Merry Christmas and a Happy New Sphere (Part 3)

Okay, this post actually has nothing to do with spheres, I just like the pun and I want to use it as much as possible. This post is about what I cooked for New Year’s Eve, one of my most delicious yet simple dinners to date.

The first course was inspired by a dish I had in Paris, of langoustines baked inside little ceramic pots with red wine and butter, topped with little rounds of toasty brioche. Owing to slim pickings at Sainsbury’s, I had to swap out the langoustines for lemon sole (they had NO shellfish except pre-cooked prawns!) and the pots for ramekins, but never mind all that, because the dish turned out nearly perfectly. It was always my intention to use soy sauce and sake in place of the red wine, and I topped it with a bit of challah and a poached duck egg. It was a gorgeous, buttery, umami mess. And it couldn’t be simpler to make: Get your oven on to 200ºC/400ºF and skin four fillets of lemon sole or other flatfish. Chop ’em up. Rub a couple ramekins liberally with butter, then press the sole into them, but not too firmly. Top with a nice chunk of butter, then a little splash of sake, and a littler splash of soy sauce. Slice challah to form a cap on the ramekin. Bake for about 15-20 minutes. The butter, sake, and soy sauce all melt together and flood into the fish, and it is so so so good. While the fish is baking, poach a duck egg. Keep the yolk runny! Fish comes out of the oven, egg goes on top of the toast, a little grind of pepper and course one is done. For a dish with only six ingredients, the flavor is huge, and I’ll bet if you use cornbread instead of challah it would be even better.

For the main course I decided to try my hand at one of Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes: Salmon Poached in a Liquorice Gel. Now, I knew I would never be able to perfectly recreate this dish, even though it is one of his less complicated recipes, because it involved ingredients that were simply impossible to get at such short notice (and would have been a bit extravagant at any time): black truffles, 15 year old Balsamic vinegar, transglutaminase, two kinds of gellan, etc. Not to mention the equipment – I would have needed a vacuum sealer and a thermal immersion bath to really do this recipe right. Luckily, that was never my intention: I just wanted to test out what seemed like unlikely but potentially mind-blowing flavor combinations, namely salmon + licorice + vanilla + grapefruit.

What I wound up doing was simply making a seared salmon dish with a semi-set licorice sauce instead of the gel, but other than that, and the missing truffle, the dish was more or less the same as it appeared in the Fat Duck cookbook, and none too difficult. First, get your sauce going. Pour a bottle of stout into a pot with a little bit of water, a little bit of soy sauce, and some powdered dashi. For the licorice, I’d recommend pure licorice if you can get it; I used soft licorice candy, and it wasn’t quite strong enough and didn’t dissolve properly. Anyway, chop up a good handful of licorice and toss it in the pot and simmer everything. When the licorice is nicely incorporated (use a hand blender if you have to) and everything is simmering, add a leaf of gelatin and cook a while longer.

Next, prep your garnishes. Peel some asparagus (or don’t – I didn’t) taking off just the outermost green layer, leaving the tops intact. Scrape out a vanilla pod and mix the seeds with about two heaped tablespoons of good mayonnaise, or better yet, make your own mayonnaise. Put 250ml or so of Balsamic vinegar in a pan and reduce into a thick, black syrup. Now comes the tricky part, but it actually is worth the effort, and it doesn’t have to be perfect – your home is not a Michelin-starred restaurant, so chill out! Get a nice, ripe pink grapefruit. Peel it carefully. Strip away the outer membrane from a segment, and gently tease out the individual cells without breaking them. Using a toothpick or a paring knife or tweezers, separate each individual cell from the segment. Discard any broken cells. You’ll need about one segment worth of cells per plate.

Finally, let’s cook. Get yourself a nice big hunk of salmon and get the skin off and the bones out. Heat some good olive oil or avocado oil in a pan until it’s nice and hot, but not smoking. Sear the salmon on both sides for about 4-5 minutes, cooking for 8-9 minutes in total. Meanwhile, sauté the asparagus in olive oil in a lidded frying pan, so they steam as they sauté. It will take about the same amount of time as the salmon, but less time if you did peel them. To plate, streak a little vanilla mayo on one side of the plate, and place a little patch of grapefruit cells along the other. In the middle, spatter a bit of the Balsamic reduction. Rest the asparagus across the plate, then rest the salmon across the asparagus. Spoon on some licorice sauce, season to taste, and you’re done.

And it was good – the combination worked, and in fact it was the vanilla mayonnaise that really tied everything together. I loved how the different elements offset and underscored each other without becoming lost or muddled. It was surprisingly subtle, too, and I can only imagine how good it would be if prepared by the man himself.

Lastly, dessert. The dessert didn’t turn out quite right, if I’m honest, but it still tasted nice, so here it is. Coconut milk, milk, sugar, cream, and vanilla in a pan. Bring it to a boil. Add a leaf or two of gelatin and stir to dissolve. Break up some white chocolate into smallish chunks in a bowl, then pour on the hot coconut mixture and allow to melt. Whisk gently to dissolve any remaining chunks. Cool in the fridge for a good two hours. Meanwhile, chop up a couple ribs of rhubarb. Simmer them with lime juice, rose water, water, and sugar until very soft and syrupy, then allow to cool. Whip some cream to soft peaks, then fold into the coconut white chocolate to form a light mousse. Allow to set in the fridge for another two hours. To assemble, break up some ginger cookies and place them at the bottom of bowls or glasses. Sprinkle in some dessicated coconut, then add a spoonful of the rhubarb compote. Fill with the coconut white chocolate mousse, and top with more compote and more coconut.

Simple, yes, but I still managed to screw it up! What went wrong: I didn’t give the gelatin enough time to set, so the mousse turned out more like a kind of thick eggnog. But hey, ain’t nothin’ wrong with eggnog! We cleaned our teacups just the same, and rang in the New Year with satisfied stomachs, expensive sake, moderately priced beer, and cheap champagne.

MMXI will be MMXIting.

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