In perfect order
The ultimate three-course meal; Let us discuss construction of the elusive, perfect meal: balance is paramount; texture of ingredients is an important factor, and temperature plays a big part Photograph by Jean Cazals
Saturday 09 September 1995
Balance is paramount and there are some key points to consider. Repetition is an obvious one to avoid, though a quite staggering amount of restaurant goers behave in the most curious manner. "Are you sure they want to order that, Martin?" I have said on many occasions to one of the restaurant managers at Bibendum. A particular example being snails cooked in garlic and parsley butter followed by scallops provencal, cooked with tomatoes and - you've guessed - parsley and garlic. Sometimes you just can't win.
Texture and the balance of ingredients is an important factor. Take cream, for example. A hot, creamed soup is going to make a main course of, let's say, chicken with tarragon and cream, lose its impact. And to top these dishes with a creme brulee might also be ill advised.
Temperature also plays a big part. Personally, I am much happier to start off with something cold - or at least warm - to begin a meal. It ought also to be challenging to the palate, which does not necessarily mean tricksy or convoluted. A plate of the beautiful Serrano ham, which I mentioned last week, for example, with woundingly crimson ripe figs, although simple to prepare and eat, is as flawless a plate of food as one could wish for. It is also texturally exciting, sexy on the tongue and, with the combination of savoury and sweet, deeply challenging.
At this time of year, a roast grouse comes to mind as the main course with which to follow cold lobster soup. I know this indigenous moorland creature is not available to all, but if it is of your locale, then indulge in this princely bird (I say princely because I would probably consider a woodcock to be the king of game birds; but they don't appear until later in the year).
A plainly roasted grouse - plainly meaning the use of much butter - encapsulates all there is in a principal dish: an exquisite flavour, richness and depth of tender meat, simply marvellous to behold on one's plate and an easy bird to cook. It takes about 15 minutes in a hot oven, generously basted every few minutes, and about ten minutes to rest the meat before serving. A bowl of bread sauce and a spirited bunch of the best possible watercress are the only necessary accompaniments. Perhaps a bottle of claret might go down tolerably well. Gravy does not appear naturally from a bird like this, but if you want some, then make sure that your butcher gives you the giblets. Roast them with the bird, tip out the excess fat while the grouse rests and swill the pan with port or Madeira. Cook for a minute or two until syrupy and spoon over the bird when ready to serve. By the by, I have cooked young and tender wood pigeon like this and they can be good. Similarly partridge.
Some of you may have heard that I have been known to enjoy a roast chicken from time to time. I am unsure as to what it is that weaves me to a notion that it truly is, without question, the last dish I would do without before all others. There is a purity about roast chicken that is difficult to dispute. Many agree with me when I own up to my mild obsession. Sometimes I think it is nostalgia for times past, when chicken was considered a luxury lunch. Once it became the ubiquitous creature it is today, the easy roasting of a chicken was forgotten in favour of giving those tired joints a quick saute with peppers and tomatoes and serving it with wet Uncle Ben's. Go on, put a good chicken back in the oven, and experience what you have been missing.
For dessert, a bowl of late season Scottish raspberries would go down a treat. More about those next week.
Chilled lobster gazpacho, serves 4
This soup could be made with prawns or perhaps crab meat. However, the depth of sweet lobster flavour due to the infusion of shells would be sorely missed.
2 x 1lb live lobsters (ask for hen lobsters - they have a better flavour)
2tbsp tarragon vinegar
4tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
the shells of the lobsters
4-5 slices of fresh ginger
1 clove of garlic, crushed
570mls/1pint tomato passatta
275mls/12 pint water
3 sprigs fresh tarragon roughly chopped
12 green pepper, chopped
12 red pepper, chopped
12 cucumber, peeled and chopped
1 small red onion, peeled and chopped
2tbsp tarragon vinegar
a few shakes Tabasco
150mls/5fl oz whipping cream
for the garnish
1tbsp each finely chopped red and green pepper, red onion, cucumber and tomato flesh
very thin croutons cut from a baguette, smeared with olive oil, crushed garlic and parsley, then baked in a moderate oven until crisp and golden
a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
a little chopped tarragon
Ask your fishmonger to kill the lobsters and cut them in half, or do it yourself if you feel brave enough. Remove the stomach sac which lies in the head and also the central grey digestive tract. Crack the claws with the back of a heavy knife.
