Sharp practice

From duck with lemon to crab with grapefruit, Simon Hopkinson goes for a citrus twist to create three dishes that bite back
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In the old days, one could rely on it being very cold indeed just now and I would expect, at the very least, for there to be snow on the ground and ice on the roads from time to time. During the severe winter of 1963, I recall that a couple of large Westmoreland lakes had transformed themselves into free-for-all skating rinks with several derring-doers cycling across them with glee - albeit with a touch of anxiety apparent on their brightly beaming, scarf-wrapped, ruddy faces. An early British February now seems to be nothing more than dreary and damp. All I envisage are liquid lakes with their shores decorated by hosts of slightly confused daffodils, and being further surprised by a suffocation from the stink of a host of early wild garlic leaves.

In the old days, one could rely on it being very cold indeed just now and I would expect, at the very least, for there to be snow on the ground and ice on the roads from time to time. During the severe winter of 1963, I recall that a couple of large Westmoreland lakes had transformed themselves into free-for-all skating rinks with several derring-doers cycling across them with glee - albeit with a touch of anxiety apparent on their brightly beaming, scarf-wrapped, ruddy faces. An early British February now seems to be nothing more than dreary and damp. All I envisage are liquid lakes with their shores decorated by hosts of slightly confused daffodils, and being further surprised by a suffocation from the stink of a host of early wild garlic leaves.

The beginning of any British February will be a testing time for those who are both keen to cook and who also choose to reside here. Well, we hardy natives carry on regardless. We make good with the occasional woodcock (a rarity indeed, these days); enjoy the delights of the first of the forced rhubarb, all pink and stewed in Pyrex bowls; savour the occasional blistering-hot servings of braised endives wrapped in ham, covered in rich bechamel and glazed with cheese; are dazzled just the once by a small, imported fresh black truffle from Perigord (at their absolute peak just now) finely shaved over a plate of scrambled eggs; and spend a few worthwhile days potting up jars of Seville orange marmalade. Let me tell you, it beats a bowl of dull, green and tepid calaloo soup eaten in blistering-hot sunshine any day of the week. And, furthermore, endless glasses of rum punch will never, ever be a substitute for Claret, Burgundy, Chablis and Riesling, come rain or shine.

So, feeling soggy, irritable and uninspired - but stoic to the last! - what is it to be that will add zing and zip to the cooking of the dark months? For me, it is the tang of citrus fruit, just now, that lifts and adds edge to both savoury and sweet dishes. Although delicious as it most certainly will be, and forever a pleasure to make, it need not be just orange peel and sticky fingers that characterises the domestic British kitchen scene at this time of year.

Fragrant duck 'pilaf' with lemon and mint

Serves 2

I have chosen to call the following preparation a "pilaf" simply because the end result of this particular pulse, once cooked, seems so redolent of a pot of savoury rice that to call it "baked duck with dhal, lemon and mint" would surely fail to attract even the most informed fans of the farinaceous. Moong dal, the seed used here, is possessed of such lightness of starch that it can even display some of the characteristics of a fine biriani. The traditional Pakistani cook, naturally, would passionately disagree with me here, but I think that my comparison remains a relatively sound observation nonetheless.

However, having wittered on about all of that with reference to an Asian influence, to flavour a duck with mint and lemon was an idea first introduced to me by a fine fellow called John Marfell, now long late as chef of a once grand Cotswold restaurant called Cleeveway House, in the village of Bishop's Cleeve, Gloucestershire.

Christopher Driver, editor of the 1972 edition of The Good Food Guide, had wittily chosen to illustrate various establishments of note with wickedly accurate caricatures of their proprietors or chefs, with the bespectacled Marfell depicted as an absolute dead ringer for a coming-of-age Harry Potter - I kid you not! Other distinguished worthies of the era are a Victor Spinetti-like Franco Taruschio and an Eddie Izzard clone of Robert Carrier, if you please.

But it was simply to be a George Perry-Smith training that inspired John Marfell to produce a succulent joint of duck roasted with mint and lemon that I recall eating with such pleasure around about mid-summer, in that quiet year of 1973.

4 duck legs

salt and freshly ground black pepper

a little oil or duck fat

1 large onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, sliced

1 scant tsp ground cumin

a healthy pinch of dried chilli flakes

350g moong dhal, well rinsed and drained

40g butter

500ml of good chicken or duck stock

the thinly pared, pithless rind of 1 small lemon

2tbsp freshly chopped mint

1 lemon, cut in half, to squeeze over the finished dish

Preheat the oven to 350°F/ 180°C/gas mark 4. Season the duck legs and, using a lidded, cast-iron (or similar) oven-proof pot, gently fry them in the oil or fat, skin-side down, until golden and crisp. Then turn over and lightly colour the other sides. Remove to a plate.

