Ten months since our last, Expensive Tastes’ latest event adopted a quintet of dishes inspired by the flavours and favours of one of the world’s food capitals…
It takes a very ill-informed person to not know that France’s reputation precedes it when it comes to food. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries you were not anyone of any social merit unless you had a French chef on your payroll. People like Antonin Carême and Auguste Escoffier (see pictured) revolutionised cooking as we knew it in their respective eras, and indeed their techniques and inventions still wield considerable influence in modern cookery.
Today, a French chef begins his professional training at 14 years of age. Like with many arts, it pays to start young, because it takes years upon years to perfect a technique.
I have always loved France for its food; it is a shame that I have travelled it so little. But in honour of its rich culture, beautiful language and, the aforementioned culinary reputation, I decided I would theme this year’s exhibition dinner party around this wonderful country.
Last year’s event saw the introduction of a new guest list – a few foodies in my closer circle at work and their other halves, for the most part. I could not manage to keep them away for another five-course special, the menu for which was as follows:
Frogs’ Legs in Garlic and Butter
French Onion Soup with Gruyère Cheese
Pâté de Maquereau Fumé
Smoked Mackerel Pâté
Magret du Canard aux Framboises
Duck breast in a Raspberry-infused Espagnol
Peaches with Vanilla Ice Cream and a White Chocolate and Raspberry sauce
A couple of these dishes were special, in that this is not the first Expensive Tastes dinner party they have made an appearance at. Both the French Onion Soup and the Peach Melba were no strangers to the dinner table; the soup we presented in 2014, the dessert, the year before. Aside from them, they were entirely new dishes in my repertoire, some of which were diabolically simple.
As ever, a dinner party regardless of the size, takes a number of days’ worth of preparation and planning. This time our guest list had expanded to nine people including myself – you all know the drill, invite too many people because someone will always bail. In future, ignore that drill, because if you invite the right people, they will all turn up and you then panic for 40 minutes wondering how you are going to fit them around the table! My advice is: less is more.
Day One took care of two of the simpler dishes that could be made in advance. The French Onion Soup, for which a recipe can be found here, only takes 20 minutes to prepare, give-or-take the amount of time you spend crying through all the cutting; with nine mouths to feed, it took six onions to make definitely enough. After that though, it is as simple as watch the onion rings soften and reduce before adding a load of beef stock and letting it cook through for an hour. When serving, grate a load of Gruyère cheese over the top and grill for a couple of minutes, but be mindful of how hot your bowls become.
The second dish that can be prepared in advance is the Smoked Mackerel Pâté (see pictured), a dish so simple that I shall be making it on a regular basis for all manner of gatherings and socials. All you need is four fillets of smoked mackerel per serving, skinned and roughly chopped to help get rid of any stray bones; a tub of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, a spoonful of horseradish sauce, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a blender or food processor. Literally put all your ingredients in and blitz for one, maybe two minutes. Voilà. Spoon into an attractive dish or dishes, give it a smidgeon of colour with a sprinkle of parsley, and allow your guests to serve it to themselves on some sliced baguette at their leisure.
Day Two, the actual day of the party, is where things became a little frazzling. The Magret du Canard aux Framboises – or “Duck Margaret” as I will always refer to it – was a dish that I actually ate when I was last in France in 2013. Duck and raspberries is not a combination one often thinks of and yet it works so well; so much so that the dish had to take pride of place as the meat course on this year’s menu. But do you think there’s a single site that has an English recipe for it? Think again (at least, until we publish one on here). This dish is for the pros, who have been training since they were 14 as I mentioned earlier, because this is advanced cookery, even for the likes of me.
Cooking the duck itself takes a matter of half an hour or so in total, including the shallow-frying of the skin, and this can be done while your guests are here, during their cigarette break. The raspberry-infused Espagnol sauce is a different matter altogether, as it’s a lot of transference and transformation. A three-stage system that takes a rudimentary Mirepoix of beef stock (or veal stock, depending on your standpoint), a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery, and through the adding of a number of ingredients and simmering for two hours turns it into Escoffier’s Espagnol sauce, one of his five “Mother Sauces”. All the meanwhile, you have to fry the raspberries with onions (shallots if you have them) and garlic – yes, you read that correctly – and, following the reduction of both sauces pour one into the other to make the accompaniment for your duck. Cook some chips in the roasting tin with the duck breasts – even a rookie cook will know that potatoes done in duck fat are incomparably good – and serve on the side. For extra colour and prettiness, you may want to retain a couple of raspberries per guest to decorate the duck (see pictured).
Peach Melba (see pictured) is very easy to go about making, as is the sauce, which is just a case of combining melted white chocolate with some blended raspberries and caster sugar. This is a manipulation of my own design to Escoffier’s classic dish, which only uses a pure raspberry sauce to go with the ice cream and peaches. This was served in a matter of minutes on the night, as was the starter – a major talking point before, during and after the dinner party, even between people who were not even invited.
A warning was issued with the menu when I sent it around to my guests a month before the event, that the Hors d’Œuvres of Cuisses des Grenouilles, otherwise known as Frogs’ Legs (see pictured) would be subject to change, depending on whether I could find a supplier. Fortunately for me and my reputation, I did – Ocean Classic, by name. I ordered way too many, but for the sole reason that I remembered Frogs’ Legs being neither very big nor very substantial when I first had them in 2005. The frogs I received had not skipped leg day at the gym, put it that way. I could have done without half of what I ordered.
Aside from that minor miscalculation, these were no trouble at all to cook. You could teach a child to do them, they are so easy. Butter in a wok or deep frying pan, frogs’ legs in batches shortly following. Let them fry a little before adding a lot of crushed garlic, and then a little more before adding a generous amount of parsley. They will cook quickly but they will also fall apart quite easily. The best way to serve them is in large bowls for your guests to pick at as and how they wish. They are finger food, after all. But so good; though I say it myself, my guests were pleasantly surprised.
Giving an evaluation of myself is not something I have been very good at doing – I am highly self-critical as a matter of nature. This year I believed, and guests of mine agreed, that I was in the kitchen for too much of the evening. While I feel the food was better than last year, I felt like I was hosting from the doorway a lot, and from the stove a lot. There comes a time in every socialite’s tenure where they realise their limit may have been reached when it comes to hosting. A five-course dinner for nine people, which makes for 45 servings, two dishes of which needed to be attended to during the party. I say every year, I try to build and improve on the last one, but I think going bigger is not always better. Nevertheless, to humour my vanity, I asked to be scored as usual by the guests who stayed until the end of the evening (two had to leave early due to prior commitments), and this year I scored a still-respectable 50/60, which is actually a fall of two points from last year. Back to a three-course menu for next year, but three courses I know inside-out.
And next issue, something very special for you…