Put each lobster on a deep plate and spoon over the vinegar and oil. Season. Cook separately, in two batches, in a steamer for 15 minutes. Remove and cool slightly. Lift the flesh from the carapace and put on to a plate to cool. Tip the shells and every scrap of their juices into a pan. Add the rest of the ingredients in part 2. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for 45 minutes. Strain into a deep bowl through a colander and leave to drip for ten minutes or so. Add all the ingredients of part 3, except the cream. Liquidise in batches until very smooth and pass through a sieve into yet another bowl. Stir in the cream, check for seasoning and chill for at least three hours. Pour into chilled shallow soup plates, add the lobster flesh cut into chunks and sprinkle over the diced vegetable garnish. Arrange the croutons around the edge of the plates, drizzle with a little olive oil and scatter with the chopped tarragon.
Roast Chicken, serves 4
110g/4oz softened butter
1.8 kilo/4lb free-range chicken
salt and pepper
juice of 1 lemon
several sprigs of fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and bashed
1 glass of dry white wine
3tbsp jellied chicken stock (home-made or from the supermarket)
Pre-heat the oven to 450F/200C/gas mark 8.
Smear the butter all over the chicken and season well. Put the bird in a solid-bottomed roasting dish (Le Creuset is ideal) and squeeze over the lemon. Put the two halves of lemon inside the chicken cavity, along with the thyme and garlic. Pour in the wine and spoon in the stock. Roast in the oven for ten to 15 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 375F/190C/gas mark 5. Continue roasting for a further 45 to 60 minutes. It is inadvisable to baste the chicken when "wet roasting" as the liquid can make the skin soggy.
When the skin is crisp and a rich golden colour, skewer the thigh and look for clear juices. Lift the chicken and tip the juices, thyme, garlic and lemon into the roasting dish. Put the bird on a serving plate. Keep warm in the oven (switched off), with the door ajar. Allow to rest for at least ten minutes before carving.
Squash the lemon around the roasting dish to extract any remaining flavour, and discard. Put the dish directly on the heat and, with a whisk, dislodge and incorporate any clingy browned particles into the roasting juices. If the liquid is looking a bit sparse, add a little water. Allow this "gravy" (it should not necessarily be homogenous; more of a mingle of buttery, winey juices) to simmer for a few minutes and then strain through a sieve into a small pan. Check for seasoning - although it always seems to be spot on - heat through, and pour into a sauce boat, or one of those jolly blue striped jugs for that traditional farmhouse look
Wines of the week
Tesco's French promotion ends on Monday, and one of its more attractive discounts is the 1993 Domaine Lapiarre, Bergerac Sec, a grassy, Bordeaux-style white down from pounds 3.99 to pounds 3.49. Somerfield's promotion winds up a day later. Best buys are the soft, tobaccoey 1993 I Grilli di Villa Thalia, Calatrasi, cut from pounds 3.65 to pounds 2.95, an unoaked Sicilian blend of the local nero d'avola with an international cast of cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and syrah; and the 1994 Berri Estates Unwooded Chardonnay, pounds 3.99 (was pounds 4.49), a thirst-quenchingly fruity, unoaked Australian chardonnay.
Rosemount's 1994 Hunter Valley Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, Safeway, is a more exotic, melon and citrus chardonnay with a dollop of Ben & Jerry's vanilla fudge-style oakiness. Safeway's promotion ends next Saturday and includes a cut in the price of the dry, highly drinkable 1994 Philippe de Baudin Sauvignon Blanc from pounds 4.49 to pounds 3.99, while at pounds 4.99, Penfold's fine 1993 Organic Chardonnay Sauvignon has pounds 1 lopped off.
Equally attractively priced, the 1993 Rowanbrook Chardonnay Reserve, pounds 4.99, Asda, is a complex, beautifully oaked, buttery Chilean chardonnay with crisp, refreshing acidity. Similar - it many even be the same wine - is the 1993 Canepa Oak Aged Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, Tesco.
The 1994 Cotes du Rhone Rose, Jamet, pounds 5.99, Majestic, is interesting not just because it's made from declassified Cote Rotie, but this spicy, 100 per cent, syrah is full-bodied and dry, a perfect autumnal aperitif or food rose. And from Oddbins, well-priced at under pounds 4, the 1993 Palacio de la Vega Cabernet Tempranillo, pounds 3.99, is a ripe Navarra blend with the emphasis on vibrant cassis and blackberry flavours
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