Sunday, January 22, 2006
Camp, and very much so, Dinner for 5
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Much like KC wrote in a comment on this very blog, I share the culinary credo, “In Nigella we Trust”. However, last night when I made How to Eat’s camp dinner, I made a few changes, and even went against direct instructions from Nigella herself. (Gasp!) However, I feel no sense of guilt or culinary cheating for having done so. If anyone has a firm grasp on kitsch & camp, it is I. And this is definitely one case where you can turn it up a notch. BAM! Besides, I knew that the five of us (Mum, Daniel, and our friends Mark and Sophie), would appreciate the food regardless.
250. Little Gems with Green Goddess Dressing (Dinner)
251. Young Grouse with Mascarpone and Thyme (One & Two)
252. Sweet and Sour Cabbage (Dinner)
253. Pavlova (Dinner)
Nigella’s original CAMP, BUT ONLY SLIGHTLY, DINNER FOR 6, consists of all the elements listed above, except for the young grouse. Her main dish of choice is pheasant with gin and it, which is basically an adaptation of the braised pheasant with mushroom and bacon, with different marinades and flavourings in it. You may remember that I made the original braised pheasant back in August, and was incredibly unimpressed. It was tough, the sauce was too watery, and the dish was generally unpleasant. And those pheasants were bloody expensive! There was no way I was going to make pheasant, in full quantity, for guests! So I substituted with the grouse recipe in the One & Two chapter, for which another substitution was required. You see, we cannot get grouse in Australia. Ever. I think it’s because we have no moors. But Nigella says that her idea for this dish was based on the “deeply fabulous” quail served at the River Café, so I felt that quail would be a more than adequate alternative to grouse. And anything described as “deeply fabulous” obviously meets the camp criteria.
With the quail/grouse replacing the pheasant dish, the whole menu is surprisingly easy to put together. I made the pavlova in the morning, and the rest of the elements à la minute.
I absolutely love to eat pavlova. It was my favourite cake growing up. I used to have it as my birthday cake every year until I turned 12, when the wonderful Pavlova Pantry sadly closed down. This is when I stopped eating it, almost entirely. None of the other store bought pavlovas ever measured up, and besides, I’ve been never very good at making meringue. The arrival of my KitchenAid mixer last year vastly increased my confidence in my meringue-making-ability, but before yesterday, I had yet to attempt a pavlova.
It is a simple procedure, but there is a lot of room for error. You have to start by whisking up egg whites until satiny and peaking. Then you gradually whisk in castor sugar, and then fold in cornflour, white wine vinegar and vanilla extract.
Then you spread the smooth, stiff mixture into an appropriately sized circle…
…and bake it for 1 ¼ hours at 150C. Nigella says to let it cool in the oven, as any sudden drop in temperature will cause it to crack. I did let it cool in the oven, and when I came to retrieve the pav from the cooling oven in the evening, the thing still cracked on me. Crap. I’m not quite sure where I went wrong.
Cracked like a biatch
This meant I couldn’t turn it upside down to decorate it, as Nigella (and Stephanie Alexander before her) suggest, because upside-down, it would be very unstable, and any weight on top would have caused it to collapse. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I just left it, right way up and put Mark on pav-decorating duty. I set up a bowl of whipped cream and some fruits, and when he arrived, I just told him to “make it beautiful”. Mark is a bit of a pav-decorating master; I’ve seen his previous attempt and it was just awesome. As soon as I find a photo of his, I’ll publish it here for your admiration. (And my own, not-quite-as-awesome-but-still-fabulous-pav will be revealed at the bottom of this post).
Following my setting up of the pav-decoration station, I made the green goddess dressing, and left it in the fridge until dinner time. The dressing is a thick, creamy mixture of pounded anchovies, milk, vinegar, crème fraîche, olive oil, spring onion, parsley and tarragon. It smells deliciously pungent and herbaceous.
Next was the quail. To prepare it, you first remove the guts from each little quail, and then chop them up.
The chopped-up guts are mixed with red wine, mascarpone, lemon zest and fresh thyme, and then re-inserted into the quails’ little cavities.
This is the conversation I had with Mark as we were standing in the kitchen, him decorating the pavlova, me stuffing the quails.
