Turf War

The Spring Meal

Turf is not normally top of a list of ingredients for the average dinner party but Mallards’ meals aren’t meant to be average dinner parties. This time we were keen to introduce an element which wasn’t just food to help to lift the meal to a different level and because we had decided on a ‘Spring’ theme for the meal using nature seemed logical. We hadn’t quite anticipated that this would involve carrying about 200 kilos of garden turf into the kitchen but life is full of fun surprises. The original plan had been to turf the dining room floor but we discounted that as being obviously ridiculous and settled for just turfing the dinner table. The rest of the dinner had gone up in ambition as well, the lineup was as follows, the name after the course indicates which of us cooked which:

  1. Edible Garden with Vegetables and a Meatfruit Mandarin (David)
  2. Trio of Carpaccios: Fillet Beef, Beetroot and Tuna (Tom)
  3. Lamb Noisette stuffed with Kidney and Wild Mushrooms with Celeriac Puree, Purple Sprouting Broccoli and a Red Wine and Mint Sauce (Olly)
  4. hortbread with Poached Rhubarb Jelly, Rhubarb Cream and a Rhubarb Crisp (Joint)
  5. Sweet Sandwiches and Peanutbutterchocolate Truffles (Joint)

This post will be a bit more food orientated so I’ll talk you through a couple of recipes that we did for the meal. We didn’t take many photos of the food as it was being done so I’ll have to paint you a picture with words…

‘Lady garden’ and Meatfruit

This meal was exclusively for women so Olly suggested calling the first course the ‘ladygarden’, I refuse to either endorse or condone the name I’ll leave that up to you. The edible garden and meatfruit mandarin was the course I had decided to do; I would later come to regret my ambitions just as Tom had his in the first meal. Basically having watched too many of Heston’s Feasts on Channel4 doing an extravagant and exciting dish like this seemed like a great idea.  Sadly we don’t have an army of highly skilled underlings to carry out our designs to exacting specifications. We do have three amateurs, a broken oven and an occasionally functioning hob.

The Dinner Table

The edible garden essentially comprises of three different components:

1.      The undersoil

2.      The topsoil

3.      The vegetables

The undersoil is basically a bread sauce with a load of herbs in, it provides easy bulk to the garden and means you don’t have to make about four hundred times the amount of topsoil as you would otherwise. Any bread sauce recipe will serve you well, just through a load of herbs through it as well to try and give it a bit more flavour. You could add anchovies as Heston does but I was concerned about the powerful flavour clashing with the miso paste (see below) so I didn’t add any.

The topsoil is the stuff which looks like dirt. Having researched this to an alarming depth there appeared to be three different ways to tackle edible dirt. The first option came from Denmark, Rene Redzepi of Noma fame, and is almost a crumble mix made from various flours, some butter and beer. (The recipe can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/apr/18/rene-redzepi-noma-foraging). The second method was from Heston’s Feasts series, this one is made of chopped dried olives, pumpkin seeds and grapenuts. (A video of him making it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnF6VZYQsDo). I spent a lot of time trying to find out what the fuck grapenuts actually were only to discover it’s just a different name for peanuts. The last way I found online was using miso paste. This involves drying it the paste in the oven at a low temperature for a long time, you can then blitz it to make it look like soil. (http://www.winosandfoodies.com/2010/06/edible-dirt-recipe.html). Bearing in mind costs (we have about 3-4 pounds per person per course) and the ease of each recipe I opted for the last option.

It initially seemed pretty basic, I mean you’d have to be a pretty stupid to screw up just leaving something in the oven for a couple of hours; it appears being a pretty stupid is not beyond me though – my first effort didn’t go quite to plan. The paste was dried and having been slightly burnt it then inexplicably stuck to the greaseproof paper. Having managed to scrape some edible bits off it Olly described it as a ‘powerful flavour’ and that you probably ‘wouldn’t want much of it’, it was – in short – pretty nasty. Undeterred, we purchased some professional silicone-lined greaseproof paper in an effort to beat the sticking problem. If this solution didn’t work the first course was pretty much buggered so a lot was riding on it. Luckily the new stuff worked a treat, the dried paste came of it fine, I also adjusted the temperature and timing to make it less burnt and it tasted a LOT better as a result.

If you’re planning on trying something similar I would say, terrible though it is that trial and error is probably inevitable. All ovens differ slightly so it is a bit variable, but if you keep an eye on it everything should go fine. I didn’t bother with the freezing stage at the beginning and it worked well without it. I also used a silicone scraper to distribute the paste rather than rolling it out but that’s just personal preference.

