Fun with starters

scallopsI love having ‘proper’ foodies as guests – people who say “no I’ve never had black pudding before, but bring it on”. Today, it’s all about the starters for me – am doing two of my favourite to make and serve: Grilled Asparagus, and Scallops & Boudin Noir.

They both sound fairly dull on a menu, but it’s the flourishes that make all the difference.

The grilled asparagus is two different fresh varieties (white and green, both local from the market this morning, where I did my usual ‘six foot four in Normandy’ impression of Gandalf amongst the Hobbits), simply grilled with a glug of melted butter and plenty of salt and pepper. Served on a potato, parmesan and asparagus fritter, with a big slosh of Hollandaise sauce and a poached quail’s egg.

The scallops are pan-fried on top of a gently sautéed sliver of black pudding, resting on top of a sweet, chilled pea, mint & basil purée on a lightly toasted piece of baguette.

To kick off then, that fritter. Finely chop one stem of green asparagus, and boil it for 5 minutes. The rest then is nice and simple – grate an egg-sized potato, add half a blended egg, a handful of grated or shaved parmesan, some seasoning and the drained asparagus. Stir it together, get a frying pan on a medium to high heat, and slop a spoonful of the mixture into some hot oil. Press it down, as you want it quite nicely and neatly thin, and keep on the heat for 3-4 minutes before flipping. They should be just browned off for the grated potato to have cooked through.

On to the asparagus. The white asparagus I blanche in boiling water first, and leave them to soak for 5 minutes, just to help soften these slightly more woody characters. Melt 25g or so of butter (30 seconds in a microwave will do it) and drizzle or brush it all over the asparagus. Then all onto a grill tray, plenty of big fat sea salt and grinds and grinds of black and pink pepper, under a high heat for 7 minutes, turning every minute or two. If you don’t know how to make Hollandaise, I’m not going to teach you, but ensure you make it nicely lemon-y. Poach that quail’s egg in water stuffed full of lemon vinegar too. It can be quite a precise thing – 75 seconds in simmering water is perfect – that yolk should be just runny. A grate of lemon zest over the top should finish it all off nicely.

The scallops are best off started with that pea purée. A bowl full of peas (frozen is fine), steamed for 7-8 minutes (they won’t lose too much colour that way), add some gently sautéed finely-chopped shallots and garlic, a handful of mint and one of basil, and a pinch of sugar. Blitz it together with a slosh of cream and a drizzle of olive oil, a little parmesan can lift it too, and then bung it in the fridge for half an hour.

Slice your boudin noir (black pudding to you) and fry on a low heat in some butter on each side for a couple of minutes. Any longer, and it might start crumbling away to nothing. Toast your bread, and put a generous schmear of the pea purée on top. Fresh pan for the scallops – high heat, sautéed in butter for about one minute to 90 seconds either side. Place the black pudding on top of the pea purée and the scallops on top of the black pudding. Drizzle a little of the butter from the scallop pan over the top, and serve.

Both of these are simply edible in the extreme, and great palate-liveners, in this case before steak-frites with Béarnaise sauce. I’ve recommended a fresh, light, white Sauvignon Blanc, like a local Touraine or Sancerre, with the asparagus, and a fairly light French Pinot Noir (like a Sancerre Rouge) complements the meaty scallops and smoky black pudding perfectly.




Quail in fear. There’s a mousse loose aboot the farmhoose.


It is very rare for me to really love my own food (self-critical perfectionism being the mark of every good psychopath). I do believe I may have finally found the exception, as I could happily sit and munch on this, with a big chunk of crusty bread, all day long.

Today’s starter is a quail, girolle mushroom and pancetta mousse, with cranberry jelly and a poached quail’s egg on lightly toasted blinis.

Kick off by roasting eight quail (with a little tarragon & rosemary in the roasting tray), 180 degrees for 45 minutes should do it. Then shred the meat and blitz it like crazy with some seasoning, butter and a drop of cream to help blend it smoothly. Then pan-fry the girolles and pancetta together with a chopped shallot in a little butter for five minutes before adding to the meat and re-blitzing in the blender. It wants to be as smooth as you can get it – add a little more cream and melted butter during the process if necessary. The quail bones (with a little of the meat) were simmered on a low heat in 250ml of white wine, 750ml of chicken stock and 750ml of double cream for about 20 minutes, and then the liquid strained. Add the meat, mushroom and pancetta mix to the strained liquid and simmer further while stirring to reduce a little (about another 10 minutes). Finally, add gelatine and keep on the heat for around 5 minutes, stirring the gelatine thoroughly into the mixture. Pour it out into individual, buttered moulds and leave to set in the fridge for an hour or two. 

Quail’s eggs take about 3 minutes to poach just right – with a runny, oozing yolk. I have some left over, so will probably do my venison-meat scotch eggs with them next week, definitely one for the blog. For the cranberry jelly, I guess you could buy the stuff (if you are somewhere other than rural Normandy), but I just blitzed some dried cranberries in cranberry juice, added gelatine, simmered, and added a handful of whole fresh ones and allowed to set alongside the mousse.






