08 July 2007

French from French

I can still remember the huge relief I felt when I wrote the very last word, for my very last exam paper in University. I remember the lightness of being I enjoyed, walking back from the exam hall to my hostel. Despite all that happiness of having finished studying for good, and despite the fact that the past 15 years of my life had been just for that one scroll, I didn't attend my very own graduation ceremony for my 15 seconds of fame. As it was held in UK and it would have been astronomical to pay for my parents' tickets over and attending the ceremony without them would have been a little pointless.

So perhaps to make up for it a little in some warped way, I've been attending all my close girl friends' graduation ceremonies. Of course, being the photo-geek, I had been tasked to be the official photographer for the day. Not that I'm complaining, really. It gives me something to do while the star of the day relishes in her accomplishment, finding more similarly accomplished friends to take photos with.

Prawn Cocktail Salad

As Addy and her other half had their commencements (convocation, graduation, tomayto, tomahto) over the weekend, we decided that we'd get Val and partner together as well for a dinner celebration. Though it was also an excuse for me to stop thinking about work, which was mighty effective!

Admittedly, I had half a mind to call it off because I was simply knackered from fighting fire the entire week before. However, looking at Addy's beaming face, and Val's expectant face as we talked about dinner (in particular her DIY Creme Brulee), I could not bear to.

Despite sleeping late the night before, I rose early and headed to Cold Storage to stock up on ingredients for the French themed dinner. I conveniently picked a few easy recipes from Damien Pignolet's French to attempt for the very first time. While that made me feel a little apprehensive, I decided to just have absolutely faith in the recipes which have not failed me so far.

So for starters, the simplest of all entree recipes in the book was a prawn cocktail salad. With two extra set of hands, it was a tremendous breeze to make. I prepared the Marie-Rose sauce an hour in advance, had my girlfriends boil, peel and refrigerate the prawns, thinly slice the crisp and cold iceberg lettuce, then assemble. This whole thing ran on autopilot while I took my time arranging the bread bowl and prepping the mise en place for the second course.

While whipping up the Marie-Rose sauce (think Hollandaise sauce with tomato puree), my surprise turned to slow horror as the more olive oil I drizzled in, the thicker and more firm the supposed sauce became. I should have stopped at 100ml, but carried on like a girl whose fingers had been burnt from too many wrong decisions based on gut-instinct.

Besides that though, it was mostly 'to taste', to which I responded by being a little heavy handed on the salt since it was meant to go with plenty of finely sliced lettuce. Super refreshing, with a hint of the earthiness and almost floral scent of tarragon, and a cinch to prepare. Perfect to start off dinner parties on the right footing.

Pictured rather fuzzily here would be our second course of pasta. I had intended to make Grilled Duck Breasts but had problems finding for duck breasts sold by itself. It seems I have to buy entire ducks to get their breasts (heh) at NTUC/Cold Storage/Sheng Siong. So I gave up and switched to the easiest of all dishes - pasta.

Briefly roasted tomatoes (to the point of bursting, but not quite) with a small bottle of anchovies, some basil and plenty of portobello and white button mushrooms. Bucatini (long, tubular spaghetti) was introduced to me by my brother, and was disturbingly fun to eat. The cooking time is reduced, and when al-dente it is almost spongy. Val suggested (jokingly I assume) that if we ate bucatini the Japanese way (by slurping your noodle as loud as possible), we might end up whistling.

We then had stuffed (with pistou) tuna with potato and caper salad. I would never have made pistou before, but had a change of heart ever since the Pestle and Mortar class I attended at the National Museum just a few days before, that deserves an entire post in itself. It really was gratifying at the end of it, and surprisingly painless. And it has gotten me eyeing a certain mortar and pestle by now.

The tuna and potato with caper salad was a light interlude before the DIY Creme Brulee was brought out. May I just say at this point how absolutely fun it was, to let everyone torch their own! Not many of my friends have ever held a torch in their lives or even heard of the word 'caramelise'. So to have fine sugar crystals melt, bubble and morph into amber syrup then harden into a delicate, stained glass hiding some rich custard beneath, was a first for them. Served with a choice of vanilla or chai tea ice cream, it was a memorable finish to our dinner.

From the previous two tries, this version of creme brulee was a vast improvement. I got the recipe off the Baking and Pastry book from the Culinary Institute of America, that involved some stovetop cooking as well. But there's still plenty of room for improvement. While it was now soft, and virtually falling apart on the spoon, it was rich and thick. What I have been trying to achieve is something resembling a milk jelly - soft, light and incredibly smooth. I have a feeling I will need the help of some gelatin to achieve this effect, or using milk to replace some of the cream I used. My quest shall carry on!

Prawn Cocktail Salad
Adapted from French - Damien Pignolet
Serves 6


24 medium prawns (1.2 kg)
1/2 an iceberg lettuce, washed and sliced thinly (keep chilled)
6 lemon cheeks (chilled and sliced just before serving)

For Marie-Rose sauce
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped into 4 parts
1 tsp dijon mustard
2 egg yolks
100ml olive oil
lemon juice
1 tsp tomato puree
1 knife tip cayenne pepper
1-2 tbspn chopped tarragon leaves

Place half the prawns in boiling water for a few minutes or until it turns entirely pink.
Immediately remove from water and dunk in ice water.
Repeat for the other half.
Peel the shells off the prawns, leaving the tails intact.
Devein, cover and chill in fridge.

Rub garlic cloves around the inside of a bowl.
Whisk mustard, egg yolks and a pinch of salt together.
Drizzle in olive oil in a thin stream while whisking vigorously.
Add tomato puree, cayenne pepper and lemon juice (to taste).
Season with more salt if necessary.
If too thick, dilute with some water or chicken stock, 1 tsp at a time.
Add 1 tbspn tarragon leaves and chill sauce.
Just before serving, add additional 1 tbspn tarragon leaves.

To serve:
Fill a glass with lettuce.
Dip 3 prawns in Marie-Rose sauce and lay on top of lettuce, then top off with one unadorned prawn.
Add one lemon cheek to each glass and serve.


snugpug said...

I've left Warwick so long ago, I don't even know where Claycroft is! Most of the Singaporean and Malaysian students lived in Tocil, so that's where our cookouts were but I lived in INternational House -- which I can't find on the Warwick website now so it must have since made way for something else. It was behind Cryfield, on the path between new and old Rootes. That was where I learnt to cook the most interesting foods from other international students.

You write a great blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. :) Claycroft is nearest to Tesco (explains why I chose it), and houses mostly third years and masters students. International house is now called university house (if i'm not mistaken) though the international office is still there. It also has our Learning Grid which is basically our library but with only the core texts which you can borrow but for only three days. It's also open 24/7!

I loved checking out what other people cooked too. The wackiest must be boiled apples. Or drinking broccoli water to cure flu?