I started cycling to Blackrock this week, and home again. Which is just as well. Yesterday I ate not one bird for lunch but two (or at least two halves): roast breast of quail with confit legs, carmelised onion tatin and golden raisins in Sauternes, to start; and to follow roast breast and braised leg of mallard with risotto of shiitake and oyster mushrooms. There was dessert too but I feel it would be verging on obscene to detail that right now.
Today was all about the butter. I’ve hinted at my feelings for Irish butter before, so I was in my element today – though even I was shocked when I found myself eating the remains of our pink grapefruit and dill beurre blanc with a spoon, especially having just devoured two seared scallops sitting in a pool of the good stuff. (As a brief digression, anyone who read yesterday’s post about the Maillard reaction which gives much food those lovely savoury carmelised notes would do well to bear that in mind when cooking scallops. Pop them on a very hot pan with a little oil for 60-ish seconds on the first side and another 30+ seconds on the second, depending on the thickness. Don’t crowd the pan, and don’t move them round. And do try the coral, or roe – I did today, and was pleasantly surprised.)
Anyway, butter. We built today’s starter (scallops, as above) and dessert (hot lemon soufflé) and tomorrow’s main course (rib eye with twice-cooked chips and Bearnaise sauce) around this block of gold. Now you could argue that those dishes are all about scallops, eggs and beef respectively, but as chef Oliver Dunne rightly pointed out yesterday, it’s often the supporting role that really makes the performance – indeed often steals the whole show – and there’s surely no better character actor than butter. Authentic, hard not to like, with a touch of the everyday about it that we can all relate to, yet so versatile: capable of great elegance and refinement or of real ballsiness, of melting into the background or bursting centre stage.
Our grapefruit beurre blanc replaced the usual base of vinegar, wine and shallot reduction with citrus, vermouth and shallot, but the principle remained the same. Reduce the base liquid, allow to cool a little, and drop in cubes of unsalted butter one by one, whisking as you go. A Rosle spiral whisk has been added to my must-buy kit list (which I hope to attend to just as soon as I get back to earning some money after this month in culinary paradise!) – its clever design helps you get into all the corners so that all the butter emulsifies into all the reduction. The heat is important, so feel free to move the pan on and off the heat to regulate: you want it hot enough to melt the butter but not so hot that the sauces splits (watch out for the warning sign of sudden thinning).
Avoiding a split sauce is the name of the Bearnaise sauce game too. Bearnaise is simply a tarragon flavoured Hollandaise; when paired with hot chips, it’s a ticket to heaven (via a coronary seizure if you lose the run). Think of these sauces like a warm mayonnaise in which egg yolks have been emulsified with liquid butter rather than oil. Or like a beurre blanc which has been thickened with egg yolks. The butter should be clarified first to refine it and remove the milk solids: simply slowly heat in a small pan until it separates, and remove from the heat to allow the solids settle to the base. It’s the clear golden elixir above that which you’re after.
The classic method to make Hollandaise or Bearnaise sauces is to whisk vinegar reduction and yolks together, and cook very very gently over a bain marie (a ‘water bath’, or metal bowl over a pot of simmering water). Remember that 65ºC is the point of no return, after which you enter the ignomy of curdledom, somewhere you do not want to go (from which, they say, there is no returning). Now, enter stage left that golden liquor that is your clarified butter. As with making mayo, whisk in a very little at a time to start, and then as your confidence builds you can get more flahulach with it.
Speaking of confidence, I ate my first fluffy soufflé today, and I’d even go so far as to say I will be making them again. This lemony cloud began its short life as a lemon curd, a wickedly easy thing to whisk up. This time the butter itself is melted down for the base liquid, together with the lemon juice and sugar, and the egg yolks are beaten in. Again, moderating the heat is crucial. Once the curd is made, it can be set aside until you have an audience gathered in breathless anticipation for the daring act of culinary courage that is The Souffle. Into the curd goes soft peaks of glistening egg whites, with no more careful folding gestures than you really really must to mix the two unctions. Then into a soufflé dish (or several) with it, and into a properly hot oven to work their airy magic.
And when you’re lapping up the compliments over after-dinner coffee, don’t forget to pass around the butter biscuits just to round off the meal.