Roast Quail Dopiaza


I have pre-leftovers, if that makes sense. Tomorrow involves a roast quail, girolle mushroom & pancetta mousse starter, but I can only buy quail in huge trays of 12, so I have four to play with (not literally). Since I’ve already roasted them, I’m just going to strip the meat from them and chuck it into this…


…my dopiaza (Persian for ‘two onions’, in case you didn’t know). Home-grown ones, too. I’m taking it semi-literally, in that there are two different *kind* of onion (two red, four white), plus a few cloves of garlic. My top-note spice is fenugreek, with some chopped chilli for ‘oomph’, and then the rest of the paste is a tablespoon of ground cumin, one of coriander, one of onion salt, and a smidge more ground fenugreek, plus some chopped coriander leaf, in a lovely local Normandy buttermilk crème fraîche.

The gamey flavour and delicate texture of the quail counterpoints the crisp ‘bite’ of the onion quite delightfully. Or at least I hope it does, as I haven’t tried it yet.

Offally good lamb burgers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf, like me, you put your own liver through hell from time-to-time, eating liver could easily be viewed as organ replacement therapy. Indeed, one of the first things they teach you at collège culinaire is to use every bit of the animal you possibly can. This can sometimes go beyond what the mainstream thinks is acceptable, so of course cooks have come up with lots of lovely euphemistic words to hide the contents of their plate – sweetbreads and sweetmeats being two of my favourites.

But liver is the one piece of offal that should really be on everyone’s menu, at least occasionally. It’s a veritable super-food, so rich in nutrients, from vitamins A, D, E, K, B12 and folic acid, to minerals such as copper and iron. An equal weight of liver contains almost 100 times all the vitamin-y goodness of the equivalent weight of even an iron-rich veg like spinach, and almost 25 times the equivalent weight of muscle-meat. And no, it doesn’t contain any toxins. If you think it does, you have completely misunderstood what the function of a liver is – sure it filters them out, but it doesn’t store them. Importantly, though, it also tastes sooo good when cooked properly – lamb’s liver in particular has a sweet, tender, slightly gamey flavour that goes down great in a simple red wine and onion gravy, with plenty of smashed garlic and chopped parsley. On mash. Yum. Comfort food at its best.

If the texture, or just the very thought of ‘organ meat’ puts you off, bear in mind that once upon a time, many civilisations *only* ate organ meat, throwing the muscle-meat we eat today away. However, if you still can’t come to terms with it, try these: lamb & lamb’s liver mint & coriander burgers. As you can see from the plate full I’ve served up, this is also comfort food 🙂


– 500g lean lamb meat

– 500g lamb’s liver

– 2 red onions

– 2 eggs

– butter, pepper, balsamic vinegar, chilli or mustard, lemon, garlic, coriander, mint & cinnamon to taste

So kick things off by chopping the onion and garlic and caramelising it slightly in a hot pan with plenty of butter and some balsamic vinegar. Let this cool before bringing the burger mix together. Blitz the lamb and the lamb’s liver, along with the cooled onion, eggs and various flavourings. I’ve gone with two pinches of cinnamon, the juice of half a lemon, and a tablespoon each of chopped fresh mint and fresh coriander leaves, with a good few twists of pepper (both white & black) and a hearty pinch of salt. You could add some chilli or mustard for a bit of heat, too. I’ve gone with one skinny red chilli pepper and a splash of tabasco.

I’m going to leave this mixture to infuse for a couple of hours in the fridge, which also makes it firmer and easier to work when it comes to getting down & dirty with your patties (as the actress said to the bishop).

When using flour to help with the next step, always season the flour – salt & white pepper at the very least. In this case, I’m throwing in a pinch or two of ground coriander and a pinch of cinnamon too. Chuck a handful of the seasoned flour on your board, pinch off a golf-ball sized lump of the patty mixture, and roll and hammer it with the palm of your hand. I tend to make mine small and thick, rather than large and thin, because I like a little bit of a medium-rare touch to my burgers, which tends to be difficult to reach if they are too skinny.

I cook burgers like I cook steak – in my cast-iron pan on the hob to begin with, two minutes on one side, then a minute on the other to let Maillard get his caramelised brown tasty goodness all over the edges, before transferring to a hot (220 degrees) oven for 4-5 minutes more (6-7 for medium, 10 for shoe-leather-like well-done). Burgers are still meat, remember, so be sure to rest them for a couple of minutes too.

Serve how you like, really. I’d tend to go with honey-infused natural yoghurt and a rough & ready salad, though could easily have done these as meatballs instead, on a bed of brown rice or cous-cous with chopped peppers and spring onions, and that honey-yoghurt sauce sloshed all over the top. As it is, I’m up against rice-hating philistines again tonight, so it’s crushed roasted potatoes and a garlic tomato salad with that yummy yoghurt.