It’s been a while since I’ve had regular dinner party clients. While I’ve had lots of regular mid-week family dinners to prepare, it wasn’t until a recent stretch of menu planning and preparation for some swanky dos, that I realised how much I miss preparing that sort of fancy food. All of those ideas gathered while watching Masterchef Australia and practicing plating techniques during culinary school, coming back to me as I take another one of my very long walks and piece together the flavors on the plate and how it will all look. This is my meditation now, coming up with new combinations as I haul bags of groceries on my shoulders around London.
This recent influx (and part of the reason I’ve been so quiet on the blog…sorry), is because I’ve joined La Belle Assiette, a French private chef agency which has just launched here in the UK (apparently they’ve been quite successful in Paris). While I adore the cooking side of my business, I don’t have much of a practical head for it and thus find the money and client side of it all quite tedious (albeit horribly essential). I’m never sure what I should be charging for an event so having the agency behind me to do all of the negotiating is a relief. And while I do have the blog to help with marketing and promotion, social media and the like are certainly not my strong suit.
So last night I had what La Belle Assiette calls a validation dinner with a jury. I was to prepare three courses for a group of nine who would then determine whether I was worthy of this stamp of approval. It was at the home of two cooler than cool French girls who had their friends over to their cozy garden apartment in West London. While they smoked, drank red wine, and nibbled on the parmesan poppyseed crackers and spiced rosemary nuts I’d set out, I cooked them dinner.
Most everything was done in advance. The squash sformato recipe comes from Mario Batali’s Babbo cookbook and is one of my favorites for the season. What is it exactly, you ask? It’s sort of like a souffle but more hearty in texture. It’s very cheffy, I think, with lots of components like the sage roasted shiitakes from which you get a shiitake vinaigrette, and then a raw squash julienne which contrasts beautifully with the sformato and a crispy fried sage leaf and hints of parmesan. Meanwhile, the lavender honey ice cream is a family favorite I’ve been making for years which came from the gone but not forgotten Gourmet Magazine (oh, how I miss you).
The duck recipe is an utter delight and wonderful for entertaining. I love the surprising hit of chilli you get in the sauce, the star anise packs a punch, and the color of the sauce is gorgeous. I’ve borrowed this from Ottolenghi’s first cookbook and it has yet to go badly for me. Now for the bad news, I don’t have any photos of my dinner last night BUT La Belle Assiette kindly sent a photographer to the dinner to take photos for their website. While I can’t use them on mine (see what I mean about being bad at this social media stuff?) I can refer you to them on theirs. Click here to go to my chef’s page and the photos are all there – you just have to scroll through.
So far I’ve received all 5 star reviews from last night’s diners and what I love the most is that they wrote comments that were thoughtful and included mention of the unusual flavors and ingredients I used. I’m so glad they noticed as it’s something I pride myself on. I’ve already got more dinners booked through the agency in the coming months and can’t wait to pull out more of my fancy, no-holds-barred, recipes and serve them to an appreciative audience.
Seared Duck Breast with Blood Orange and Star Anise
4 duck breasts
2 tbsp fennel seeds
a pinch of dried chilli flakes
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp coarsely ground black pepper
1 tsp coarse sea salt
1 cup blood orange juice plus 4 whole blood oranges
1/2 cup red wine
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
16 star anise
a pinch of dried chilli flakes
Score the skin of each duck breast in 3 or 4 parallel incisions, without cutting into the meat. Repeat at a 90° angle to the other cuts to get square shaped incisions. Mix the fennel seeds, chilli flakes, cumin, black pepper and salt together, then rub them thoroughly all over the duck breasts with your hands. I put this in a ziplock bag the morning before the party and left it to marinate. At this point you can also prep the oranges by using a small, serrated knife if you have it, (here’s the link to a video which shows you how to do this perfectly). Set them aside until ready to cook.
To sear the duck, thoroughly heat a large, heavy frying pan (one for which you have a lid). Place the duck breasts in it, skin-side down, and cook for at least 3 minutes, until the skin is golden brown, crisp, and the fat has been rendered. Turn and cook the other side for another minute just to brown it, then remove the duck from the pan and keep in a warm place. Discard most of the fat from the frying pan and add the wine, vinegar, orange juice and star anise. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5–6 minutes, until reduced by about half. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Return the duck breasts to the pan and stir to coat them in the sauce. Cover with a lid and simmer gently for 7 minutes. Take the dried chillies, orange slices, plus any extra juice in their bowl, and place carefully next to the duck breasts. Cover again and simmer for another 3 minutes. By this time the meat should be medium-rare. Remove the duck breasts from the sauce, place on a cutting board and leave to rest for 3–4 minutes. While you wait, check the sauce. It may need to be simmered a little longer to thicken it slightly. Taste again and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Slice each breast at an angle into pieces 1cm thick and place on serving plates. Pick the oranges from the sauce and arrange them on the plates with the duck. Pour some of the sauce on top and serve the rest on the side.