Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Bonfire Night Sous Vide Supper

 On Bonfire Night weekend, the good people of Great British Chefs set me the challenge to cook an entire dinner party in a SousVide Supreme.  No mean feat, I can tell you. I invited seven hungry diners for a late Sunday lunch to sample the results of this lengthy experiment. I fed fellow food bloggers and writers, Rachel Walker of The Food I Eat, journalist and bon vivant, Dolly Alderton, professional chef extraordinaire Jane Carnall, Catalan cook and Kitchen Cabinet panellist, Rachel McCormack, caterer, author and my Milk & Sugar  partner in crime, Milli Taylor, the hilarious comedian and writer, Chris Neill and his wonderful partner, actor Rory Murphy.

Cooking everything sous vide is not necessarily the most practical way to cater for 8 people. For starters, the home-use machines are fairly compact, so don’t expect to fit everything in at once. Also, most things need to be cooked at different temperatures, often for several hours at a time, so a fair amount of patience is necessary. Being organised would definitely make life easier and, in an ideal world, it would doubtless be prudent to work out a cooking timetable before heating up your water bath. Needless to say, I wasn’t organised enough to work out a timetable, but even for a last minute Larry like me, it all worked out OK in the end.

As a pre-dinner nibble, I made Spinach, Fennel and Cumin Ricotta Cakes from
 Party-perfect Bites, the excellent new book by my friend and sous vide supper guest, Milli Taylor. I made the Ricotta in the sous vide the day before for this dish, which yielded excellent results. It might be too much of a faff to make it as an everyday staple, but sometimes it’s nice to push the boat out and make an effort.

I wanted to make a do-ahead sous vide starter, as I knew I’d need the machine working to cook other components of the meal while the guests arrived. I decided to make a game terrine after reading that James I couldn’t be contacted with news of the gunpowder plot for several hours because he was busy hunting. I chose guinea fowl (which was popular in 1605 and classed as game in this period), partridge, pheasant and pigeon.

I vacuum sealed the legs with salt, pepper, thyme and garlic to cure and left it overnight, before rinsing off the legs, patting them dry and sealing again with duck fat and cooking sous vide at 75°C for 12 hours. Once the meat was cooled, I flaked it and pressed it into a Serrano ham-lined terrine with the chopped raw breast meat of the birds and layers of leeks softened in butter. I melted some gelatine in reduced chicken stock and poured it over the meat before folding the ham over the top. I vacuum sealed the terrine and cooked it in the sous vide at 65.5°C for 3.5 hours. Once cooked, I left the terrine to cool, before placing it in the fridge to set. This course was my least favourite. The texture of the ham was almost gelatinous after a spell in the water bath and, although attractive on the plate, the cooking process enhanced the gameyness of the meat too much for my personal taste.

I made an alternative dish for pescetarian, Dolly Alderton, of scallops on smoked garlic and pumpkin puree with a few sprigs of watercress. For the pumpkin puree, I vacuum packed the pumpkin, cut into cubes, with salt, pepper and a knob of butter and cooked it sous vide at 85°C for 1 hour. At the same time, I roasted a whole bulb of smoked garlic in the oven. I was nervous of adding the garlic to the bag with the pumpkin after reading that garlic can give food an odd, metallic flavour when cooked sous vide. Once the pumpkin was tender, I transferred it to a pan with the squeezed out roasted garlic cloves and a splash of cream and used a stick blender to puree it. I tasted for seasoning and adjusted and left it in the pan to reheat later. I lined up the scallops in a row and wrapped them in three layers of cling film before cooking them at 60°C for 15 minutes. Once cooked, I seasoned and browned the scallops in a hot buttery pan.

The main meat course was a huge hit with everyone.  I made belly of pork with liquid smoke fondant potatoes, toffee apples, more of the smoked garlic and pumpkin puree, kale and a pork and port gravy.

I cut the boned pork belly into portions and vacuum packed the meat on top of a layer of sliced onions, fresh thyme, salt and pepper and a chicken stock jelly cube (liquid gets sucked out during the vacuum sealing). I cooked the pork at 83°C for 10 hours. Once cooked, I quickly cooled the bag in ice water before pressing the meat between two baking trays with weights on top overnight in the fridge. I used the bones and the scraped out jelly, minus the fat, from the pork belly to make the gravy, which I made in the conventional way in the oven and in a pan as alcohol does not burn off in the sous vide. Once ready to cook, I patted the pork belly dry and placed them in an iron skillet with a few ladles of the gravy and popped them under a hot grill for crackling. The crackling wasn’t quite as crisp as usual, but tasted similar to the skin on a hog roast – no complaints there.