Me: You know, I’m glad that you don’t mind eating quail.
Mark: Yeah! Of course. It’s just food!
Me: Yes I know, but some people get a bit precious around quails, because they’re all little and cute.
Mark: Oh whatever… I know this one guy who won’t eat meat if you can tell what animal it came from! He saw this photo of a pork roast I made, and was all like “Eww you can tell that came off the side of an animal, that’s gross”. He only eats meat in chicken nuggets or patties.
Me: That’s so wrong. I think it’s really important to understand the fact that an animal has died for you to eat it, and to treat the carcass with respect!
Of course, this was all going on as I was rudely stuffing a mascarpone-thyme-quail-gut mixture into each quail’s cavity with my fingers. Irony.
Uncooked quail in tray
Grouse are supposed to take 30-45 minutes in a 200C oven, but seeing as quail are so much smaller, I only put them in for about 25. They didn’t quite go as brown as I would have liked, but they still looked fine.
While they were in the oven, I shredded the cabbage for the sweet and sour cabbage and then dressed the salad and added cornichons. By this stage it was getting late, and the fact that Mark and I had been drinking Coronas whilst cooking was slowing me down even further. So we didn’t bother with a first and second course, but just plonked everything down on the table at once. The final stage was deglazing the roasting tray with wine and mascarpone, and stir-frying the cabbage with sugar, vinegar and salt.
Just before I get to the photos of the food, I thought I’d share with you some atmospheric aides. As you will have realized, I normally don’t go in for this sort of thing, but I do believe that tonight deserved a bit of extra effort.
Madonna – Hung Up, Sorry, Vogue, Express Yourself
George Michael – Too Funky, Fastlove, Freek!, American Angel, I Want Your Sex, Amazing, Shoot the Dog, Spinning the Wheel, Flawless
Wham! – Wake Me Up Before You Go Go
Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls, Being Boring
Geri Halliwell – It’s Raining Men
We also dimmed the lights and had a red cone-shaped candle at the table.
Nigella includes the quail recipe in the One & Two chapter. She says that the scale is all wrong to feed quail to large numbers of people – “too many little bits”. I said bollocks to that and piled our 10 quails gloriously on the one platter.
Pile of quail – Not only does it look generous and abundant, but serving them in this way kills any whiff of pretentious cheffiness (which I don’t necessarily think is a serious problem, but I do know Nigella’s not a fan).
We ate, slowly, in air-conditioned comfort, enjoying the light and fresh tastes of the meal. The salad was awesome - so crunchy and tangy, and the cornichons were a nice addition. I was afraid they might be too astringent to eat by themselves (much like those Jewish pickles in cans for which I have yet to acquire the taste), but they were mild and added a good textural contrast to the salad.
The cabbage was absolutely compulsive! The crunchy cabbage had a very strong, sharp flavour and was like Pringles - once you pop, you can't stop. The quails were lovely too, very soft and tender and gently infused with the thyme flavour.
We started off politely with knifes and forks, and then progressed to using our hands and mouths to get off every last scrap of flesh.
And in the spirit of the evening, here’s something funny that my brother said upon eating the quail.
Dan: Man this is so good, I want to suck this bone dry!
Ok, so finally, here's the pavlova! In the recipe, Nigella says "don't be tempted to add other fruit" (she only stipulates passionfruit), but really, I felt it could go a lot bigger and brighter. So earlier in the evening, when I got Mark to decorate it, I gave him passionfruit, kiwi fruit and strawberries, and let him go nuts. He filled the crater with cream and carefully arranged the fruit on top. And here is the fruit of his labours.
Surprisingly, we were able to cut it without it totally collapsing on us. Despite the cracking, there was still a decent amount of soft, gooey filling within. And Mark's decorating job was fantastic, all the gaps in the pavlova were filled and despite my total crapness, it looked (almost) whole and stable. Good work!
one slice gone
one piece w coffee
It was brilliant! Mum and I both had seconds, and Dad polished off the remainder when he came home late last night.
I can't believe I'd forgotten how good pavlova is! One bite of this delicious, creamy, sweet (but not too sweet) dessert and I was in sugar-paradise.
Absolutely fabulous, darling!