After adjustments the paste took about 3 hours to dry to the correct consistency, given the volume of gardens that this had to cover to a reasonable extent this meant I had to make and dry about 30 sheets of the stuff. It was one of the most tedious chores of my life, had it have gone wrong I probably wouldn’t have cooked ever again. Fortunately the salamander created in the first meal by Tom (see: Inaugural Meal) also doubled as a kind of dehydrator so we had enough oven space to do it all.

The vegetables for the garden were very simple, you can use pretty much any you like; I had asparagus, spring onion (which look like tiny leeks in the garden), radishes, pak choy and carrots. I briefly blanched and refreshed them in order to keep their colours bright.

The 'Ladygarden'

That pretty much covers the gardens themselves, now I’ll try and talk you through the meatfruit.

If you’ve been following news on food and drink at all recently you’ll know that Heston opened his new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental earlier this year. It focuses on historical British dishes with a modern twist; meatfruit is just one of the seemingly bizarre creations. During medieval times raw fruit was believed to be poisonous and chefs sought to play off these fears by making outlandish meatfruit. The dish had the appearance of raw fruit at the dinner table but was actually made of cooked meats, the illusion scandalised and delighted dinner guests. In this rendition of the recipe the meat is chicken liver parfait covered in a thin mandarin jelly. Visually it is stunning and it follows this up flavour wise as well. I found a full recipe he published in a Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/dec/02/heston-blumenthal-christmas-canapes-meat, I’m not sure he ever expected anyone to actually try it but the following was my effort.

The ingredients go through about thirteen different processes to end up as the finished product and it takes about three days to follow fully. My task list was as follows:

  1. Make alcohol reduction
  2. Marinade livers
  3. Waterbath livers
  4. Blitz livers with a LOT of butter
  5. Cook in a bain marie
  6. Chill
  7. Mould parfait
  8. Freeze moulds
  9. Blowtorch and stick halves together
  10. Make mandarin puree and jelly
  11. Dip parfait (twice)
  12. Chill
  13. Add sage leaf

Whilst the recipe doesn’t instruct you to I suggest soaking the livers in milk overnight. Doing so is a classical French technique which removes any possible trace of bitterness from the livers.

The beauty of Heston’s recipes is that if you follow them to the letter then there is actually relatively little scope for things to go wrong because they are so precise; I was amazed at how well the mandarins turned out.

We are lucky enough to have a waterbath so I could follow pretty much all the instructions bar the one involving the Thermomix. I couldn’t find any way to get mandarin puree except in about ten kilo batches so I made my own. This was a simple process of simmering mandarins in 50/50 sugar syrup for about 45 minutes until soft. One recipe suggested you blitz them skin and all but the pith is so bitter this seemed like a terrible idea so I just quartered them and took the flesh out. I managed to scald myself pretty badly during this process because they remain insanely hot for a ridiculous amount of time, if you can leave them for a few hours before you do this then I’d recommend it. The puree was a bit bitter despite not having blitzed them whole so I added some salt to help counterbalance this.

The recipe calls for an incredible volume of gelatine, I ended up using about three whole packs to get the right weight. The mandarins obviously require a very firmly set skin but I felt that it was slightly too rubbery. Having said that I think I coated mine slightly too thickly so a thinner coating might have counterbalanced this.

Mandarins in the fridge

If you don’t want to go through the faff of making Heston’s quite particular parfait recipe then using any decent one will serve you well; as soon as you do this the recipe becomes a hell of a lot more feasible.  Making the jelly is easy, then all you require are the moulds really, I got mine from www.nisbets.com and they were brilliant. I finished mine with a sage leaf because the ‘stalk and leaf’ in the recipe is pretty vague.

On a flavour front I felt they really delivered, it’s far from just a gimmick. The parfait is moreish and smooth (mostly due to a lot of sieving – see Olly’s post on Lamb for the delights of the sieve) and the jelly adds an acidity to cut through the richness.  The illusion works incredibly well, some people at the meal didn’t realize they weren’t fruit until someone cut into theirs. This was the only course I have ever spontaneously been applauded for afterwards; thank you Heston.

I really do think that if you have the time and energy these are worth it for a dinner party; they are an incredible opener for a great meal.

Meatfruit Mandarin

The Joys of Butter

On a slight aside the Mallards’ seem to have dedicated themselves to singlehandedly toppling Jamie Oliver’s healthy food nation. The benchmark for each meal in terms of butter consumption appears to be edging towards one pack per person but we fully expect this to grow as our repertoire of fat-based techniques develops. God only knows what will happen when we decide to confit something.

