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Sleepy-People's dinner

As promised in the weblog, here's the menu and recipes for the big dinner I cooked for twenty anæsthetists, just before Xmas 2003:



Main courses:



Pea & parmesan soup

This is embarrassingly easy. Cook a packet of frozen peas, three minutes in just enough boiling water to cover. Put peas & cooking water into a blender, and whizz smooth. Empty the blender into the saucepan, and add an equivalent quantity of stock (chicken or vegetable - either one works fine). Heat gently, and stir in grated parmesan, 100g for every pound of peas (and yes, I know I'm mixing my measurements, but it's okay, the food won't be offended). Stir till the cheese is thoroughly incorporated. Don't boil, but serve hot in warmed shot glasses.

Confit of quail on oven toast with bread sauce and Cumberland sauce

By contrast, this is strictly for those who like fiddling mightily for small results. Take four quail, rub them with salt and aromatics (thyme, juniper, bay...) and leave them overnight. Then immerse them in goose or duck fat and cook very, very slowly for an hour or two, until the meat is almost ready to fall off the bones. Take them out, drain them, let them cool then pull off all the meat.

Make bread sauce: in a pan, heat a pint of milk with two ounces of butter, three or four peeled shallots, a clove of garlic, a bay leaf, a few cloves and a grate of nutmeg. Simmer for half an hour, then pick out the bay leaf and as many cloves as you can find, and whizz the rest smooth in a food processor. Stir in six or eight ounces of breadcrumbs and return to the heat, cooking for a few minutes more; at this stage, stir in a splash or two of cream if you like.

Make Cumberland sauce: add the zest and juice of an orange and a lemon to 150g of redcurrant jelly, 50ml of port, a teaspoonful of dry mustard, a finely chopped shallot and a slug of cider vinegar. Simmer low and slow, stirring till the jelly has dissolved, then boil gently for ten or fifteen minutes until the sauce thickens. Cool, and refrigerate.

Or, of course, buy a jar of Cumberland sauce. It won't be the same, but hey...

Spread bread sauce thickly on thin slices of good bread (I used a pain de campagne, made with a wild yeast). Scatter quail-meat generously over, then cut into small squares. Dot each square with a little of the sauce, put them on a baking tray and slide into a hot oven for ten minutes or so, till the bread is crisp and the whole is hot enough to burn your fingers and your guests' mouths. Serve with paper napkins, and tell them it's all of Xmas in a mouthful. Worth it, truly.

Cold poached salmon with cucumber mousse

I love poaching big fish. Doesn't work with small ones, I tried and they overdo; but anything of any size, it's utterly reliable and the world's best fun. That's an exaggeration, okay? I do that, I exaggerate for effect; wouldn't want you to think that bringing water to the boil was really my idea of unsurpassable delight. But it really is that easy, so long as you have a pan big enough to take your fish. Or your piece of fish: whole fish are more satisfying, but in this instance I used the barrel of a ten-pound salmon. A friend had the tail section, and the cats got the head. O happy cats - I think they must have slept with it, by the way they smelled next morning.

Anyway: fill your pan with enough water just to cover the fish. Add a glassful of white wine, a dozen peppercorns, a couple of bayleaves, a few sprigs of thyme, any other aromatics you fancy; ginger is also good with salmon. Bring the water to the boil and keep it at a gentle simmer for just two minutes, then slap on a lid, turn off the heat and leave it overnight. Come the morning, take out the fish, lift off the skin and you've got perfect poached flesh all the way through to the backbone.

Cucumber mousse is becoming a staple in this house, and one of the reasons is that, like the poached fish, you make it the day before. Any way to take the pressure off rates high in my book. All my friends have seen me under pressure, I go all cheffy, and there's no need for it. So: peel a cucumber and quarter it lengthwise, take out the seeds and dice it small. Sprinkle with crunchy salt and a couple of tablespoons of tarragon vinegar, put it in a colander with a weight on top and leave it for an hour or two. This squeezes out most of the liquid, and squeezes in flavour; it's impressive how much of the tarragon stays around.

Dissolve a packet of gelatine in hot water (I suppose you could use leaf gelatine, but this is one of the rare occasions when I come over all parsimonious: leaf costs six times as much as powdered, and I can't taste the benefit), then whisk in half a pint of double cream. When it's rich and gloopy but not yet stiff, add a pound of ricotta, and then the cucumber. Another splash of tarragon vinegar, black pepper, lots of chopped herbs - chives, parsley, more tarragon (French, puh-lease, not that Russian hay) - and spring onion, a red variety if you can get it just to contrast with all this greenery. Turn it into an oiled mould and leave in the fridge overnight.

To serve, dip briefly into very hot water and it should flomp out smoothly onto a plate. Come dinner time, another reason we love it here is that it makes a stand-alone starter for any vegetarians who turn up; just just make it with vegetarian gelatine, give them no fish and first shout at the bread basket, and they'll be happy.

Smoked salmon stuffed with a smoked trout mousseline

Starters don't come easier than this (unless you want to smoke your own fish; I have a friend who does, but it calls for skills beyond the kitchen, so ask elsewhere). I used to mould little hemispheres of smoked salmon in espresso-cups, but it's too much faff these days.

