Occasionally, a colleague and fellow foodie asks, in a manner that one knows (and is intended to know) is not really serious, whether I have ever considered applying for Masterchef.
The answer is simple: no. Not likely. And as for Come Dine With Me, that’s freak show telly to gawp at when trapped in a hotel room at night during a business stop over.
Personally, the ultra-competitive re-invention of Masterchef has never appealed to me. Even in my own pre-foodie days, I used to quite enjoy the previous incarnation with Lloyd Grossman.
It was a gentler TV, where – officially at least – the amateur cooks competing on it had no ambition to move into the professional ranks. It was, in other words, a celebration of what amateur means at its best.
Masterchef: The Professionals is a different beast altogether – but let’s leave that one for another day.
But that’s not to say that I’m not hugely competitive – albeit mostly against myself. Indeed, in my pool playing days (five or six nights a week), I was, I like to think, gracious in both victory and defeat – but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be found muttering at myself when I failed to meet the standards I’d set for myself.
And I noticed it recently in the kitchen. Maybe ‘competitive’ is too strong a word, but I enjoy testing myself, and probably set myself challenges that might seem downright bonkers to some. Come to that, I sometimes find myself wondering if they’re not downright bonkers too.
Christmas has been a case in point.
In recent months, while I’ve been practising pies and crumbles and sausages, I’ve also been trying to improve my presentation.
Now how a dish looks isn’t everything, but a feast for the eyes can add to the pleasure of a meal.
I had ideas – but was singularly failing to achieve anything that I really liked. Part of that was because drizzling isn’t as easy as you’d think, but part of it was also the crockery.
There’s a reason restaurants use big, white plates and dishes.
Our set (Argos, two-for-one for £16, if memory serves me) has been a good servant. With its colourful rims, it’s ideal for day-to-day use.
So recently, I picked up a few bits of plain, white stuff – including rectangular dishes.
In my mind’s eye were pictures. On Christmas Day, I got to see if I could recreate them.
Before I’d decided on what we would be eating in the evening, I’d planned lunch.
A little smoked salmon and smoked eel, with some horseradish and crème fraiche, salted cucumber and some good bread.
Nearer the day, that started getting embroidered a little. I didn’t sit down and think: ‘what else can I do with this?’ I simply found something would pop into my head. Like adding some pickled beetroot.
It was the same with the idea to present the fish by weaving it into a checkerboard effect. That was done the night before, before being carefully wrapped in cling film and laid in the fridge with a small weight on it.
Dozing on Christmas morning, the idea of cubing the cucumber occurred. The beetroot followed naturally – after all, this would continue a geometric theme.
Rooting in a cupboard later, I found cornichons and added one to each plate, sliced carefully and spread out concertina fashion.
There were chives in a salad drawer – a perfect garnish. A tiny dollop of caviar added some depth – as well as a further level of fishiness. Lemon – obviously – and then the horseradish-crème fraiche was kept to a minimum.
I was pleased with the flavours and the textures and the colours. But perhaps most of all, I was pleased with how it looked.
Dinner offered more opportunities.
While the consommé was served in rather downmarket style, in cups – a big hit of beefiness, though – deep, plain bowls displayed the linguine to good effect.
I couldn’t manage one single twirl each of the pasta – how do they do that? – but did manage two small ones per bowl, before adding a little virgin olive oil, some shaved white truffle and, to complete things, a garnish/seasoning of truffle fleur de sel.
The venison steaks looked simple but dramatic on plain white, with a rather cack-handed drizzle of the chocolate sauce (drizzling is another art form to work at), with the puréed sprouts (with chopped parsley) adding another touch of drama to the finished plate.
Then there was dessert. As with lunch, I’d been adding components in my mind for some time.
The three layers of a triple chocolate mousse – all based on a recipe from Michel Roux – had been prepared in advance. And thank goodness for seeing someone on Masterchef: The Professionals use a blow torch to un-ring something similar only a few days before!
You can use cling film to make a drum-tight base to a ring.
The candied citrus peel was easy enough – 10 minutes simmering in stock sugar before drying in the lowest oven for an hour or so.
I’d thought that using mandarin dust would add something too, and a search online had produced the specifics of what I supposed would be the basic approach.
That was almost a disaster, because in classic not-reading-the-instructions-properly mode, I’d managed to misread farenheit for centigrade – and then not bother to think that 200 would be far, far too hot.
I got it though – at the third time of asking.
The thinly sliced, dried fruit was then blitzed in my mini processor, with the addition of a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt, then sieved and packed away.
On the day itself, I had another idea. Well, two actually.
All ants-in-me-pants to be in the kitchen, I made up a small amount of paté sable in the afternoon, rolled it out and cut little biscuits. At the first time of asking, I burnt them. It was second time lucky on this occasion.
When it came to serving, mandarin segments were prepared to add a touch of freshness.
Chocolate swirls were something else I’d never tried. Melted dark chocolate is spread as thin as possible on a baking tray and then, once it’s set enough that the gloss has faded to matte, you gently ease curls up and away with a spatula or palette knife. Done in advance, they could go in the fridge too.
The final part of the equation was intended to be a bravura bit of drizzling with a mix of seriously thick double cream and a coffee liqueur I’d picked up in Paris.
Fortunately, I tried it out in the afternoon. The lines I wanted just weren’t going to be possible – a combination of my erratic technique with the bottle and the sauce itself not being anywhere thick enough to stop it spreading.
In the event, I settled for some almost-but-not-quite-random dots on the plate.
I’d sent The Other Half out of the room between courses: plating up took a while.
His face when he was called back in was a treat. Amazingly, it did just about all come together (the mousses were also dusted with cocoa powder). We sat and looked at them for a moment or so, barely wanting to start attacking the arrangement.
Perhaps it had been a case of watching “too much Masterchef”. But well into Boxing Day, I was still feeling chuffed with myself.
Would it have mattered if I’d just used our day-to-day crockery? Would it have been earth-shatteringly dull if I hadn’t gone a bit mad with the garnishes?
No. But then again, food is also about engaging more than just the taste buds. The eyes – and the nose – can be titivated too. ‘We need to use all our senses’ was what Raymond Blanc had emphasised to me.
One thing is certain – don’t let anyone ever tell you that the plates themselves don’t make a big difference.