Mary, an English teacher from London, had never entered a cookery competition before. 'I just cooked the kind of food I like to serve at home,' she said. That was exactly what we judges - chefs Jean-Christophe Novelli of the Four Seasons Hotel (where the event was held) and Shaun Hill of Gidleigh Park in Devon, Lurpak butter's marketing director, Annie Freel, Sophie Grigson, Emily Green and myself - were seeking.
In the guiding principles of the competition we asked that the menu be seasonal, locally produced where possible, and that the selection of the ingredients show an awareness that the basic elements of any good meal are fresh, high-quality foodstuffs. Since the meal was to be designed as a Friday-night dinner for four at the end of a working week, we stipulated a two-hour cooking limit, with one hour's preparation time. We asked that the meal be appropriate for the time of year and day of the week, well-balanced and light on the stomach.
Perhaps Mary had a head start: as a teacher she knows that the first essential for passing an exam is to read the question properly. We had a bumper bag of entries, doubtless inspired by the prospect of generous prizes courtesy of Lurpak. Most of the suggested dishes were distinctly edible but decidedly unseasonal; many were attractive but predictable combinations involving salmon or lamb.
Mary's entry was one of six that stood out as an interesting interpretation of the competition principles. And it tasted as good as it sounded. She began with a perfectly executed souffle, featuring the fine, small courgettes that are just becoming available. This she served with home-made white rolls, properly crusty outside and substantial within. Then came the magnificent sea bass, baked very briefly, with a hot rouille sauce on the side for anyone who did not find the pearly, herby-scented flesh of the fish perfect on its own. On the side came tiny new potatoes, pot- roasted in their skins with salt and butter, and a simple salad of rocket leaves drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The dessert was just right, heart-shaped 'cremets d'Anjou', moulded cream served with gently warmed raspberries and redcurrants. This was a meal full of pleasurable contrasts: the lightness and fineness of the souffle, the simplicity of the fish, the earthiness of the bread and the delicate, moulded creams.
Mary had very tough competition, though, from our other five finalists, who all distinguished themselves with at least one memorable course or dish.
Antony Kwok, who works for a national Aids organisation, left us almost speechless when he served his starter. His 'warm lettuce parcels of seafood and two noodles' is the ultimate seafood salad: soft, sweet Webbs lettuce leaves supported a stunning combination of warm ingredients: deep-fried ginger, scallops and prawns were mixed with strips of cool, sweet mango and placed on delicate servings of two sorts of noodle dressed with a masterly combination of rice vinegar, fish sauce, lime juice and purple basil.
Laurie Graham, a freelance journalist from Cambridge, demonstrated good taste and a sense of humour when she produced Cromer crab cakes with a side serving of the most fantastic baby potatoes, roasted in parchment then served scrunched up in a copy of the Independent. This dish almost failed to reach us: a kitchen porter nearly whisked it into the bin.
Jo Hamilton, a London company director, produced a meal that would shame many professionals. She started with a tempura of vegetables and prawns in a light, crispy batter which was all last- minute nerve. The different flavours of the tempura - crispy salt parsley, chewy red onion, moist aubergine - were brought out by her Agedashi sauce, a combination of Mirin, dashi and soy, heightened by fresh horseradish and ginger pastes. It was both stylish and appetite-whetting. And we loved her red-fruit crumble served with a deliciously perfumed elderflower ice-cream.
It was amazing that Roger Ashby, a commodity trader from Sidford in Devon, managed to produce any food at all, since he kept us entertained with jokes and stories all afternoon. But he did, and it was a sort of dream of perfect, plain British home cooking. He had boiled a first-rate joint of smoked West Country gammon and served it with a sumptuous parsley-and-butter sauce. The parsley was coarsely chopped which gave it more flavour and bite. It was accompanied by scrubbed Jersey Royal potatoes and tender broad beans, providing the flouriness to soak up the sauce and the flavour of the ham.
Tamasin Day-Lewis, a documentary film-maker from Bridgwater in Somerset, had taken the theme of local foods to its logical conclusion by growing many of her ingredients. Artichokes and broad beans from her garden were used in a salad, topped with crisply rendered bacon and a pungent anchovy sauce. But peaches - not home-grown - were the highlight of her meal. These had been poached in a wonderful syrup of white wine, citrus and vanilla. They retained a rose blush and a perfect form, although they were soft and tender. She served them with an orange-flower sabayon, the richness cut by the presence of fresh lime juice.
