Monday, December 21, 2009

Royal Terrines

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...

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Oh Broth Where Art Thou?

As soon as I stopped working, the tiredness set in and the chest infection that had been brewing turned into full-blown gammon flu (it started off as swine flu, but then I got cured).

I lay in bed wheezing, flicking through the latest cookery books. All the celebrity chefs had Christmas books out - 101 recipes for Brussels sprouts, and all that useful advice about how turkey leg meat takes longer than breast meat. Masterchef’s John Torode even had one just on beef or something. It was already half price.

Then I got a text message from Jules, saying the "air had been cleared with Graham" whatever that meant, and I could return to work. I didn't really want to go back to the heat, stress and long hours, but I missed it somehow, and besides I couldn't think of anything else to do with my life.

When I walked through the kitchen door, half expecting a punch from Graham, I glanced over to my station and spotted Marcus making mash - using my special sieve. He had a smarmy look about him too.

“I’m on veg now,” he said.

It had all been decided in my absence. I was to move onto starters under the guidance of Stewie, and then after a couple of weeks take over the section myself. Graham was being moved to sauce, cooking the meat and fish for mains.

I looked over to where Marcus was trimming broccoli into florets, and asked whether he’d remembered the parsnip chips. I knew that section inside out.

Graham turned up the next morning, and we were shoved together and made to shake hands. Something had changed - he appeared less arrogant than usual. He barely spoke for the rest of the day. Running the grill was new territory for him, and he was nervous about messing things up.

One night, I gave Stewie a lift home, and we chatted about how I was finding it on starters. He looked at me and smiled.

“You know, now Graham's learning something new...and in the same boat as you...”

He let the sentence float. I frowned, trying to read him for clues.

“If you get fast at it, I mean, well, after all the things he’s said and done to you…

I still didn't know what he was burbling on about.

"For fuck's sake," he said finally. "You can really BURN HIM! Churn out the starters! Force him to ask you to slow down – that’s when you’ll really know you’ve got him. He said the same thing to me when I started on sauce; he said ‘I’m gonna BURN you!’ But there was no way he was going to get me on sauce! But, now’s your chance...”

From that day, I made it my mission to get as fast as I could. Everything would still look good – I’d only take the short-cuts I could get away with – but the dishes would fly out as fast as those waitresses could carry them.

To make my job harder, the starters changed after the first week. Out went the boudin blanc (no doubt a throwback to the AA visit), the goat's cheese wontons, the scallops with pea veloute and white truffle oil, the confit duck terrine, and sun-dried tomato risotto.

In came tuna nicoise, scallops with vierge sauce, home-made gravlax with buckwheat blinis, smoked salmon salad, goat’s cheese parcels with sweet chilli relish, game terrine, confit duck spring rolls, and a butternut squash soup with curry oil and vegetable samosa garnish.

The restaurant was half-empty - most of our trade had gone up the road to the Rosie - so to drum up business we started offering a two-course specials menu for £12. The owner, worried about the £5 credit crunch lunch down at the Eel, wanted to cut the price to £9.95 and include dishes like sausage and mash. But Jules convinced him we’d lose our precious Rosette if we went down that route.

I had some control over the menus. There were three starters and three mains on the specials, and they had to be cheap to make. And pretty soon they were all I was making - gravlax, confit chicken terrine, smoked salmon salad, confit duck risotto, goat’s cheese parcels, and always a soup.

The soup varied between game consommé (made from the pheasant carcasses) with tagliatelle of yellow and orange carrot; mushroom soup with a morel-infused cappuccino foam; and cauliflower and smoked garlic soup with herb oil. The most popular was a tomato soup I made out of red onions and tinned tomatoes. It was described on the menu as roasted tomato soup, even though it hadn't been near an oven.

I would make enough of each soup to fill two four-litre containers. I’d start by simmering a white mirepoix of onions, celery, garlic and leeks (white parts only) over a low heat for 30 minutes. Then I’d add three or four bay leaves, and water. Once it was simmering, the relevant vegetable went in - broccoli, cauliflower, or butternut squash - then I’d remove from the heat as soon as the vegetables were cooked.

Once cooled, I fished out the bay leaves, whizzed the soup in a blender, and poured the puree through a fine sieve. I always asked to use Marcus’s secret sieve for that, knowing how much he feared to lose it.

I was told to season the soup at the end. I’d add a pinch or two of salt and black pepper, and then repeat until just right. Adding salt in gradual stages has a peculiar effect on a soup – it suddenly turns from an amalgam of lost tastes, to a clear flavour in just a few granules of salt. (If you're interested, there is a section on it in Herve This's book Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour. He did an experiment with salt by giving people seasoned and unseasoned soups. Without the salt, they found it difficult identifying the dominant soup flavour.)

I'd then make the garnishes. For the mushroom soup, you infused three or four dried morels in hot milk, whisked it up, and spooned white foam over the soup to get a cappuccino effect. Then you sprinkled it with mushroom dust, made by drying wild mushroom stalks under the lights. For the broccoli soup garnish, you made a smooth paste of Roquefort cheese and lemon juice, and spread it over a crouton. For the cauliflower, you deep-fried a basil leaf and laid it on top in a circle of herb oil.

But the prettiest by far was the game consommé. You put a small ball of spinach in the middle of a wide, shallow soup bowl, stuck a ball of yellow and orange carrot tagliattelle on top, and carefully poured the soup round it.

The butternut squash soup went on the a la carte menu and was more complicated. It came with a miniature vegetable samosa and curry oil. You put a dab of filling - curried onion and mashed potato - on one end of a strip of spring roll wrapper, and folded it into a triangle.

You made the curry oil by toasting, then grinding coriander seeds, cumin seeds, a piece of cinnamon stick, mace, turmeric, cayenne pepper and curry powder. It came out a vibrant yellow colour.

Like the herb, lemon, port, and balsamic reductions I used for other garnishes, it was kept in a squeezy bottle. A gastro-pub isn’t anything without doodles on plates. That was the difference between us and the £5 lunches at the Eel -a few pence of oil thrown on by some cack-handed Banksy.