Monday, 2 January 2012

Learning with the two Rs

One of the things that materialised in my Christmas stocking last year was a copy of Michel Roux’s new volume, Desserts.

With Sauces, Eggs and Pastry having already more than proved their worth in the kitchen, this was a most welcome addition – and it didn’t take long before it was being put to practical use.

The first experiment hardly seemed particularly challenging – individual, cardamon-scented rice puddings with caramel.

Rice pudding has been on my to-do list for some time. I only have vague memories of it from childhood and, to be honest, can’t really remember whether those are of maternal efforts or of school dinners.

So there was an unopened bag of pudding rice in the cupboard, together with all the other necessary ingredients.

Suffice it to say that it was a disaster. Well, the caramel worked well enough – much easier now I have a proper thermometer so I can see what’s going on in the pan in terms of temperature (a boon too when I made chips a day or so later).

But when I went to decant them, the rice had sunk to the bottom, with the milk above, with only a thinnish skin on top.

The key problem, I think, was in mis-interpreting an instruction to cook the rice and milk gently as too gently.

But there you go: you learn by your mistakes.

The following day, I tried something different. This time, a pear and chestnut ‘minestrone’. Now I have no idea why M Roux called it that, but that's what it it is called.

The dish involved puréed pear with cinnamon, topped with diced, poached pear and caremalised chestnut pieces. The nut was perhaps overdone, but the pear was lovely.

So for my next experiment, I moved onto jelly. Very grown-up jelly, it’s worth noting: it’s made from Sauternes, but with tiny pieces of citrus fruit ‘floating’ in it.

You soften the gelatine leaves in cold water and then, having squeezed them, add them to a small amount of your wine, which has been carefully warmed.

Give it 10 minutes and then add that to the rest of the wine and sit the bowl in a bigger bowl of iced water. Stir every two or three minutes and wait for it to start thickening.

In the meantime, you’ve segmented a pink grapefruit and a lemon, then cut the segments into smaller pieces and popped them into the fridge to chill.

The glasses I was using were already chilling in the freezer.

Commeth the moment when the wine has started becoming syrupy, it’s time to decant it into the glasses and start poking bits of the well-drained fruit into each glass with a knife or skewer.

I had a test glass ready too, so after the first attempt saw the fruit float back to the surface, I knew to leave it a little longer. When it’s ready, then getting the fruit where you want it is quite easy – and it looks lovely.

This was the starting point for the New Year's Day dessert. To go with it, I made another chocolate mousse - the same basic Roux recipe I'd used for Christmas Day.

Then it was simply a case of using more of the mandarin dust and the candied citrus peel, with a cape gooseberry to garnish and a few careful dots of double cream. Hey presto!

The jelly was very lightly set and had a sweet freshness, which contrasted well ith the bitter richness of the mousse.

But I also realised that learning from one great R was not enough – and decided that it was also time to start learning from another one: Joël Robuchon.

The Complete Robuchon has been on the shelf since last Christmas, but I haven’t invested the time needed to start really benefiting from it. It’s not, after all, a book with a single illustration in.

This holiday, I’ve spent a little time reading it. And the thing you start to realise quite early is that it’s not just haute cuisine. Indeed, far from it.

I tried a potato dish. Take your spuds, peel and then slice thinly – no thicker than 0.5cm. Rinse and dry them. For this one, you don’t want the starch.

Melt some lard in a pan – around 50g, so not just a tiny amount. Then you cook the potato in the lard, with lardons and a sprig of rosemary. Works very well.

But his recipies for vegetables intrigued me the most. After all, this is a man with a record 26 Michelin stars, so if he suggests an apparently complex way of poking sprouts, there's probably a reason.

The first thing I tried wasa rack of lamb for New Year's Day - but I should have either added a further 10 minutes to compensate for my oven or even switched it to grill or a final blast.

I don't like my meat overdone, but this was going to the other extreme, even though I'd followed the instructions of medium rare.

Mind, experience tells me it'll have been the oven - I just don't know how and what to factor in for any given dish: doing a créme caramel today, I had to give them an extra 15 minutes - but in that circumstance, you don't have other things waiting.

We saved half the lamb for today and I stuck it under a hot grill for five minutes, turning once, as the flesh cooked through properly and the fat crisped up from the rather jelly-like texture it had had. Indeed, it was utterly gorgeous - I don't know whether it had actually benefitted from being cooked in two stages over 24 hours or whether it was just a stunning good piece of meat. It was the first lamb I've bought from The Ginger Pig at Borough Market.

On the side, I sautéed some left-over potatoes - and then decided to concentrate some attention on Robuchon's sprouts.

After the usual prep, they spend about two minutes in a bowl of cold water with malt vinegar - two tablespoons to a litre of water. Then they go into boiling salted water for one minute.

Decant into cold water resting in a bowl of ice. Bring a fresh pan of salted water to the boil. Give them 20 minutes at a very gentle simmer.

Stop the cooking again by popping them carefully into icy water, then rinsing, draining and patting dry very gently in kitchen paper, before finishing off for five minutes in melted butter, with a couple of pinches of salt and one pinch of pepper - yes, the seasoning is that specific too.

Amazingly, given the cooking time, the sprouts were cooked but still with bite, as well as being very tasty.

Robuchon's says that some vegetables benefit from the blanching because it aids digestion. Well, I can only say that there has been no evidence of the notorious side effect of sprouts since dinner. So perhaps this approach has a serious point.

One thing's for certain - I'll be cooking with both the Rs again. And it won't be long before I do so either.

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