Friday, 28 December 2012

Festive food lessons

Channelling Michel; Roux Jr.
A few days before Christmas, BBC online ran a magazine article with a headline that described sprouts as a “controversial vegetable”.

Now I’m well aware that not everybody actively likes sprouts, but in what possible way are they “controversial”?

I mean, gay marriage is ‘controversial’, but is someone really standing up and saying that sprouts (or a lack thereof) would mean the end of civilisation as we know it?

Personally, I love ’em.

The Other Half was not enamoured – until, in fact, late last year, when I discovered Joël Robuchon’s way to cook them, in a book, coincidentally, that had been a Christmas present from The Other Half himself a year previously.

Prep your sprouts as usual – although there’s no need to do a cross cut on the end of the stalk: it makes no difference – and then soak them in cold water, with a glug of vinegar, for two minutes. Drain and rinse, and blanch for a minute in boiling, salted water.

Stop the cooking process by plunging them in iced water, and then cook in fresh boiling, salted water for 20 minutes, gently, so that the water is just bubbling, but not harshly enough to break up the little “cabbages”, as the great chef himself describes them.

Now you have a choice: you can either drain and serve straight away, or you can decant them into a new bowl of iced water to be dried carefully later, and then finished in butter.

Bread rolls, straight from the oven.
Robuchon says that this process is good for the digestion – well, it certainly seems to reduce the fart factor – but you can see why it would be useful in a restaurant situation too, allowing most prep to be done, with only a tiny amount of cooking to finish.

And of course you can add chestnuts at the same time.

It’s worth noting that the timings are prefect: you end up with sprouts that are lusciously green and properly cooked, but still with texture: none of that ludicrous British idea that al dente means as good as raw.

Well, that was about as organised as I got on Christmas Day.

The night before, I’d started making bread and got it to the first proofing stage before covering it gently with cling film and popping it in the fridge. Remarkably, given how we associate yeast and warmth, this doesn’t stop the proofing process, but merely slows it down.

The next morning, it came out, was thumped around a bit and then left to proof once more.

And here was the biggest mistake of the day: not making breakfast before taking over the kitchen for the main event.

Anyway, the dough was divided into rolls and baked – and came out very well.

Consommé, big on flavour and as clear as it should be.
At the same time, I juiced four oranges, sieved the liquid and then reduced it, adding a touch of salt and very generous amount of pepper on the way, before sieving again and decanting to one of my tiny copper pans to be reheatedlater.

The sprouts were done, as above, and left in iced water.

Now, because I’m not a trained cook, timing is the sort of area where I come unstuck.

We hadn’t risen early – there was no need. But before I knew where I was, we were well into the afternoon.

I gently heated the beef consommé that had been prepared over a number of days previously, and gave it a final, careful pass with folded kitchen paper to remove any remaining dots of fat on the top.

It was good, I must say.

While The Other Half was sipping his in front of the telly, I was sipping mine while bashing on with the next course.

Home-cured salmon.
I’d cured some salmon fillet with roasted fennel seeds, salt, sugar, lemon zest and Noilly Prat – a Bruno Loubet recipe, except that the vermouth replaced Pernod.

Further adjustments saw pickled beetroot diced finely and set on top of thin layers of the fish, with pickled nasturtium seeds from the garden.

There was a salad/garnish of segmented orange and tiny endive leaves, with a simple dressing of olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and grainy mustard, plus a ‘snow’ of grated, frozen horseradish – and served with the fresh bread.

Now this was also very pleasingly good.

Sending The Other Half out of the kitchen, it was on with the main course.

I’d had some thick parsnip slices cooking gently in butter while we ate the salmon, so simply added the remains of the consommé (in lieu of stock) and let them continue to simmer away.

Then for the duck – at The Other Half’s request, breasts from the south of France, where they breed their ducks big and with a fantastic layer of fat (a foie duck, in other words).

Stephane and Arno at La Bouche had been wonderful in getting them for me – The Other Half is becoming a choosy foodie himself, it seems.

There were two, but they were huge (one remains in the freezer), so I took just one, cross-hatched the skin, salted it and then placed it skin-side down in a searingly hot pan, before draining off the melted fat into my duck fat pot.

It had seven minutes on the skin side, followed by seven further minutes on a lower heat on the flesh side. Then a rest of five minutes, during which I sautéed the sprouts with chopped chestnuts, and prepared the plates.

Now here I was, clearly channelling Michel Roux Jr, with a very nice arc of Balsamico dots in different sizes.

I mean, it looks the business, doesn’t it?

The orange sauce, reheated, was served in individual sauce pots.

The trouble was, by the time we sat down, I was knackered and we had both had the edge taken off our appetites by both the wait for food and the absence of it in the morning.

Dessert – painted chocolate and all.
The food itself was okay – albeit the sauce was a little too peppery and the parsnips, somehow, were a tad undercooked in the centre.

But the biggest disappointment was dessert. In many ways, it was an achievement. I’d managed – at the second attempt – a passable pear bavarois (pear purée mixed into a custard, then into Italian meringue and whipped cream) from Michel Roux’s Desserts.

It tasted good, but next time I need to remember that sieving the purée, no matter how pointless it appears, does make a difference.

My ambition had rather overreached itself, though, as I’d tried a ‘pear three ways’ dish.

What we missed: one of The Other Half's breakfasts.
The jellies of pear liqueur had way too much liqueur – although I was delighted at getting a good set, and getting tiny pieces of fruit ‘floating’ in the jelly.

And the candied pear slices were not crisp enough, because I’d opted to dunk them in icing sugar rather than a coarser type, leading them to become rather most, even after hours in the oven.

Fortunately, the Yule log that I’d made a couple of days earlier was fine.

Still, the point – in part at least – is to learn. Although you don't really want such lessons to be ones handed down over Christmas.

But still, there was nothing ‘controversial’ – and most certainly not the sprouts!


  1. Yes, that's one of the drawbacks of living in human civilisation - you have to doctor your vegetables to reduce the amount of flatulence they produce. We who live outdoors can fart freely without a care in the world.

    1. ~LOL~ Oh, I have nothing personally against farts – although it can be embarrassing in 'polite' company. But the method works well for the other reasons outlined too.