So how best to dazzle at a dinner party? Ingredients? Place settings? Cocktails? Well actually cocktails do go down a treat, but I think the best way to show off is to make it all appear effortless, and that means little or no last minute prep. I won’t be found making soufflés or frying individual steaks or steaming fish. My basic, and if I may so, flawless, rule is only ever have one time critical component in a dinner. This menu has none, so I’m not reliant on cooking devices, skills or guests for the timings all going smoothly, which means being relaxed and actually enjoying the whole process. I fed eight here I think, with about an hour of prep and two hours of cooking before anyone else turned up.
Cured ham, honeyed figs and bits
This is a simple assembly, but a careful tease of flavours and textures. A really rich, greasy Palm style ham is needed – mine was a thick cut Serrano, but that was because I had been in Spain. To contrast with the charcuterie, the figs get a light roasting after being brushed with reduced honey – just a hint of sweetness is required. A soft texture and savoury note is provided by a very soft goat’s cheese and hazlenuts add crunch. The leaves get dressed with the syrup from cooking the figs cut with a little lemon juice, but I think they’re really just dressing. As are the borage flowers – although they are surprisingly nice with the cheese.
It’s really a great starter. These sort of things should not be fridge cold, so can be assembled well ahead of the off. In a few mouthfuls you get a wide variety of strong and precise flavours from savoury to sweet and textures from soft to crunchy. So that’s pretty much all of them then. I don’t doubt Kate would serve this on one of her cheerful dive-in-and-help-yourself-platters…but can guests really be relied upon to get the balances just so?
Italian Roast Lamb
So, here’s the graft part, but it’s really not that difficult and produces massive wows…
To tunnel bone the leg (not butterfly it and truss it up again like most butchers do), you work a paring knife carefully around the bone from the exposed knuckle. The meat will come away, and eventually you get to the knuckle with the shank bone, which you can then work around until you can cut it free…
I stuffed this one with some spinach, herbs, garlic, anchovies and pine nuts for a very traditional Italian feel. It will retain its shape…
Lamb and anchovies? Yes! Just do it. To finish, insert slivers of garlic, rosemary and more anchovies into the lamb flesh and season lots.
It needs cooking to an Italian finish because of the stuffing, which is more well-done than usual. I cook it slow and with half of bottle of white in there, some onions and more garlic. Cook for about two hours in a medium oven I guess.
This can rest for ages, so I get it out before dealing with guests, maybe an hour before I want to serve. The liquor from the pan gets reduced a bit, and then into it loads of beans, oven dried tomatoes and parsley. That’s one instant side dish! This time Cannellini beans, but other beans are available.
The other side dishes are equally straightforward; roast new potatoes and fennel, simply tossed in olive oil and baked… The work pays off at the table, easy, fast carving and maximum show off points!
Tira Mi Su
Well. It’s the signature dish, so I had to do it (and I know Kate has nothing to live with this), but on the other hand I really don’t want to give it away. I know this going to sound pretentious, but it’s true (and maybe I am anyway – writing this stuff at all is pretty self-indulgent)…anyway, so I learned this in a basement in Florence twenty years ago…There, said it. This is really nothing like how you get it in restaurants even in Italy - it won’t stand up and you can’t cut it with a cake slice, and there are no sponge fingers in it.
I can’t get the biscuits we had in Florence, so I’m using Langue du Chat ones here. They taste almondy like Savoiardi sponge fingers but are hardy and much thinner. In the end result, they will leave very little texture, but a strong taste of what they have been dipped in.
So, the cream. Separate five eggs. Beat the yolks with 50g of caster sugar and then fold 500g of mascarpone into that. Whip the 5 egg whites until stiffish and fold the two mixtures together. The result is an airy cream that is pourable.
Having got your display bowl of choice, put a glass of Marsala wine on a plate, and espresso coffee in another once cool (makes handling much easier). In Florence, we used Vin Santo, in any event, no fruity liquers. Dip biscuits in the booze and make a layer in a bottom of the bowl. Cover this in half the cream and then lay biscuits dipped in coffee on top, and top that layer with the rest of the cream. Refrigerate (the longer the better). Dust with best quality coco powder and serve (by spooning generously).
I can’t believe I’ve given this away…
Toby, Hampshire, June 2013
Toby, Hampshire, June 2013