"Let me get this straight. You want to make an exploding sauce?"
My 16-year-old son looked at me with that patient expression reserved for unimaginative dimwits. Exploding sauce, he assured me, happens only in books by Terry Pratchett, the British fantasy author whose zany novels for adults and young people have been compared to "Alice In Wonderland," Monty Python, and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
"Haven't you heard of Wow-Wow Sauce?" he asked. "A classic English condiment – delicious with meat. It'll be delectable. Trust me."
I smiled tensely. Pachi is a resourceful home-schooler. When he decides to cook, he has more in mind than making brownies from a mix.
His early efforts resulted in a free-for-all stew he called "slompy-dompy," leaving me and the kitchen in a meltdown. Lately though, his experiments have earned raves. My book-group friends enthused over his almond cake. His chicken curry with coconut sauce was a standout. He even makes my special meatloaf. Plus, he leaves the kitchen spotless.
"OK," I said. "Wow me."
And he did. Served warm over sliced roast beef or veal chops for our family dinner, his zesty Wow-Wow Sauce was a delicious discovery, albeit from an unusual source. Savory with mushrooms, earthy with walnuts, tangy with mustard and vinegar, it explodes only with flavor.
In Pratchett's novels, Wow-Wow Sauce is the favorite condiment of Mustrum Ridcully, archchancellor of Unseen University. Mr. Ridcully inherited the recipe from an uncle "who, after half a pint of sauce on a big meal one evening, had a charcoal biscuit to settle his stomach, lit his pipe, and disappeared in mysterious circumstances, although his shoes were found on the roof the following summer."
Ridcully's recipe didn't exactly make my mouth water: "a mixture of mature scumble [a kind of firewater], pickled cucumbers, capers, mustard, mangoes, figs, grated wahoonie [a stinky fruit], anchovy essence, asafetida, and, significantly, sulphur and saltpeter for added potency." But I am an unimaginative dimwit.
"I think we're out of saltpeter," I told my son.
"No problem. There's a perfectly safe and edible recipe in 'Nanny Ogg's Cookbook'" (also by Mr. Pratchett – a compendium of recipes based on foods from his fantasy cosmos, Discworld, presented by the witch Nanny Ogg). "It actually sounds scrummy."
Pachi took Nanny Ogg's advice on concentrating mushrooms by sprinkling them with salt and letting them sit to extract the juices. But he changed the proportions, used less butter, and pickled his own walnuts.
"And," he continued, "I did some research."
A practical home cook, scientist, and renaissance man, Kitchiner entertained a wide circle of friends in London. He went about with his "portable cabinet of taste," a selection of special sauces and condiments. He was an eccentric worthy of a Pratchett novel himself.
Kitchiner's quaintly worded recipe remains usable today. "Wow Wow Sauce for Stewed or Bouilli Beef (No. 328)," it begins. "Chop some Parsley-leaves very finely, quarter two or three pickled Cucumbers or Walnuts, and divide them into small squares, and set them by ready; – put into a saucepan a bit of Butter as big as an egg; when it is melted, stir to it a tablespoon of fine Flour...." and so on.
This definitely sounded scrummy and not the least bit dangerous. So let me assure you, this story has a happy ending.
Despite the demonic laughter from the kitchen, Wow-Wow Sauce elicited a thumbs-up from the chef's meat-loving younger brother and accolades from his gastronomically minded father.
Although this sauce ends up looking like, uh, mud, it tastes "quite noshable," as Pachi says. Nanny Ogg would not call it a "genuine" Wow-Wow Sauce, nor could it be used for "breaking up small rocks" or "getting rid of tree roots," like Mustrum Ridcully's version in Pratchett's "Reaper Man." But it does complement roast beef so well that, to quote Nanny Ogg, "It will make the steer glad it went to all that trouble." The "magical elixirs" should be started the day before preparing the sauce:
10 white mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
Place mushrooms in a small bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let them sit 3 hours and then smash them with a potato masher to help extract the juice. Let them sit, covered, overnight.
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped
In a small bowl, cover walnuts with sherry vinegar. Leave to marinate overnight.
1-3/4 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons butter
2-1/2 tablespoons flour
Pickled Walnuts (see recipe)
dill pickle, chopped
2 tablespoons beef broth
Drain the mushrooms and chop them into small pieces. Place them in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add 1/4 cup of the beef broth and pepper to taste. Simmer until the mixture has cooked down to one-half its volume and most of the liquid has evaporated.
Add the butter. When it has melted, add the flour and stir about two minutes. Gradually stir in 1 cup of beef broth to make a thick sauce.
Drain the walnuts, chop them fine, and add them to the sauce, along with the remaining ingredients. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of broth and simmer about 5 minutes.
Makes about 1-1/2 cups.