I’m not convinced the same results couldn’t have been achieved by slow cooking the pork in a low oven, but you would definitely have needed to cook the pork on the bone (or at least resting on the bones) to create the same succulent results. An unexpected bonus of the sous vide method of cooking, was the natural separation of the fat and pork essence. The fat clung to the textured interior of the vac bag, so that the lean pork jelly could easily be removed.

I made the fondant potatoes by vacuum sealing them with butter, a little chicken stock jelly, salt, pepper and a few splashes of liquid pecan smoke (well, it was Bonfire Night) and cooked them at 85°C for 90 minutes until tender. I cooled the bag in ice water and popped the potatoes in the fridge until ready to be reheated in a hot oven to brown the tops just before serving.

I made the toffee apples by halving and coring unpeeled apples (I used Pink Lady) and vacuum sealing them with light muscovado sugar, salt, pepper, chicken stock jelly, a nob of butter and a teaspoon or 2 of red wine vinegar and cooking in the sous vide at 85°C for 1 hour. When it was time to dish up, I caramelised the cut side of the apples in a hot, buttery pan. The main course was pure autumn on a plate.

For the pescetarian main I vacuum sealed a piece of hake with butter and seasoning and cooked in the water bath for 20 minutes at 56°C before crisping the skin in a hot, buttery pan. I served this with the veggie elements of the pork dish and sous vide samphire (simply vac packed with butter and a grind of black pepper which I cooked at 85°C (at the same time as the toffee apples) for 20 minutes, before quickly reheating in the same bath as the fish before serving.

The pudding was another nod to Guy Fawkes with bonfire toffee, ginger and rum crème caramels cooked using the sous vide as a water bath at 85°C fro 45 minutes. It’s important to wrap the tops of the dariole moulds with cling film before popping them in the sous vide to prevent condensation dripping on top of the custards. Once cooked, I left them to cool and refrigerated them overnight before dunking the bases in hot water, sliding round the sides with a knife and upturning them in bowls. The texture was extraordinary – creamy, smooth and velvety, without the slightest grain. I was so pleased with the results from the controlled temperature in the Sous Vide, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the oven again for baked custards.

All in all, the lunch was a success, but if you want to make your own sous vide supper, be prepared to plan ahead to accommodate the longer cooking times.

* Thank you to my guests for providing many of the photographs from the evening.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Twelfth Night Feast

I have, of late, rather missed the challenge of Alphabet Soup. Especially the cooking and hosting part (the writing is yet to be published on here in the hope of a future book deal). That's not to say I haven't had other challenges to keep me busy in the meantime. I've written two books and am currently writing my third, but there was something really special about those nights. Something electric, which charged those letter-themed evenings with a peculiar air of excitement and silliness, sprinkled with just the slightest touch of fear. Perhaps it was the secrecy of the menus. Perhaps it was the special musical playlists. Perhaps it was all the booze. Whatever it was, I have missed those wonderful nights and felt hungry for a new culinary challenge.

With this in mind, I decided to host a Twelfth Night dinner party, with a 12 course menu based on the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Some guests thought it was just a dinner party on the night of epiphany, but those who know me better missed lunch in preparation. Our lovely epiphany diners were Sous Chef founders, Nicola and Nick Carter-Lando, fiction writer, Sophie Ranald, political commentator, Hopi Sen and the marvellous Andrea Binfor.

Initially, my plans included making the correct number of things (mostly birds it seems) to serve each person for each course; so, if seven swans are a-swimming, seven swans they would get on their plates. But, after talking this idea through with the ever rational Richard, and agreeing with him that this course of action would only be sensible if my intention was to kill my guests in a dramatic Mr Creosote fashion, I reluctantly reined it in a bit.

As is my usual wont, I left the food shopping and prep work until the eleventh hour. This, coupled with the fact that Richard ended up working late, all the pre-party tasks of throwing the hoover around, table laying, candle lighting and loo cleaning were still yet to be done at 7.30pm. Luckily, our friends are a lovely bunch, so they kindly offered to pop over the road for a pint while the final prep was done.

After a quick glug of fizz, the guests sat down for the first course: A Partridge in a Pear Tree. This comprised of confit of partridge mixed with spiced pickled pears, stuffed into hollowed out savoury poached pear halves.  These were served on a reduced partridge and beef stock “tree” adorned with leaves plucked from a packet of fresh oregano.

Next up, Two Turtle Doves. The closest match I could find for doves (without shooting my own) were pigeons. So, I made individual pigeon hand pies. I had bought a little silicone mould to create two pastry turtle doves on top, but forgot about it until the blasted things had already gone in the oven. The best laid plans and all that... Still, the guests didn't seem to notice.

Post-pie came Three French Hens. I breadcrumbed three chicken wing lollipops each and served them with sauce à la Française, which is a lemon and caper buttery sauce. After watching this video, I decided doing all my own butchering would be a piece of piss. I was wrong. These lollipops (about 30 in total, just to be on the safe side) took me two and a half hours to make and I was almost weeping with boredom by the end. Still, they tasted good and that was the main aim.