Discard all but 2tbsp of the rendered fat and then add the onions and garlic. Gently fry until pale golden and then stir in the cumin and chilli. Add the butter and stir around for a little longer before tipping in the dhal. Coat the grains with fat, using a stirring and folding motion, until all are glistening. Pour in the stock all at once, bring up to a simmer and stir in the lemon rind and mint. Cut the duck legs in half through their natural joints and slide into the mixture, along with any of their exuded juices. Put on the lid and bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove, but leave the lid on for a further 10 minutes before peeking. Now lift off the lid, fluff up the grains with a fork and serve at once, with lemon halves alongside and perhaps a lightly dressed green salad.

Crÿme renversée à l'orange

Serves 4

Of all my memories of kitchen apprentice tasks, I will never, ever forget the order to rub a large number of sugar lumps over the skins of a similarly large number of oranges until said lumps had disintegrated, saturated by the oil and only the most essential, thin layer of rind. The results of this labour were then beaten into softened unsalted butter until all had become the most beautiful yellow/orange mass of lactic curds. This chore has remained for me a particular labour of love, pushed to the very limit of both motivation and dedication.

the finely grated zest of 4 oranges, unwaxed, if possible

500ml full-cream milk

200g caster sugar

2 large eggs

4 large egg yolks

Put the orange zest, milk and half the given amount of caster sugar in a stainless steel saucepan and gently bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, stir together and cover. Leave to infuse for a minimum of 40 minutes. Beat together the egg yolks just to mix and then strain (through a fine sieve) over the infused milk, pressing down well on the orange zest to extract all possible flavour.

Preheat the oven to 275°F/ 140°C/gas mark 1. Place the remaining 100g of sugar in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add just enough water to cover, and mix together. Boil until a rich brown caramel has formed, then quickly pour it over the base of a shallow dish (approximately 750-850ml - my preference is for a nice old-fashioned Pyrex number). Allow to cool, briefly. Remove any froth from the surface of the orange custard mixture and then slowly pour it upon the hardened caramel.

Put into a hot water bain-marie (making sure the water rises to at least two-thirds of the way up the outside of the dish) and place in the centre of the oven. Bake for about 1-1 1/4 hours, checking its progress from time to time over; all oven temperatures differ slightly, after all. At the moment that you think it needs just a few more minutes - still a little wobbly in the centre - remove from the oven and leave in the bain-marie for 15 minutes more. Remove, leave to cool for 20 minutes or so and place in the fridge to chill.

To turn out, carefully run a small knife around the edge of the custard and gingerly invert on to a suitable dish - its golden caramel sauce will flood around in its wake.

Chilli crab salad with grapefruit and avocado

Serves 4

There was a time when I would have instantly recoiled from such a dish as described above. Grapefruit with crab? Avocado with grapefruit? Crab with avocado, maybe, but it was this assembly of shellfish with breakfast fruit that had always struck me as a little crook, to say the least. This quandary continued unabated for years until the day I sat down to lunch at the Oriental hotel in Bangkok, and was then moved to rapturously applaud a spirited plateful of crab meat, pomelo (related to the grapefruit), traditional Thai salad garnishings dressed up with indigenous herbs, chilli, fish sauce and all manner of further aromatics.

Moments of conversion such as this give me the greatest pleasure - and it could only have happened there, I guess. Any attempt to recreate such a thing in some dodgy West End "Pacific Rim" joint would not, I feel, have been the same thing at all. Unconvinced I would have remained, which would have been a shame.

the leaves from the hearts of 2 little gem lettuces, or similar, washed and drained

1 pink or red grapefruit, rind and all pith removed with a knife, then neatly segmented and seeds picked out

1 just-ripe avocado, peeled and sliced

4-5 heaped tbsp of fresh white crab meat (the brown is not used here)

For the dressing

the leaves from 1 small bunch of coriander

the leaves from 6 mint sprigs

2 garlic cloves, chopped

3-4 small green chillies, seeds removed, chopped

1tbsp caster sugar

juice of 4 large limes

8tbsp oriental fish sauce

8tbsp tepid water

To make the dressing, place all the ingredients in a liquidiser (preferably) or food processor and whiz to a pale green sludge. Decant into a bowl and allow the flavours to mingle. Neatly arrange the lettuce, grapefruit, avocado and crab upon four individual plates and spoon the dressing over. Serve at once.

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