VERY occasionally I present you, dear readers, with something a bit cheffy.
It’s in my nature, I’m afraid, and after almost 25 years of cooking for a living I’m not going to apologise for an occasional indulgence.
If I was to have any regrets about my career, it’s that I perhaps went it alone a little too soon, and missed out on doing the usual tour of the good kitchens as many chefs do, working six months here and eight months there, picking up the techniques and recipes required to formulate a personal manifesto and vision for one’s own place.
Much of my repertoire is self-taught, or borrowed from books and such, and as a result I do find myself feeling quite envious of many chefs and their mastery of some really quite intricate skills.
Of course, these skills are only a means of getting great food onto a plate; one must have great ingredients and the ideas in the mind of how to put these elements together.
So, it’s usually with a slight tinge of technical envy that I tune in to the annual San Pellegrino World Restaurant Awards, which have just been announced for 2012.
Now that Ferran Adria has closed elBulli, which was, in my mind, one of the most important and significant restaurants in history, there is a flurry of activity between the also-rans to claim top spot.
Heston Blumenthal’s ground-breaking Fat Duck is always up there, as is Luis Andoni Aduriz’s amazing San Sebastian restaurant Mugaritz, and US chef Thomas Keller’s brace of amazing eateries, The French Laundry and Per Se.
But above them all stands Copenhagen’s astonishing Noma, run by genius, genial chef Rene Redzepi.
It is an outstanding example of modern cooking – using nothing grown outside Scandinavia (no olive oil or oranges ever see the menu here), and involving plenty of wild and foraged foods.
Venison is a mainstay, as are lake fish. Bewildering ingredients such as reindeer moss, sea buckthorn berries, pine needles and bulrushes appear alongside pure, clean flavours of yoghurt, buttermilk, home-made vinegars and nuts to make up a menu that’s unlike anything else on earth.
The ideas of starter, main and dessert are thrown away – instead a procession of courses, each working as a progression of flavours, is offered to the table. Sweet and savoury often appear on the same plate.
For a chef, this is a whole new way of thinking. I’m a little bit obsessed. I’m also glad that, while there are many chefs who prefer the traditional, there are a few who don’t and try to break new ground.
Like painting, it would be a boring world if everything looked like a Turner. We need our Mondrians and Dalís to spice things up.
And so, I thought I’d have a crack at a dish I’ve been eyeing up for a while – the signature ‘vegetable garden’.
It’s a simple concept – baby vegetables seemingly growing out of an edible soil, made with malt flour and dark beer, which hides a layer of smooth horseradish-infused potato puree.
I have to say, for a top-end recipe, it’s pretty easily done, and although a few elements are a wee bit faffy, the end result will be so satisfying you’ll forget the time it took.
I’ve adapted the original recipe slightly, as the malt soil didn’t really cook the way I wanted it to, and access to fresh horseradish isn’t something everyone can gain easily.
Also, don’t worry – if you can’t find any baby vegetables, use thin slices and angled shards of regular veg, plus a few blanched leaves and plenty of herbs and flowers – I assure you it’ll still look amazing with them emerging from the soil!
A combination of simple carrots, turnips and asparagus will look just as good. Aprons on!
For the soil:
80g plain flour
20g malt flour (or malted wholemeal flour)
40g freshly-ground hazelnuts
4tsp unrefined dark muscovado sugar
2 tbsps dark ale (I used Theakston’s Old Peculier)
2 tbsps melted butter
½ a malt loaf (Soreen), diced
For the horseradish mash:
160g potatoes (Desirée for example)
8 tbsps double cream
2 tsp horseradish sauce (not creamed)
A little Maldon salt
For the vegetables:
Baby carrots (different colours if possible)
Baby pak choi
Baby mooli or icicle radishes
Fresh peas in pods or sugarsnaps, split to reveal the peas
Baby leeks or spring onions
A few edible flowers (e.g. nasturtiums, meadowsweet, woodruff, garlic, rosemary)
Some nice leafy herbs (tarragon, burnet, oregano, chervil, fennel)
A little salted butter and water, warmed
Make the soil first, as it’s a bit of a long job. Quickly whizz all the ingredients except the butter in a food processor until you have a breadcrumb texture.
Spread out thinly onto a baking tray and bake, turning occasionally and re-smoothing, for about six hours at 80ºC or in the lowest oven possible. #Careful if it’s higher than 80º not to burn the soil as it’s drying.
When the soil has darkened to a nice deep colour, melt the butter and stir in to give a crumbly soil-like effect, and reserve until needed.
To prepare the vegetables, set a large pan of well-salted water to simmer, and blanch and refresh the individual veg as you prefer – the leaves and baby asparagus should require no longer than a few seconds, the carrots and turnips a little longer.
Plunge the veg into icy water to halt the cooking, and dry on tea towels until required.
Now for the horseradish potato purée; reduce the cream by half in a small pan.
Peel and boil the potatoes until tender, then pass through a mouli or sieve to obtain a smooth puree.
Stir in the cream, the horseradish and the butter and whip together to amalgamate.
Test for seasoning and add salt if necessary. Just before serving, warm the puree, and heat the butter and a splash of water to finish the vegetables.
To assemble the dish, spoon a little puree into each bowl or onto each plate.
Place the vegetables together in a pleasing arrangement and then spoon over enough malt soil to cover the purée.
Finally, garnish with herb fronds and flowers and serve.