The Dinner

Sorting the room itself for the dinner was no easy feat. The turf got delivered to college about one hundred yards away from the kitchen we use, we had then smuggle it through the main part of college and into the dining room without bumping into any of our guests. Each of these rolls of turf must have weighed about 20 or 25 kilos and we put them in empty Tesco delivery boxes in pairs to move them. Two dislocated vertebrae later we made the sensible decision to use a trolley to move the rest.

Turfing the table

Having laid the turf on the table we realized that we were going to have some cutlery related issues. Basically we had nowhere to put knives and forks; we couldn’t rest them on the table because we’d just covered it in dirt and there were worms still in the grass. Eventually the only logical option seemed to be to stick the cutlery into the ground and it actually worked out pretty well (see the photo at the head of this post). At several points the insanity of what we were doing did occur to us but we carried on regardless, we were pretty much committed to it now. The edible gardens were set into the turf itself so we utilized some of the knives that are slightly worse for wear in the kitchen to carve the necessary holes into the grass, these were then lined with tin foil.

We were getting increasingly close to the start of the meal so it was time to start plating (planting?) up the first course. There was immediately a fairly large problem. The volume of bread sauce ‘undersoil’ that I had made was woefully inadequate to fill the gardens, it would probably have done one out of four. This was all 45 minutes before the guests were due to sit down. The terrible thing is that it’s not like I was slightly off, I was out by a ridiculous margin. The shortage was a Big Problem. The first course set up the whole meal, without bread sauce it just wouldn’t work and without this the meal itself would be off to an embarrassing and disastrous start.

I tore off to the sainsbury’s to purchase two loaves of bread and a lot of milk, sprinted back to college and set about making 4 kilos of bread sauce in 40 minutes; in the words of Greg Wallace ‘cooking doesn’t get tougher than this’. Bizarrely it wasn’t so much the making of the bread sauce which was the issue, it was finding ways to cool it to a temperature below molten lava. It was spread on baking sheets, pots were put in freezers, cold milk was added, it was attacked with spatulas in a frenzied effort to get the bastards to just cool down. The efforts seemed to pay off and it chilled enough to be used. The sauce filled the gardens, it was covered with the dirt and the blanched vegetables were planted in time for dinner guests. Just.

So glad to have got it finished in time

It was one of those occasions where something works just because it Has To, failure here was literally not an option. We had just spent three days cooking and it was not possible for it to fuck up due to a lack of bloody bread sauce. I made fruit out of meat; they were not going to waste.

The table looked amazing though and was it testament to the hard work of everyone to get everything in order and looking as great as it did. The meal went fantastically well. Tom’s carpaccio looked stunning, the quality of the ingredients spoke for themselves. Olly’s sous-vide lamb was insane, the stuffing was incredible and worked really well; he’s posted the recipe and process up here so check that out in the following post. The dessert was a joint effort but the sous-vide grenadine poached rhubarb had a phenomenal texture and flavour. (Though NEVER add grenadine to coffee, no matter what it says on the packaging). Booze was consumed, food was demolished, gardens uprooted. The meal finished with a ‘picnic’ of petit fours, consisting of sweet sandwiches and truffles. The sandwiches themselves were madeira cake cut into triangles and filled with various jams and nutella. The pineapple jam we got for the purpose was pretty bizarre, it tasted like it was made by someone who had a description of what pineapples were like but had never actually eaten one – I wouldn’t recommend it. The peanutbutterchocolate truffles went down a storm, but that was hardly surprising given that they were essentially equal parts cream, chocolate and peanutbutter dusted with cocoa powder.

We had got pretty boozed at the end of the meal (again) and the kitchen was even worse than last time. I felt like we attacked it with gusto but in reality each of us was just busying ourselves with extremely menial tasks desperately hoping the others would do the work and we could go to bed. Bin space is at a premium in the kitchen because they are rarely emptied over the course of the 3 days, this led to the Fourth Rule of the Mallards: Always Tread the Bins. We realized after that meal that we couldn’t clean up anymore after these dinners. It sounds quite petty but it’s hard to describe just how soul-destroying it is after three days of solid work in that kitchen. We also had no idea what to do with the turf at this point in the evening, there was no obvious way of disposing of it. We considered throwing it in the river nearby but then some of our friends came in and took it upstairs to our friend Nick’s room and turfed his floor and bed. This was unfortunate for him but great for us. Later that week the Head Porter phoned Olly asking him what he was doing with the turf, (which was now sitting in a trolley downstairs) Olly clearly imagined a bollocking was on the way but Bill actually asked if he could take it to put in his garden – win. Clearly all’s well that ends well. Sorry again Nick.

As ever, if you have any points of view or requests for recipes or questions about turf suppliers than please do comment on the blog. The next meal is likely to be in about 4 weeks but I will probably post some other crap in the intervening period about something we do so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Until next time.

Quack Quack.


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