The problem with immaculate presentation is it raises expectations that only the finest chefs can fulfil. Further, the trend seems to be that if the ingredient is listed in the dish description, it has to appear separately and identifiably on the plate, or the punters will be up in arms. “I thought this came garnished with Kashmiri crocus stigmas?” they moan, not content that their paella’s rich vapour and distinctive yellow hue is due to the prior infusion of said saffron.
More disturbing is the fashion of “deconstructing” a perfectly good dish into its separate ingredients and hoping a clever sauce will somehow meld the flavours together and imbue it with the resonance that good, slow, one pot cooking would have surely provided. There is a reason that certain dishes have stood the test of centuries and the chef that once provided me with a deconstructed Cassoulet de Toulouse certainly deserved beheading by the very brotherhood of French knights whose sworn duty it is to defend this dish, ( see http://www.saveur.com/article/Kitchen/Searching-For-The-Secrets-Of-Cassoulet). The excuse given? Well in these health conscious times the chef was unwilling to inflict on his public’s arteries those delicious beans which act as sponges for the duck and ham fats that make this dish so unctuous. So he served the beans on the side, boiled, with some form of warm garlic and tomato coulis, which just rolled off the beans and clashed acidly with the roast duck breast, shaving of ham hock and garlic sausage rounds. The dish looked pretty though.
Of course good looks do not preclude impressive flavour. I ate 18 times in a my 24 day stay in Beijing at the amazing Da Dong Duck.Their coffee-table book style menu includes full page photos of every one of the hundreds of dishes which all come out tasting like your best imaginings of the images’ potential if the chef was a complete genius who ruled his 150 kitchen staff with tyrannical precision. Which he was and he did. (Click on “dishes” here – http://www.dadongdadong.com/en – to a get a feeling for what I am talking about. The only reason to go to that godforsaken city!). While I have never eaten (and will sadly now never have the opportunity) at El Bulli, I have visited the Fat Duck where Heston Blumenthal’s dishes are love them or hate them but guaranteed to elicit some flavoursome reaction. And are of course exquisitely presented.
(Aside – If you share my obsession with good chefs and better ducks you may enjoy this video of Heston visiting Beijing so Da Dong can teach him how to make the perfect Peking duck – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jsc_hR47E0)
Anyway, I hope the above is adequate justification for what you are about to see. It’s not pretty I’m afraid. The only thing I do worse than food presentation is photography. However, at the request of a young American friend who is forsaking us to return to Yanquilandia, Friday night called for big, dirty flavoursome food and I was tasked with a classic Osso Bucco and fresh pasta as the main course.
The starter barely seems worth mentioning. A nice sweet honeydew melon liberally garnished with Serrano style ham. I bother however, just to take the opportunity to point out to my Buenos Aires brethren that the Fiambreria San Francisco (corner of Thames and Corrientes) provides top quality produce at half the price of anywhere else! Buy their Brie, leave it in a warm cupboard for 3 days, decline your maids urgent admonitions to cleanse the kitchen of the foul smelling beast and once it can run as fast as you, France comes to you thus saving you the money and inconvenience of the opposite course of action.
For the Osso Bucco I tweaked the classic Gordon Ramsay recipe (http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/ramsays-secrets/story-e6frefal-1111116489785). However, you can’t get veal in Argentina or at least not the pale fleshed kind from some poor animal that has spent all its life in a box and never felt the sun’s warmth before meeting an untimely demise. So you have to use the robust, fully fledged, cook for at least 4 hours until tender version. The advantage is that you don’t need to muck around making a veal stock to cook it in, as it makes its own as it goes along. If you have clicked on the recipe you will see the benefit. My strategy is simply to combine all the goodies in the veal stock recipe with all the goodies in the Osso Bucco one, cheat with a bit of chicken stock and as I wanted a generous amount of sauce for my pasta rather than the minimalist reduction Gordon requires, tip in some tomatoes and a bottle of red (for about 3 kilos of meat) after about 2 hours of cooking. The great thing about slow cooking is it allows you to layer flavours while giving them time to meld. So while I wanted to enhance the umami flavour of the mushrooms with some worcester (anchovy) or fish sauce and salt up the dish with some soya sauce, I didn’t want to lose the mushrooms texture by adding them early in the process. Fried up quickly in a pan with the added ingredients, they tasted horrible when ready to be added to the sauce but after an hour’s simmer reinforced its depth and counteracted the wines acidity. A technique that I have recently learnt at chef school is the use of cold roux for thickening sauces. Add equal parts flour to belted butter, cook up for 2 minutes and then cool and put into the fridge. When you come to use it it will be a crumbly, plastic texture and you can break it into the sauce progressively until you achieve the thickness you require. Unlike cornflour, it adds a buttery sheen and avoids the risk of uncooked floury lumps that other methods sometimes provoke.
The result? Artery clotting goodness, but sadly not enough bones to suck the marrow from.
Puddings are something I rarely eat. Other than their magnificent ice cream, Argentine preferences verge on the sickly sweet. But as I have no choice but to study Pastelería as part of my course, I went for a simple sponge and some anglo argentine flavour layering. A filling of fresh peaches, quickly cooked up in a liquid of hesperidina (bitter orange) liquor topped with the classic Eton Mess, whipped cream, strawberries and crumbled meringue.
Certainly looked a mess, but managed to be surprisingly light and fruity. Now I have to work out how to deconstruct it to rectify its hideous appearance!!