions as laid out in the Nero Wolfe Cookbook. Because these recipes are copyrighted, I paraphrase a bit in my instructions below but I have maintained all the key information you need to know in order to pull this off. You might also pick up a copy of the Nero Wolfe Cookbook for yourself – new copies are less than $40, and used copies can be found for under $10. If you decide you want to change some things here and there within the recipe it would probably be fine, but don’t change the watercress on the potatoes! When combined with the shallots and potatoes, the flavor of the watercress is what really sets this dish apart.
I think the main thing that I want to convey from the experience is that preparing it exactly as Rex Stout wrote it in 1934 may feel strange to modern sensibilities, (and will result in a huge stack of dishes that a meal of eggs and potatoes hardly seems like it should warrant), but it really drove home that sometimes traditional cooking, with all its subtleties, can yield results that modern techniques simply cannot duplicate. All in it was simple enough that I’ll be able to do this again using some of my own style to complete the meal more confidently and with less mess.
This combo of dishes could easily be served at the nicest 5-star hotel champagne brunches. The next time I prepare this meal here at Chez Noir, I’m going to serve it with mimosas and a side of fresh fruit while we watch an episode of the outstanding “A Nero Wolfe Mystery” TV show from the DVD box set I recently acquired. The 2001 A&E version stars Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin and is a must-watch for detective fans.
EGGS AU BEURRE NOIR (as featured in “The Mother Hunt”):
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 4 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon dry sherry
Preheat the broiler. Put 1 tablespoon of butter in each of the two shirred-egg dishes and place them on a cooking sheet, then put them in the oven for about a minute to melt the butter. Once the butter is melted, take the dishes out of the oven and let them cool a bit, then crack the eggs and add two to each of the two dishes, making sure not to break the yolks. Put them back in the oven for two or three minutes for liquid yolks, or around three to four minutes for firm yolks. Because oven broiler temperatures vary, just keep watch on the eggs until they are cooked to the level that you like them to be. Remove them from the oven and let them stand in a warm place. Next, you will want to clarify the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. To clarify, heat the butter up in a skillet at medium-low temperature until the butter has melted and you notice a white foam forming at the top. The clarification process separates the water and dairy that has turned into foam from the pure butter fat, so you’ll want to skim the white foam off of the top of the butter and discard it in order to clarify the butter. Next, pour the butter into a small bowl. This will leave any additional white particles that may have floated to the bottom in the skillet. Wipe the pan out, and then return the clarified butter to the pan. Continue heating the butter until it turns golden brown, add the sherry, and then stir the mixture until blended. Spoon the butter and sherry sauce over the eggs and serve immediately.
HASH BROWNED POTATOES (as referenced in “The Father Hunt”):
- ¼ cup butter
- 2 cups diced, raw potatoes
- 1 teaspoon minced shallots
- salt & pepper to taste
Melt the butter in the skillet. Mix the potatoes and shallots in a bowl, and then add to the skillet. Cook over medium heat without stirring for three to four minutes. Run a spatula under the potatoes to prevent sticking, (or use a non-stick skillet), and continue to cook until the bottom is browned. Turn the potatoes and cook until the other side is brown. Serve the potatoes garnished with watercress, salt and pepper.
Feel free to leave your comments or ask any questions. Did you try this recipe? Tell us how it turned out!