Stealing beauties

What's a chef to do when he comes across a perfect dish in someone else's restaurant? Copy it, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When We chefs lift recipes - oh, all right, let's admit to a spot of nicking - from other restaurants and culinary mentors it isn't always a crime. Sometimes it's a tribute, though it all depends how much, er, "borrowing" you do. Some restaurateurs blatantly rip off dishes from successful restaurants and in some cases even have the nerve to copy the style and format of the menu. Not mentioning any names, but a few years ago I visited what was to be a short-lived restaurant on the opening week, and the menu size, layout and style had obviously been pilfered from The Ivy. Closer inspection revealed that eight of the first 10 dishes were the same as those on The Ivy menu. Shame their dishes were poorly executed. I'm not saying ours were all originals, but they were truer to the spirit of the recipes.

When We chefs lift recipes - oh, all right, let's admit to a spot of nicking - from other restaurants and culinary mentors it isn't always a crime. Sometimes it's a tribute, though it all depends how much, er, "borrowing" you do. Some restaurateurs blatantly rip off dishes from successful restaurants and in some cases even have the nerve to copy the style and format of the menu. Not mentioning any names, but a few years ago I visited what was to be a short-lived restaurant on the opening week, and the menu size, layout and style had obviously been pilfered from The Ivy. Closer inspection revealed that eight of the first 10 dishes were the same as those on The Ivy menu. Shame their dishes were poorly executed. I'm not saying ours were all originals, but they were truer to the spirit of the recipes.

On the other hand, imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, and borrowing a classic recipe can be a way of paying tribute, especially when the dish's creator is credited. For years Marco Pierre White featured on his menus the pig's trotter recipe of La Tante Claire's legendary cuisinier Pierre Koffmann.

Whenever I eat out and come across a dish I really enjoy, I can't help trying to work out how to do it myself. As you probably know, I like visiting our local Vietnamese, Turkish and Indian restaurants, and at these places it can be difficult to get the exact recipe first hand from the chef. Here are some of my favourites I've discovered when I've been eating out, and I've had a damn good try at recreating them, but given the credit where it's due.

Patatas Els Tinars

Serves 4

I came across this dish years ago in a restaurant called Els Tinars near Sant Feliu on the Costa Brava. The restaurant had a Michelin star, but the food was simple and reflected what grew and was hunted locally. I remember eating trays full of local snails and simply grilled saffron milk cap mushrooms, but the recipe that has stayed with me is this simple potato dish. It must have been conceived as a way of using up some of the trimmings from the cured hams as the fat is delicious when cooked. It was served as a starter, but I suppose it would also make a great supper dish.

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
2tbsp olive oil
2 slices or about 30-40g Serrano ham, finely chopped
80g minced fatty pork, like belly
1/2tsp chopped thyme leaves
A good pinch of pimenton (Spanish paprika)
1tsp tomato purée
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large baking potatoes such as King Edwards, or Maris Piper, peeled and sliced 2-3mm thin

Gently cook the onion, garlic, and ham in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the minced pork, thyme and pimenton, season and cook on a high heat for a couple more minutes, stirring until the meat lightly colours. Add the tomato purée and just cover the meat with water. Simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Oil a baking tray and make 4 roughly shaped circles measuring about 15cm in diameter, with 2-3 layers of potato slices overlapping each other. Season lightly and add another layer of potatoes on each. You can make them in individual pans if you wish. Brush them with olive oil and bake for about 20 minutes. Spread the pork mixture in a thin layer all over the potatoes and return to the oven for another 20 minutes. If they start to brown too much cover with foil and turn the oven down a little. Serve them just as they are.

Bambou roast duck

Serves 2-4 sharing

We've developed this dish and recently put it on at the Vietnamese restaurant Bambou which belongs to our restaurant group. It has been flying out of the kitchen. It's a take on the classic French roast duck with the crisp, slow-cooked leg, pink breast and a salad made with the offal. The Vietnamese connection with France introduces some spices to interact with the fattiness of the duck.

It's important to use a good duck for which you will probably have to pay about £10 or more. Believe me, it's worth the money, especially if you find a corn-fed duck such as a Barbary. We are using English ducks from Reg Johnson in Goosnargh (Johnson & Swarbrick, Swainson Home Farm, Goosnargh Lane, Preston, 01772 865251) and I can safely say they will match any French bird.

1 duck weighing about 1.5-2kg with its liver and heart
250g duck or goose fat, melted
1 stick of lemon grass, roughly chopped
A small piece of galangal or root ginger, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 star anise
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tsp Szechuan pepper, crushed
1tbsp soy sauce
1 spring onion, finely shredded
30-40g small Asian salad leaves (mizuna, red mustard leaf, pea shoots, tat-soi, shiso, etc)
A few sprigs of coriander leaves

for the dressing

2tsp rice vinegar
1tbls groundnut oil

Preheat the oven to 150°C/gas mark 2. Remove the legs from the duck and chop off the knuckle. Remove half the thigh bone with the point of a sharp knife and shape the leg with your hands so the meat and skin on the thigh is tucked under where you removed the bone. Place into a small pan with the goose fat, lemon grass, galangal, garlic and star anise. Add a teaspoon of salt and cook in the oven for about 1 hour. Leave to cool in the fat. This can be done 1 or 2 days before and the legs left in the fat until needed.

