Food: Butter me up

Savoury smearings for almost any occasion

I have always wondered why "Beurre Maitre d'Hotel" is so called. Did the chap leave his post in the salle a manger to go off into the kitchen each morning, chop a bit of parsley, squeeze a bit of lemon and mix it with the butters left from the previous night's service? Or is it just another of those names that the great Escoffier thought up for numerous recipes, along with "consomme Celestine" and the "cardinal's sauce".

Whatever the history, gently flavoured, compounded butters are a wonderful way to lubricate meat, fish or vegetables. And lately, through my reading from the writings of such cooks as Deborah Madison (The Greens Cookbook) and Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters (Chez Panisse Cooking), I have discovered another fine use for these savoury melters, which is to be sometimes swirled into soups of all flavours and textures.

But the most traditional vehicle for savoury butters is with grilled meats and fish. The pork chop and its kidney, bacon-wrapped and pictured here, is transformed by its little fat disk of (in this case) garlic butter (there is also a goodly smear of the same butter between the roasted bacon and kidney to give extra lubrication to the offal). Another suitable combination would be an amalgam of sage and onion, or paprika, dill and the further addition of sour cream to both lighten and introduce a faintly Hungarian note when served with a piece of pork.

Grilled lamb cutlets take to a smear of anchovy butter like sausage to mustard: and with that thought in mind, flavoured butters are wonderful to have to hand next to a barbecue fire; keep ready-cut disks of them in a small cool-box wrapped in foil, and simply slide a slice onto the burnished chops or steaks as and when they are ready to go.

Roasted and grilled pieces of fish readily take on board boldly piquant butters with a high proportion of acidity incorporated into them. Lemon, limes, even oranges (think, for example, of the delicious hollandaise family's sauce, Maltaise, ) are exceptionally fine flavours that partner turbot, John Dory and salmon - orange, particularly with the latter fish. Asian flavourings also have an affinity here: a coriander, lime, ginger and chilli butter is a supremely good for a nice thick fillet of cod, roasted till crusted and crisp-skinned in the oven.

One of the most infamous of butters is the one used for baking snails in the oven. The first time I ever made this particular stinker was in the school holidays, in the kitchens of a local, very good French restaurant, and the smell impregnated itself into my paws (and pores) for days and days. No machines here, no food processors, just a giant bowl, a dozen packets of best unsalted Normandy butter, heaps of parsley, more garlic than I had ever seen before and a knife with which to chop it into tiny pieces. Then it was hands-in, mulching about until a good, homogenous texture was achieved before plunging hands into the sink and scouring with a stiff brush and a lot of carbolic.

To this day, this is still the very finest of snail butters: the garlic and parsley remain distinct within the sizzling fat, clinging to the snails as they splutter and crust within their shells. Here is the recipe, along with some other useful smearings.

Snail butter, makes about 350g/12oz

This butter does not have to be served with snails: on mushrooms, small grilled fillet steaks, as a stuffing for chicken Kiev and for making garlic bread are other uses for it. Large cooked and split-open mussels are also great for grilling with garlic butter.

250g/9oz best unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

25g/1oz peeled garlic, as fresh as possible (the new season's stuff is particularly good here), very finely chopped

40g/112oz flat parsley leaves, very finely chopped

15g/12oz dry breadcrumbs (omit if not using with snails or mussels)

25ml/1 fl oz Pernod or Ricard

1 level tsp salt

14 tsp freshly ground black pepper

generous pinch cayenne

3 drops Tabasco

Put all the ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer (or in a roomy free-standing bowl if using an electric hand whisk or spatula) and beat together until smooth. Dampen a sheet of grease-proof paper and spoon the butter onto it in the shape of a rough log. Roll into a tighter log, twisting the ends to form a sort of Christmas cracker. Then roll this even tighter, using a sheet of strong kitchen foil, once again, twisting the ends. Put in the fridge to chill.

Lime, ginger, chilli and coriander butter, makes about 310g/11 oz

This intensely savoury butter is also spectacularly good smeared over grilled lobster, scallops or other shellfish, as well as the roasted cod fillet mentioned earlier.

250g/9oz best unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

5cm/2" piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1 small bunch fresh coriander, leaves only, finely chopped

3-4 medium hot red chillies, seeds removed and finely chopped

1 clover garlic, peeled and finely chopped

4 tbsp virgin olive oil

1 tbsp nam pla (Asian fish sauce), optional

grated zest of one lime

juice of two limes

Mix all the ingredients for the butter as in the previous recipe and wrap up in the same way.

Anchovy and rosemary butter, makes about 275g/10oz

This is almost a more buttery version of the beloved English afternoon- tea spread Patum Pepperium, or "gentleman's relish", which is usually spread very thinly onto equally thin slices of crisp white toast. However, here the affinity is very pleasing when served with some crusted and charred lamb cutlets. Grilled liver, too, or kidneys, are also terrifically good when anointed by this butter.

It is necessary to use a food processor with the sharp cutting blade when making the butter, so as to break up the rosemary leaves for the extraction of maximum flavour and also to puree up the anchovies.

250g/9oz best unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

1 x 50g/2oz tin anchovies, in olive oil

2 small sprigs rosemary, leaves only

juice of 1 small lemon

1 small clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

Place all the ingredients into the food processor and whizz until the mixture is very smooth. Push through a sieve and wrap up in the same way as the two previous butters.

Saffron and pimiento butter, makes about 350g/12oz

Swirl a slice or two of this butter into a roasted eggplant (aubergine) soup, the recipe of which is based on one from The Greens Cookbook )Bantam pounds 7.99) and follows below.

This should be made in the food processor as in the previous recipe. If you can find them, use the canned or bottled Spanish char-grilled and peeled pimientoes as their flavour is second to none. If not, then roast or grill your own until the skin blackens, put into a plastic bag for 10 minutes then peel off and discard the skin.

250g/9oz best unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

75g/3oz roasted red peppers

1 tsp saffron, put to steep in 1 tbsp hot sherry vinegar for 5 minutes

1 small clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2-3 drops Tabasco (optional)

Place all the ingredients into the food processor and whizz until the mixture is very smooth. Wrap up in the same way as the two previous butters.

Roasted eggplant (aubergine) soup, serves 4-6

I have taken the liberty of excluding the original inclusion of red peppers here, as they are evident in the butter and would overpower the delicate aubergine flavour in the soup.

700g/112 lb firm and shiny aubergines

4 tbsp virgin olive oil

1 large onion, halved but not peeled

2 medium-sized, ripe tomatoes

4-5 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

7-8 leaves fresh basil

1 tsp salt

1.1 litre/2 pints water or light chicken stock

juice of 1 lemon

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6.

Halve the aubergines lengthways and brush all surfaces with olive oil. Salt and pepper the cut surfaces, set the halves on a baking sheet and start them baking. Brush olive oil onto the cut sides of the onion and tomatoes and add them to the tray with the aubergine after it has baked for 20 minutes. Continue baking for a further 20 minutes or so until the aubergine is beginning to collapse and the skins of the onion and tomato are loose and wrinkled, remove everything from the oven and cool briefly. Remove the onion and tomato skins and scoop out all the flesh from the aubergine skins. Roughly chop all together.

Warm together 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a roomy pan and add the thyme, bay, garlic and basil. Very gently cook together for a few minutes, then add the vegetables, salt and some freshly ground pepper. Pour in the water or stock and simmer gently for around 25 minutes. Work through a mouli- legumes or, slowly, in a blender, but do not make the soup too smooth. Check for seasoning, re-heat and pour into bowls. Put a generous slice of the butter into each serving and add a little extra freshly chopped basil

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