Monday, 14 February 2011

Plenty of rhubarb, but no custard

It's probably a good thing that The Other Half is returning today from his jaunt to exotic parts – or Cardiff, as it's otherwise known – for the entire first round of matches on the opening weekend of the 2011 Rugby League top flight season.

What could have been a quiet girly weekend turned into something that might have had little volume attached, but was close to frenetic at times. I was knackered by last night, but pleasantly so, I think.

Everything got into serious swing on Saturday morning. An early visit to the market gave me the chance to chat with various people and make at least one intriguing discovery: Andy says that orders for hare have pretty much shot through the roof. It seems to be a trend. But just for once, I was able to offer a possible explanation of such a thing: of course, not huge amounts of people will have been able to taste Bruno Loubet's hare royale, but with it getting mentions all over the place and, indeed, being named main course of 2010 by Jay Rayner, hare has had a big publicity boost.

But my mission of the day was not merely to attempt to cast some light on things. At the Longwood van, I had completely confused Matthew with an email order for five lambs' kidneys and the same weight in braising steak. He obviously had a good idea what was intended for the meat, but would have expected that there would be far more beef.

I explained that this was my chance for a sort of revenge on all those insipid steak & hardly-any-kidney pies – and particularly the steak & just-one-small-piece-of-kidney pud at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese before Christmas: this was going to be the apotheosis of the kidney.

But all that was for Sunday: Saturday had plenty of other things in store.

Now while I might be neither mouse nor man, my well-laid plans still went awry when it became clear that there was no crab to be found on the market. Vicki explained that the weather had stopped a fresh catch. Instead, I opted for a squid and mused over cooking it with red chili and linguine.

Sadly – although not in some ways – Ed will be leaving La Bouche. Sad for us, but not for Ed. Having completed his doctorate (architectural history, if memory serves me right), he's got a brilliant post as a researcher at the National Portrait Gallery. All the best, Ed.

And so back to the kitchen.

First things first involved rhubarb, with Otto helpfully using the sheer force of her feline brain to will the juice to drip through the sieve for an individual syllabub, à la Sarah Raven, for that evening.

That done, a second batch went the same way, although it was six sticks this time, a little sugar and just a very little water. Here was one of the experiments of the weekend. I wanted to make little individual jellies – which promised to be fun, since I'd never used gelatine before. But I'd picked up enough from a video of Michel Roux using it to realise that it wasn't too scary.

Maybe not too "scary", but it still needs a bit of technical sorting out. I calculated half a sheet of the gelatine to my rhubarb juice (there was around 150ml). In the event, it wasn't remotely enough. I put a repeat off until Sunday. And in the evening, browsing through Kitchen Secrets by Raymond Blanc, I came across a dish where he'd used his famous tomato essence in four different ways. It included a jelly. I had the secret in my hands.

Using his calculations, I realised that I'd need 3 1/2-4 sheets of the size of gelatine I had for around 200ml of juice. This is what I tried the following day.

While the cooked fruit drained, I took two metal cook's rings and gave them each a base of cling film, tightly stretched over and up onto the sides. These were placed in a dish.

I wanted the jelly to be a tart compliment to something sweet and savoury, so was careful to taste and not over sweeten. The gelatine sheets need to be soaked in cold water for around 10 minutes. Then you drain them well and add them to warm liquid – but not boiling, as it could make the dish bitter. In this case, I warmed a little of the strained juice, then incorporated the squeezed gelatine, which melts really easily, and then added that back into the rest of the juice.

Blanc also explains how to get a "garnish" in a jelly without it all sinking straight to the bottom: wait for five minutes and then gently stir in whatever you want. It took longer for my jellies, but the eventual outcome was in the right direction, as drained and dried green peppercorns were added.

These were popped into the fridge to wait for use (of which more another time). But at the second time of asking, I'd got them to set and that was a victory.

Back to Saturday and more from the same Blanc book. This time, sugar was melted to a hard crack caramel in a large pan (how a proper thermometer helps!) and 200g of skinned hazelnuts were chucked in, stirred around, and then the whole lot was as quickly as possible spread onto a lined tray and left to set and cool.

When it's reach that point, it gets blasted into a paste in a processor: I have a small one, which just coped over a number of shifts. It didn't get very paste-like, so a little water was added, as per the book. This is a praline paste.

This is then mixed with lightly crushed cornflakes and pressed firmly into a tart tin or rectangular 'ring'. Or, if don't quite have that, use whatever will allow you to spread it quite thinly. Stick in the fridge and leave for at least half an hour.

Next, whisk a couple of eggs lightly. Bring some double cream and full-fat milk just to the boil, and pour onto the eggs, whisking to slightly cook them. Pour in chopped, good-quality chocolate and keep whisking until the chocolate is entirely melted and you have a lovely glossy mixture. Spread on top of the praline and cornflake mix and put back into the fridge.

It needs to be left overnight – and indeed, apart from a tiny taste, is waiting for this evening. A portion can be garnished with grated chocolate and even a single hazelnut that's been roasted and then dipped in caramel and quickly hung up by a cocktail stick from BluTac so that the caramel drips into a lovely, long 'tail'. The Other Half saw this in the book and responded with a comment about posiness. I haven't decided whether I'll try this, but I did buy a packet of BluTac on Saturday.

The point is, though, that the dipped nut aside, this is not difficult.

That was almost that for Saturday – except to prep a starter dough for some bread and actually make myself dinner. I decided to drop the linguine idea, but did the squid pan fried, in a risotto with red chili and actually with some Parmesan cheese (a first, given The Other Half's dislike of cheese).

It was enormously pleasing and soothing.

• For snacking during the day, I picked up some Stichelton from La Bouche, having read about a few days earlier on Raymond Blanc's blog, which is not only interesting on what Stichelton actually is – like 'proper' Stilton was before makers were forced to used pasturised milk – but also on the state of British cheese in general. And the Stichelton is absolutely lovely.

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