Saturday, 21 June 2014

How to be a good cook. Requirement 1 (of three)

But before we get onto that... Eme came for dinner with friends this Thursday. Eme has many friends and seems to be a bit of a social organiser; this being the sixth visit she's organised to New River Restaurant. Maybe I should start a loyalty scheme? Many thanks for the support Eme. She has this little foible of wanting to eat her desserts with a teaspoon. Little mouthfuls. I used to do something similar... making myself savour.

The main dish was cod en papillote with a lemon verbena hollandaise sauce (and potato rösti, green beans and spinach). This combination needs to be timed to the minute. The fish takes 14 minutes or so in the oven. The sauce needs to be made just before. Yes you can make Hollandaise earlier and try to keep it warm in a bowl over hot water but that risks splitting.

Cod en papillote with a lemon verbena hollandaise, spinach and rösti.
This is before the green beans were added.

So, as a solo cook. I have to put the fish in and then make the sauce just before I plate up. I cheat anyway and do it the Delia way, pouring melted butter onto reduced white wine and egg yolks while hand-blending. But should the sauce split, I'd have to make another batch... and the fish would overcook, not by much but I am a fish fetishist. Just a few minutes changes a fillet of delicate texture and flavour into one of those little, white, school rubbers. I've sent fish back many times. Most recently at Hix in London who tried to serve me a lemon sole with the texture of cotton wool! So I am a little concerned about getting it right myself.

And that's the most important attribute of cooking; of being a decent cook. Timing. You also need interest and commitment, and yes they come together. Enough interest to want to provide something beyond mere fuel and the commitment to follow through. Skill helps but you can prepare delicious food without much skill. Fish en papillote being a case in point. Doesn't matter how good your palate, how creative your flavour combinations, how impressive your knife work or boning technique; If you screw up the timing, your food's pants.

That's something I've learned over these past two years (ooh, a top tip). Never have more than two interdependent menu items. Can't be done. You need things like the potatoes and the beans that are less temporally sensitive. The rösti can be left in a warm oven for ten minutes without spoiling; the beans maybe for three. At a push, you can press an idle teenager into moving veg around a warm pan.

I used to have a menu flow diagram on the fridge for each booking, showing what needed to happen and when. Now I just have a list of the dishes, broken down into elements. I put a dash through them to show I've got them and a line through when that element is as prepared as it needs to be for the final fathering. That's another top tip: take as much as you can as far as you can. Veg can be par boiled or pre cooked. To cook green beans I use the old restaurant trick of blanching in boiling water for 90 seconds then plunging into ice water to stop the cooking. This also fixes the chrolophyl in the beans and preserves a vibrant green colour. To serve I toss them around in a little seasoned water and butter in a very hot pan. Takes two minutes max. I also use my fridge list to jot down changes to the menu and items to buy. This doesn't mean, ahem, that I've never forgotten anything. My family will tell tales of Dad's look of horror as he turns to use the marscapone/goats cheese/raspberry vinegar only to find it's not there. Thankfully, Waitrose shuts at 9 and my children are fleet of foot.

The gorilla is optional by the way.

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