Sleuthing Out the Recipe

Here’s a short bonus posting…one that I never expected to relate to James Dean. 

But in that magical realm of The Kevin Bacon Game (Six Degrees of Separation), it ended up tying in…in several ways! 

I have a big SURPRISE posting scheduled for the end of this month (coinciding with the release of the March issue of the Deanzine…the wonderful quarterly James Dean International fan club publication)…  HINT: That question (that I asked myself and have been asked so many times), “Did James Dean cook?” may be finally resolved…!!!  Sign up for the email notifications (at the bottom of this blog) to be one of the first to know…

One of my favorite photos of my friend Jenny from Silver Screen Suppers

But back to the topic of THIS posting.  My friend, the always entertaining Jenny over at Silver Screen Suppers has a new book project that she has been working astoundingly hard at for the last year or more… Cooking with Columbo.   (She previously published a Joan Crawford cookbook entitled Cooking with Joan…It’s great fun and you can pick it up over on her blog site!)

Cooking with Columbo focuses on the iconic 1970s American TV series starring Peter Falk as the unorthodox detective, and a revolving door of who’s who in Hollywood celebrities appearing each week as the “guest villain.”  From what I’ve learned on Jenny’s blog, Peter was quite masterful in the kitchen.  Her new book features several of his very tasty-sounding personal recipes, along with recipes from the myriad of guest stars that appeared in each episode.  Fans of the quirky, rumpled trench coat-wearing detective will find a detailed synopsis of every episode, followed by a fantastic recipe from the featured guest celebrity from that same episode.  Sounds like great fun for not only die-hard Columbo fans, but highly entertaining reading for fans of 1970s TV and vintage Hollywood fans like myself.

How much fun is THIS gonna be?

Jenny pulled in all her resources, hunting down the recipes for each guest star (the list of celebrities that appeared on the show is astounding), and then diligently cooked each and every one!  I know from my experience with Recipes for Rebels, that you sometimes have to cook a recipe 2 or 3 times to get it right…vintage fan magazines and celebrity gossip columns are notorious for misprints in the ingredient lists or ingredient quantities.

Now has come the time when Jenny is reaching out for test cooks to prepare and evaluate each of the 60 or so recipes she’s including in Cooking with Columbo. I volunteered as one of her test cooks. It’s a fun thing and she has allowed a very long period in which to get the dish cooked and your evaluation back to her (until August). YOU SHOULD TRY IT! No technical experience is required and she still is in need of test cooks. In return, YOUR name will be credited in the book! How exciting is that? Follow this link to Silver Screen Suppers to peruse the list of recipes still waiting to be cooked and then contact her. She’s made it very easy and will send you all the information you need.



Rip Torn

My recipe is Rip Torn’s Omelet Mexicali…and it’s yummy!  Cheese, avocado, and a fast, fresh, flavorful homemade cooked-salsa become the centerpiece of this light, fluffy, delicious omelet.  Great for brunch or one of those “breakfast for suppertime” nights!  The salsa flavors are bright and zing-y, contrasting with the rich, creamy avocado and melty cheese, all snuggled into the warm safety of a thickly quilted, eggy comforter.  It’s a dish you’ll want to serve for company or just a private, indulgent, evening in…

So in The Kevin Bacon Game…it turn’s out that Rip Torn’s (most will recognize him as Chief Agent Zed from Men In Black) second wife was Geraldine Page (they were married from 1963 until her death in 1987).  Geraldine Page, as every James Dean fan knows, was a girlfriend, friend, and confidant to Dean during his years in New York.  She was in love.

Rip appears in the Columbo episode, Death Hits the Jackpot (season 10, episode 4) and plays  a seedy, high-end jewelry store owner.  The episode originally aired on Dec 15, 1991.  I can’t get Netflix here, but I would have loved to have watched it as we were enjoying our omelet.  In addition to Rip Torn, there’s a baby chimpanzee who helps the detective to solve the case in a comedic climax.

Dumont’s Barbershop in 1998, taken on one of David Loehr’s New York Walking Tours of James Dean sights (photo courtesy of David)

The second Rip Torn/James Dean connection came to me in 1991.  I was in NYC attending one of David Loehr’s amazing Walking Tours of NYC James Dean Sights, when I (literally) ran into Rip!  David hosted a number of these walking tours from 1982-1997, which visited many of the famous locations that James Dean was photographed at, the residences he lived in, and spots he used to hang out at.

