Monday, January 31, 2011

Do you home deliver? Lessons from a professional kitchen

I’m escaping my own style with this post.  I’m also indirectly and unintentionally posting an anti-ode to the infinitely more accomplished stylings of A.A. Gill.  I’m going to write about food.  Straight up. Without the odd yet parallel tale of some current life event or recent happening.  I feel a little naked in this approach, but here we go with some naturalist musings.

For the past few months I have had the privilege and the sometimes pain of working…OK, be it for free, but labour none the less…in some great restaurant kitchens.  My approach to my stage (kitchen apprenticeship) pursuit was simple.  Where do I like to eat?  Where am I embarrassingly excited by the food? Where will a chef take another now chef into his kitchen knowing full well I was a lawyer in a past life?

As it turns out, the whole ex-lawyer branding proved less difficult than I imagined.  I met with congratulations, mockery, disbelief and only on odd occasion anger.  Unfortunately the consequences of a poorly managed divorce can scar a man for life…but the consequences of a well managed kitchen station and a little non-binding guidance on a debt recovery can heal all wounds.  Miss Devour & Co, Registered Office: Hot Starters.

John Spinks The Ledbury's chef, Brett Graham
Brett Graham, contempo casual at The Ledbury
Last November, through sheer luck, Executive Chef Brett Graham at The Ledbury plucked my application from email anonymity. Lesson One: Roe deer butchery. Working with Brett to reduce the bounty of his weekend shooting trip into priced portions for The Ledbury’s winter menu was fascinating.  He is so commercially astute in maximising value from his produce, which goes some way to explain the continued success of The Ledbury.  The Roe deer portions are seared and presented in a smoking glass dome of hay (Douglas Fir), which gives the flesh a smoky finish. The deer is served with the classic meaty accompaniments of beetroot and marrow, The Twist element being the malt shavings dusted on top.  
Candied walnuts in their sweet phase at The Ledbury
My most useful take home from The Ledbury: Candied walnuts.  After taking a 2/3 water to 1/3 sugar mix to a just-turning caramel, the walnuts are added to the pan and vigorously mixed.  The caramel immediately starts to crystallise, turning white around the walnuts. After cooling on a silicone or paper-lined tray you are left with a crisp dusted slightly sweet walnuts.  Chocolate or wintery desserts are an obvious home for these walnuts, but I also like them in salads or crushed over a mushroom risotto or pasta. 
Quay's butter-poached quail
Despite turning the seasons upside down, walnuts were there again when I worked at Quay in Sydney earlier this month.  Their butter-poached quail breast balances on a crisp fried quinoa and walnut crumble, pan-fried off in clarified butter before serving.  The silky quail is also served with truffle custard plopped onto a smooth walnut and chestnut puree and a ripe loose ‘pudding’ (crumbled pumpernickel, morel and foie gras all muddled together). Plating each of the elements (and the rest, Quay’s menu reads like a epic degree) with silver chopsticks was an exercise in high-speed microsurgery! 
Quay's salad of breakfast radish and blood sorrel
Quay’s dishes are certainly not easy additions to you home repertoire. Even if Peter Gilmore’s truly sexy recipe book, Quay, takes its place amongst your food porn collection, it’s unlikely you will construct the exquisite salad of breakfast radishes and blood sorrel as an impressive entrée at your next dinner party.  But the lesson to take away from the restaurant and the book is Peter’s fresh, clean and textural approach to food. He calls it nature-based cuisine. If your produce is good, and you treat it with love, you really don’t need to play around with it too much. When you're cooking think about how everything on your plate tastes, bites, feels in your mouth, smells and work with your ingredients to create depth, contrast and personality on the palette.

This approach doesn’t have to be complicated.  I’m loving mushrooms at the moment.  I often default to an easy mushroom pasta after work.  I’ll try and grab some different looking mushrooms at the market on the weekend.  Black Trumpettes look amazing on a plate, dramatic and smoky.  Their paler relative, the Chanterelle is softer, fruity and bit more homely.   Ceps have a great integrity and flavour and what I call ET Fingers (or everyone else calls Enoki) are a fragile contrast. 

In good quality olive oil I’ll sauté down a couple of finely sliced shallots and garlic, a little thyme, add the roughly chopped mushrooms and let them sweat out (start with the Ceps, they take a little longer).  You can reduce a dash of white wine or sherry in the mix, before adding a loose teaspoon of honey, a twist of cracked pepper, a quick glug of soy, and then some chopped parsley.  I have started using soy a lot more as a substitute for salt.  It adds an umami to the dish which is deeper and richer than salting.

To plate I’ll fold this duxelles (rich, chunky) through hot pappardelle (long, smooth) with peppery roquette (crisp, fresh) before crumbling over some Stilton (creamy, tangy) and crushing a few candied walnuts (crunchy).  A pinch of Maldon sea salt and a sling of olive oil never hurts.  This is an easy dish with classic flavour combinations but it’s consistent with Peter’s textural approach. Think about this next time you’re pulling something together for dinner. Add a snap to something slippery, a squish to something crunchy and each mouthful will have a lot more personality and we all know, personality goes a long way.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoying your blog.

    Roasted, peeled then fried chestnuts adds a lot to a mushroom pasta as well, especially in winter as a variation. I like the walnut addition and keen to try it. Any general ideas and advice about what to do with verrines to make them interesting, complex but easy and quick?