When Jenny Hammerton at Silver Screen Suppers was preparing her latest cuinary adventures, Cooking with Columbo: Suppers With the Shambling Sleuth, she invited friends and fellow Columbo fans to test cook the recipes. Of course, I couldn’t resist – especially as one the episodes, Lovely But Lethal, featured Vincent Price alongside Vera Miles as the guest villain of the week.
Courtesy of Jenny, here’s the page for you check out, including the recipe, Vera Miles’ Mexican Casserole, and my verdict. You can purchase Cooking With Columbo from Amazon.
LOVELY BUT LETHAL – 1973
Anyone who wears an entirely white outfit topped by a pristine white turban is fine by me. The wardrobe department for this episode pulled out all the stops, and Vera Miles looks absolutely sensational in every single outfit. Vera plays Viveca Scott, Queen of Cosmetics, who is ruthless in her quest for the ultimate anti-wrinkle cream. Her business rival is played, with great panache, by screen legend Vincent Price, and the two of them take great relish in throwing insults at each other.
It’s an early morning murder-callout for Columbo, but luckily he has a hard-boiled egg in the pocket of his raincoat to snack on for breakfast. In the kitchen of the murder victim, he searches in vain for salt to sprinkle on his egg. Usually, he says, he carries a shaker in his pocket, but alas, not so on this occasion. Luckily for Columbo, while he is on his condiment hunt, he spots a clue he might otherwise have missed…
Beauty Mark is the name of Viveca’s cosmetics business. For British readers, a beauty mark is what Americans call a beauty spot. This might seem irrelevant, but nothing is lost on Columbo of course, and there is a clue bound up with Viveca’s beauty spot. Also worth pointing out to those not in North America, and too young to remember the popular 1960s song, poison ivy is a plant that causes a violent reaction when touched. Remember this refrain: “Poison ivy, Lord’ll make you itch!”
Viveca gets annoyed with the Lieutenant when he questions her about a romantic relationship she once had with the murder victim. She screeches, “I like young men Lieutenant, lots of them, and if that shocks your masculine double-standard, I’m sorry.” She thinks he belongs “in a museum,” but Columbo is not a judgmental man when it comes to the love-lives of his suspects. We know this from many other episodes.
When Columbo comes to search for evidence at Viveca’s health farm, he is suffering from poison ivy. She condescendingly asks him, “Poor thing, still worried about your itch?” But Viveca should be worried about hers. It’s the itch that will send her to the Clink.
In the newspaper article from which this recipe of Vera’s is taken, published in 1974, she is quoted as saying that she felt that there weren’t many good acting roles for women. “It’s a man’s world, and so many of the writers are men who write for men.” She must have been happy with this role in 1973 though, striding around her health farm in a bright, white jumpsuit, Viveca is the epitome of someone who “owns it.” Vera is a fabulous actress and one of my very favorite Columbo adversaries.
Viveca’s favorite tipple is apparently a tequila cocktail with organic cactus juice, so if you can get your hands on such a juice, that would be a fun thing to serve. It would fit with Vera’s Mexican inspired dish too. A super-cheesy treat with chilies.
Vera Miles’ Mexican Casserole
1 lb / 450g of Jack/Gouda cheese
1 lb / 450g of Cheddar cheese
6 eggs, separated
1½ tablespoons flour
Two small cans of green chili peppers
One fresh tomato, sliced
Dash of oregano
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F / 190 degrees C / gas mark 5.
Grate the two kinds of cheeses and mix together. Beat egg whites until stiff, adding about 1½ tablespoons flour for added body. Beat the egg yolks until fluffy and gently fold into the egg white mixture. Add a dash of salt to taste.
Chop the chili peppers. Vera says: “If you desire less of a hot taste, remove some of the chile seeds, as they contain the hot flavor.” Grease a large casserole dish that would serve about five people and layer a portion of the egg mixture into the dish. Next layer part of the chopped chili pepper, ending with a portion of the cheese. Repeat until ingredients are used up. Arrange the fresh tomato over the top, and sprinkle with oregano.
Bake for 30 minutes or until mixture is set.
Serves 6 (or more according to test cooks!)
Just one more thing… Stalwart test cook Peter Fuller, curator of the Vincent Price Legacy UK, made a rather deluxe version of Vera’s casserole, searing fresh chilies over a naked flame and scraping off the charred flesh before adding them to the dish. His feedback was as follows, “My tasters called it a glorified cheese toastie (grilled cheese sandwich), minus the bread. And I have to agree. It certainly should not be viewed as a main, rather as a side dish. I would suggest after baking, to cut it into small bite size pieces as a warm side dish, hors-d’oeuvre, canapé, or amuse bouche depending in what country you’re celebrating. As for reheating leftovers, this doesn’t work in a microwave as it turns into a slab of hot cheese. Best to reheat under a grill.”
I think it is fair to say that this is a super cheesy dish that might be TOO cheesy for some. Test cook Samantha Ellis’ husband, put it like this when he sampled a slice, “just tastes of cheese,” so you might need a big salad with a sharp dressing or a ton of vegetables alongside this dish to cut through the cheesiness.