Remove the duck breasts with a sharp knife, leaving the skin on, rub the Szechuan pepper and soy over them and leave in a container or on a plate. Remove any skin from the rest of the carcass and put it into a small saucepan, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.

If the liver and heart came with the bird, trim and put with the breasts. If there weren't any giblets, you might be able to buy duck livers and hearts separately.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.

Remove the legs from the fat and roast on a small tray for about 30 minutes until crisp. Meanwhile season the breasts and quickly pan fry on both sides for a couple of minutes until nicely coloured then put them back in the oven on the tray with the legs, skin side down for 4-5 minutes. Remove the legs and breast from the oven but keep warm.

Cut the boiled skin into rough cubes and fry in about 1 cm of vegetable oil until crisp. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Pour off a little of the fat and in the same pan fry the livers and hearts briefly, keeping them pink.

Mix the rice vinegar and oil, cut the liver and heart into slices and toss with the leaves, dressing, spring onion, coriander and crispy skin. Slice the breast thinly and arrange on plates with the crisp leg and salad.

Cha ca La Vong

Serves 4

This is the signature dish in my local Vietnamese restaurant, Cay Tre in Old Street, London EC1. The food writer Alastair Hendy, who also lives locally, has the recipe for this classic fish dish in his new book Food and Travels: Asia (Mitchell Beazley, £25).

At Cay Tre they serve and finish it in a frying pan at the table along with its classic accompaniment of cooked vermicelli noodles, crushed toasted peanuts and nouc cham, a Vietnamese condiment made of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, rice vinegar, chillies and garlic.

3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
30-40g galangal, peeled and finely grated
20-30g fresh turmeric root, scraped and finely grated or 2tsp ground turmeric
1tbsp fish sauce
1 small medium red chilli, finely chopped
1/2tsp caster sugar
500g firm white fish fillet like monkfish, huss, halibut or brill, cut into rough 2cm chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp vegetable oil
100g dill, roughly chopped, stalks and all

Mix the garlic, galangal, turmeric, fish sauce, chilli, and sugar together with the fish, season and leave to marinade overnight. Heat the vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan, preferably a wok-style one, and sauté the fish for 3-4 minutes, giving it a nice colour. Scatter the dill on top and if you have a table top burner or portable gas burner, place it on the dining table and finish it in front of your guests for a few minutes, stirring a few times until the dill wilts. Serve with the accompaniments of your choice - rice or noodles, peanuts and a dipping sauce, for example.

King prawn curry

Serves 4

I have had this dish several times at the New Tayyab restaurant off Whitechapel Road in east London and have endeavoured to recreate the recipe. I did ask Wasim, the owner, for the recipe and the secret was a roasted masala spice mix. But it's anyone's guess which spices and how much of each went into it. Anyway each time I try to recreate it I may add a little more of this and that, as I'm sure they do at the New Tayyab. The king prawn curry comes in two sizes, for £10 and £20. And it's well worth it as these prawns are gigantic, like baby lobsters. You can normally find these big prawns in Asian supermarkets, labelled U5s. If not, use the biggest ones you can get your hands on.

for the roasted curry powder, about 100g

1tbsp fenugreek seeds
1tbsp fennel seeds
1tbsp fenugreek leaves
1tbsp cumin seeds
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tbsp dried chilli
1/2tbsp caraway seeds
1/2tbsp nigella seeds
1tbsp turmeric
8 cloves
1tbsp ground coriander
1tbsp mustard seeds
1/2tbsp podded cardamon seeds
1tbsp ground cumin

Grind all the spices, except the ground cumin, cinnamon and coriander, in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Then mix them with the already ground spices and sprinkle into a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Cook over a medium heat stirring constantly and not letting them burn, until they turn dark brown. Transfer to a plate and leave to cool, then store in a sealed jar.

20 large prawns, peeled and headed (keep the shells for the sauce) and de-veined
1 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
A small piece of root ginger, scraped and finely grated
A good pinch of saffron
A good pinch of curry leaves
75g ghee (or a half oil, half butter mix)
2tbsp roasted curry powder (see above)
1tbsp tomato purée
500ml fish stock, made from a good stock cube is fine
A few sprigs of coriander, roughly chopped

Gently cook the onion, garlic, ginger, saffron and curry leaves in two thirds of the ghee for 3-4 minutes until soft. Add the curry spices, one third of the prawn heads and shells (retain the remainder and freeze for future use) and tomato purée and stir well. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Blend the sauce in a liquidiser until smooth then strain through a fine meshed sieve into a clean pan, pushing as much through the sieve as possible.

Return to a low heat and simmer until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Heat the remaining ghee in a frying pan, season the prawns and fry them until lightly coloured. Pour the sauce in with the prawns and simmer gently for 6-8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve with basmati rice and scatter with the coriander.

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