Tamasin Day-Lewis's poached peaches in orange-flower sabayon
Put 4 peaches in a casserole with 18fl oz (500cl) water, 18fl oz (500cl) white wine, 7oz (200g) castor sugar, 1 sliced orange, 1/2 a sliced lemon and a vanilla pod. Bring to the boil, skim, then simmer for 15-20 minutes. Let the peaches cool in the syrup. Then skin, halve and remove the stones.
For the sabayon: Put 6 egg yolks, 3 1/2 oz (100g) castor sugar and a pinch of salt into a bowl and whisk. Add 4fl oz (115cl) dessert wine, and 4fl oz (115cl) of the poaching syrup. Whisk in a double boiler for about 10 minutes - it should leave a ribbon trail. Whisk in 4tbs fresh lime juice, 3tbs orange juice and 1tbs orange-flower water. Spoon generously over the peaches.
Roger Ashby's poached smoked Wiltshire gammon
Poach a pre-soaked 2lb (900g) smoked gammon joint in a stock of celery, carrot, onion and a bay leaf. This should take no more than 90 minutes. Allow to cool in the stock.
Prepare a parsley sauce by melting 1tbs of butter and adding 1tbs flour to make a roux. Slowly add 1/2 pint (250cl) milk and a generous handful of chopped parsley. Stir until thickened, then add 4oz (115g) butter to give a creamy texture.
1/2 pint (250cl) milk
1/2 pint (250cl) double cream
4 egg yolks
3-4tbs elderflower cordial
sugar to taste
Put the milk and cream in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg yolks. Return the custard to the heat, whisking all the time, until it thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and add the cordial a little at a time, tasting as you go - the flavour should be delicate, not too powerful. Transfer to an airtight container and freeze for 1-2 hours, or process in an ice-cream maker.
baby potatoes in paper
Heat the oven to 200C. For four people, you will need about 1 1/2 lb (675g) of the tiniest new potatoes. Wipe them, and place on a large circle of greaseproof paper. Sprinkle with water and salt, add 2 sprigs of fresh tarragon or dill and 4oz (115g) butter, chopped into small pieces. Put another circle of greaseproof paper on the top and scrunch the edges together to make a parcel. Cook in oven for about 30 minutes and serve in a copy of the Independent.
Mary MacRae's baked sea bass with lemon and garlic
Depending on size, you will need one or two sea bass between four people. Leave the heads on, but ask the fishmonger to gut and scale the fish. Stuff the cavity with chopped parsley, coriander and 3-4 cloves of chopped garlic. Squeeze over the juice of a lemon, then 2- 3tbs extra virgin olive oil. Bake at 190C for 15 minutes or more (depending on size), basting from time to time with the garlicky lemon and olive oil juices.
warm lettuce parcels of
seafood and two noodles
1/4 packet of thin Thai or
Vietnamese rice noodles
1/2 small packet of pea-starch or 'Cellophane' noodles
1 thick stem fresh ginger 2in long
1 Webbs lettuce
1 slightly under-ripe mango
1 small carrot
a handful of basil and coriander
For the seafood: 6 scallops
6 medium-sized prawns
2-3 baby squid
8-12 clams (optional)
For the dressing: 1/2 tsp finely grated ginger
1tsp rice vinegar
3tbs peanut oil
2tbs noc nam (fish sauce)
juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cloves of garlic, bruised
Soak the noodles separately in cold water for at least 30 minutes or until soft. Drain. Cook separately in boiling water until al dente (2-3 mins for 'Cellophane' noodles and 5-7 mins for rice noodles). Rinse under cold water, drain well and stir in a few drops of oil to stop the rice noodles from sticking.
Soak the grated ginger in the rice vinegar (5 mins), then extract the juice from the mixture. Place in a jar with a lid, discarding the ginger pulp. Add the rest of the dressing ingredients, close the lid and shake well. Leave the flavours to infuse (30 mins).
Peel the piece of ginger and cut into very fine julienne strips. Deep-fry until crisp, drain on paper towel.
Peel and core the cucumber, cut into strips, salt lightly and leave to drain in a colander. Peel and cut the carrot into fine julienne strips and cut the mango into thin strips.
Slice the scallops horizontally into discs. Peel and halve the prawns lengthwise. Open and score the squids in a diamond pattern, then cut into bite- sized pieces. Mix the noodles with enough dressing to moisten. Use the rest to marinate the cucumber, mango and carrot. Put the seafood in the dressing just before serving.
Choose 4 lettuce leaves and top with the marinated noodles. Arrange first the noodles on the leaves and then the marinated vegetables. Quickly fry the seafood in very little oil until just cooked. Scatter over the lettuce parcels. Top with the fried ginger. Tear and scatter the basil and coriander over the parcels and serve.
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