Cooking a 14-course dinner, part 4: The execution, dishes 4-7

Having blabbered incoherently about wine for a few minutes, it was time to move on with the show and bring on the next dish:

Dish 4: Steamed asparagus and Skagen Ham with poached quail egg yolks and home-made mayonnaise with vinegar, tarragon, wild garlic and seaweed

There’s this really curious and strange trend going on in Danish gastronomy at the moment. No, I’m not talking about the whole NOMA wave, I’m talking about Danish producers actually starting to believe that they can deliver products as good, if not better than their famous international counterparts. From what I’ve gathered, it started with beer (and they had me at that, of course) and went over vegetables, now we’re seeing a strong development in Danish artisan cheese makers, challenging some of their famous French counterparts.. It’s really quite interesting and funny to watch. Anyways, when I heard of a little old man at the very northern tip of Denmark who produced air-cured ham comparable, if not better, to the very best hams produced in Italy and Spain.. Well, it goes without saying that I had to track some down and play around with it.

Unlike many specialty ingredients I’ve played with, tracking it down wasn’t too hard, but like many specialty ingredients I’ve tracked down, it cost me an arm and a leg.. But who cares? The more important question became: What to do with this fine, expensive, thinly sliced new ham of mine? Well, it’s asparagus season in northern Europe, so the answer came pretty easily: steamed asparagus! And what goes well with asparagus and salty ham? Poached eggs! Or in this case, because I’m me, poached quail eggs.. quail egg yolks, even! And, well, I’m gonna level with you here, I chose to poach me some quail egg yolks in a very simple case of “because I fucking can!” I find no joy what-so-ever in poaching eggs, in fact I quite hate it. Contrary to what all those “it’s really not that hard” blog posts on the internet say, poaching eggs is fucking difficult, even more so when we’re dealing with tiny hard shelled eggs laid by midget birds with too much calcium in their diets! I could entertain you for hours about how I spent a late morning dropping little eggs one by one into simmering water, carefully cooking them at exactly 92 degrees centigrade for 58 seconds while gently separating the yolk from the whites, then dumping them in ice water and storing them carefully for the night to come.. But I won’t, I’m that good of a guy! I’ll fast forward to serving where a few slices of ham were placed on each plate, topped with a few spears of steamed asparagus and three tiny poached egg yolks which had veeeery carefully been heated in hot water then dropped on top of the asparagus. To finish off, I added a few splashes of home-made mayonnaise to which I’d added a reduction of vinegar, shallots, tarragon, seaweed and wild garlic (which is apparently the new black in Danish cuisine).. The idea, was to give the mayonnaise which is very traditional (and French) a Danish twist and still add a bit of a nod to Tina’s love for Sauce Bearnaise.

I could go on and on about the result and flavor combinations because, goddamnit, you can believe the hype about Skagen Ham, it really is that damn good.. But rather than do that, I’ll leave you with this food-porn like image of us tearing into it, because, well, poached eggs simply are one of the sexiest things in this world (after girls and white Burgundy, of course).. No, really, I mean that..

Ahem.. Anyways..

Dish 5: Hot-smoked peppered salmon with new potatoes, Champagne Beurre Blanc, asparagus, cress and butter

The next dish on the menu came about for several odd reasons. For starters because Tina has decided to spend her life living with a boyfriend who doesn’t like fish, which is a little odd for someone who loves fish and shellfish as much as she does, but then again, Tina’s a strange, little girl.. Anyways, for that reason alone, I try to work at least a few fish-based courses into dinners such as these. Which is, again, a little strange as I’m not exactly a big fan of fish, me, either.. Well, I absolutely love sushi and I’ll eat fish sorta willingly given no other choice, but I’ve never exactly been one to go “wow, I really think I’ll cook up something new an exciting with fish as the main ingredient tonight!” .. But on the other hand, I do love me a challenge, so long story short.. Another fish course it was! And a smoked salmon one at that, for two very good reasons: One: I’m addicted to smoke.. Not smoking.. Smoke! I apparently love smoky flavors, be it in my chili, my food and my whisky. Two: In so far as I can actually love a fish, I love salmon.. As long as it’s smoked (duh!) or cured, I’ve been violently, violently ill eating a piece of steamed salmon once and I just CAN’T do it.. So hot smoked salmon it was, from my local fish monger, with nothing but a dash of pepper on top.

With that we had the first new potatoes of the season (which pound for pound were nearly as expensive as the fancy ham), boiled skin on with some fresh herbs and then gently coated in melted butter. A few sprigs of asparagus were added to please the eye, and a healthy dose of tangy Champagne Beurre Blanc was added to please the Tina. Beurre blanc, essentially is a classic French sauce made on a reduction of vinegar, shallots and wine (in this case, Champagne), it’s all reduced to a sweet and sour mess before scary amounts of cold butter is mixed into sauce, creating a sort of emulsion of tangy buttery goodness which goes really well with fish. Especially fish of the fatty variety because the vinegar in the sauce cuts through the fattiness of the fish.. It’s a beautiful combination, really.. If you ask me..