There was more butchery still, in the name of Four Calling Birds. My initial plan was to make a four bird roast, but after Richard asked if I'd invited Mr Creosote after all, I thought better of it. Instead, I made ballotines from the leg meat of a duck, a guinea fowl, a chicken and a pheasant. I paired the duck with the guinea fowl and the chicken with the pheasant. After boning all eight legs and discarding the sinew, it was a simple matter of making two stuffings (one with livers and mushrooms and the other with garlic and spinach), leaving them to cool and rolling them up in streaky bacon. I wrapped them tightly in cling film and poached them for twenty minutes, before discarding the cling and roasting for a further 15 - 20 minutes. I served my ballotines with cauliflower puree and a game bird and red wine reduction. This was many people's favourite course of the night, despite the photo being one of the worst.

Next came the most memorable verse of the song: Five Gold Rings. For this, I gave each guest five squid rings in a crisp and golden turmeric and gram flour batter, which I served with saffron aioli.

I left the sixth course to Richard, while I put my feet up and tried to catch up with how drunk the others were. For Six Geese-a-Laying, my idea had been to get in some goose eggs (obvs), but, it turns out you can't get goose eggs for love nor money in early January. Instead, Richard swapped the goose eggs for duck's and scrambled them with white truffle butter and goose rillettes and served them in the washed out hollowed duck eggs.

Seven Swans-a-Swimming were next. I made Parmesan choux swans and filled them with a mixture of seasoned mascarpone, paprika and more Parmesan, before setting them on pea and mint soup for a swim. They were rather larger than I had initially intended, which may, in part, have been responsible for what happened next.

At this point in the evening, Nick (designated driver of the evening and the only sober one at the table) declared that he was too full to carry on. Temporarily deflated, I imagined having to toss the puddings I'd made in the bin with one hand, while grasping a bottle of the ready chilled dessert wine in the other. Thankfully, a better suggestion was made. They all wanted to come back the next evening to finish what they'd started.

I've never before spread a dinner party over two consecutive nights (especially on a Monday and Tuesday), but it was so much fun, I might just start making a habit of it.

Beginning an evening with multiple puddings seemed too deranged to cope with. Besides, I had a fridge-full of semi-butchered game birds to use up, so I decided a game bird stew and mash served with greens would be a welcome beginning to night 2 and, as Richard said, it provided something of a catch-up for the courses of the evening before. I got as far as getting a chopping board out and then decided I'd had enough of butchering birds for one week, so barked instructions at Richard for the stew instead, while I cleaned up from the night before.

Our guests arrived, slightly bruised from the night before, but still eager. Game stew demolished and more corks popped, it was time to get back to the Eight Maids-a-Milking. For this, I had made dainty little eight milk panna cottas topped with milk chocolate soil. The eight milks were Jersey cow's, coconut, buttermilk, rice, soya, almond milk, evaporated and condensed. Everyone agreed it had just the right amount of wobble, moments before it wobbled off my spoon and down my top.

Not one to cry over spilt milk, it was onwards and upwards for Nine Ladies Dancing. Individual Pink Lady Apple Charlottes constructed with homemade Lady Fingers made up the ninth verse. I also chucked in some deliciously fresh-tasting apple liqueur for a little extra sparkle too.

Worried the evening had become too sober and having decided against frogs legs or leaping salmons (who wants their puddings to be suddenly interrupted by either of those? and besides, Richard is allergic to fish), the Ten Lords-a-Leaping came in the shape of a cocktail of the same name. Richard got the shaker out for these whisky based cocktails with added pimento rum liqueur, honey, lime, bitters and nutmeg. They were fragrant with Christmas spice and a welcome hiatus from solid food.

For the penultimate course, my Eleven Pipers Piping came in the shape of berries poached in pipe tobacco and star anise syrup, served in a chocolate pipe on a Maris Piper potato sponge cake. I made chocolate pipes with tempered chocolate and acetate sheets, poached some berries in a pipe tobacco and star anise syrup and balanced it all on Maris Piper potato sponge cake. It was light and fragrant and, despite the fears of some that the tobacco syrup would make the whole dish taste like an overused ashtray, it received unanimous thumbs up from all.

And, finally, we reached the end of the meal with a cheese course. Twelve Drummers Drumming
came in the guise of a whole 2 kilo Dorset Denhay Drum, served with celery carved into drumsticks, biscuits and chutney and to the soundtrack of our collective dulcet tones singing the full twelve verses with raised glasses.

All in all, my Twelfth Night feast was a total hoot. Until my next food-related challenge, there's a lot of cheese left to get through...