A friend recently asked if I would consider running a cookery course for his wife’s birthday. She loves food, but doesn’t like to cook so much, and likes the kind of food that I make. I was very flattered but, I’ve not formally done anything like this before so was a little reticent to begin.
When I was in university, a flatmate used to follow me around the kitchen with a notebook and pen following my culinary movements. It used to drive me crazy, but we’re still friends :) I worried for this reason, that, perhaps I haven’t the right temperament. A birthday present is a very big deal after all. I agreed, but insisted that no finances would change hands. I had been asked to do this before but hadn’t explored it due to time constraints. I thought it was worth a try. If it worked well, I’d consider doing it again, and if it didn’t, we’d hopefully at the very least have a nice meal and some good wines.
Once we agreed on a date, I relaxed, and didn’t worry too much. I thought we should definitely have some pork in the mix, some shellfish and a quick dessert. At first I thought that prawn curry might work, but then after some discussion we agreed on pork belly. At this stage I could make it in my sleep so wasn’t too worried. We settled on scallops for starters. Dessert was another issue as they really aren’t my forte, primarily because I rarely have them and am more inspired by savoury things, however, I did make one blackberry tart with mint, ricotta and honey recently, and loved it. So, that was it, we were all set.
The days building up to it were phenomenally busy, things always seem to happen this way! On the morning, I was struggling to complete an online task that had been deferred for longer than was healthy, and by the time it came to go to Borough Market, I hadn’t had time for lunch and was a little frazzled. Not the ideal start. I was really keen that the evening should be a worthwhile birthday treat and that they would not regret it.
We met at 3pm and wandered around Borough with our shopping list. We hit our first hurdle, I should have asked if she liked blackberries. She wasn’t a big fan so we switched to raspberries. We sped around the market, knocking off most items from our list: hand dived scallops, pancetta, chorizo, pork belly, salad stuff, herbs, ricotta, and the birthday girl had spotted some samphire and was keen to try it so we threw it in. Time to dash home, picking up lentils on the way, and get started.
The best evenings start with a glass of prosecco, in my humble opinion, so we indulged. In hindsight, this may not have been terribly clever, but it was a birthday celebration. We started with the spice rub for the pork belly (recipe here), preheated the oven, prepared the pork as I always do, some boiling water on the skin to start the crackling, pat dry, and rub in the spice rub. Placing it in the oven dish with some carrots and garlic as a vegetable trivet, it was good to roast.
We started it at 230 degrees celsius for half an hour. While this was happening we switched our attention to the homemade sweet shortcrust pastry, which when complete, we stuck in the fridge to chill for an hour or so. For 6 small tarts sift 225g plain white flour, add 2 tbsp sugar and 110g very cold butter cut into cubes, and with your fingertips blend until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. At this stage, add one egg blended with the same amount of water, a little at a time until the pastry pulls together but is not too wet. It’s best to use a knife for this stage.
At this stage the timings were looking good, the half hour for the pork was just coming to an end, and it was time to open the door, review the impressive crackling and turn the heat down to 170 degrees, for 45 minutes with a glass of cider.
Just one problem – where was the impressive crackling?! This was one piece of unenthusiastic meat. I’ve never had this problem before, in fact I am extremely proud of my crackling, and there’s photographic evidence to prove its existence. How disappointing, but I knew we could rectify by sticking it under the grill after it had finished roasting for a couple of minutes at a high heat. I started to get anxious though, and continued to drink wine with the birthday girl. I must remember to remove the wine from the equation (on my part) next time.
At this point we veered off course, although I don’t regret that. I had an aubergine and we started discussing moutabal, so we decided a quick snack would not go astray. This went down very well, as long as you don’t taste the aubergine skin before peeling it off. I was reliably informed that it tastes of cigarettes! I started to feel better, with that stubborn uncrackly pork skin glaring out the little glass door and taunting me from my oven.
Another brain wave – you’ve got to try my bacon jam that I bought from the US! It’s GREAT! Did I mention the wine? It is great, and we really enjoyed it on toast with some bright yellow heirloom tomatoes. We were now two unplanned appetisers in. Not too shabby, also not too clever, people were getting full. Normal people don’t eat as much as greedy me.
We persevered, now having a glass of champagne and prepared the scallops, removing the veins but leaving the roe. We had rinsed the samphire in several changes of water to reduce the saltiness somewhat and fried some diced pancetta and garlic before adding the drained samphire. At this stage, we started to chargrill the scallops for a couple of minutes on each side, taking care not to overcook them, as they are best still spongy and tender in the center. We gobbled these up, served in the shell with a squeeze of lemon and with a glass of lovely birthday champagne. This, for me, was the star dish of the meal.
It was time to turn our attention to the pastry once more, rolling thinly (perhaps a mm thick), and lining buttered tartlet trays (we used 4 inches across) with a layer. We blind baked these for 10 mins, covering each one in greaseproof paper and a layer of rice. I’d usually use dried beans here but had run out. We added the lentils and some cider and water to the pork (a glass of water and a glass of cider), and let this cook for another 45 minutes. We mixed the ricotta with the raspberries, and some mint, sweetening with honey. This was a nice mix but the raspberries are a lot more bitter than the very ripe blackberries I had tried, and in my enthusiasm I added too much mint. It was a little too fresh but nothing a little honey couldn’t help with. And we continued with some delicious red wine.
The pork was done, hurrah! I tortured that crackling, no friend of mine, with a couple of minutes iunder the grill and watched with glee as it blistered. Having rested for 10 minutes we served it on top of a bed of lentils with a rather tart salad on the side.
Almost there! All that was left to do was to fill the pre-baked pastry shells with the ricotta mixture, and bake for a further 5 minutes. Served with a drizzle of honey, we were finished.
Time to relax, and review. Imperfect at a first attempt, but really enjoyable. I’d do it again, with more planning, less wine, and perhaps less lengthy dishes. Prawn curry might have been a better option after all. But, that’s what this was, a trial, and a lovely evening with friends. I just hope the birthday girl enjoyed it, I certainly did.