Something to fall back on

We all have dishes we return to regularly. Perhaps they are ones you know so well that their preparation is relatively easy to you, or perhaps you simply love the flavour combinations involved. We have a friend who, when I first met him, would always start a formal dinner with a feuilleté of Bavarian ham and Gruyère cheese. It was delicious. He made it so often that he knew all the pitfalls, all the little tricks and techniques to get the texture of the pastry right, the seasoning properly balanced and could change its entire character by simply adjusting the dressing on the salad garnish. He hasn't done it for a while because he feared he was getting boring, which is a shame. While we might sometimes worry about repeating dishes and menus, I think it's good to have a repertoire of dishes that are reliable and familiar; it takes a lot of stress out of feeding guests. 

I think the starters that I use most often are soups. They make everything so easy, because they can be prepared early and don't spoil in the chilling and reheating. You can garnish them simply or more spectacularly, according to the mood of your dinner. Auguste Escoffier's book Ma Cuisine includes dozens of different garnishes for consommés, from simple pasta stars to chopped truffle and Madeira. My favourite is a thin slice of lemon and some chopped fresh tarragon in the bottom of the bowl before you pour on the hot, beef consommé. In spring, I leave out the lemon and use a mixture of parsley, chervil and tarragon with veal or chicken consommé. If I'm lucky enough to have venison bones and/or other game carcasses, I make a good, rich broth with them and finish it, just before serving with a blob of whipped curried cream. (This is known as Lady Curzon soup.)

Consomé aurore, another Escoffier special

If I'm trying out a new dish, something that will make demands on my time and focus, I don't want to serve other complicated recipes in the same meal. That's where these familiar dishes really come into their own. Take this fish salad that I've used again and again when I need something "mindless:"

Grate a red apple and finely chop a white or red onion. Sprinkle on a little cider or wine vinegar and stir in a tablespoon of crème fraîche. Cut up some soused herring or mackerel fillets (you don't even need to souse them yourself) into small pieces and add them to the cream mixture. Serve on a crisp salad or sourdough toast with a sprinkling of chopped, fresh parsley, chervil or dill.

Because fish cookery requires care, there are very few fish dishes in my regular repertoire that I serve hot. One exception is oysters Rockefeller, which I have written about in the past ( ). It brings an impressive touch of luxury to the menu, while being easy to prepare ahead of time, requiring just a few minutes under a hot grill (broiler) when you're ready to serve them.

My most regular meat dishes are duck dishes. Duck meat is a great favourite among my friends, so I use it a lot. There are a couple of dishes I've been making since my early twenties, and they always go down well. One involves reducing stem ginger, fresh ginger, shallots and lemon with port until you have a concentrated, sticky syrup. Strain out the solids and add double cream. Score and season the skin of your duck breasts and place them skin side down into a cold pan. Turn the heat to medium-hot and allow the fat to melt gently. This could take up to 10-15 minutes, so don't expect instant browning. When the fat is rendered and the skin crisp, flip the breasts over and place in a preheated moderate oven for 5-8 minutes. Rest in a warm place (the duck, not you!) for 10 minutes when cooked. While the duck is resting, bring the sauce gently to the boil and let it thicken. Adjust the seasoning with a little salt and some black pepper, then slice the duck and pour over the sauce.

My other favourite duck dish seems a little complicated, but I'm so used to it now that I can do it with my eyes shut. For this, you need a whole duck with giblets. Reserve the liver and use the rest of the giblets to boost the flavour of a pan of chicken stock. Reduce this until it's rich and flavoursome and will lightly coat the back of a spoon. Meanwhile, line tartlet cases with shortcrust pastry and bake them blind. Blitz the liver with an egg yolk, seasoning and a teaspoon of port or sweet Madeira. Pour this into the prepared tartlet cases and cook in the oven until just set (maybe 6 minutes). Remove the legs from the duck and freeze them for another occasion. Season the crown inside and out, prick the skin all over with a fork and roast the duck to your liking. Rest the duck well before removing the breasts. (Put the carcass in the freezer for next time you need duck stock.) When you're ready to serve, Reheat the stock and flash the tartlets back through the oven for a minute or two. Mask the plates with the stock, place a tartlet on each one and fan out the slices of duck breast beside it.

Finally, my favourite dessert, and this is a recipe from one of Nigel Slater's early articles. I've sought permission to reproduce it in its entirety and will amend the post if that's forthcoming. It is a simple orange tart that lends itself to all manner of occasions and menus. It can be made ahead and is delicious either warm or cool. Thinly slice a couple of unwaxed, thin-skinned oranges over a pan. Add plenty of sugar and just enough water to cover the slices. Bring slowly to a gentle simmer and simmer until the zest has softened and the pith is translucent. Allow to cool in the syrup and then drain, reserving the liquid. Make a butter pastry, to which you have added the grated zest of another orange. Line a tart tin with it and bake it blind. Peel and chop a couple of dessert apples, add the juice of the spare, zested orange and cook until just tender. Assemble the tart: fill the cooked pastry case with the stewed apple and cover with overlapping rows of the sliced orange. Glaze under a hot grill until the edges of the orange slices begin to colour. Serve with the orange syrup, to which you can add a touch of your favourite orange liqueur if you like.

A relaxed cook makes for happy diners

These are my "go-to" dishes. I'm not sure they'd balance well as a single menu, but they have served me well over the years. What are the dishes you rely on? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Next time: Matching drinks with chocolate


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