Monday, December 21, 2009
The confit chicken terrine was the most ‘cheffy’ recipe on my starters menu, and therefore the most time consuming. Because of the time they took, once I was half-way through one terrine, I’d begin making another.
The first task was to rub 30 chicken legs with salt, pepper and crushed coriander seeds and leave them overnight to draw out the moisture. The next day, you wash and dry the legs, and cook them slowly for a few hours in duck fat until the meat falls away from the bone. Some chefs say the heat should be so low, you see a bubble every 30 seconds.
You then carefully pick through the meat to remove the skin, bone and gristle. After that, you lay out overlapping slices of Parma ham (or leek skins, blanched and scraped to remove slime, if the budget is tight) on a sheet of clingfilm. You lower the sheet into the terrine mould so it covers the bottom and one side.
Then you cover the other side with more overlapping pieces of ham or leek. Next you fill the mould half-way with confit chicken meat, forcing it down to remove the air as you go along, before putting in a ‘middle layer’ for decorative purposes - shredded ham hock, or wild mushrooms fried in butter or something.
You top up the mould with more chicken, wrap the clingfilm tight, and leave it under a heavy weight overnight. I used a 10-gallon vegetable oil can, which pressed it so hard the terrine never fell apart during service. Sometimes I made a confit duck terrine interspersed with blanched green beans for colour.
It soon became my favourite dish, mainly because they were the quickest to serve - and I knew that was the way to burn Graham on sauce. The better my terrines, the more people would order them, and the more I could make him sweat.
He'd fret if a table of six came in say, with two or more terrines on it. He knew all I had to do was cut a slice of terrine, smear the presentation side with olive oil to make it shine, and nestle it on top of a small ball of dressed leaves. Sometimes I put a quenelle of prune d’Agen chutney on top, depending on the terrine, other times a sprinkling of Maldon salt crystals. No dish was complete without the squeezy bottle, and around the leaves went a square of balsamic reduction, and an inner one of green herb oil.
After a couple of weeks, I took over the starters section, and returned from a day off to find my fridge in chaos. The worst of it was the game terrine someone had made with chunks of pheasant breast and venison. It was as dry as Gandhi's sandal, and hadn’t been pressed properly because it kept falling apart when you cut it. Half-way in, I discovered a bay leaf they hadn’t bothered to take out, and that was the final straw.
“Christ who made this? It’s like trying to arrange a fucking jigsaw puzzle,” I said, pushing the pieces of meat back together on the plate.
Jules came over and prodded the terrine.
“Are you blaming the sous chef?”
I saw Stewie move into the corner of my vision.
“I’m not blaming anyone. All I’m saying is maybe the meat should have been cut up, chef."
“You don’t need to cut the meat up.”
“Well, why does it keep falling apart then chef?”
My point had been made. A couple of days later I unveiled a perfectly-pressed chicken terrine. The Parma ham looked like it had been wrapped at Harrods. Stewie was watching.
“Well try a bit, then!”
I carved him a generous slice. The mustard grain, chicken meat, and chopped herbs glistened in the winter sun. Stewie picked up the slice and threw it on my board like a spoilt child.
“Keeps falling apart chef! Wasn’t pressed properly!”
He tried again, but my terrine withstood his spiteful assaults. With ten gallons of weight overnight, my terrines were rocket-proof.
:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...