Tina, on the other hand, went her own ways in claiming that the combination of the fish and the sauce wasn’t nearly as good as that of the sauce and the potatoes alone.. We had a nice, brisk little argument over this and I eventually concluded that her opinion was based on the fact that Tina is seriously addicted to tanginess and sour flavors and as such didn’t really appreciate the more mellow combined flavor of the fatty fish and the tangy sauce as much as she appreciated the full out punch in the face of the sauce on its own.. As a result, I went through the course, eating it the way I had intended, with the fish and the sauce together, while Tina went on eating the fish on the side and then combining the sauce and the potatoes, with a little more sauce that I got for her from the kitchen.. To each their own 🙂 Not too surprisingly, Tina’s tasting notes for this dish mostly mention the PERFECT combination of the sauce and the potatoes before making a small note about the salmon and asparagus being of really good quality.

Dish 6:  Slow roasted breast of chicken, julienne spring vegetables and chicken consommé

There are stupendously complex dishes, and then there are really simple dishes that just taste awesome.. After a few (i.e. five!) rather complex dishes, I felt relieved to be going for something nice and simple: breast of chicken! Chicken breast has somewhat of a bad reputation, and pretty much deservingly so. It can be one of the most boring eats on the planet, but treat it right and it can also be really good eats! It’s not complicated to make a tasty, juicy chicken breast.. It’s just rather expensive and time consuming:

Step one is to get the best chicken that money can buy: organic, of course, and one that has been allowed to grow naturally and slowly. You then bring said chicken home, brine it in an 8% salt solution for six hours, rinse it out, soak it in water for another hour, dry it out in the fridge overnight and stick it in the oven for a good ten hours at 65 degrees, rest it well and cut the breast off.. Then you’ll have the most amazing chicken breasts ever.. And while you’re all in, you might as well strip the bones from the rest of the meat and then use the bones as the base of a pot of home-made chicken broth which you’ll then carefully and meticulously reduce down slowly over low heat, adding a bit of fish sauce and salt to taste near the end. You might then want to carefully clarify the broth to create a consommé which you might as well use to pour over the chicken breasts placed on a bed of julienne spring vegetables and some left over asparagus spears.. Thus creating the sixth course for a gourmet dinner, in just under two day’s time! Simple! Time consuming, yes, but ridiculously simple.

“That’s your slow roasted chicken, that is!” Tina exclaimed after the first bite.. “Well, it’s Heston’s, really,” I replied, “but yea..” – “Wow,” she said.. And wow was about right. You’ve no idea how chicken can really taste until you’ve gotten a good specimen and treated it with the respect that it deserves. It was like buttery chickeny goodness coated in rich, velvety chicken broth.. Yum! .. And then I went and ruined it all by saying something stupid like “Iiiii.. think I’ll add a bit of raw leek to the julienned spring vegetables..” – Okay, ruined is a big word and a bit of a wrong word, but really.. I was surprised how much of an oniony flavor leek can have in its raw state, and I was surprised how much that flavor killed the delicate taste of the chicken consommé. It was, admittedly, a rather small flaw, but a flaw none the less, and it hurt, but at least I got six dishes in before making any utter mistakes, and at least the dish was still very tasty, but with two dedicated and attentive food geeks, it didn’t go unnoticed and, of course, deserves mention here as well.. Blah, on to the next..

Dish 7: Cava granité

There’s really only one problem to lengthy 6+ course dinners (barring every other problem I’ve already addressed anyways), and that is the fact that the flavors at some point become so many and so complex and intermingled that really tasting new flavors become increasingly difficult and you need a little something to cleanse the palate completely before moving onwards, and thus God created the palate cleanser, a small, reviving dish that washes away the old flavors and prepare you for those to come.. Why am I spending an entire paragraph explaining this to you guys? Well, GUYS, because that is EXACTLY the excuse you will be using to sneak a little more alcohol into the GIRLS you’re having dinner with in the shape of a Cava Granité..

Okay, I kid, I kid.. Though if you’re a worse man than I, then the idea would probably work to your advantage.. But all joking aside, a palate cleanser at at least one point during a lengthy meal IS a good idea, for the (real) reasons stated above. I wanted one for my meal as well, and since I happened to have a half bottle of Cava left over from various elements of the other dishes, it seemed quite appropriate to mix it with a bit of lemon juice and a fitting amount of sugar, then freeze it till needed and shave a little into two ramekins and serve as needed..

The result was a semi-sweet, refreshing, cold lemony treat which washed away the previous impressions and, as intended, gave us a little breather and time to prepare for the upcoming heavier dishes. It also made us quite warm, happy and chatty, possibly owing to the 12% alcohol by volume well hidden by the sugar and lemon juice. You want to be careful with the sugar, of course, as this is in no way meant to be an overly sweet dessert-like dish, but on the other hand, you don’t want it to be too tart or dry..  I must’ve gotten the balance somewhat right as Tina’s comments read simply “Simply yummy! No further comments!”

Join us in the next installment of the series for more tall tales involving pheasants and things that go “oink!” in the night..

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