In his book, A Life in the Kitchen, Michel Roux Jr comments on the danger of basic losing culinary skills. Developing his theme, he suggests that, while anyone can make a dessert from a recipe, a declining number of people really know how to cook meat or fish.
He has a point. There’s an extent to which much baking and patisserie, for instance, has such a near-scientific precision that it’s not impossible to simply follow a recipe carefully – although that doesn’t mean that no skills are required and no calamities possible (as I’ve found, more than once).
But where and how do you learn those things about cooking meat? For instance, where you learn how to test for doneness with your finger?
Browning meat properly and getting a maillard reaction is more difficult than it seems – or certainly if you haven’t been brought up simply knowing how to do it as a habit so it becomes instinct.
I made some steps forward this last year – not least on getting a maillard reaction. That was massively thanks to Raymond Blanc, as I’ve explained here more than once. And his advice is illustrative of why it’s possibly difficult to learn such things – because the key is to engage more than one of our senses when cooking, and it takes a bit of practise to learn to do this and then to remember to do it every time. Well, it does for me!
But with all this in mind, I’d already decided that I would try to improve some apparently basic skills this year.
First up – fish. Now I love fish, but frequently feel that I’m not much cop at cooking it – and that it’s easy enough to mess up. Meat is a tad more forgiving.
But what had started to dawn in the final months of last year had been the realisation that it also helps if you cook something regularly – not just once every couple of months.
Because of those feelings of piscine inadequacy, I had rather lapsed into cooking fish less frequently. When I did, the emphasis was on poached salmon or pan-fried tuna, with very occasional sole or plaice, grilled with a little butter.
But in recent months, after reading Nigel Slater on the subject, I’ve made a couple of attempts to pan fry cod – with largely improved results.
So on Saturday, taking a lead from Joël Robuchon, I tried the same approach with salmon.
It involved slashing the fillets on the skin side, to just beneath the skin. Then seasoning – and then frying in a small amount of hot, neutral oil for three minutes on the skin side and then a recommended one on the other side – with an allowance that if you want it a bit better done, a further minute is acceptable before it is overcooked.
Such precision in instructions can really help. The result was not bad at all – far better than the last time I attempted to pan fry salmon.
It was served on a bed of Savoy cabbage, which, like sprouts, gets the blanching treatment by Robuchon. Cutting the cabbage up – removing the leaves one at a time and then slicing the core out – it dawned on me how many people probably don’t do that, but then boil it either not enough to properly cook that tough stalk or too much for the more delicate leaf.
The blanching process also helps keep a vibrant colour. After its pre-cooking, the cabbage is squeezed dry and later, cooked for a few minutes in a little butter, before having seasonings and crème fraîche added, lending it a buttery quality, but without too much sweetness.
With a sharp sauce of sherry vinegar, white wine and shallots, finished to glossy glory with crème fraîche and a little butter, this was a pleasing dish. And one that I felt I learned things from.
Continuing the educational theme, for Sunday, I’d bought a leg of lamb. I usually use Delia’s timings – which mean 30 minutes at 190˚C (fan oven) and then 30 minutes per 450g at 160˚C.
I had considered taking Robuchon’s instructions – a much shorter cooking time at a much higher temperature (240˚C – ordinary oven) – but chickened out on the basis of my fears about my oven’s apparent ability to cook things in the time given in some recipes.
However, I did put some lamb trimmings in the roasting dish, and oiled and seasoned the meat à la Robuchon, using sprigs of thyme instead of my old standby of rosemary.
When it was done. I left it on a rack to drain, seasoned with a little fleur de sel, under a tent of foil for 20 minutes, while I finished off everything else.
The trimmings are removed from the roasting tin, together with most of the fat. Add eight tablespoons of water, stir round to scrape any meat from the dish and pop back into the oven, which you’ve turned off.
By the time your meat has rested and you've plated up, you’re left with a very pleasant jus.
In the meantime, there were a couple of potatoes to purée and some sprouts to finish, à la Robuchon again. Getting them to within five minutes of completion earlier in the afternoon was a helpful prep thing. To the pan of seasonings and melted butter I also added four halved artichoke hearts.
And remember what I mentioned a few days ago about how Robuchon asserts that such a process helps digestion? Well, yet again, there was none of the 'traditional' after effect of sprouts. Perhaps he's right? Even ignoring the fart effect – or lack thereof – they taste great: cooked properly, yet with some bite left. Love it!
To finish, I’d made a little sauce, simmering redcurrants in a little water and with a tiny amount of sugar and a couple of sprigs of thyme until it was fit to strain through a sieve.
It was completed with a touch more sugar and some drizzling Balsamico, and then gently reheated just before serving. And very pleasing it was too, contrasting very well with the sweet meat and also adding a shot of vivid colour to the plate.
It wasn’t from any specific recipe, but what gave me a lot of satisfaction was that making it suggested I’d inwardly digested a couple of skills and also some sense of flavour and of combining flavours.
The lamb, I have to say, was wonderful, with utterly glorious fat – crisp and sweet and light as air. Personally, I had just two smallish slices – the fat makes me feel so delightfully sated so quickly. And there's loads left for the coming days.
I will try roasting lamb the Robuchon way – and if I do it relatively soon, so that hopefully it will mean that I can remember this one well enough to understand the differences and make comparisons.
Education is good for you. Good food is possibly even better.