I was chosen by l'Atelier des Chefs to be a contestant in Cuisine Cup at their new shop in Welbeck Street, looking for a winning amateur cook. The competition was scheduled for Sunday - to be accepted I had to submit a recipe with the prime ingredient being 800g Norwegian salmon fillet. Spice crusted salmon fitted the bill. Not knowing much about the actual contest I assumed it would be at a domestic level, amongst a group of good local cooks.
Ha! 8 of the 12 contestants came over from Paris for the weekend, including one guy who had been in last years competition... They were all very intense and focussed and chatty in French. Very clear we anglais didn't really stand a chance. Certainly I didn't because I hadn't focussed on every single detail of my first dish which was fixed to what I had submitted as my application. But I really enjoyed it, partly because there was no pressure. My weekly language class came in handy for the day - everyone there was french, everything was discussed in french and the results were announced in french... except for the single English contestant who made it through, 15 year old Luke who was announced additionally in English. And the good news is he was the winner in the second round and so will go to Paris in February for the semis.
My salmon was lovely - one of the judges told me after that I was very close to the top four so that was nice. But the winners made things like pan fried salmon toppped with meringue and avruga caviar and a lemon foam and marinated slices with pomegranate and peppers and crisped salmon skin with caremalised lemon slices on a wheel of polenta that was divided into eights with alternating segments of half yellow and half died black with squid ink. Pretty as a picture and way out of my league. Most particularly plated up and served inside an hour.
I found the process interesting. I was committed to the salmon recipe I submitted but could play with the second round dish which was rack of lamb and lots of other stuff on a list. I really enjoyed concentrating on that dish and developing the idea and cooking it twice in a week when I've never cooked rack of lamb before. Usually when I cook the aim is making good food and something I fancy, but this time it was to make good food using ingredients that someone else had determined within a set time so the combinations and techniques I used were down to me but when it was finished was critical. Different way of creating.
Although I cook a lot and also make a huge range of food with lots of new and untried things I seldom focus on one dish in this way and develop it after trying one way and thinking more about it. The dish I ended up with was a lovely range of flavours and textures and very pretty on the plate. And all of it timed to be served inside one hour and twenty minutes - which for me is often a miracle in itself.
I made a crust with ground almonds, tarragon and chervil and roasted it, then made carrot and parsnip mousses studded with spring onions and cooked new potatoes in stock with garlic then, when cooked, fried gently in goose fat for half an hour till they were crisp and golden and fluffed in the middle and then served the whole lot with a sauce made with white wine, cognac and finished with butter that was thickened by the almond that had fallen into the pan while the lamb cooked. And I was really pleased with myself because the second go round it was great. Seriously.
Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb
2 rashers unsmoked bacon
2 tablepsoons goose or duck fat
1 rack of baby lamb
2 tablespoons ground almonds
1 tablespoon of chopped tarragon and chervil
1 teaspoon olive oil
125ml dry white wine
2 tablespoons of Cognac
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
Chop the bacon into little strips and sweat it gently in the goose fat in a heavy oven pan. When the bacon has softened put in the lamb, fat side down and let it take on some colour for a couple of minutes. Turn the meat fat side up, season generously and roast in the oven for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile mix the ground almonds with the chopped herbs and the olive oil and a grinding of black pepper. Take the roast from the oven then coat the fat side of the meat with the herb mix and cook for another 10 minutes.
Remove the meat from the pan onto a warmed plate and cover it with foil.
Remove the bacon pieces and drain off the excess fat from the roasting tin then put it onto a high flame on top of the hob. Deglaze the pan with the white wine incorporating any almonds and herbs that remain, add the cognac and let it bubble fiercely for a minute or two till it reduces slightly. Take it off the heat and whisk in the butter. Check the seasoning.
Slice the lamb into individual chops, arrange prettily on a warmed plate and spoon over some sauce. For me, lamb begs for garlic potatoes and the individual mousses worked a treat. The slight squeakiness of some simply steamed green beans rounded out the dish to perfection.
There are worse ways to spend a Sunday - though when I walked out the door and it was snowing I did wonder what I was doing. Really bitterly cold and icy winds - and all for a final prize of cookware.