Nero Wolfe's Trout Montana
Mystery buffs who also like gourmet cooking will always have a warm spot in their hearts for Rex Stout's detective, Nero Wolfe.
The Nero Wolfe's mysteries are remarkable not just because of the plots (which are serviceable though not memorable) but for the way Stout delineates and realizes his characters, especially Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. A key component is the attitude towards food.
Wolfe is, of course, a gourmet. Archie knows good food (he's a live-in assistant after all) and can describe a complicated recipe with a straightforward grace that's earnestly appealing. Try to imaging Philip Marlowe writing a restaurant review and you'll get the picture.
Of course, there's a Nero Wolfe Cookbook around, published around 1975 by Stout's book publishers at the time. Most recipes for dishes that appear in the Wolfe canon are included, including this one described in the novel Death of a Doxy. Wolfe has been invited to dinner at a ranch, which he accepts in order to interview some witnesses, and he asks Archie about the featured main course:
"What is a real Montana trout deal?"
"The first real Montana trout deal -- that is, the first one cooked by a paleface -- was probably at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, fried on a campfire in a rusty pan with buffalo grease, with salt if they had any left. Since then there have been hundreds of versions, depending on what was handy. There's an old-timer in a hardware store in Timberbrug that says that for the real thing you rub bacon grease on a piece of brown wrapping paper, wrap it around the trout, with the head and tail on and plenty of salt and pepper, and put it in the oven of a camp stove as hot as you can get it. The time depends on the size of the trout. Mrs. Greve got her version from an uncle of hers who was probably inspired by what he had left at the tail end of a packing-in trip. She has changed two details: she uses aluminum foil instead of wrapping paper, and the oven of her electric range instead of a camp stove. It's very simple. Put a thin slice of ham about three inches wide on a piece of foil, sprinkle some brown sugar on it and a few little scraps of onion, and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce. Lay the trout on it, scraped and gutted but with the head and tail on, and salt it. Repeat the brown sugar and onion and Worcestershire, wrap up the foil around it close, and put it in the oven. If some of the trout are 8 or 9 inches and others are 14 or so, the timing is a problem. Serve in the foil."
I actually tried this recipe out, after some modifications. It works pretty well, especially if you use a sweet onion as opposed to a sharp one.
Well, we may not be able to get ahold of fresh trout from Montana, but frozen rainbow trout from Idaho is available, already cleaned but with head and tail (and fins) intact. Once thawed, they'll do nicely.
The ham's even easier to get hold of -- the pre-packaged sliced meat from Maple Leaf, Schneider's or Oscar Meyer will work just dandy, and it's the right thickness and size. As for the temperature of the oven and the timing, The Nero Wolfe Cookbook provides a guideline with Wolfe's famed recipe for truite au four Montbarry, which will serve our purposes.
So here goes:
Nero Wolfe's Trout Montana
2 trout per person, de-scaled and gutted but with head and tail intact (if frozen, thaw overnight in the refrigerator)
3 tsp minced onion
1 slice sandwich ham
2 tsp brown sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. For each trout, tear off a piece of aluminum foil. The foil should 1 inch longer than the trout on each end, and about 4 times the width (dorsal to ventral fins). Lay the foil on a flat surface, shiny side up.
3. Put down the ham; cover with 1/2 tsp brown sugar and 1 tsp onion and some drops of Worcesteshire sauce.
4. Lay the trout on the top half of the ham slice and stuff its cavity with 1 tsp onion, salt and pepper and more drops of Worcestershire.
5. On the top of the trout, sprinkle on the remaining brown sugar and minced onion, and add salt, pepper and a few more drops of Worcestershire.
6. Wrap the foil tightly around the trout. You want to try to position it so that the ham slice covers the trout's cavity.
7. Once all the trout are wrapped, bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. (Larger fish will need more time in the oven. If you're making more than 4, add 3 minutes to the baking time for each extra trout.)
8. Serve in the foil on a plate. Each diner unwraps his or her trout.