For the mousseline, put a pound of full-fat cream cheese into a food processor, add a splash of milk to loosen it, and whizz it smooth. Break into it a few fillets of hot-smoked trout, add a lot of dill, black pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice, and whizz again. It's nice if some of the trout stays chunky. Taste and add more of anything you want. Then spoon the mixture onto slices of smoked salmon, and roll or fold them up into parcels or any pleasing shape. You could tie them around with a chive if you wanted. I usually scatter a few salad leaves around; I used to make a dressing with strawberries, raspberry vinegar, walnut oil, ginger and coriander, but that was long ago.

Cassoulet of lamb with chicken sausage and confit of duck's leg

Specially created not to offend sensibilities, a cassoulet without pork. Personally I think that sentence needs an alas at the end of it, but hell, one rises to the occasion. Again this is a dish to make in advance, but this time you can start days, weeks, even months ahead.

I believe you can buy confit in jars, but why on earth would you want to? It's gloriously easy to make yourself. As for the quail above, rub duck-legs with salt and aromatics, and leave overnight. Melt lots of duck or goose fat in a pot; add the duck legs, making sure that they are all covered by the fat, and simmer very, very slowly for an hour or two, until the duckmeat is only just holding on to the bone. Remove from heat, and if you're going to use it within the week you can just leave it like that. If there's any duck sticking up above the surface, wait till the fat's set and then pour on more till you have a lovely smooth white surface. You can keep it in the fridge, but you don't need to; anywhere cool will do. The seal of fat preserves the meat. If you want to lay it down for months, then take the duck out of the fat, wait till it's cooled and separate the juices that you'll find at the bottom of the pan. Don't discard them, they make a gorgeous gravy. Then melt the fat again and pour it over the duck legs to cover. I kept one batch over six months, by virtue of forgetting about it.

So that's the confit. To start the cassoulet, soak white beans overnight two days before dinner (NB, no quantities given; I was cooking for two dozen, and I just made lots). Next day, boil them till tender with thyme and bay leaves. Drain them, but preserve the liquid. Then brown some lamb - on and off the bone: I used one chop and some chunks of boned-out leg per person - in olive oil, and then some good chicken sausages - or revert to authenticity and use Toulouse sausages, if pork won't upset anyone. Slice equal quantities of onion and fennel and fry those with some garlic, then add the lamb, the sausages and stock to cover, and simmer till the lamb is tender. Add the beans and leave it overnight.

Next day, simmer it gently all together while you crisp up the confit duck in a hot oven. Serve with red cabbage, pickled walnuts and walnut bread.

Smoked haddock risotto with goat's cheese and scallops

Poach a fillet of smoked haddock (the good stuff, naturally smoked - don't ever buy the bright yellow dyed stuff) in a little milk until it's just ready to flake. Meanwhile, chop half a dozen shallots finely and simmer them in olive oil. Add whole button mushrooms - if you cut them up it won't hurt the taste, but you'll have a grey dinner - and fry for a couple of minutes. Then add risotto rice - carnaroli, arborio, like that - and fry for a minute before pouring in a glass of dry white wine. Stir constantly. When the wine has evaporated, add fish-stock (which you have made yourself; any decent fishmonger will give you bones & heads) a ladleful at a time, still stirring, and adding the next ladle only when the last has been absorbed. This brings out the sticky starchy quality of the rice, which we are looking for.

Just as it's coming up to being ready - as you like it, obviously: I have a friend who reckons risotto rice should be soft as mashed potato, but I like it al dente, with a little bite at the heart of the grain - stir in handfuls of chopped herbs. Parsley, dill, chives, fennel, whatever you like with fish, but lots. Use the poaching milk from the haddock as your last dash of liquid, and stir in the haddock gently, not to break up the flakes.

Top each serving with a grilled slice of goat's cheese from a round, and serve with seared scallops - no more than a minute a side, please; the overdone scallop is a desecration - and braised lettuce hearts.

Chocolate cranberry trifle

Beat two eggs with two tablespoons of caster sugar taken from 100g, then beat in 500g of mascarpone and two tablespoons of double cream. Melt 150g of good dark chocolate with a high cocoa factor, and beat that in.

Put 150g of cranberries into a pan with 150ml water and the rest of the sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for a few minutes; you want whole berries and a syrupy liquor. Leave to cool.

Break up a dozen soft amaretti, and scatter them into the bases of half a dozen tumblers. Sprinkle with the liqueur of your choice, then divide the cranberries between them. Spoon the chocolate mascarpone mixture on top.

Melt 100g of white chocolate. Beat 250g of double cream till it peaks softly, then beat in the white chocolate. Spoon that on top, reserving some to lick up with your finger.

Chill overnight.

Chestnut cream

Traditional recipes for this oh-so-traditional dessert talk about equal weights of chestnut purée and sugar, but I find that tooth-screechingly sweet. Try this instead: take a tin of unsweetened chestnut purée, add half the weight of caster sugar and heat the two slowly, stirring constantly, until all the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has gone much darker and softer. Set aside to cool, and whip half a pint of cream with a couple of tablespoons of vanilla sugar (which of course you make yourself; look, all you need is a container, some caster sugar and a vanilla pod, okay? Bring all three together, with the container on the outside, and leave well alone for a month. As you use the sugar, top up the container and give it a shake. It'll keep going for years before you even wonder whether you need a new vanilla pod in there). Take a wine glass, put in a dollop of the chestnut and a dollop of the cream, and then again with the cream on top of the chestnut and vice versa, and twizzle with a chopstick so that they mingle without mixing. Scatter toasted flaked almonds on top, and do another. And another, and...

And that's it, apart from coffee, petits fours, marrons glacées, chocolates...

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