I took the walking tour at least twice within those years.  I have fond memories of having a beer at Sardi’s were Dean celebrated his Broadway opening nights (and meeting famous Dean photographer, Roy Schatt there)…eating at Minetta’s Tavern, which was a favorite of his…actually getting to go inside the room Dean lived in at the Iroquois Hotel…meeting Louis Fontana, James’ barber at Dumont’s Barber Shop…attending a once-in-a-lifetime, off-Broadway performance of James Dean: A Dress Rehearsal at the Actors Theater Workshop on West 28th Street…hanging out at the Plaza Hotel Fountain, the lobby of The Algonquin, and Rockefeller Center…many of the theaters he worked…visiting the locations of iconic places lost to time…and so much more…

James Dean’s barber Louis Fontana, pictured with Maxine Rowland (lifelong James Dean fan from Xenia, OH), photo courtesy of David Loehr from his 1998 walking tour of NYC James Dean sights.

David hasn’t hosted that tour in many years, but ANY Dean fan planning a trip to NYC should contact David Loehr at The James Dean Gallery.  I’m sure he’d be happy to provide you with his site-by-site illustrated list of all the stops along the tour.

So on one of these particular tours…I was lagging behind the group…typical me, wide-eyed Midwesterner, attention averted towards the top of all those incredible Art Deco buildings.  Somewhere in the Broadway neighborhood, he came zooming around a blind corner in a NYC haste…Rip Torn…BOOM…we collided!  Instantly I recognized him from TV.  Everything I had ever seen him in flashed before by eyes.  My mouth fell open with a big smile…but no words would come out…  He let out a slight chuckle to my reaction, gave me a wink, a nod, and a smile in that fleeting moment…before rushing along on his predetermined path.  “Greg, are you back there…keep up with the group!” I heard someone yell from around the corner…

The James Dean walking Tour of NYC

I have great memories of staying at David and Lenny’s West Chelsea loft on those trips and comfortably sleeping atop Lenny’s fabric cutting table…surrounded by walls filled with 8×10 autographed photos of all the celebrities he had made clothing for…Ann Margaret, Meatloaf, PeeWee Herman, The Stones, White Snake, Cherry Vanilla, and just too many more to list…

So how ironic that all these years later, Silver Screen Suppers would pick ME to test cook Rip Torn’s Omelet Mexicali!  What an honor.








The ingredients…

Jenny’s cooking of Rip Torn’s Omelet Mexicali as well as the full recipe and detailed instructions can be found HERE.

In analyzing the printed recipe I was struck by 2 things. One was the minuscule amount of “canned taco sauce” (1 teaspoon) in this recipe that feeds 4.  Jenny couldn’t get pre-made taco sauce in London where she lives.  Surprisingly, I CAN  find it here in Greece.  But why only use 1 teaspoon in this whole recipe???  It’s not going to really offer much flavor-wise.  Is this one of those typos that I mentioned above?  Maybe it should have been “1 cup,” or maybe 1t of “hot sauce”…or 1t of taco “seasoning?”  Any of those would have made much more sense.  This is where the “sleuthing” of a vintage recipe begins.

The sauce…

After comparing the label of my store bought “taco sauce” to traditional recipes, I’ve come to believe that the “canned red taco sauce” referred to by Rip, was something entirely different than what we can find on store shelves today.  I’m not sure when this recipe is from, but from the MSG in the ingredient list I would have to suspect late 50’s-early 60s…certainly before 1970 (see my rant about MSG below).  Traditional recipes would have been primarily made from chilies… sometimes with tomatillos added or a small amount of tomato.  The label from my Old El Paso lists 53% tomato and 3 1/2% green chili, with 1% dehydrated onion, corn starch, and other stuff.  Therefore 1 teaspoon of chili sauce would probably be the best substitution.

The mise en place

The second ingredient that stood out was MSG.  This was the one that eluded me in my hunt to find here on our tiny island in Greece.  Maybe, I thought, it won’t really affect the flavor much…  What IS  MSG anyway?  All I knew was that it was something BAD, that I vaguely remember from the 1970s…  Turns out that too little information can lead to a lot of uninformed presumptions.

