Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Wake up and smell the butter

It was Sunday morning. The Other Half was on his way to Yorkshire for a final pre-season Rugby League match and I had the house to myself. Okay – to myself and the cats.

As you may already have read, macarons were on the menu – and that all went in mixed sort of fashion.

But when I’d hauled myself from the pit, the first question that had to be dealt with was that of breakfast.

Now me being me, I’m not ‘good’ at breakfast – or certainly not when I’m not at work. Then, I tend to pick up something from the Pret opposite the office or nip up and risk the deli bar after I’ve taken off my coat and booted the computer.

On Sunday, with serious baking ahead, I needed fodder – and was remarkably disciplined. I opted for straightforward scrambled eggs. No toast – just the eggs.

I heated some butter in a heavy-based saucepan and whisked up three eggs. And then the smell of melting butter caught my nose. Oh god … breathe it in, girl, deeply. What an aroma!

Some time ago – and goodness knows where – I read that you should only whisk eggs for cooking as late as possible and that you should only season them at the very last minute before cooking. Chemical processes begin when you start either of these actions – and you want to delay those processes as long as possible.

I forgot the latter. There was another lesson. As I sat, relishing silky smooth scrambled egg, I had to season at the table – and noticed quickly the un-evenness that that produced. Some mouthfuls perfect; some over-salty.

And so, let’s fast forward to yesterday. There was part of a bottle of Riesling and part of a container of chicken stock left over from Sunday.

During a rapid post-work shop, I bought chicken thighs and, after a cuppa, gently heated a large knob of butter in the large sauté pan and waited. Incidentally, what constitutes a “knob” of butter? It’s another of those things you have to gauge by instinct – and, of course, experience.

What I was waiting for – what I was listening for – was the sound of the butter.

It’s that Raymond Blanc again. In A Taste of My Life, he writes about how his mother would sear food; how you’d just be able to hear the butter; about how she’d cook the meat like that for around 10 minutes.

Blocking out the Hackney traffic outside and The Simpsons inside, I bent an ear and, with my nostrils full of the glorious smell, waited and listened.

The gentle popping happened. The chicken breasts – dried – went in, skin side down. I resisted the temptation to move them around and left them for around six minutes. When I turned them over, they were a pale gold, flecked with rich, brown spots. I left them again.

When every part of the surface of the flesh and skin was browned, I popped them into a bowl and replaced them in the burbling butter with an onion, chopped – but not too finely.

And again taking my lessons from Monsieur Blanc, I spread that out across the pan’s surface – and left well alone. No: do not be tempted to move the onion around – that’ll effectively mean it steams or boils. I cooked it like that for around 12 minutes, testing twice and realising that, while still holding its shape and some bite, the onion was getting ever sweeter.

Then in went some plain flour. Cook for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t matter how messy it looks at this point, the important thing is that you need to cook the flour through.

Then the wine and a good scrape around the pan to deglaze, picking up all the bits of the caramelised meat and onion. Then the remains of the chicken stock: not out of a bottle, but my own homemade variety.

Bring it to the boil and add a bay leaf and a carrot and parsnip, both diced reasonably evenly, plus a few peeled small new potatoes – all of which were hanging around, demanding to be used before they were too far gone.

Then taste. Season. Leave a few minutes. Taste again. Puzzle over what’s missing. Realise that little salt has actually gone into the dish and add some more. Lid the pan, turn down the heat and leave for 20 minutes.

Taste again. Leave to cook some more. Repeat. The vegetables are cooked but holding their shape nicely. The meat is beginning to flake invitingly away from the bone.

Look at it, smell it, taste it.

Another touch of Monsieur Blanc: not all herbs are equal. Bay was added early in the cooking process – it’s one of the robust herbs that can cook for a long time and not suffer. But several are not. I vaguely knew this – but not so concretely. A couple of minutes from the end – no more – and handful of chopped flat leaf parsley goes in.

Then serve and eat.

It can hardly be described as some sort of rocket-science dish, but it was (as much as it could be) all my own. Or put another way, I didn’t consult a recipe book.

What I used – what I relied on – was Blanc’s technical advice: in the case of the initial caramelisation of the meat, his evocative description of his mother cooking.

And slowly, slowly. There is no need to rush. That’s one of the keys, I think. We have become obsessed with our food being instant – or almost, as though time spent preparing food is time wasted. Why? Increasingly I understand that time spent in the kitchen is an antidote for the insanity of London life.

I have been working to make myself slow down when I’m eating: yesterday, I worked to make myself slow down when cooking.

It paid off. It wasn’t a starburst of flavour, but there was real depth to the taste: the sweetness of the meat, vegetables and stock; the acidity of the wine and the bitterness of the parsley. I’m not imagining it: it was there, in something that I made.

Of course, none of this is exactly hampered by trying to do what Blanc recommends – learning to taste. Learning to think about what you’re eating – and also tasting constantly as you cook.

I felt close to serene. Not giddy – but serene. Only time will really tell, but it feels as though I’ve taken a very big step forward; as though I’m moving onto a slightly different culinary plane. It’s not an unwelcome thought.

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