The omelet

MSG (monosodium glutimate) is marketed as a “flavor enhancer” (Accent is one example that you can find on grocery store shelves).  It was first developed in about 1908.  It was an interesting journey learning about this product.

The glutimate part of MSG is produced from a natural fermentation process (involving seaweed) and then bonded with salts to form a shelf-stable condiment.  NOT adding any particular extra flavors to a dish (like seasonings do), MSG contributes to the fifth taste…sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and UMAMI!  WHAT?…I’ve never heard about THAT one!

The avocado and cheese

Umami is the savory taste that we sense mainly in meats (the reason so many people crave bacon).  It is also a prevalent taste (and naturally occurring) in cheeses, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, tomatoes, mushrooms, and a few other vegetables.  Glutimates signal the tongue (and brain) about good protein sources.  They are classified as a “non-essential” amino acid (“essential” amino acids are ones that we must acquire through the food we eat, “non-essential” amino acids are ones that your body already produce in plentiful supplies).  Adding glutemates to a dish you are cooking enhances this “good protein” sensation and increases “crave-ability.”

The salsa (and more cheese)

In the early 1970s, MSG got a bad rap with “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (people claimed headaches, dizziness, muscle spasms).   It was largely disproven through double-blind/placebo scientific testing, but the bad reputation lingers even to this day (with many restaurants and store-bought foods advertising that they are MSG-free.  Although there ARE people with extreme sensitivities to just about anything…for most of us, MSG (when used within reason) is as safe as adding salt.  It is prevalent in most processed foods on store shelves, from soups to snack chips (although it can go by many names, so you won’t always recognize it on the ingredient list) .

BUT, I can’t get it here in Greece!  I’m falling back on a trick that I’ve used for several years…soy sauce.  We carefully monitor salt intake around our house…mainly only using it for eggs, potatoes, and baking.  But, I do use soy sauce in everything from macaroni and cheese, to scrambled eggs, to soups, to beef stroganoff.  I find that soy sauce (which IS  high in sodium and also contains glutimates) can be used in much smaller quantities.  It adds a pleasantly subtle aged or fermented flavor, and NOW  I know…adds umami too!  So 1 teaspoon of soy sauce is substituting for the 1 teaspoon of MSG when I make this dish.  Beyond this, I followed the recipe to the “T.”

Cooking the salsa was pretty straight forward.  Because of the timing of my day, I cooked this part earlier and the rest, right before mealtime.

The meal

The omelet preparation, separating the eggs and beating the whites until stiff, was similar to what I call a “puffy omelet” that I make on occasion.  My version of the “puffy omelet” starts off on the stove-top and gets finished in the oven.  Rip’s version is cooked entirely on the stove top…pushing the cooked parts away from the sides and bottom of the skillet repeatedly…constantly redistributing the cooked egg within the uncooked until the whole omelet is about 3/4 cooked.  It seemed to lose about 1/2 it’s volume.

I made the full recipe even though there were just 2 of us dining.  It was delicious and filling…we have 1/2 left over for a snack tomorrow.  In my opinion, there was entirely too much weight in the toppings (which caused trouble later when trying to serve attractively).  The fluffy omelet base was just too light to hold that much stuff!  Next time I make it (and I will…it was that good), I might do 1/2 the avocado (serving the remainder as a garnish on the side) and certainly 1/2 the salsa.

The “Cool Cream Cheese flavor” Doritos screamed at me from the grocery shelf the other day (even though we rarely eat much junk)…they made a perfect accompaniment to this omelet, offering a contrasting crunch.  I also garnished with a small dollop of Greek yogurt.  Alex said, “This is REALLY nice!  Even though the tomato is a bit spicy, the avocado really rounds it out.  Nice! Really Nice!”  I tend to agree.  Rip Torn’s Omelet Mexicali was a hit at our house!  I highly recommend it.  Bravo Rip!  If I ever run into you again, I’ll tell you so!

So head on over to Silver Screen Suppers and sign up to be one of Jenny’s test cooks!  She’ll love you for it!  Freely use the social media sharing buttons to help us spread the word on her project.








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